How about an American history teacher who has lived all over the United States? Yes please! Hardin Valley Middle School’s Chris Schaefer brings a wealth of life experience and a strong sense of direction to the classroom every day for our kids.
Adam: Where were you born?
Chris: I was actually born in Victorville, California. My dad was in the Air Force and he was stationed at George Air Force Base there. That’s where my sister and I were born.
Adam: How did you get to Knoxville?
Chris: We moved to Arizona for about a year when I was a little baby. Then, my dad got orders to go to Hawaii when I was a toddler up until 6 years of age. I don’t remember much of it. Then, we moved to Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas. From there we spent four years overseas in Germany through my middle school years (1990 – 1994). After that, we moved to Niceville, Florida and that’s where I went to high school and college.
Adam: Did you have a mascot in Germany?
Chris: We were the Bulldogs, I believe. We didn’t really have sports per se. Because we were on an Air Force base, there weren’t other schools to compete with. It was a brand new school when we got there. I was the first fifth grader to go because their middle school is fifth to eighth. So I was the first class to go through for fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade. We were the Spangdahlem Bulldogs.
Chris: Right. Even though we never played anything. Haha!
Adam: Did you go to FSU all four years.
Chris: I actually was at FSU for four and a half years or so. On the five year plan.
Adam: Do you have any additional degrees beyond your bachelor’s?
Chris: Yes, I have a master’s degree from University of Tennessee as well.
Adam: What was your major?
Chris: I had several majors. I ended up finally getting my bachelor’s in Social Sciences with a focus on History and Geography. I’m qualified to teach up to high school history or geography if I wanted to. I could have taken a job doing something like museum curator, but I wouldn’t have had a job coming right out of college. Teaching was the logical choice. I had all the content knowledge to teach, just not the teaching classes. I attended the Lyndhurst program over at UT and got all of my teaching certifications.
Adam: What did you start out majoring in?
Chris: I majored in Education for my first two years then switched to Communications. I started taking the Communication classes but couldn’t get into the Communication’s school after trying for two semesters. Even though I had a decent GPA, the school at Florida State was extremely competitive. My counselor suggested Internal Affairs, which meant taking a foreign language. I couldn’t get through Spanish, so then she suggested Social Science. My wife, girlfriend at the time, was an education major and we both worked at an after-school program. That’s kind of what got the ball rolling to go back to get back in education.
Adam: How’d you guys end up in Knoxville?
Chris: I was done with Florida. It was the longest I’d ever lived in any place before. I had a couple friends that lived up here and thought it’d be a cool place to live. I just moved up here on a whim and ended up falling in love with it. We did the long distance thing for a year and she moved up here, got a teaching job and we got married. We’ve talked about moving, but we just love it up here. We have friends in the community and our church we’re involved in. Everything just clicked and I don’t think we could ever go back.
Adam: How many years have you been teaching?
Chris: This is my 15th year. I did my student teaching at Karns Elementary, with a pullout in Gresham Middle School. That’s where I kind of realized I need to teach middle school. I ended up teaching for half a year at Powell Middle School filling in for someone that was on maternity leave. Then, luckily there was an opening at Whittle Springs Middle School and I taught there for six years. Our lives were more so on this side of town and I wanted to be closer so I transferred to Karns and taught there for 6 six years as well. When this school opened, a lot of my team transferred over here. It’s where my kids will be zoned to go to high school and it was a great opportunity.
Adam: What does your wife teach?
Chris: She teaches kindergarten at Cedar Bluff Elementary and she’s been there pretty much her entire career.
Adam: What subjects are you teaching?
Chris: I teach eighth grade social studies, so we focus on American history. We learn everything from the colonies essentially to right after the civil war.
Adam: What’s the difference in Social Studies and History?
Chris: History is one of the Social Studies. There’s History, Geography, Economics, Government, and Civics. You can’t talk about American History without talking about economics, civics and government obviously. So it all kind of blends in together.
Adam: What clubs do you sponsor? What sports do you coach?
Chris: I’m the boys track coach here at Hardin Valley Middle School and I did that over at Karns and Whittle Springs too. The only other thing I’m really involved in is helping Shawn Denton with FCA, Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She does a lot of the work. I just kind of show up as spiritual and moral support I guess.
