RALEIGH — Gene Kikolski didn’t need any notes last month as he moved seamlessly from one activity to another during a lesson on the money supply for his economics students at Millbrook High School.
Kikolski showed a clip of a bank run from “Mary Poppins” featuring the famous nanny’s mischievous charges and used it to launch a question-and-answer session with students about why banks have failed throughout U.S. history.
At one point he flashed a photo of former Federal Reserve chairs Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker and Ben Bernanke on a screen and asked, “So what’s special about these three?”
“They’re bald,” the students called back with timing that suggested this particular call-and-refrain is one they’re well accustomed to.
Kikolski offered a wry smile and proceeded to a discussion about the Federal Reserve, its powers and its newest chair, Janet Yellen.
Kikolski has spent his career accumulating knowledge about the subjects he teaches and finding creative ways to share his expertise, a teaching style he tops off with his trademark dry wit.
When he retires this year, he will have spent 49 years teaching in public schools in Ohio and North Carolina, including 21 years at Millbrook.
Principal Dana King said she gets emails every month from parents lauding his ability to get students hooked on social studies.
“Gene is one of those teachers who I wanted to be when I was a young teacher,” she said. “He can walk in a class and mesmerize them.”
Kayla Sloan, 17, a senior in Kikolski’s AP Economics class, said she likes his sense of humor and that his class isn’t just a recitation of what can be found in a textbook.
“It’s more fun than just a straight-up lecture,” she said.
A long career
Kikolski, 69, began his teaching career in Ohio in 1965. He had anticipated studying engineering at the University of Toledo found himself drawn to political science instead.
During school, he had a professor who would write a list of terms on the board at the start of class, never look at them during his lecture and then return to the list at the end of class to cross off each term he had explained.
Kikolski found him inspiring and decided to go into teaching himself.
He taught for 28 years in Ohio, mostly in the city of Maumee, where he also was elected to the city council after several former students active in local politics suggested he run.
As a teacher, he had encouraged them to get involved. Now, it was his turn, they said.
During his time as a council member, Kikolski said he felt he made a difference in people’s lives – and was able to pick up valuable first-hand experience to bring to his classroom.
Once Kikolski was eligible for retirement, he and his wife decided to make the move to North Carolina.
Kikolski knew he wanted to keep on teaching and quickly settled in at Millbrook, where colleagues describe him as a constant source of encouragement and knowledge.
Chris East, a fellow social studies teacher, said he can always go to Kikolski for ideas about how to explain a concept or advice on how to deal with a student.
“Gene is my answer key. I check everything against him,” he said.
Once he retires, Kikolski plans to travel with his wife and their children and grandchildren and spend time on the home improvement projects he’s long dedicated his summers to.
When he looks back on his career, he says he would do it all over again. But he’s noticed some changes that worry him. Teachers today all too often are blamed when things go wrong in society, he said.
“Maybe I’m getting paranoid, but it feels like we’re the scapegoats,” he said.
One thing that has stayed constant though is how much he has enjoyed working with his fellow teachers and the generations of students who have come through his classroom.
“The people that I’ve worked with for the last 49 years have been amazing,” he said, noting that he’s not the type to toss a word like amazing around. “It has been great.”
The teachers who know Kikolski say his legacy will stay strong once he retires, as they try to match his work as a leader in the school, a coach, a friend and a teacher.
East, who’s seen the letters Kikolski gets from students years after they’ve left his class, said that’s one mark of success he will strive to emulate.
“One day, when I retire, I hope a tenth as many kids would contact me like they do Gene,” he said.