October 1, 2020
Science Department Chair Marcus McKinley, in his 36th year at Fenwick, often can be seen driving a yellow school bus.
What is your educational background?
MM: I received my B.A. from Carleton College, majoring in chemistry. I received an M.S. in chemistry from NEIU. I have taken post-graduate classes in several disciplines at DePaul, Loyola, Drake and others.
What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?
MM: Other than a summer of teaching at Gordon Tech [now DePaul Prep] after graduating from Carleton, Fenwick was my first full-time teaching position.
What are you currently reading for enjoyment?
MM: I just finished City of Thieves by David Benioff. I highly recommend this World War II historical novel set around St. Petersburg during the Nazi invasion. The story of two distinctly different young men becoming close friends during extreme deprivation and societal breakdown was a page-turner. It read like a classic Russian novel and so it touched on the ‘big questions.’
I just started The River by Peter Heller, who wrote The Dog Stars. The Dog Stars was a great post-apocalyptic read. The pandemic seems to be drawing me to dystopian novels, for some reason.
What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?
MM: The ‘classroom’ never seems to end, but I manage to wedge in my favorites here and there: reading, running, gardening, cooking, aquarium keeping, hiking/camping, dad duties and house repair. And I’m always up for shoe-horning a good movie into the day, especially one that has me thinking about the subject for days after. I still think about movies like “A Serious Man” and the Polish film “Corpus Christi” even though it has been a long time since I’ve seen them. They are both stories of transformation and faith-challenging to the extreme.
To what teams and/or clubs did you belong as a student?
MM: I ran cross-country and track, was involved in student governance and was senior class president. I was in the media and radio clubs and helped create a documentary that I was proud of on The Circus School in Indiana.
Which clubs/sports/activities do you run at Fenwick?
MM: I am the chairperson of the Science Department and help with bus driving. I have retired from coaching track (after 24 years) and running the Environmental Club.
What quality/characteristic marks a Fenwick student?
MM: Fenwick students take learning seriously. They are strongly motivated to go to good colleges and universities. Also, a Fenwick student is curious about and has great respect for life and people, is educated in the liberal arts, and desires to be an empathetic and righteous person. A Fenwick student is ready to be called upon as a leader.
When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?
MM: I’m not sure this is the singular point at which I made the decision that would change my life, but maybe it is: I tutored chemistry in college and one organic student, a no-nonsense rugby player who was tired of just getting by in chem, came to me for help. I merely condensed, rephrased and repackaged the excellent notes she had from her excellent professor and went over all of her lectures again. When she said something like ‘(expletive deleted) McKinley, I understand this (expletive deleted)’ and she did her organic assignments expertly after that, partly because of words that came out of me, I decided that maybe this would be what I wanted to do.
What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?
MM: Many good teachers influenced me over the years I’ve been at Fenwick. The thoughts about teaching that have stuck center around the fact that true teaching and learning are not always fun and enjoyable. Learning is hard work. Having preconceptions challenged and corrected is humbling. The more teaching and learning that happens in a classroom, the more wailing and gnashing of teeth there will be. A teacher must be fair and understanding and caring during the inevitable pain. In the end, teachers must have thick skin and persistence. Our profession is a burnout profession whether we’re first-year teachers or 50-year teachers. Real teaching requires grit.
I like to think that I’ve persisted in wanting to make every student a good chemist — questioning, re-evaluating and thinking on high levels. I want to believe that I’ve adopted my colleagues’ advice on welcoming change but respecting the traditions that work. I hope that I will take to heart what many have passed on: Although teaching will wear me down, I should cherish whatever I have left in the end.
What are your favorite classes to teach?
MM: This is easy. I’m a chemist, so I love teaching chemistry. I was also trained in environmental science, and I hold dear every day I was able to teach my environmental students.
What is the greatest success you have had in teaching?
MM: If my students learn to cherish others as the greatest lab partners in life, I have had great success. And, of course, whenever any of my students achieve success in chemistry, to any degree and on any level, I have had the greatest success in teaching.
What challenges face students today?
MM: Unfortunately, students are now building extensive resumes for colleges. There are too many activities and students have to fill their out-of-class time with practices and meetings. This tidal wave of unending activity is putting at risk mental and physical health. Our students do not get enough sleep. What makes no sense to me is that there is no top-tier college or university that requires or expects its students to take on the workload of an average student at a competitive high school. In addition to the outrageous workload, some high schools are trending away from liberal arts and starting to instruct high schoolers that they need to take classes based on their potential careers.
I feel for our nation’s sleep-deprived, narrowly taught and stressed-out students. I hope that one day, top universities will look at Fenwick’s model as the correct one. For now, our school should remain in a place where arts, social studies, theology, physical education, languages, math and science are taught side-by-side with equal emphasis. Our school should continue the tradition of graduating voracious readers, proficient writers and speakers, and students who are committed to life-long learning and healthy lives.
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