Put me in, Coach: New math teacher cultivates diligence and high spirits dressed as a lumberjack

Put+me+in%2C+Coach%3A+New+math+teacher+cultivates+diligence+and+high+spirits+dressed+as+a+lumberjack

“When you walk in, I want you to see student space,” says Eric Ortmann, standing outside the classroom that has been his for almost four weeks.

From the outside, you can feel the glow of the Christmas lights strung along the ceiling.

“Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect and he lived for a while in Chicago…his big thing was controlling entrances,” he says, entering the room.

He is quick to point out that there is no teacher’s desk in the room– only student tables.

“I told the kids that they’re teachers just as much as I am, so I don’t need a teacher desk, because these are all teacher desks,” he says, gesturing to the tables.

In order to teach math to sixth graders, who are making the difficult transition to middle school, Ortmann’s classes are riddled with games and props–students recently entered class to find him dressed lumberjack for a lesson about prime numbers.

“As a teacher, sometimes they tell you that you want to your kids to respect you, not like you. I think your kids can like you and respect you,” he says.

Another feature of his classroom is a basketball hoop that hangs from the whiteboard. When students get answers correct, somebody gets chosen to shoot a basket: it’s called ‘trash-ketball.’

“If you’re practicing [math] all the time, you want it to feel fun and go fast, make it a game.”

But Ortmann’s math classes are not solely comprised of games. For example, he’s testing out something called “class captains” in which students help lead class and, as Ortmann puts it, “take over and run things.”

Aside from games and teamwork, Ortmann blends other elements of sports into the classroom. In fact, he doesn’t even use the conventional honorific ‘Mr.’

“I go by Coach O,” he says.

ort (1)
Ortmann circles the room, helping students through problems. Photo by Elena Gonzales.

In addition to being a new Ann Richards teacher, Ortmann plans to coach seventh-grade basketball and middle school soccer. But as natural and instinctive as this environment seems for Ortmann, he didn’t always know that teaching was the right profession for him.

“It just took me twenty-seven years to figure it out,” he says.

Growing up in the suburbs of Houston, he had a healthy, “normal” childhood. He got good grades, played sports, worked at Randall’s, and was encouraged by his parents to go to college and do what made him happy.

Fulfilling his parent’s wishes, he entered his first year of college at Texas A&M studying what he thought would make him happy: engineering.

“I thought I would be an engineer like my father because I was good at math, and they say when you’re good at math you should be an engineer,” says Ortmann. “And I saw that was a really good life for my dad. So I tried it out.”

But after a year of rarely attending class, discovering quick internet access, and getting “the worst grades I’ve ever seen,” he began to have a change of heart. Ortmann’s interests began to shift towards economics. This didn’t last long, though. 

The spring of his junior year on a road trip to visit a friend at the University of Southern California, Ortmann stumbled upon a few Television and Film students who were studying the art of writing for television.

“I didn’t even think you could do a job like that…I thought engineer, businessman, firefighter, whatever, the traditional careers…” Ortmann says.

After transferring immediately to the University of North Texas to major in Television and Film, Ortmann managed to graduate in five years total. Before he walked the stage at graduation, though, he spent a semester studying in London, living with a host family that welcomed him affably and open-mindedly into their home.  

“I loved the fact that you could just get on a train and go anywhere…it made me think, why am I living in these tiny college towns?” says Ortmann of his time in London. 

And sure enough, he didn’t waste much more time in these tiny college towns. A scant six months after graduation, Ortmann was living in Chicago taking comedy writing classes, traveling the city sans car, and living the urban dream. Except that he needed a job.

After finding short term work through a temp agency, Ortmann’s life took another turn when he landed at a children’s hospital. He felt at somewhat at home working among the therapists and doctors.

“I thought it would be cool to be a television writer, and then I got around actors and I was just like, ‘These people are weird. I don’t feel comfortable around them.’”

In contrast, at the children’s hospital, “I just ended up working with these really awesome, smart, happy people. I was really inspired by them…and I loved being around the kids.”

In addition to being awesome, smart, and happy, his coworkers were perceptive and supportive.

“I had a boss that was like, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’” says Ortmann. After a few years of working at the hospital during which time Ortmann got several promotions, this boss helped him take advantage of the career services offered at the hospital.

“I met with this lady, and then I took this test, and there was a list of jobs that might be appropriate for you based on your interests, and what you’re good at,” says Ortmann. “And ‘teacher’ was on the list, and it was the thing that jumped off the page at me.”

Though it had never occurred to him before, being a teacher did feel right to Ortmann.

“My favorite teacher ever was Coach Thornton. He was my eighth-grade algebra teacher…If he had to wear a silly hat, do a silly dance, or sing a silly song, he would do that so that the thing he wanted you to know would stay in your brain,” says Ortmann.

Though he didn’t know it until he became a teacher, Ortmann had been deriving inspiration from Coach Thornton since eighth grade. “I just, like, became him [Coach Thornton].”

ort2
Ortmann stands beside class captain, listening to a student question. Photo by Abigail Dougherty

While the tumult of figuring out where his life would go was at times discouraging, Ortmann ultimately has few complaints.

“The first day I stepped into a classroom, I felt like I was better prepared for that than I would have been if I had just tried to do that at age twenty-two…”

Not knowing exactly what was in store for him for the first twenty-seven years of his life didn’t hinder him from learning and exploring. Those years were not wasted–Ortmann explored London, walked miles through the Windy City, took classes in what interested him, and got to know himself really well.  

“What I feel as I get older is that you sometimes just need to let go and see where life takes you,” says Ortmann. “Trust in the unknown…but along the way you’re still working hard and being nice,” he adds.  

After five years of teaching and working with teachers to help design curriculum at Webb Middle School, Ortmann has landed in room 227 at ARS.

“I moved to this school because I wanted to change my experiences, work in a different type of school with a different group of teachers, where the culture feels very different,” he says.

True to the mindset of change, Ortmann says of working at Webb, “You get to a point where you’re comfortable, and whenever that happens, it’s like, should I maybe change things up for the sake of learning more and just continuing to grow.”

As he reenters the world of direct teaching after some time in an administrative-like position, Ortmann believes strongly in the brilliance of his students.

“The first day of school that’s what I told all the kids: you’re better than me, you have more potential than me, you’re more creative than me, you’re funnier than me,” he says.  “I’m just some guy who’s taught for five years, learned some things, and I’m trying to be better.” 

Empowered by the young potential around them, Ortmann and a fellow teacher at Webb coined a term for their students.

“‘World-beaters.’ Like they can beat the world, they can do whatever they want.”

After twenty-seven years of working hard, being nice, trusting in the unknown, and eagerly awaiting what’s ahead, Ortmann found his place–inspiring his students to beat the world every day. His methods are ever-changing, ever-growing, but one thing remains constant:  

“We started having fun on the first day.”