Few and Far Between

Photo by Fred Kroner
Honest Abe keeps a watchful eye on the three male teachers at Lincoln
Trail School. From left are Charles Durst, Ben Herriott and James Heinold.

They do not have a shared nickname.They are not The Terrific Trio, The Three Amigos or The Band of Three.

They are not The Terrific Trio, The Three Amigos or The Band of Three.

They are known simply by their names, Charles Durst, James Heinold and Ben Herriott.

They are also unique as the only current men serving as classroom teachers at Mahomet’s Lincoln Trail Elementary School.

To their students, they are Mr. Durst, Mr. Heinold and Mr. Herriott.

The majority of their students have never had a male teacher until they step into one of their classrooms.

Mr. Durst teaches fourth grade, Mr. Heinold and Mr. Herriott are fifth-grade teachers.

They aren’t surprised by their status.

“I knew early on that there would be few men in Elementary Education,” said Heinold, a 1989 M-S graduate. “I was the only male in class at Eastern Illinois University.”

The knowledge of how few men work in elementary classrooms, Durst said, “greatly impacted and reinforced my decision to work at this level.

“Although we may be few in number, I couldn’t have picked a better group of guys with which to work. They always provide great perspective and advice whenever it is needed.

“Jeff (Starwalt, principal), James, and Ben have been great role models for myself over the past four years.”

Herriott, who graduated from M-S in 1992, considered becoming a farmer. He was studying psychology at the University of Illinois when he decided to switch to education.

“Some early experiences with coaching the very first flag football teams in Mahomet were eye-opening for me,” Herriott said. “One of my players didn’t believe he could catch a ball. He tried and tried, but struggled.

“After working on his form and starting with very small throws and building on small successes, he became the best receiver on the team.

“That experience was one that inspired me to work with children.”

He especially enjoys the elementary age-level students.

“I enjoy working with these high-energy and positive young people,” Herriott said. “Elementary students are fun to be around and also keep me on my toes.

“I also like teaching multiple subjects. No hour of the day is the same. There is a lot of variety each and every day.”

Regardless of gender, Durst said, “We have an immense responsibility as teachers; the education and molding of young minds, and that is something I do not take lightly.

“My obedience as a Christian has helped me to live to a standard that is becoming of a teacher. The key to my success really is Jesus: when I got saved everything changed for me.

“It wasn’t until I asked Jesus to come into my heart that I really understood my place, purpose, and the tremendous responsibility that came with teaching.”

When Durst encounters a student whose conduct is less than exemplary, it creates flashbacks to a time not so long ago.

“I was not a well-behaved student, so I understand especially when the young men misbehave,” Durst said. “I’ve been there and had my share of consequences.

“I try to show mercy whenever possible. We may be teaching common core state standards, but through our example we are teaching much more by how we live our lives and interact with others.

“The students are watching every move we make and I do my utmost to show them what honesty, kindness and a good sense of humor can accomplish.”

The rewards are not necessarily when a student brings in an apple or a parent sends a nice thank-you card.

“Teaching is very rewarding,” Herriott said. “I love the ‘Aha!’ moments that kids have when they learn or experience something new.

“Working with a child, encouraging them to achieve something new or something difficult, and then getting to celebrate that achievement once he or she has reached it, is a tremendously satisfying experience.”

Likewise, Durst enjoys the times when the light bulb comes on.

“I have learned to love the eureka moments that occur through education,” he said, “when you explain or teach something and it clicks for the student. The “oh, I get it now!” expression on their faces are priceless.”

For Heinold, memorable moments can include ones where a student has moved on to another grade level.

“The biggest reward is having students come back and chat with you,” Heinold said. “I enjoy when they come back and say, ‘Thanks for being my teacher, I had a great year.’

“That keeps me going from year to year.”

Durst, Heinold and Herriott recognize their status as role models. “Inspiring and building students up is one of my greatest joys in education,” said Durst, a Decatur native whose aunt (Joellyn Wills) taught in the M-S district for years. “I treat students with great respect with the hope that one day they will live up to their greatest potential.

