Mr. Burns on Retirement, Teaching, and Advice for You

Maggee Chang, Staff Writer

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Mr. Burns, one of Northgate’s AP European History teacher, is retiring after this school year, leaving a ten-year legacy of passionate teaching, wisdom, and a limitless array of jokes about the curriculum. I sat down with Mr. Burns on Thursday, August 17th, after school, determined to know the story behind Northgate’s hilariously pop-cultured Mr. Larry Burns.

I was actually twenty minutes late. Twenty minutes late to my interview with a respected history teacher. However, he wasn’t upset. His naturally projected voice stated my whole name (for dramatic effect, I suppose. It certainly works.) as I walked into his classroom, nervous and believing I was starting off terribly. Sitting in his desk and working to rock music, he reassured me it was all right to be late. The school’s Open House was at seven, so he stayed. Mr. Burns asked if he could multitask while I conducted the interview. Finally calming down, I started the interview. “My first question is,” I pushed my nerves aside. “When did you start teaching?”

“My first year was the 2008-2009 school year, and my whole teaching career has been right here at Northgate.” He answered my first and second question. I checked off the number one and two. He’s still at his desk, looking at his computer. The job never left his mind.

I started to ask my third question, which was why he wanted to be a high school history teacher in the first place. It turned out this answer could only be completed if he started in 1972, when he had just graduated from high school. He went to college for two years, surprisingly, as a math major. “And then, I was going to take the proverbial one semester off. Marriage, three kids, and thirty years later, I finally made it back to school. While in the interim, I had fallen in love with all things history. I became just mesmerized- I couldn’t get enough history.” Mr. Burns’ eyes were off the computer screen and were immersed in the question at hand, proving the dedication and fire in him– he is fueled by his passion for teaching and history. Putting the two together didn’t compare to any forest fire. “But even when I went back to school as an adult, it was still to teach- to get a history degree. I wanted to be a middle school teacher. And my thought process was, ‘I’m going to teach history and then I wanted to coach basketball.’ Basketball has always been my love.” I nodded and hummed in agreement, knowing I was keeping up with his thorough responses. There was nothing he did not cover- he was determined to provide the answer that would do the question justice. The answer transitioned to the reason behind his choice of becoming a high school teacher. “As I got farther into my history degree, and got deeper and deeper into it, I thought, ‘You know, I can go a whole lot deeper in history if I moved in the high school level.’ And that’s really what prompted it. It wasn’t that I wanted to teach high school, it was my love of history was such that I wanted to go as deep as I possibly could with my students; and the older my students, the deeper I could go.” Thus, Mr. Burns’ answer was dedicated to his love for history. We were barely three minutes into our interview, and he summarized the blossoming of his teaching career. This was just the beginning.

Above and beyond was what he wanted to achieve, just like the planes he worked alongside at Delta for thirty-one years. I brought up his previous career and asked about the contrasts and its transition between the two professions. It turned out to be a small contrast, since he was a supervisor and trainer for new Delta employees. “So would you say teaching is embedded into you?” I asked.

“I do think this [teaching] is the type of profession that is something that’s innate in people. I think the key in teaching is first of all– you have to have an absolute love for the subject you’re teaching. Because if you don’t, and you don’t show it everyday, then how are you going to create a love for students in your subject matter if you don’t really project it yourself? […] You got to have an insatiable want to learn more and more and more all the time.” He also credited a teacher of his from high school for his love for teaching. “It really was a high school chemistry teacher that I have to credit for giving me the want to go into teaching to begin with. […] I still remember him to this day, Mr. Smith.” I could resonate with such a feeling– a teacher who inspired your life and I was sure many students could name their own Mr. Smith.

I also brought up how this might be able to teach anxious students about making large life decisions, from gap years to career choices. “A student should never feel locked in!” He explained his first few doubts when he was changing careers. It was important to ask this, since it is important to know a real-world example of reassurance. “If you really love what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he quotes the cliche, becoming the living example. For the history teacher, his love was teaching and to this day, he can’t believe he got paid for doing what he loved.

Bringing in questions about our education system, especially with hot topics like classroom technology and its limits (or lack thereof), he went into detail about how these new additions of elements in the classroom improved his curriculum– “It was just a given to me that I was going to integrate technology. […] This is the technology generation. That’s what they’re used to doing- is employing technology and education.” He went into detail about how his classroom is entirely paperless, putting the ‘One-to-One’ program (the existence of every student in the district owning a Chromebook) to good use. “It’s just where we’re at– I’m always looking for new ways to integrate technology in the classroom. And especially in history, you have to make it relevant.” Mr. Burns replied, content with the forward-looking beliefs Northgate possessed. Northgate becoming modern and tech-savvy made the vast majority satisfied.

“Any advice for new AP European students?” Personally, my advice was to bring tissues if Mr. Burns showed the Steven Spielberg drama/war cinematic work, ‘War Horse.’ I thought crying in front of the entire class was something for kindergarten students (not for me), but a good film is a good exception.

