Frank Cooper Teaches by Building Relationships
For over 10 years Sand Springs Charles Page High School teacher Frank Cooper has read the popular children’s book Love You Forever by Robert Munsch at the Charles Page High School graduation ceremony. And every year, without fail, every graduation attendee cries. “It has been a great honor to be a part of graduation. I read Love You Forever, and I personalize it a bit. I start crying, the graduates cry, and then the moms and the dads start to cry. I think that is why they have me do it each year,” he grinned.
Cooper made the switch from lawyer to Charles Page High School teacher 21 years ago. He admittedly found a classroom full of teens to be quite intimidating at first.
“The day I started, I called my wife during my first break and said, ‘Honey, I’m not sure I made the right decision’. I was pretty nervous. The kids were new to the school too, so they were nervous. But after awhile we hit it off.”
Today Cooper is confident and passionate about his teaching. Whether he is leading a roomful of teens to clap in unison and shout: “Challenge minds, inspire hearts, empower a community of learners!” or he is dressing up as Elvis on the King of Rock and Roll’s birthday, Cooper challenges his students’ minds and hearts.
“If I am passionate about what I’m talking about, the kids are more engaged in the classroom. Kids can tell if you enjoy what you do,” he said. “When I counsel younger teachers about teaching, my advice to them is teach it the way you like to learn it. If you are interested in your subject, your students will be interested as well.”
Cooper, the 2012 Charles Page High School Teacher of the Year recipient, taught a leadership class at the school for many years. He believes leadership is about building personal relationships.
“My leadership class is not about learning to be head of some organization,” he said. “Leadership starts with a personal relationship. If we teach them [the students] to have positive relationships, they will have sources of affirmation. We want to create a culture of kindness at Charles Page. Kids can learn, thrive and be comfortable in that setting.”
As the faculty leader of the school’s Student Council (STUCO), Cooper and the council members built an “affirmation rainbow” that greets students as they enter the front doors of the school.
Charles Page High School Principal Stan Trout said, “When you enter the school, you are overwhelmed by a beautiful rainbow of individual words of love and encouragement written by hundreds of our students for each other. As our culture grows increasingly alarmed at instances of bullying and social exclusion, Frank Cooper leads a counter-revolution of kindness that has transformed our school.”
Cooper said creating personal relationships with his students has become increasingly difficult due to the increase in class sizes over the past several years.
“It’s very frustrating when class size goes up, and you don’t have the time to develop relationships with students,” he said. “Sure, it would help if we had greater funding to hire more teachers. When I started there were fewer kids at Charles and more teachers. The administration does a great job of keeping people hired, but now when teachers retire or move to a different school district, their position is not refilled. I teach on a hallway where there are two empty classrooms. There used to be teachers teaching classes in those rooms, but not now. Today there are three to four more kids in each classroom. In one class I have 25 and in another class I have 30 to 32 students. It is a lot easier to teach 25 students than 35.”
Yet class size has not kept Cooper from finding ways to get his students to actively participate in the classroom. Recently, during a class discussion on Nelson Mandela, the World History teacher went against school policy and asked his students to get out their phones. That was music to their ears, he laughed. He challenged them to use their phones to search for facts on the former South African President.
“Sometimes you have to go with your gut,” Cooper explained. “Once they started to use their phones to find out information, they all became involved in the discussion on this great man. There is nothing wrong with using the phone as a tool in the classroom.”
Years in the classroom have guided Cooper to what really matters to his students. “Kids don’t care how much you know; they just want to know how much you care. If those kids believe that you care about them, they will try. They don’t want to let you down,” he said. “I have had knuckle headed kids who might not open a book, but I said, ‘I need help,’ and they are the first to jump up and volunteer. When you develop those types of relationships, kids will learn.”
Trout said students sense Cooper’s sincerity. “High school students from across the achievement spectrum respond to Frank Cooper’s ministry of positive affirmation of the individual because of his genuineness. Teenagers can sense phoniness intuitively,” he said. “Frank Cooper’s impact with our students is made possible because he is so honest and real. He cares for them; they feel that care and concern, and they and our school are better for it.”