Henrico County VA

Top Teachers: Chris Tickle

Steward School, fourth grade
In Chris Tickle’s class at The Steward School, students can never be sure who might show up to teach a lesson.

One day it might be “Augustus Porcularis,” an ancient Roman pig farmer who teaches Roman numerals.

On another day a giant bee might visit to teach about the verb “to be.” Or “Gramma Grammar,” a prim and proper British matron, might drop in for a chat about the beauty of the English language.

“It is not at all unusual,” wrote an admiring parent, “for Mr. Tickle to put on a housecoat and wig or a head-to-toe Cat-in-the-Hat regalia at a moment’s notice. . . And who else would show up at school dressed in full knight gear as ‘Sir Cumference’ to teach a brand new geometry theory to 9-year-olds?”

The theatricality comes naturally to Tickle, whose wife once bought him a print featuring the quote, “Good teaching is one-quarter preparation and three-quarters theatre.”

A theatre major in college, he had always loved school and learning, but initially passed up education studies to pursue other fields.

“After working in the ‘real world’ for a number of years,” Tickle said, “I realized that I really missed being in a learning environment . . . [and] decided to follow my heart where it had always been.”

But don’t for a moment assume that Tickle’s playful, out-of-the-box teaching methods mean he is a soft touch, or that his classroom is all about play. Steward parents will attest to his ability to deliver “a loving dose of tough love when necessary.”

And Tickle will tell you that one of his most rewarding moments was getting a note from a former middle school student whose classmates – described by Tickle as “low-motivation” – had been given a dose of that tough love.

“I felt I needed to let [those students] know that once they left my school and headed to high school, they would be in for a rude awakening,” Tickle recalled. A year later, one student wrote to thank him for being so hard on him. “Using my own words, he told me that once he got to high school, he did feel like he had been hit by a truck, but he had learned from it and was actually doing okay.”

Whether he is coaching his Destination Imagination teams (which have made it as far as the Top 10 in the Global Finals), leading his fourth-graders through writing exercises, or motivating kindergartners-through-fifth-graders in reading achievement assemblies, Tickle said he is constantly striving to help students discover the joy of learning and the desire to continue to learn throughout their lives.

He also strives to get to know them as individuals, according to parents, and takes a sincere interest in every student.

Just before school begins each year, Tickle sends out letters inviting each student to write a letter about himself or herself. By year’s end, he knows them all well enough to create his annual version of Dr. Seuss’ Oh The Places You’ll Go – “with a full stanza,” said a parent, “tailored for each student in the class.

“What could be more touching to any parent?”

Tickle can cite many touching moments of his own, but especially enjoys watching his students experience the “ah-ha” moment when they finally grasp a concept. Not long ago, one student was dejected over hitting a roadblock with long division. Despite weeks of approaching it from all different angles, and “copious amounts of encouragement,” he had not caught on. But then “his face suddenly lit up with a huge smile,” said Tickle, and he announced, “I finally got it!”

The thrill of seeing that face has yet to wear off, said Tickle, who notes that he thinks about his students (“current, past, and sometimes even future ones”) day and night. “I don’t stop being a teacher when the final bell rings.”

He also never stops thinking about what he can do to become better at his profession.

“As far as I’m concerned, being a teacher is one of those things that is just part of who you are. I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.”
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