Elliot Merker is a social studies teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington. Merker, 31, attends Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria. He worked at George Washington’s Mount Vernon before landing a job as a teacher.
When did you know that you wanted to become a teacher?
It took quite a while, actually. If you’d asked me when I graduated high school in 2009 if I ever thought I would have been a teacher, I would have laughed you out of the room. At the time, I never wanted to see the inside of the classroom again. So initially, I became a car mechanic. I went to Northern Virginia Community College and got my associate degree in automotive technology. I ended up moving to California for a little bit, working in the Port of San Diego on yachts for a while. That was nice. But the entire time I was doing that and working several other training jobs that came to me over the course of my career, I realized I’d been tutoring kids on the side pretty much the entire time. And as I was tutoring, I found that was ultimately more fulfilling than the jobs I was actually doing as my profession.
What challenges did you face as a student?
Thinking back, there was never a point in my life that I didn’t have some sort of diagnosis. Most of it was concerning specific learning disabilities in math, and a couple of other topics. But at the end of day, it was really hard for me to be organized, to get through my day, and do the work that was asked of me as a student.
How do those experiences affect your teaching style today?
I think I’m a little more understanding and accommodating. Even if a kid doesn’t have a specific disability or something on file that says they need help, I tend to be a little more helpful. I tend to look for ways to accommodate students as my first go-to in my pedagogy. I don’t just wait for it to present itself.
Are there any blind spots society has when it comes to children’s education?
I know this is going to sound a little weird coming out of the mouth of a teacher: I feel like adults and society at large tend to miss the fact that school is not the natural space for a young developing mind. This is sort of a box we physically and mentally put kids into — most of the difficulties students tend to have in school is that, developmentally, school is not where they feel they need to be. I’m not going to say they’re right. But in terms of how their minds develop, play and interaction with their peers are big motivators and things that students need to practice in order to become fully functioning human beings.
How can adults properly support children’s learning?
We need to realize a couple fundamental factors. The first is that they are kids. In many cases they might not know better. Remember, for any situation that an adult can look at and see on their first knee-jerk reaction what is right, what is wrong, what to do versus what not to do, kids are still developing that. And we need to recognize and appreciate that fact, and accommodate for the fact that sometimes — especially when kids make mistakes — it may have been an impulsive reaction.
What should children know about their own education?
One thing I’d love for all my students to know — and maybe even my younger self to know — is that education is a tool. And especially right now, when you’re in elementary, middle or high school, it’s kind of hard to see what this tool’s purpose is. And everything you’re learning in school right now is building toward something greater, more important, something that you’ll actually like doing in the future. Education itself is not the end.