by Michael Coyne
Nobody ever said teaching was easy.
For someone like Kevin Geist, teaching can be even more challenging. Geist, 30, teaches a work program for special education students at Morton West High School in Berwyn.
“I teach kids that have cognitive disabilities—they wouldn’t have Down Syndrome, but they’d have an IQ of between 60 and 75,” Geist said. “We teach them skills within the high school, we try to get them jobs, like delivering things, [learning to work] within an office setting, or doing like some maintenance. So that by next year, when they’re a senior, they hopefully have a job outside of the school.”
Geist has been a public school teacher for seven years. This is Geist’s second year teaching the work program.
Kevin Geist gestures to a white board at Morton West High School
Geist lives in a simple third-floor walk-up apartment in Chicago’s Edison Park Neighborhood. While his apartment could serve as a traditional bachelor pad, Geist dedicates his life more to his work.
“I’m always there before school, always there after school,” he said. “I try to go to all of their events, if they’re involved in anything. Whether it’s theater, chess… whatever they’re doing.”
Geist emphasizes that his goal is to be accessible and visible to his students as much as possible.
“A lot of these kids I teach don’t have any strong role models in their life. So I try to be that,” he said. “When I was growing up, someone from my family was always there, whatever I did. And I remember going to a basketball game [for my students] and there were almost no parents. Maybe one or two. That changes your perspective.”
The culture in Berwyn, specifically around Morton West, is not unlike that of many parts of the City of Chicago.
“It used to be predominantly Ukrainian or western European, a little bit of Italian, but now it’s predominantly Hispanic or Latino—between 65 and 72 percent. It fluctuates,” he said.
He said that many students have home lives in which parents are distant or absent, and gang culture has taken hold for some in the suburb.
For Geist, setting reasonable goals for his students, then giving them the tools to meet those goals is simply a way of life.
“We’re giving them job skills and opportunities they wouldn’t normally have gotten,” he said. “Before 1975, they would have been institutionalized.”
He acknowledged the bluntness of his assertion, but doesn’t mince words.
“The other aspect is they’re not college-bound. There are maybe one or two that could maybe do that; maybe go to a trade school or some sort of a four-year university. But generally, that’s not realistic,” he said. “So we’re giving them a realistic goal, with realistic expectations… You’re providing them with some pretty good opportunities they wouldn’t normally have gotten.”
His experience has not always been ideal, however. He looked down as he recalled one student whose mother was somewhat distant, and didn’t have a very good grasp of English.
“There were triplets [that] were older than him—they were seniors—and they knew the language,” he recalled, noting that these triplets were involved with a gang.
“School wasn’t really his thing,” Geist said. “He was a smart kid, really good basketball player, but he’d just say some of the most off-the-wall comments; the entire class would turn and kind of be like, ‘why are you talking about girls that way?’ He’d grab girls in the hallway, say things like, ‘you see that hoochie lookin’ at me?’ It was really bizarre.” Geist shook his head; “Clearly, there was something wrong, but he was doing well school-wise.”
“He ended up getting expelled because of all the inappropriateness,” Geist continued. “He was like a ticking time bomb. He showed up at meetings in gang outfits, he was wearing a rosary around his neck, which is like a gang, disrespectful thing. So it’s a clear sign that he was involved in something.”
Since 2008, many police units across the country have used rosaries, displayed abnormally, as indicators of gang affiliation or activity. Geist emphasized that this student had long since fallen from his academic high point before he came to him.
“He was supposed to go to the alternative school,” he recalls. “He was crying, ‘Mr. Geist,’—first time I ever saw him show any real emotion—‘I really want to be normal,’ I was like, ‘it’s kind of too late. You needed to do this like a year ago, six months ago, or even three months ago. Now that you see the writing on the wall, you need to take responsibility.’”
As for what became of that student? “He got into the wrong group and dropped out,” Geist said. “Then last year, I saw him on the news. Him and three of his friends… gang-raped a 14-year-old girl.”
“You get to know someone and you try really hard,” he said of the efforts involved in his teaching. “You provide an environment for them to succeed; whether they take it is up to them, ultimately. I can’t make them do anything.”
Geist takes a unique approach to teaching, noting that he tries to keep his classes as positive as possible.
“I like to reward their character, hard work, encouragement,” he said. “It’s kind of my nature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t really enjoy it.”
“I don’t like to be ‘tough,’” he said of his teaching style. “There’s respect, there’s responsible, but you can do it in a natural way. I’m not going to intimidate them; I’m not going to sit them down, in a chair and put my finger in their face,” he confessed. “If my dad or my coaches would ever do that to me, I’d stop listening after the first yell. It works once, but after that, it’s like, ‘eh…’”
Geist’s colleague, Josh Baltz, who is in his first year of teaching, has been partnered with Geist in a program in which first year teachers are paired with a “mentor teacher.”
Baltz teaches special ed students who are a level below Geist’s students, but Baltz said he takes cues from Geist. “Kevin is a great mentor teacher,” Baltz said. “He’s always positive, and I guess that’s something I try to emulate, too.”
Analyzing his relationship with Geist, Baltz calls Geist a “confidant,” and applauded his role as a mentor. Baltz said, “he’s excellent at all those things.”
Geist’s enthusiasm for his profession is palpable.
“I love it,” he said. “Not only the teaching aspect, but you get the opportunity to do other things, like I used to coach basketball, football, but now I’ve kind of changed my way of thinking and I’m getting involved with the theater program at our school, which has been awesome because you’re around kids who really care… Actually, some of those kids help tutor some of the kids in my class. It’s the giving aspect. It’s very rewarding.”