Adam: What’s your background with track?
Chris: I did run cross country and track in high school. I didn’t run at the collegiate level because I wasn’t really good enough, but I’ve always been a lifelong runner. I loved running cross country in high school and in my adult life. We run 5ks and my wife and I have done a marathon. It’s just kind of been a lifelong habit that started in high school.
Adam: What are the rewards of coaching versus teaching?
Chris: I think the really the cool thing about coaching is getting to see the kids in a different environment. It’s so fun to see how different they are outside of the classroom. You’ll have kids that are really bookish, real quiet and never say anything. Then, you see them compete and they’ve got that fire in their eyes. You don’t even recognize that kid. The reward is getting to build those personal relationships with kids and seeing a different side of them. It’s really enjoyable also to see them progress from sixth grade to eighth. I’ll get this goofy kid that can barely run, has horrible form and then by the time they’re in eighth grade, they’re a superstar. Then, I get them in my class in eighth grade and there’s no awkward “who is this teacher” stage. They know me.
Adam: Why did you get into teaching?
Chris: I think I’ve always enjoyed school. I was a kid that loved the atmosphere of school. I’ve loved learning and I’m a lifelong learner. I’ve always worked summer camps, with church groups, after-school programs with kids. I always enjoyed it. It made sense to become a teacher. It is probably what I’m called to do.
Adam: What would you do if you weren’t teaching?
Chris: I think my dream job would be a musician or something. I was in a band in high school and would have loved to pursue that.
Adam: What was the name of the band?
Chris: Ov’rit. We were kind of like a punk band. I know you can’t imagine it now, but I did have long hair to my shoulders when I was in high school. I did toss around the idea of joining the military when I was deciding what to do with my life. The idea of joining the Navy and traveling around appealed to me. It ran in the family in a way. I’m the first person in my family in a long time to never have any military service. Now that I’m older, I think maybe I should have done at least a four year tour.
Adam: Who was your favorite teacher when you were a student?
Chris: I’d have to say it was a guy named, Mr. Goetz. He was my seventh grade talented and gifted teacher and he was just really cool. He was the teacher that wore jeans to school every day, had longer hair, and was really into student voice in the class. He wouldn’t come to class and say, “This is what we’re going to learn today”. It was more of, “What do you guys want to learn today”? Then, he would develop a lesson or a unit around what we did. I remember one time we did a martial arts unit and we all became yellow belts at the end of the unit, I was a kid that was very naturally curious and wanting to learn. His class was just like a dream cause we could pursue what we wanted. I wish I could do that with my class. My dad ran into him not long ago and he still uses my work as examples in his classes today. I couldn’t believe it! My dad told him I was a teacher, and he said he could see that.
Adam: Which educator have you learned the most from here at HVMS?
Chris: Well its different here because we are only a year old and I think I had the most experience teaching Social Studies but teaching the same subject for so long gets you stuck in teaching the same ways. It’s been nice having Mr. Read from a high school and Mrs. Poling from the elementary school here because they’ve opened my eyes to new techniques. It’s been real fun collaborating with them because they’ve got all kinds of crazy new ideas. It’s been real fun having fresh people to talk with and fresh people to bounce ideas off and just making learning more fresh and new. As far as overall, I’ve worked with so many different people. The crew I had over at Whittle Springs, a lot of them are retired now. Mrs. Watts, Mrs. Keas, Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Morton, they were probably some of the teachers that I learned so much from. We really had to depend on each other at that school. They just taught me so much about how to not only be a good teacher, but also how to understand that sometimes the kids that you get are acting up or behaving poorly because of outside environmental circumstances. They aren’t bad kids. They taught me to step back and realize that these kids are dealing with a lot more than I ever had to deal with. That crew really taught me how to be a teacher and understand my kids.
Adam: Have you earned any professional awards?
Chris: Yes. I did get Teacher of the Year over at Whittle Springs. I got Teacher of the Year at Karns and I also was the boy’s Coach of the Year for track and field a couple of years ago when my Karn’s boys won the County Championship. Hoping to bring a couple of championships here to Hardin Valley. The cool thing about Teacher of the Year is it’s voted on by your fellow teachers. That’s a really good feeling.
Adam: What personal accomplishment are you most proud of?
