'Premier' Wheaton teacher leads with questions, stories

Marie Wilson, Daily Herald
Class begins with a reflection on scripture or prayer inside Mike Harper's room at St. Francis High School in Wheaton, the Catholic prep school where he's spent his entire career.

The quote the longtime history teacher reads for the teens is one of the few things he tells them during the entire 42 minutes they're together. (One example from a recent Friday: "Today's reflection is 'Be as water.' ... Of all the elements, the sage should undertake water as its preceptor ... Water conquers by yielding.")

Most of the time, Harper isn't telling but asking -- probing students' knowledge with questions, trying to get each of them involved and, more importantly, making each feel welcome.

"I set a goal to make my classroom a welcoming place," Harper says. Feeling welcome, he says, "is a huge first step to them learning, no matter their style."

It's all part of an educational philosophy the one-time aspiring lawyer has developed during a 39-year career. During Harper's time at the Wheaton school, he has raised two children through the St. Francis program and become a Hall-of-Fame basketball coach, not to mention an "icon" recognized by students and staff members alike.

"He's one of our premier teachers," said Peg Kopec, a St. Francis teacher and special events assistant. "He has the gift from God."

After graduating from Eastern Illinois University in 1979 with a degree in American history and political science, Harper worked for two years as a landscaper while planning to attend law school. It was 1981 when he got a call from a priest affiliated with St. Francis, inviting him to interview for a history teaching position for which he never applied.

After a Catholic education from the earliest grades through his graduation from Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, the Joliet native found it impossible to say no: first to the meeting, and then to the job.

Harper said students tested him at first and he had some classroom management issues. But with the help of mentors and fellow teachers, he discovered how to make it work with his inquisitive style and flair for the narrative.

"My goal when I present this stuff is to ask as many questions as I can," Harper said about the detailed material he includes in his advanced placement U.S. history class. "I've had family members who call me a natural-born storyteller."

Combining stories and questions is how he teaches to this day, in both his AP classes in history and government and when he works with regular-track history students. At St. Francis, he says, all students are motivated to learn, to succeed, to get into college. So he knows he's blessed with a relatively receptive audience.

During his AP class, Harper leads into each point with a broad question, such as "What binds the South to slavery?"

But to prompt each answer Harper is looking for, his lines can be as simple as "Yes!" "No!" "Where?" Or, "Go bigger, not smaller." His responses always come with some measure of enthusiasm, often with an overt sarcasm. Yet the tone never masks what colleague and St. Francis religion teacher John Schuller calls Harper's strong compassion.

"I think kids appreciate the sarcasm," Schuller said. "But behind it, there's a warmth and a generosity of spirit, and it comes through. The kids get it."

That's why, right or wrong, so many of them are willing to shoot their hands into the air and answer the dozens of queries Harper throws their way during each class.

Part of the reason the sarcasm works is because much of Harper's humor is self-deprecating, his longtime co-workers say.

In one recent example, Harper allowed himself to join Kopec as the butt of a joke during a pep rally after a Giving Tuesday fundraiser.

To celebrate donations to the school, the two teachers took turns smashing eggs on their foreheads, seeing whether the eggs made a runny mess or did nothing -- a hard-boiled blessing. Harper "lost" in Spartan Egg Roulette by choosing two of the three raw eggs, while Kopec's face stayed clean. It's all captured on video, and Harper plays right along.
Back in his classroom is where it all pays off. There, when guiding students to answers, sometimes a wrong -- or slightly odd -- attempt gets a joke in reply.

"Think the Founding Fathers used the word 'fizzle?'" Harper asks one student after a creative wording in an answer falls flat. The class chuckles. "I don't either."

Other times, a student flub calls for honesty, encouragement.

"It doesn't keep you out of college if you're wrong," Harper tells the class when one stumper draws crickets in response.

"I don't want them to graduate from high school unwilling or uncomfortable speaking their own opinion, right or wrong," he says.

Harper's time at St. Francis also has involved his family. With his wife Julie, a senior director at McDonald's Corporation, Harper has raised Syracuse University architecture student Andrew and St. Francis senior Margaret.

He has coached basketball, tennis and volleyball at the school; led a drug and alcohol prevention organization among students; and taken on a leadership role in the Kairos religious retreat, mainly when his children were younger. He stepped back his involvement as his kids grew up and their activities occupied more of his time.

As the varsity boys basketball coach for 25 years, ending a decade ago, Harper took his 1989 squad to the Class A Final Four in the state and later was named to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014.

Schuller said the Final Four appearance showed Harper's talent as a teacher and a coach early in his tenure and helped build his reputation at the school.

"He's thorough, dedicated," Schuller said. "Through and through."

After 39 years, Harper said he's beginning to think about retirement. But he loves leading students to the right answers, telling them stories and hearing the stories of their lives. In a Catholic school environment, those stories can involve learning, sports, stress, college, goals, struggles, friends, family -- and faith.

"The best part is you're allowed to share that part of your life with your students," he said. "And they're comfortable sharing that part of their life with you."

At the end of the year in the AP history class, Harper shares some of his taste in pop culture with his students, showing films such as "Mississippi Burning" from 1988 and "Cool Hand Luke" from 1967 during what he terms the "Mike Harper AP U.S. History Film Fest." The annual occasion fills class time during the week after students take their official AP exam.

Harper looks back on one stage of his career with gladness that he quickly moved on. His three years as athletic director, when he focused on scheduling games for the St. Francis Spartans, took him out of the classroom. He immediately missed it. That's why, at age 61, in the classroom he stays.

"My reality is that I still love it here," he says. "I still love the classroom."

St. Francis High School