Former Marine and ISU T.A. says “No bullying in my classroom”

Former Marine and ISU T.A. says, “No bullying in my classroom”

Former Marine and ISU T.A. says, “No bullying in my classroom”

, Livhanson95

Wayne Duerkes grew up in the small town of Somonauk, Illinois that consisted of around 1,000 people. This was a town that at the time mostly consisted of white heterosexual Christians, Duerkes said.

Growing up in this small town would turn out to be a challenge for Duerkes, a highly inquisitive individual, in the classroom.

Duerkes wanted to know why. Why he had to do his assignments, why he had to do them now, just why. It was hard for his teachers at the time to adapt to an individual’s needs. They perceived him as an oppositional child and a discipline problem, when really he was just curious and required a different approach to teaching, as Duerkes was later diagnosed with ADHD.  

“I was the kind of guy that never did homework and got zeros on everything but the lowest test score I got in high school was a 95,” Duerkes said. “I got a 32 on my ACT the first time I took it. So I was really smart but so smart the teachers didn’t know how to deal with me.

“I was one of 45 in my graduating class. They just didn’t have the know-how or the ability to deal with someone like that,” Duerkes said.

High school did not go well for Duerkes. Being misunderstood led Duerkes to be rebellious and act out. This in turn caused his parents to kick him out of his house at the age of only 16. This was something that was hard to recover from.

“Being a teenager and being kicked out of your house and being forced to live on the streets is a mind-blowing experience to say the very least,” he said.

Duerkes was then forced to live in a halfway house in Aurora, Illinois. While at the halfway house, he got into trouble with the law and was told by his lawyer that the only way that the judge would be lenient with him is if he told the judge he would enlist in the service. So that’s just what he did, and the judge was quite happy. Deep down, Duerkes had also known that this was the best choice for him.

“My family goes back generations serving. If you look at my paternal history, it goes all the way back to the civil war fighting,” Duerkes said. “We’re all just silly enough to keep signing up. So I kind of knew from a young age I was just going to follow in that path and figured, that’s probably best anyway. Also this aspect of when you’re young and need direction and you know it, the military is much better than jail.”

Duerkes was contracted to serve in the the military for six years. During this time he would be deployed to Europe as an air defense operator to Desert Shield, Desert Storm to work with satellites.

“I scored so high on my ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) that I was required basically to take one of those jobs that most people don’t qualify for,” Duerkes said.

He was then contracted to go to arctic weather school and then was able to train Marines on survival techniques in Aurora, Colorado or Alaska.

Duerkes got through five years and one month of his contract when his time spent as a Marine ended abruptly. While he was doing his physical fitness test, he ended up breaking his back. 

“I was up on the A-frame which was the platform about 10-15 feet up in the air and you’ve got to step over these logs and it goes out at an angle. So you’re about 25 feet in the air and a rope that comes down,” he said. “Well I reached over to grab the rope to shimmy down and I slipped and I fell straight down and landed on my back and broke my lower back.”

Duerkes then woke up in a Navy hospital not being able to recall much. He still had feeling in his upper torso and his arms, so he would more easily be able to rehabilitate and learn to walk again. The recovery period was brutal and boring for him but luckily after a couple of months of rehabilitation, he was able to walk and get discharged from the military.

After the military, Duerkes was able to easily get a job at a U.S. post office. He worked there climbing the ranks for many years. In the beginning it was exciting for him to be free of the military and to be making a lot of money. But over the years, the constant greed, money schemes, boredom and lack of fulfillment of the corporate world Duerkes said caused him to search for a new place to work.

“In the corporate world it was just really… it was all about chasing money. And I chased money. I made gobs of money. But I was never happy and I’m generally a compassionate person and I’m an outgoing person. I like to help people. In the business world, it’s all about who can come out on top regardless of how you have to get there and I never was a real big fan of that aspect. So there is a sense of emptiness, nothing was really fulfilling,” Duerkes said. 

This way of life just wasn’t working for him anymore. So he decided to open his own distribution business. The business venture was very successful up until 2007 when the economic crisis hit and his company lost all of their contracts.

Duerkes was then out of a job for the first time in his life. After working for everyone else his entire life, he decided to do something he wanted to do for a change – go back to school.

“I decided it was time to do something that I wanted to do, something that I looked forward too,” Duerkes said. “I’ve always had a long, basically love affair with history. It just excites me on many different levels.”

So, Duerkes decided to take his first step back into the college world at the age of 37. He first attended Waubonsee Community College first, just to make sure that the transition from the working world to the adult world went well. His first time back to college ended up a success. He rekindled his romance with history and loved the classes that he was taking.

It all went so well in fact, that he excelled in all of his classes and was also chosen to be a mentor to other students. It was during his time as a mentor that Duerkes found out that he loved teaching students and knew that’s what he really wanted to do for the rest of his life.