Chris: Becoming a father. That was definitely the coolest and most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. My daughter is 10 and my son is 6. It’s still the most rewarding thing ever to see them grow and watch them succeed in their sports and in their daily lives. So definitely my number one accomplishment without a doubt.
Adam: What do you wish every parent knew?
Chris: I almost wish that sometimes parents could spend a day in the life of a teacher and know that we’re not just passing out handouts and sitting at our desk reading a newspaper. That doesn’t exist anymore. When we’re here and we’re with the kids, there’s not a lot of breaks. Even when we have our plan period, that’s when we have our meetings and we’re making phone calls and do things. I wish they knew we are giving 100% for their child every day and for the most part, their kid is giving their all every day. If we do have to call a parent about discipline or behavior, it’s not because we’re picking on the kid. We’re taking time out of our busy schedules to try to help and get the parents on board. We want this to be a team effort with educating their children. These kids are under so much more pressure than we ever were when we were kids.
Adam: What do you wish every student knew?
Chris: They think what’s happening right now is the most important thing in their lives. Even though this is just middle school, the things they are learning and the habits they are forming are important. I wish they could block out the outside pressure. It’s hard for me to understand because we didn’t grow up with the internet and social media. I try to teach them to block out all the nonsense with the drama. I have a quote up on my wall from Aristotle that says, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” If they can get into good habits now, as far as turning in work, paying attention in class and staying organized then it’s going to be a lot easier for them to succeed. There’s this perception that, if I can just get through this year, it’ll just be easier. But it just gets harder.
Adam: What’s the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher?
Chris: I think a good teacher knows their content. They show up on time. They do everything that’s expected of them. A great teacher cares about their students. A good teacher puts the grades in the grade book and just moves on where a great teacher looks at that grade and says, so-and-so didn’t do so hot on this assignment. I wonder why. They figure it out. I think really what I’ve learned in teaching is that relationships are probably the number one thing to motivate a kid. We’re trying to sell kids a product they don’t want, especially American History. There are only a few kids excited about History. Having a relationship and showing them that you care and that you see them as real people will go a long way. I think that’s part of my success in teaching. I can relate to these kids. They know when someone’s being genuine or when they’re faking it.
Adam: What improvement would you most like to see made to public education?
Chris: Definitely smaller class sizes. At Karns, I had 36 in my room and I was having to pull in desks. With a smaller class, you get that more individual, edgy, one-on-one time with kids.
Adam: What would be the cap on that?
Chris: For middle school 25 would be great, but I think more realistically, even 30. I think that’s what the state average is. What ends up happening is you normally get a class of 33 or 34 and then you’ll have a class of 26.
Adam: I struggle with an average because an average doesn’t mean everyone’s experience averages out.
Chris: It’s tough. I guess the one saving grace is that usually my biggest class is my honors class. Most of those kids will not need that one on one individual instruction. But it’s still tough to build those relationships and to even just to move around my room sometimes when you’ve got that many kids in here.
Adam: What’s something that you could use in your classroom?
Chris: It’d be great to have more technology. I keep telling kids, I think in a few years it’s no longer going to be paper and pencil. Everything’s going to be digital. It would be great to have more Chromebook carts available. For now, just everyday stuff would be helpful too. Kids will forget their pencils and papers often. Backup material would be great. Even having extra copy paper because we run out of our allotted amount for the year pretty quickly. We hoard copy paper like gold, hold onto it, put it in a cupboard and make sure no one uses your paper. Little stuff like that is a huge help.
Adam: What hobbies do you have?
Chris: Besides driving my kids everywhere they need to be and professional chauffeur? Haha!
Chris: I really love doing anything outdoors. I love hiking and biking, and we just got a new paddle board for Christmas. We’re excited to take that out on the rivers and lakes. Being from Florida, we love being outside doing things with the kids. Family is super important, so anything we can do as a family is a hobby now.
Adam: What’s a good way for a student or a parent to spoil you?
Chris: We’re pretty spoiled here at Hardin Valley. I’ve been at several schools where a PTO is non-existent, so it’s kind of cool to have all the different lunches and stuff. I like coffee.
Adam: Where’s your favorite?
Chris: Of course, Starbucks is good. I like dark black coffee, so I brew my own every morning. I like to eat obviously. Gift cards are always welcome!
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