New Jersey Teacher's Success as a Poet Inspires Students

Poetry is a daily part of Gary Whitehead’s life both inside and outside of the classroom. As an educator and author, his teaching and writing inspire and fuel creativity in one another. He hopes his two pursuits encourages his students to discover their own talents.

Gary Whitehead

“When a teacher really loves their subject matter it shows and the students pick up on that,” Whitehead said. “I remember seeing a passion in my own teachers and I latched on to their excitement. I like to think my students do the same with me.”

Whitehead, 48, has taught English and creative writing at Tenafly High School in Tenafly, N. J., for the last 16 years. Before deciding on a career in education, he began writing poetry in the late 1980s and has since published over two hundred poems, three books and three chapbooks. A Glossary of Chickens: Poems, Whitehead’s latest book, was published in March. He describes it as a collection of poems that on the surface may not seem to have a specific theme, but really is a revelation of who he is. Some of the subjects examined in the book address his relationship, his family and friends, and his love of nature.

“There are a few poems in the book where I am sort of exploring my own delight with language and what words mean,” Whitehead said.  “I believe words are symbolic, so they can’t ever truly communicate what you want them to, but part of the joy of writing is trying to make them do that.”

Whitehead shares his curiosity of language with his students and says he enjoys the personal connections he develops with students as they explore new forms of self-expression. The 20 year education veteran knows it can be challenging to get students engaged in poetry or literature. To overcome this obstacle he concentrates on cultivating an enjoyment of poetry by offering prompts on subjects which tend to be of interest to teenagers. He also stresses the roots of poetry as an oral tradition and has students read their poems aloud in front of their classmates. Whitehead often makes students comfortable with opening up by sharing his poems with them.

“Some kids just have it in their heads from a young age that poetry is hard and they don’t like it, and no matter what poems you throw at them, they can be resistant. But I like to think that students eventually might get it. It’s my job to try to make that happen for them, because they all have something to say.”

So far the feedback he has gotten from students has shown they are appreciative of his efforts. At a recent reading of his book in Philadelphia, a former student introduced him and explained the lasting impact his class had on her creatively.

“She said that my willingness to let her express herself honestly had a profound effect on her and that she is still writing poems to this day. I hope my classes instill that kind of emotional openness to all my students.”

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