Reflections on a career: With MHS instructor Jim Bokern
(Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series in which Hub City Times interviews retiring educators.)
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — Next school year at Marshfield High School will be the first in 27 years without the booming and commanding voice of history teacher Jim Bokern sending vibrations through the building. Bokern is retiring after having taught consumer economics, U.S. history, U.S. government, comparative government, and criminal justice throughout his career.
Bokern taught in Oconto for seven years and earned his undergraduate degree at Ripon College and his master’s degree in history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point before coming to Marshfield.
Those who have had Bokern as an instructor will likely remember an intensity that few educators could match and an insistence that his charges “be nimble in their thinking.” His favorite course to teach has been Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History.
“To guide students through that struggle, that journey of scholarship is what I prize and I really love to do,” Bokern said.
The style of instruction
Bokern’s former students will remember him as a demanding instructor, as one that insisted on his students giving their best effort and unlocking aspects of their scholarship that they perhaps never knew existed. Bokern said that his demanding style stems from a professor he had while in college who consistently gave him low grades.
The instructor took Bokern aside and told him, “You’ll get high grades as soon as you earn them” and stressed to him the need to write and think analytically. That experience helped shape how Bokern approaches his own students.
“I don’t want my students to have to go through that experience their freshmen or sophomore year in college. I want my students to go in ready to go, and no instructor ever facilitated that kind of learning in my high school experience,” Bokern said.
The bedrock of Bokern’s teaching philosophy has been to make his coursework difficult.
“First of all, you make your work rigorous and challenging so it’s not a joke, and then you instruct, model, and then support, so you instruct — with direct instruction — what your intended outcome is. You model with scaffolding and other kind of teaching tools how to help students understand where they need to go, and then you support them by reading their work, by giving them feedback with rubrics, by allowing them to rewrite, and by going through that you can advance them remarkably far,” Bokern said.
This model is in part designed to help students take ownership over their own learning. Bokern added that after a period of time of demanding a high standard from his students, his courses developed their own culture. That culture took on its own life-force in the school, helping prepare students for his classes even before they took them.
The desire to teach
People with Bokern’s level of drive are often also people with vision, and it should come as no surprise that he knew when he was a high school junior exactly the career he wanted to pursue. He looked at his high school history teacher and knew he wanted to the same thing for himself.
“I wanted to teach it because I looked at my teacher. He was a great guy. He loved what he did, liked kids, having a good time. I said, ‘This guy makes a decent wage, has a good lifestyle. He’s having fun. I like kids. … I’m going to be a high school history teacher,’” Bokern said. “It was like an epiphany.”
Bokern said he loves the process in which students go from learning the material to having full command of it prior to the final AP exam.
“When they can put all the pieces together, all the chapters, all the units, all the different eras in history, and we can bounce between the different eras and they can make the connections … and they are just all over it, I know that it’s all come together, and that’s what’s really satisfying,” Bokern said.
A new chapter
Bokern’s decision to retire comes at what he feels is the right time. He wants to spend more time with his wife and has been working with fellow social studies teacher Preston Genett to take over his role. Bokern intends to stay involved with research activities and stay in touch with the school district.
Genett said that Bokern would be “irreplaceable” as a teacher. He added that Bokern took him under his wing to get him ready to take over AP U.S. History.
“I can say without hesitation that he’s very, very passionate about education,” Genett said. “He’ll do anything and everything to make sure kids in his class are learning.”
Genett added that students love Bokern’s intensity and his willingness to do whatever it takes to help them grow.
“I could talk forever on Jim. He’s been a huge influence on my career,” Genett said. “He’s left a huge impression on me, our department, and the whole school.”
Bokern said that after a life of working with students in the classroom it would be strange to no longer have that interaction.
“It’s a very surreal and somewhat awkward time of transition, but it’s just the right time,” Bokern said. “I want a little more flexibility in my pursuits to spend more time with my family.”
Without a doubt, Bokern said that the students and watching their progression will be what he misses most.
“I will miss helping the kids through that whole progression. … That’s what I love. That is the magic.”
In the absence of Bokern, there will certainly be some magic missing from Marshfield High School next year and in the years to come.