“I want to be a history professor,” Duerkes said. “It doesn’t matter where. It could be a community college, it could be Harvard, whatever. As long as the check clears every two weeks, that’s perfect with me.”

After Duerkes graduated from Waubonsee Community College with his associates degree, he transferred to Northern Illinois. He excelled in his studies there as well and got his undergraduate, as well as his master’s at Northern Illinois. Then the time came to look for graduate universities. Duerkes found that Iowa State seemed to match his needs.

“I was looking for a graduate department that matched my research interests and with Iowa State, they have what’s called a RATE program: rural, agricultural, technology and environment, and it fits perfectly with my dissertation. I found an adviser that works on basically the same thing that I do, just in another state. And then looking at the rest of the department, it was a perfect fit for me,” Duerkes said.

Duerkes knows the timing of the events in his life happened the way they were supposed to. He believes that without the experiences he has been through in his life, he wouldn’t be the teaching assistant he is today. In fact, he has received one of the highest averages of scores of T.A. evaluations from students here at Iowa State.

“So it’s not that I have lower expectations of my students, I have higher expectations of myself as far as helping with initial transitions. One thing that I’ve always done that I think really helps is, most T.A.’s or professors talk about how the most horrible thing a student can do is plagiarize. And I absolutely agree with that and I talk about how we don’t plagiarize. But what’s even worse in my classroom setting is laughing at someone. I want people to feel completely free to answer any question that I have or ask any question that they have. I make it very clear that if you laugh at someone, if you’re bullying someone, you’re denying your education, and you’re denying other people’s education, I will kick you out of the class.”

Duerkes has noticed that in his classroom this is really working. He’s found that when other T.A.’s are in week three, four, or even six of the class, they can still barely get students to talk. But with his “no laughing at anyone policy,” students warm up right away and aren’t afraid to engage in discussion or speak up when they have something to say in the class.

“My job is to teach them. Get them to think about their answers and how as a group we can improve upon those. And I think that sets this expectation of them as a group that we can feed off of one another and learn.”

In hindsight, Duerkes wonders if he should’ve gone to school sooner but has concluded that without the experiences he’s been through, he wouldn’t be able to have the gifts he has to offer as a teacher today. 

“There are times where I just kind of question, you know, ‘God if i would’ve gone to school sooner, how would things be different? You know, I would hopefully be a distinguished chair somewhere.’ But I also think, once again, I wasn’t ready at the time. I wasn’t mentally or emotionally ready. And everything that I’ve been through, and I mean I have been through a lot, has made me the person that I am that allows me to teach the way that I do. I think there’s a sense of sympathy, empathy and a communication skill that I have with my experiences that allows me to interact better with my students. Had I not been through all that, I would’ve never had that.”

One big benefit Duerkes has that a typical T.A. doesn’t have is that he has an outstanding CV, going into the job market. The only downside of it is all is his age.

“I think because I love teaching so much and because I love interacting with the students so much and I’m feeling better off, I think as far as the way it happened, was the way it was meant to be and that’s just fine,” Duerkes said.

When you compare the 19-year-old Wayne Duerkes and the Wayne Duerkes today, you will meet two different people. Going from the the Marine Corps, to the corporate world, going through tough experiences, Duerkes has become much more compassionate and empathetic towards people of all kinds. He finds himself judging others much less and realizing that everyone really is different.

“A combination of experiences, lots of self-reflection and historical study has made me go, ‘You know what? Think of yourself, Wayne. Think of all the things you’ve gone through, how they’ve determined who you are, look at your individual change over time. Now think about others. Now I’ve become a lot more patient with other people and I think that patience absolutely translates to the classroom,” Duerkes said.

Being a Marine and now studying history has also opened his eyes in a whole different way.

“I also think by studying history you learn about why different people acted the way they did. So it has made me much more empathetic to other individuals and a lot of people. Now, I hear these things all the time being a veteran, ‘Oh those guys from Afghanistan, we should kick their ass or something!’ and I’m like ‘No!’ and that is more history than anything else – understanding that there’s different perspectives. And trust me folks, being a veteran, I love America. I really, really do. I am very pro-America. But we are one of the slimiest, backstabbing countries that has ever existed. We really are. We do some really crappy stuff to a lot of people. We do a lot of great stuff to a lot of people. So, it’s understanding that balance of we do bad things, we do good things, understanding that I’ve done a lot of bad things and I’ve done a lot of good things, so it doesn’t make the United States or any other country worth taking off the map. I think history puts a lot of that type of stuff into context.”

Duerkes is now living more presently in the moment than ever before and is at point in his life where he’s genuinely excited to get up and go to work every day and guide students to success. 

“I love to teach, it’s so fulfilling. I get to see those, ‘ah ha’ moments,” said Duerkes. “As a teacher when you get to see those transitions in students, it makes all that money I ever earned absolutely worthless compared to the benefits I get from that. Yeah, a lot of internal boosting. Fulfillment on an emotional, mental, spiritual level.”