'Teacher's teacher' ends 30-year career
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Canon-McMillan High School won't be the same without Michael Morris.
After 30 years of teaching in the district and numerous awards, he will retire Tuesday in what surely will be a tearful goodbye.
Students and colleagues have hailed not so much the length of his tenure, but the style in which he taught. The Bethel Park man has been called everything from respected, skilled and compassionate by his colleagues, to heroic and inspirational by his many students.
He's taught high school English and currently teaches advanced placement literature and composition, 10th grade honors English and a very popular elective called Great Books, in which students analyze classics. He also teaches a night course, a second chance alternative program for students.
"Other teachers respect him," said Ed Malinowski, dean of students at the high school and a longtime friend and colleague. "He's a teacher's teacher. He has an art."
Mr. Morris, 64, was one of the first teachers in the district to employ a Socratic teaching method, Mr. Malinowski said, involving his students in reading by having them sit in a circle to share ideas.
It was a style that produced results. Mr. Morris was named a Washington County All-Star Educator in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's All-Star Achiever student recognition program in 1994, 1995 and 2003. He was nominated by All-Star Canon-McMillan students in each of the three years.Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette
Canon-McMillan High School English teacher Michael Morris autographs junior Miriam Wendt's T-shirt after her class in Great Books last week. Mr. Morris retires Tuesday after teaching in the district for 30 years.
Click photo for larger image.
One of the students, Jessie Eisenbart, who won in 2003, said: "Mr. Morris doesn't simply teach honors and AP English literature. He inspires. His passion for literature is contagious as he brings to life our readings."
But the many accolades he's received over the past three decades mean little to Mr. Morris, who said his awards are secondary to the appreciation students and colleagues give him.
"I never used to really like English that much," said high school junior Steven Haines, 17, of Canonsburg, who has taken Mr. Morris' honors English and Great Books courses. "We used to just read the book, take the test. I really like English a lot more now."
English and reading are more interesting because of the extensive class discussions, Steven said. English now is his favorite subject, and, Steven said, discussion of his favorite book, "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck, has inspired him to consider a career in English.
Another inspired student is Matt Heinrendt, 30, of Lawrence, who wrote a college essay about Mr. Morris and went on to teach at Canon-McMillan High School. He will take over Mr. Morris' AP literature and composition class, and possibly the other courses as well.
Although he didn't realize it at the time, Mr. Heinrendt said that, in college, he recognized how much he'd absorbed from Mr. Morris and adopted a similar teaching style, much to the delight of Steven and other students who will take his course next year.
"He dares to take his students where others wouldn't," Mr. Malinowski said. "He doesn't just teach them English, he talks to them. He's a mental role model."
Mr. Morris has been teaching since 1963, when he joined the Peace Corps and requested placement in Ethiopia, where he taught until 1965. He joined the Peace Corps shortly after earning an English degree from Saint Francis University.
"I really never thought I would want to be a teacher, but teaching in Ethiopia got me interested," he said.
A graduate of Central Catholic High School, Mr. Morris earned a master's degree and teaching certification from Duquesne University.
He taught for several years at various parochial and secondary schools, and received a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he taught English education.
Mr. Morris married his wife, Nancy, in 1969, and the couple have two grown children, Julie and Jeff.
By 1976, Mr. Morris found himself teaching middle school English in the Canon-McMillan School District, where he stayed for four years before moving to the high school in 1980.
It was there that Mr. Morris excelled, developing his own teaching voice and spurring his students into playful, yet intellectual, literature discussions. He inspires his students to become lifelong readers and idealists, stressing virtue and integrity, and encourages students to seek meaningful work that "helps others and makes the world a better place," he said.
"I try to make things interesting," he said. "I push them very hard."
Mr. Morris brought more black literature to the high school, such as the classic "Black Boy" by Richard Wright, and taught students to strive for social justice and feel compassion for the underdog.
Although he said he loved the students, Mr. Morris said it had become harder to plow through the cumbersome paperwork required for English. He hopes to reconnect with his friends and relatives from the past, travel and attend church more.
"Like Thoreau said: 'I'll start my adventures,' " he said.
A former long-distance runner, Mr. Morris said he planned to hike, spend more time in his garden and in blues clubs, and, of course, catch up on his reading.
Still, he will miss his students.
"They've given me much more than I've ever given them," he said.
First Published June 4, 2006 12:00 am