Struggles part of the journey

April 4, 2019

La PORTE – Matt Buchanan calls teaching a journey. “Since the age of 23, I’ve been on a constant journey to improve as a teacher – and after 20 years, I’m still learning,” the head of the English Department at La Lumiere School said.

Sometimes, the journey can be challenging, as Buchanan, 43, has had to overcome serious health issues to continue the career he loves.

And sometimes it can be rewarding, as when the motivation he provided a student facing her own health issues led to Buchanan receiving the prestigious Honored teaching award for February, along with a $5,000 cash award and $1,000 DonorsChoose.org gift card.

“We are very proud to have Matt as a teacher and coworker,” said Devon Carlson, La Lumiere’s assistant director of marketing and communication.

“In fact, he was my teacher when I was a student at La Lumiere, and I count him as one of my all-time favorites. He inspired me to pursue reading and writing more intently in life, and I actually went on to study literature in college largely because he sparked that interest in me.”

That is one of Buchanan’s goals.

“Actively engaging the students in critical thinking and creativity and having them write often,” are among his principles in teaching, Buchanan said. “I judge the effectiveness of my teaching by the creative output of my students rather than by the ‘brilliance’ of my lectures or information-passing.”

A bit of advice he picked up in 2002, from a negative evaluation of a lesson, helped guide those principles.

“Make your classroom more like karaoke night than The Voice,” he said. “In The Voice, one person, the teacher, sings his/her heart out to the back-turned chairs, hoping to get the chairs to turn. At Karaoke night, a teacher participates in the learning process and then invites the students onto stage to express their voices.

“It’s collaborative, creative, a bit messy, perhaps – but it’s real learning. The stage is more crowded, perhaps, but at the end of the day the students have gained more than they might have gained from listening to the beauty of the teacher’s voice without trying out their own ideas/voice.”

For Buchanan, his own health issues almost ended that voice.

He was born with a condition that causes tumors, and was scheduled for brain surgery in December 2016. But doctors soon figured out it was not his brain, but his heart.

He’d suffered a heart attack while awaiting surgery and three stents were placed to open blocked arteries; a fourth came later. Just a few months later and he was on the road to recovery – a new diet, 55 pounds lost and hundreds of miles jogged or walked.

It wasn’t easy, but Buchanan said it’s made him a better teacher.

“Two key factors in good teaching are empathy and humility. And while I’d love to pretend that I’m a naturally empathetic, humble soul, I was a hard-driving student, the summa cum laude college graduate who was going to set the world on fire, not by lighting one in the students, but by perhaps lighting everything else around them on fire – metaphorically speaking – with my love for – and, I thought in my youth, my expertise in – the written word,” he said.

“My health issues have brought me to a place of understanding that every breath is a gift and that being a teenager can be a draining thing. My health issues have helped me to connect better to students than previously. My class is a much more lively, interactive place as a result of the time I’ve spent hooked up to IVs and having one of those bed alarms that alerts the nursing staff if you stand up without assistance.”

That new understanding was certainly a benefit to Gina Billys, a 2018 La Lumiere graduate.

“Growing up, I had a pretty easy life,” Billys, a former straight-A student, said in an interview with Steve Padilla of the Los Angeles Times showcase Column One for Honored.org. “During the school year, I would put in the work while still having a great deal of fun. ... I didn’t have anything to complain about.”

Then she contracted the Epstein-Barr virus, which eventually led to mononucleosis and then Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which causes exhaustion not relieved by rest. By her senior year, she was failing classes for the first time in her life.

At the same time, her family was facing financial hardship for the first time and her grandfather suffered a major stroke, compounding her own personal and health challenges to the point it appeared she might not graduate.

Buchanan noticed.

“Since I’ve been a teacher – 20 years – I’ve always felt that students teach me more than I teach them. Gina helped me to see – though I’m sure she didn’t know it at the time – that there is a benefit to my own health issues, inasmuch as I’m more understanding than I would have been before spending a bit of time in the ER, and had this intuitive understanding of all the emotion that goes with trying to get work done while also battling a sickness that makes you want to just go home and sleep.

“A lot of times, students need to know that it’s OK to struggle, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Having a teacher sit down during writer’s workshop and talk you through a paper – or three – can do that for a student, and I think that was primarily what helped Gina out.”

Billys says it was much more. She credits Buchanan’s empathy, support and kindness for helping her through that rough time, and the Indiana University freshman will be forever grateful.

“I tried my best to pretend that everything was OK and that I could handle it all on my own, but one look at my grades could tell you I needed help. Instead of confronting me about it, he showed me support within the classroom. He offered to help constantly and was lenient on my missing or late assignments. He was so incredibly empathetic towards me,” she told Honored.

“Mr. Buchanan showed me that everyone is fighting their own battles … but it’s up to you to make the decision to fight those battles or let them consume your life. No one can do that besides you.”

And while still facing health issues, she seems to be winning the battle.

“I’m hopelessly optimistic when it comes to my ability to make a comeback, to turn things around. So as much as I fail, I won’t stop trying. Mr. Buchanan is responsible for sparking that flame within me.”

She also wrote an essay that led to Buchanan being cited by Honored, a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping great teachers in classrooms, and inspiring a new generation to pursue teaching. The award is given monthly to a teacher “who has changed the life of a single student.”

Buchanan was grateful, though not certain he was deserving.

“I received an email with Gina’s nominating essay back in July. I was honored by her kind words, but upon looking at the website and reading the biographies of what are truly some of the best educators in the country, I didn’t think that I would hear back from the organization – until I did...

“Gina wrote a beautiful essay, and I work with a lot of people committed to building the teacher-student relationships and providing frameworks for individualized attention at school.”

It’s just part of that journey.

“That’s what makes teaching exciting,” Buchanan said. “I consider the award a gift of grace – a blessing along the journey.”

Or, as he told Honored: “For me, since about the age of 34, every breath has been grace, a gift. I have a lot of fun teaching in general but have had even more so after health issues because the breath to teach with is a gift.”