Speaker of His House

The science of teaching politics
Adam Kohler, teacher at KIPP Booker T. Washington Charter School, 2019

The white board in Adam Kohler’s 10th grade classroom at KIPP Booker T. Washington charter school popped in colors of blue and red, with words such as “left-wing” and “right-wing” scrawled across it. Donkeys and elephants, liberals and conservatives, and even Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke’s name made an appearance.

The political science unit fit into one of Kohler’s own passionate interests, but its value, he knew, would stretch all the way into 2020, when many of his students would be eligible to vote for the first time.

Getting them interested in the lesson required maneuvering. “It has to mean something,” he said. “They needed to see themselves in the spectrum.”

Creating engaging “connections” is one of Kohler’s specialties. That knack and commitment to the profession earned him a New Schools for New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Award last year.

“It meant a ton,” Kohler said. “Words can’t describe being celebrated for something you love to do. It’s something special.”

Nowadays, teaching American politics is about as close as the Lake Charles native is likely to get to his original life plan. After graduating with a degree in political science at Loyola University, he wanted a career connected to politics. He interned with a Congressman in Washington D.C. at one point, and he wanted “a path back.”

A law degree seemed a given for such a goal, but he took a break from his own schooling. Instead, he interviewed for a position with Teach for America, a non-profit organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach in hard-to-staff schools across the country. When the acceptance email came, he clicked the “accept” button instantly.

“It felt right,” Kohler told his mother when questioned about the quick decision.

Like many TFA teachers, he didn’t intend to stay beyond the initial contract. Even though teaching had long appealed to him, low pay didn’t, so he taught in a small Louisiana town for three years and then bailed to go to law school.

That plan didn’t last long.

“I didn’t feel good about it,” he said, remembering the day he decided to not return to law school. He wanted something more meaningful to do, something like teaching, in fact.

“That’s why I wanted to come back, and now it’s a career,” he said.

After teaching a few years in a New Orleans middle school, Kohler moved on to teaching advanced placement world history at KIPP Booker T. Washington. He also is dean of instruction and the soccer coach.

Kohler fell into coaching by happy circumstance. When a former principal discovered he once played on a school team, he immediately became the soccer coach. Last year, he developed a team at Booker T., and the addition, to his delight, proved an academic asset.

“It has given the Latino kids a home. Their attendance is up and their grades picked up,” he said.

Keeping students engaged requires strategic thinking and authenticity. His own method is to share his life with students, including wearing “his heart on his sleeve.” That heartful sharing included his dog Rufus. When Rufus died last year, his students grieved as much as he did. That’s a strategy that Kohler shares with new teachers. “Show personality,” he tells them. “If you are a nerd, own it. They respect that.”