Dublin High School Teacher Michael Ruegg on the Relevance of History and Navigating the Pressures of High School
DUBLIN, CA–With more than a decade of teaching experience in the Dublin Unified School District at both the middle school and high school levels, this is Mr. Michael Ruegg’s first year teaching AP European History at Dublin High School. In addition to teaching AP Euro, Mr. Ruegg also teaches World History and Freshman Seminar.
He has a degree in Communication and Politics from Saint Mary’s College of California, where he graduated cum laude, as well as a Masters of Arts in Educational Administration from Santa Clara University. Mr. Ruegg started his career as a banker at Wells Fargo, but after working there for a year, did a “bit of soul-searching” and fully realized his passion for education. He cites his own mother, an educator, as well as his wife, Ms. Sara Hollison (who teaches Sophomore Advanced English at Dublin High) as people who influenced his decision to become a teacher.
Mr. Ruegg began his teaching career as a history teacher at a high school in Livermore, and moved on to teach Accelerated Core at Fallon Middle School, where he eventually became the English Department Chair.
This past week, I had the honor and privilege to sit down with Mr. Ruegg, who shared more about his love for education, his teaching philosophy, as well as his sincere advice for students on how to navigate through the pressures of high school.
Neha Harpanhalli: I was fortunate enough to have been in your eighth grade Core class at Fallon, and have seen first-hand your passion for English literature. What prompted you to move back to teaching high school history?
Michael Ruegg: “I love literature, don’t get me wrong. With regards to my career, I felt like it was time for a change of space and a new challenge. I knew how to develop my middle school students to where I thought they should be. I always welcome a new challenge, and I’d only taught high school for a year before I moved to Fallon, so I wanted to give it a shot. I’m honestly happy that I did it, because I feel myself developing as an educator just by overcoming the little obstacles and roadblocks here and there. I’m definitely progressing professionally.”
Harpanhalli: How do you hope to cultivate passion in your students for history? In other words, how do you hope to bring history back to life?
Ruegg: “History is often viewed as one of those subjects where you either really enjoy it, or you don’t. I try to show my passion when I’m talking about a subject. I try to be honest with students when I myself do not like a certain portion of the material, and also relate the individuals and events in history in a way that isn’t as stuffy and academic that teachers and professors sometimes make it. It’s very dense subject matter, and I attempt to keep it as light as possible while respecting the events that occurred, but it’s definitely a fine line to walk.”
Harpanhalli: What do you think is the biggest challenge for both you and your students with history in general, and with AP Euro in particular this year?
Ruegg: “It’s hard to feel like the history is relevant as a student; as a teacher, it’s hard to make your students feel like the history is relevant. As far as AP Euro is concerned, the broad time period that needs to covered and the amount of minutiae that needs to be addressed is very frustrating. I feel that College Board has designed a very exacting course and it’s difficult to have to help students access all that information. I try to cover as much as possible in lecture, at least the big-ticket items, but even if I lectured every day we wouldn’t even come close to covering everything that could potentially be on the test. That’s one of the big challenges I think that moving to high school poses. It’s how you cover material in a way that’s going to prepare your students for the exam but also to make sure you’re developing them as students, as writers and readers.”
Harpanhalli: You write on your website that you expect students to work hard and turn in high-quality work with every assignment. What is the best advice you can give students on how to accomplish this, given the rigorous, fast-paced history curriculum, as well as the intense workload from other high-level courses?
Ruegg: “If a student is taking multiple high-level courses, it is certainly difficult to prioritize. Each student will have to stay organized and decide which course they need to focus more on in the given time period, especially if there’s a test coming up. Sometimes my highest-functioning students, or highest achievers, are perfectionists. Being a perfectionist can be a great thing; but oftentimes, perfectionism can slow a student down to the point where they become mired and anxiety washes over them. Students need to learn when something is good enough to get the job done. Making sure that you understand the purpose of each assignment is critical; it’s part of the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that students understand that.”
Harpanhalli: You have always advised your students to pursue the path that best suits their interests. How do you believe students can follow this piece of advice, given the tremendous amount of pressure to excel in all fields coming from colleges, families, and peers?
Ruegg: “Students are going to hear so many messages one way or the other. The College Board recommends taking every AP course you could possibly take. If you’re looking towards getting into places like Stanford, or Harvard, or Berkeley, you’re going to be very busy in high school. I don’t know that there’s a way around that. I don’t know whether it’s necessary for students to be overloaded this way before they even make it to college, but it seems to be what is required to get into those elite schools. Just make sure you really want to get in one of those schools before you choose to do that.
“Also, a lot of young men and women are double majoring. There are ways to combine things…there are lots of fields out there looking for a student that is well-rounded. I think students need to make sure that there is some balance to their life. If they are feeling pushed towards a field that they don’t love, that’s okay, but they need to make sure that they aren’t pushing their true passions away.”
Harpanhalli: How do you evaluate your success as a teacher, as well as the success of your students after a lesson, a class, or a test?
Ruegg: “You need to be reflective about your practices as a teacher, but it can be difficult to evaluate. I obviously take the grade average and the test average into account. If everyone has failed a test, you need to ask yourself why, what can you do differently.
“Also, if a classroom feels comfortable to enter, students can learn and I feel like something’s right. The environment needs to be academic, but not to the point where it’s intimidating, or inducing anxiety in students. If the room starts to feel anxious and agitated, it’s time for me to pause and fix that immediately. That, to me, is the art of teaching, rather than just the science.
“I also remind myself students aren’t just a product on an assembly line….they’re human beings, with their own thoughts and feelings and opinions, which need to be taken into account. Maybe a lesson doesn’t get completed when the room goes in a different direction, but it’s absolutely fine if it’s a direction that my students needed.”
Harpanhalli: There is always at least one teacher who has had a profound impact on your life. Who was that teacher for you growing up, and how have you emulated his or her qualities in your own teaching career?
Ruegg: “When I was a junior in high school, I had an Honors English teacher who was laid-back, but passionate. He definitely wasn’t a big fan of the passive student. I remember it was the last week of school, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to move on to the next level with the AP course, because I’d gotten a B in the Honors class. He told me that I deserved to move on and that I had the potential; he reminded me that I ought to take my academics more seriously, take myself more seriously. I would definitely say it was a changing moment in my life. So I try to pull that out of students. I like to see my students develop an opinion or an idea, and form a well-reasoned stance, rather than just regurgitating the information thrown at them.”
Harpanhalli: What is your best advice for students who are getting demotivated right now after seeing a slip in their grades?
Ruegg: “This is the moment where you hit some adversity that you need to overcome. We all hit patches in our academic, professional, or personal lives, where things just don’t go our way. People are surprised by what they can overcome and by what they can accomplish. This is not the time to give up and say, “I’m not good enough.” It’s time to adjust how you work, it’s time to grow. You can’t shirk away from this challenge, but it will require a different approach. It will hurt for a while, but I think students will be happy to know that they are capable of overcoming it.”
Harpanhalli: Finally, what is it about teaching that makes it so worthwhile for you?
Ruegg: “Every day is different. I interact with more than a hundred-fifty students per day, plus a really cool department. I really like the people I work with. I never feel isolated, I always feel connected to the world. I love it when I can tell that a student is pushing themselves, learning, and just shows personality. There’s just something about being around youth that provides you with energy and constant motivation. You cannot get up in front of a group of young people and not know what you’re doing. You have to get up there, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on in your life, you need to lead your class. And there’s something empowering about that. You don’t want to let your students down, and they don’t want to let you down either.”