“Also, I noticed long before I ever considered teaching how many of the Sunday School children at our church, many of whom are disadvantaged, lacked the presence of positive male figures in their lives.

“I wanted to fill in the gap.”

While the male teachers at Lincoln Trail are rare, Heinold said they don’t feel like they’re on an island.

“We have had many male influences at the elementary level with our paraprofessionals and aides,” he said. “Our custodians and teacher aides have been big influences on the kids as well.

“They all have positive influences on the kids and really like working with the kids as well.”

Among the teaching assistants this year at Lincoln Trail are two men, Matt Leskis and Michael Tague.

Principal Starwalt doesn’t see the trend changing in the near future.

“If we get 90 applicants, sometimes zero are men,” said Starwalt, who only had one male teacher (Dr. Paul Harrison) during his grade school years in Sadorus, “and no more than three or four.”

When hiring decisions are made, there is no quota system in place.

“Our first objective is to hire the best whether it’s male or female,” Starwalt said.

Herriott suspects there’s not a lot of difference in his classroom than in those of his colleagues.

“I have high expectations for my students, like to have fun in the classroom, and want the very best for my students, just like the other male and female teachers and staff in my building,” he said.

“My goal is to help children grow into confident and successful life-long learners. Anything that gets in the way of accomplishing that can be a challenge.

“Sometimes these challenges are things such as behaviors at school. Other times my classroom budget has been a challenge.”

The influence and impact of the male teachers — as well as the female teachers — goes beyond the children in their daily classrooms.

“They’ll interact with other students, whether it’s at recess or lunch,” Starwalt said.

Occasionally, the principal will receive a specific request.

“Sometimes a parent will say, ‘My child will benefit from a male teacher,’

“Starwalt related. “We can’t guarantee anything.

“We have to have a gender balance as well as learning styles.”

Like all teachers, the men on the faculty at Lincoln Trail face issues that need their attention.

“The biggest challenge that I face is the ever-changing curriculum and programs in education,” Heinold said. “Someone always comes up with a better way to teach something and staying on top of those ever-changing philosophies is tough.”

Durst finds if difficult to keep up with his colleagues.

“Classroom decoration is challenging for me,” he said. “The fourth-grade team at Lincoln Trail does an amazing job of decorating their classrooms and I struggle to keep up with them in that area.

“Thankfully, my mother (Peggy) is an avid/talented scrapbooker and has helped immensely.”

Heinold, who is in his 23rd year teaching at Lincoln Trail, said he also has difficulty keeping up with room re-designs.

“I do get comments about my fellow fifth-grade teachers having some pretty decked out rooms,” he said. “They say I should call HGTV and get a room makeover.”

Starwalt emphasized that opportunities exist for young men who seek to become grade school teachers.

“If you want to be a teacher and if you choose elementary education, administrators are looking to get more competent guys in the building,” Starwalt said. “We’d love to have more, but most important is to have the best person.”

Herriott taught fourth grade in Monticello for six years and is in his 13th year as a fifth-grade instructor at Lincoln Trail. He said the teaching moments extend past the books and videos.

“We spend a great deal of time with our students, sometimes more time than the students get with their families during the day,” Herriott said. “I believe teachers have a huge responsibility of serving as a role model for kids.

“Modeling how to care about others, respond to adversity, use manners, or laugh at ourselves are just a few of the things that we should be showing our students and talking about with our students on a regular basis. Kids notice everything.

“The option to not be a role model as a teacher doesn’t exist.” Heinold echoed the same sentiments.

“When I am spending as much time with kids as I do, I try to make sure that I am being a positive influence on them,” Heinold said. “We aren’t just teachers, we are role models as well. Some of my fondest memories are of my past teachers, I don’t want to ruin those chances for my students.

“There has never been and day I in which I didn’t want to go to work. I want to thank the late Mr. (Lee) Jessup for taking a chance on me. I also want to thank the community for allowing me to serve the youth of our community. They are our future.”

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