Not Your Average Teacher
It's nine o'clock in the morning and two teenagers are practicing juggling, each with a set of three multicolored, plush balls. The soft sounds of a guitar and bongo drums can be heard as the Flaming Lips' song, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” is performed live.
These events are typical of any day in room B13 at the Falk School, also known as Mr. Wittig's classroom. Greg Wittig is a balding man who wears glasses and stands a little more than six feet tall. In keeping with the casual and relaxed atmosphere of his classroom, he prefers to wear blue jeans to school every day. His classroom overlooks the lower part of the University of Pittsburgh's campus as it sits just above University Drive on the upper part of campus. The warm hues generated by the soft fluorescent lights against the faded yellow paint in his classroom create a contrast not expected of an educational institution. The sofa and shade lamp that sit next to his desk add to the friendly atmosphere that welcomes every person into this educational temple. This extraordinary atmosphere that Wittig maintains allows him to educate his students in a particularly effective manner.
“He is an outstanding teacher,” says Dr. Phyllis Sheehy, the coordinator of field experience at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education. “He relates really well to young adults.”
In order to understand why Wittig has become such an effective educator, one must know the path he traveled to become such a highly regarded teacher. He was born thirty-eight years ago in Pittsburgh as the youngest of seven children.
“We were actually a pretty poor family,” he says. “But, with that said, there's not a person in the family who didn't feel that they were unconditionally loved.”
Wittig's father died when he was eight years old. Two years later, his mother remarried. His parents never placed any stress on performing well in school. The family's understanding was that once each child graduated from high school they would find a job. He is thankful for the relationship he had with his parents as it focused primarily on love and not on success. This support helped him when he attended high school outside Pittsburgh at Elizabeth Forward Township, and afterward when he attended the University of Pittsburgh for both his graduate and undergraduate degrees.
“I know plenty of people who have grown up in households and families where they were pushed in everything,” Wittig adds, “And they never felt connected with their parents.”
His childhood had a significant influence on his adulthood as it inspired him to want to help people. Coming from a family that provided as much love as his family did, he has found himself wanting to create a similar atmosphere in his classroom.
“The students care what my opinion is of them, and I care about their well-being,” Wittig says. “That includes [during times of] joking, laughing, singing, being serious, being stern, and disciplining.”
He recalls one such instance when a male student pulled the chair out from under a female student as she was sitting down. He immediately told the boy to call his parents and go home, and the child responded by crying hysterically. The boy was worried that Wittig's perception of him would change due to the incident. After explaining to the child that he had just made a stupid mistake, Wittig assured the boy that his opinion of him would not change, and the boy was sent home.
He cares for his students even in times of discipline. Wittig's student teacher, Kelly Shaeffer, noticed the caring he displays on several levels.
“Mr. Wittig is constantly willing to sacrifice, and he's constantly generous with his time, efforts, energy, any time any student needs anything.” Shaeffer says, “When you love your job enough that you care about the students as much as he does, it's pretty amazing.”
Wittig not only cares about the overall well being of his students, but he also cares about their opinions and what they have to say about certain issues as people.
“He accepts children's views. He's very open and is a master at getting kids involved in discussions and feeling secure enough to give their views on how they relate to a text and then that stimulates the writing that goes with it,” Dr. William McDonald, director of the Falk School adds.
In a recent discussion he had with one of his classes about the book Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang, he asked the students if the Cultural Revolution that was affecting Ji-Li in the novel could happen in the United States today. Wittig mediated the discussion as each student offered his or her opinion to the class.
“Mr. Wittig is a complete teacher,” McDonald adds, “The masterful part comes from being able to implement and get kids to participate at the highest level and still teach the basics as well.”
He also coordinates several extracurricular activities. For a recent talent show, he played the guitar and sang the lyrics to the Flaming Lips' “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” while one student accompanied him on a bongo drum, and several others dressed as pink robots and danced to the song. Wittig also plans to start an in-school T-shirt shop, where students would have the opportunity to design and produce their own T-shirts. Some of the events that he has been involved in have forced him to stay at the school late into the evening.
“[Wittig] is dedicated to the point that he sacrifices, at times, so much of his own time that it really cuts into what he may want to be doing,” Shaeffer says about his over-commitment. “There are times he sacrifices a lot of his time and his energy for other people.”
All of his free time goes to his wife and four children, as McDonald explains, “[Wittig] has a very young, quite large family. He's a great family man and he's just an admirable young human being.”
For Wittig, however, the sacrifices are worth it. He describes teaching as fun because it is entertaining for him to talk to students about their viewpoints and opinions. He remembers fondly one instance when his class went to nature camp at McKeever Environmental Learning Center in Mercer County. At McKeever, he instructed his class to find a quiet place in the woods where they would sit for one hour in silence every day after which they would reflect in writing on what they had noticed.
“What I liked about that was that it was a real experience,” Wittig says, “I had my spot and they had their spots and they were noticing life around them that they might had never noticed before.”
His informal teaching style makes him particularly effective in reaching his students.
“He doesn't rely much on direct instruction,” Sheehy says. “He's more of an inquiry-based teacher where he'll want the kids to figure out things for themselves.” She notes that Wittig's ability to relate, connect, and motivate his students, complements the caring and empathic relationship he has with them to make his effectiveness as an educator outstanding.
“He is right at the top [of educators in Allegheny County],” Sheehy says. “I'm surprised he hasn't been nominated for teacher of the year.”