Hillsboro Middle School social studies teacher Phil Oelke began his 8 a.m. sixth-grade class Thursday joking with students while handing out materials the students would need in the period.
That enthusiasm is an important part of keeping students interested in their studies, he said. It doesn’t work for every student or all the time, but showing energy and passion for the subject does a lot to make kids excited for class, he said.
Oelke also stays ready to change plans if he sees students are drifting away.
“You can see on their faces when they’re with you, and when they aren’t, it’s time to throw a curveball, maybe even discarding that day’s lesson plan,” he said.
On Thursday, he got the students started on research to make dioramas illustrating facets of life in ancient Rome. Those kinds of hands-on projects help bring a sometimes dry subject to life for students.
Another annual project captures students’ imaginations so much that even high school seniors who were in the class six years before take an interest — building miniature medieval castles. The castles must reflect discussions about historical castles, and the students must include a letter explaining why they designed it the way they did. Oelke said the project brings out a lot of creativity and artistry in the students.
“Mr. Oelke is a guy that connects very well with almost all of our kids,” HMS Principal Greg Brown said.
When students get back from summer break, many are excited to see Oelke right away, Brown said. He lauded Oelke for being conscientious to not waste class time and for shepherding students to post strong scores on state assessments. Results for this year’s sixth-grade history assessments — released Thursday — showed more than 90 percent of Oelke’s students met or exceeded standards, which isn’t uncommon for his classes, Brown said.
When he was growing up, Oelke’s mother ran a day-care center, and he liked helping out. He was always interested in working with kids, so becoming a teacher seemed like a natural fit, he said.
“They’re fun to be around, especially this age group,” Oelke said.
He graduated from Sterling College in 1994. His first teaching job was in Peabody, where he stayed four years before taking a job in Hillsboro, where he has been 14 years. He teaches all of sixth-grade social studies and splits English, spelling, and seventh-grade Kansas history. Oelke said it has been fun to refamiliarize himself with Kansas history.
Oelke and his wife, Debbie, have two children: 3-year-old Nate and 10-month-old Beckett. They are also adopting a child from China, although it has been a long process and may take quite a while to finish.