“For the students, I would applaud them for challenging themselves. It’s all about time management. […] It’s AP for a reason. There is going to be a significantly greater workload than in a general advanced class.” Time management becomes more and more vital for every high school student as they grow into adults, thus I believed Mr. Burns advice to be universal– Challenge yourself and manage your time wisely. You don’t need to be his student to learn a few things from the teacher.

Teachers’ jobs are to teach and guide students to the students’ personal achievements. However, tables turn. “Has teaching taught you something unexpected?” I asked.

Mr. Burns pondered, fingertips together against his face. Thoughts and memories of lessons the teacher learned were flying through his mind, hoping to give me a response.

He opened his mouth to finally speak. “Yes, it has,” Mr. Burns began. “Every generation– looks at new generations coming up. And every generation gets a little puffed up in the chest; like, ‘Well, we struggled with so much- We didn’t have this; we didn’t have that- What is the country going to be like when this present generation that is in the schools going to be positions of leadership?’ You can very easily become biased toward a generation. […] For my personal perspective, I’ve seen some incredible students come through Northgate High School in the last ten years. […] That’s taught me we’re in good hands. I witnessed firsthand that generations that have come through during my time at Northgate- boy, have we got some real talent there. It’s been a pleasure to have many of them in class and be part of it.” It felt calm in the air, that all the daily pressures of a Northgate student were reassured. The approval of Mr. Burns made me feel that the choices I have made were pointing me in the right direction. The country will be in good hands, not necessarily thanks to the new generation, but it’s really given to teachers and other role models like Mr. Burns.

Then I asked the burning question– “What are your plans for retirement?” The truth finally settled for me. There was no living in denial at that point. Mr. Burns would not be in room 502 anymore, where enthusiasm for history came alive the minute anybody walked in. It’d be difficult to walk into that classroom and not see warplane figurines hanging in the air or the presidential campaign stickers on his beige metal desk. That classroom was Living.

“Well,” There was not a part of him where he was not still, and that was reassuring. “I’m going to travel– I’ve been blessed to be out of the country a few times, but there’s lots of places in Europe that I haven’t been to. And do some writing, some volunteering, spoil my grandchildren, and things of that nature. But travel is right up there [on my list]. I think partial of that is being a world history teacher. There’s so many places that I’ve been talking about all the time, and I know the history of them, and it’s like ‘I can’t believe I haven’t been there!’”

Making history relevant is an obstacle many history teachers overcome in order for their students to understand and apply the subject matter. Mr. Burns made it looks effortless, using Chromebooks, news stories, and most surprisingly- social media. Just like our president, Mr. Burns used his Twitter (@historyteach) to tweet and retweet 140-character posts about his favorite passion. While our president has a passion for golf and foreign policy, Mr. Burns loves history. From fact-checking history tweets on his timeline to having a Twitter fight about the British royal family and other dynastic families (#birthcanalnonsense), he made his teaching material relevant and hilariously modern. So of course, I had to ask– “What’s going to happen to your Twitter account?”

“My Twitter account is going to stay active.” The world will truly be a better place, I thought. “That is one of the things I’m looking forward to in retirement, because I stay apolitical in the class. […] I keep my views out of it– that’s what we should do as teachers. We [teachers] shouldn’t be promoting a political perspective, promoting religion. […] Because I stay apolitical in my classroom and I have students that follow me [on Twitter]; there have been many times over the years, where I wanted to say something on Twitter, but I found myself going: ‘Nah, leave it alone. I can’t say that because I’m across that I’m bringing in my personal politics.’ Because I want to have a lot to say on Twitter about things that I had to bite my lip, if you will, while I’ve been teaching. Simply because of my philosophy, to stay apolitical and don’t push your personal politics, which is why I always tell students, ‘Track me down right after graduation with that diploma in your hand. Now you’re an alum, let’s talk politics.” So if you’re looking for some feisty tweets about history, follow Mr. Burns on Twitter, @historyteach, while you wait for your diploma before you can talk about politics with him.

Thus ending the official interview, we had small talk, catching up. I told him I missed his class. He told me what they’re learning. Mr. Burns asked about my classes and future. I responded with my plans and current happenings. But before anything, I had a little fun with this opportunity and asked him rapid-fire questions. He had the chance to choose between two options.

Winter or summer? “Winter.” He had to think a little bit before answering.

Coffee or tea? “Coffee.” He replied, quick.

Matching or mismatching socks? “Matching.”

Beard or mustache? (I told him both was considered an option.) “Both,” he laughs.

Long or short hair? “Long.”

Country or rock? “Rock.”

Rain or snow? “Snow.”

French fries or chicken nuggets? “French fries.”

Netflix or Hulu? “Netflix.”

And last but never the least, dogs or cats? “Dogs.”

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