The Kind of Teacher I Never Had
Mike Roberts inspires his students to know themselves and give back
by Lexie Banks (’12, MACL ’15)
Mike Roberts (’99, MED ’11) is one of the lucky few: he had a job lined up long before graduating. What began
as a position teaching English at Rowland Hall has led to a long career at the school
inspiring his students to tackle big life issues and give back to their communities.
After seeing a job opening in the newspaper, Mike applied for the position at what he thought of as a “fancy private school.” “I tried to be funny, tried to sound smart,” Mike says of the interview. “A week later, I got the call to come in and teach a sample lesson. I hadn’t even started student teaching yet. I didn’t have any lessons.”
He borrowed a lesson plan on identity and knowing who you are from a mentor, and even followed up with the students the week after the exercise to reinforce the lesson. A week later, he got the job. While he was supposed to have a month of onboarding with the current teacher, she went into labor early and left him with a class of eighth graders he had barely met.
Since then, Mike has embarked on a creative journey to inspire his students to give back to their communities. In 2015, he raised more than $800 in two hours with a clever spin on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, where students could pay to dump water on their teachers’ heads. He got students engaged with Wasatch Community Gardens and the American Cancer Society. These lessons, chosen because they are relatable to students, always link back to a piece of literature.
Last year, Rowland Hall was raising funds for a new campus. As Mike looked for ways he could get involved in fundraising, he imagined an ultra-run from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas. The catch? “I wanted to arrive close to my birthday in July,” he says. “The heat was the most challenging part. I tried to begin my run at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. to avoid the sun, and it was already 90 degrees out.” In total, he ran in temperatures ranging from the mid-40s to 109 degrees. His 500-mile run took 15 days and raised more than $50,000 for Rowland Hall, which he hoped would be used to build a new track-and-field complex.
As a long-distance runner, he was encouraged to read Born to Run, a book about long-distance running by Christopher McDougall. He emailed McDougall and has since had the author visit his classroom several times. “I try to get people in to talk to my students who teach them to push themselves,” Mike says. “And I try to live that. It’s a good way to say to my students, ‘Wow, there’s an English teacher going out and doing these crazy things.’”
The most meaningful times for Mike are when his students get back in contact with him years later. A student now working at a financial firm in New York recently called him after seeing a sign for Of Mice and Men, a book they covered in class.
But that doesn’t mean Mike thinks eighth grade is the pinnacle of a student’s education. “If you remember anything from eighth grade, you have a miserable life,” he jokes. “If your parents say, ‘I got an A in eighth grade,’ tell them to get a hobby! Who cares? Are you learning in the process? That’s what matters.”
The ultimate lesson Mike hopes to give his students is one he lives himself in his teaching: “Try to be better today than you were yesterday—every class, every day, I try to make the next class better than the previous class,” he says. “Do I always do it? No. But if you’re constantly looking to improve, it’s going to happen. Try to be a better version of yourself than you were yesterday.”
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.