Les filles plus performantes que les garçons à Bradford

Lynchburg teacher starts project to help turn 'Boys to Men'

As an Air Force aircraft mechanic trained to repair ejection seats, Eric Grossman saved seven lives when four planes he had worked on crashed.

“I’m really proud of that. I’ve sent seven men home to see their wives and kids at the end of the day,” he said.

Now, as a special education teacher at Linkhorne Middle School in Lynchburg who recently started a “Boys to Men” life skills club, he’s working on saving lives in a very different way — the same way he feels his uncle and other role models helped make sure he had a future.

“I’m very appreciative of the men that stepped up in my life when my dad wasn’t around. And I know there’s a lot of single-parent children in the school, a lot of single-parent children in the school system. And I just figured I can … kind of lead them and mold them like all those great guys did for me,” he said.

Grossman stands as an example of many of the employment needs identified by the city schools. Special education is a chronically hard-to-fill role and administrators always are looking for more male teachers, division officials said.

“Special education nationally, as well as in the Commonwealth of Virginia, continues to be a challenge as far as finding certified special education teachers, and when people who [are] basically second-career staff members come on board, it helps us,” said Wyllys Vanderwerker, the division’s director for exceptional learners.

Grossman’s choice of specialty was a suggestion from a friend who was a school administrator. That friend told him if he studied special education, he’d have a guaranteed job. With a family, he needed job security.

And last summer, it paid off: He received 26 job offers.

“They were calling from schools I’ve never heard of, just because I’m a guy and I’m in special education,” he said. “And it worked out. I love it. Kids in special education are some of the most polite, driven kids I’ve ever met in my life. It makes me feel really good coming into work every day.”

Grossman is both mid-career with a family and a career-changer — categories of people the schools find to have both valuable experience and a desire to settle in a place like Lynchburg. In fact, Grossman returned after serving as an Air Force recruiter in the city from 2005 to 2009.

And as a first-year teacher, he’s in a category that receives a lot of attention for observation and professional development. Grossman is a 2015 Lynchburg College graduate.

“Any time you get a brand new teacher, whether it’s somebody fresh out of college or a career changer naturally you have to surround them with a support network,” Vanderwerker said.

“[Grossman’s] colleagues and general education faculty members very much appreciate his collaborative approach. When he’s co-teaching, it is in fact co-teaching. It’s not ‘one teach, one assist,’” Vanderwerker continued. “The thing that I’ve been most impressed with as a special education administrator is that he’s really motivated when it comes to helping kids with autism access the general education curriculum.”

Grossman said that’s one of the things he’s noticed, despite his short time in the profession.

“We were taught at LC there used to be, ‘Well, the general education kids are those teachers’ problems, and the special education kids, those are my kids.’ There was never ‘our kids,’ and now the dialogue has changed to ‘our kids.’ All the kids, even the — the special education kids, the general education kids, they’re everyone’s,” he said. “So there’s increased dialogue between the classroom teacher and the special education teacher on how best to reach all the students in the classroom. It’s gotten a lot better.”

But perhaps the most important part of Grossman’s background comes from what he has in common with his students.

“I tell them I stood in line and waited for milk and cheese in the welfare line when I was a kid with my mom. So I understand what it’s like to go to a store with your EBT card to buy food,” he said.

“I grew up on welfare. I went to the dentist and nobody gave me Novocaine. So I had teeth drilled without Novocaine and it hurt. So I know these kids, when they don’t have good medical care because they’re on welfare or whatever, I understand. I get it. I know what it’s like. That’s why I always tell my personal stories to them, because I feel like it helps me connect.”

That mentoring and connection is something Grossman, who also has coached soccer at Heritage High School, is known for, especially after starting the Boys to Men Club.

He initially wanted to involve children who were from single-parent households, disadvantaged or known as troublemakers. But he soon realized not trying to restrict the membership helped everyone — and included children whose needs might not be as apparent.

“My idea was to teach them all things guys should know, how to check oil, how to change a tire, self-defense class, how they need to dress, what they need to do on their first date, how they should treat a woman, because some of them don’t have that example at home because their parents may not have time to do it,” he said. “With [kids who have] single parents, Mom or Dad or whoever it is at home with them is always working. They’ve got to support the household. Some of these parents have two jobs and they don’t get to see their kids during the day. They care, and … they’re great parents, they just don’t have the time because they’re working.”

Recognizing that fact is the best way for a teacher who might not be able to relate so directly to the children’s experiences to connect, Grossman said.

“Show an interest. Just showing an interest in a kid is mentoring a kid,” he said. “By another adult just showing that interest — ‘Hey? What’s going on this weekend? You have a baseball game I can come watch?’ and going — that creates the mentoring process, I think.”

If there’s one thing he’d like to hear a little more in the city and the schools, he said it’s “Thank you.”

“I make sure to tell these kids thank you for doing their work, thank you for doing what I asked, thanks for coming to class on time. I would encourage everyone else out there to find a teacher to say thank you to, because we need that. We need to know that we’re doing a good job by the children. Thank you is a word that’s used very little nowadays, I feel, so I tend to use it more with my kids,” he said.

“So I think all teachers in all the schools in Lynchburg City would appreciate just a ‘thank you’ now and then, from a parent or someone in the community to let us know that we’re doing the right thing. … And appreciate the kids. They’re working hard, they’re doing their best.”