A Tall Order

Tal Thompson teaching fourth grade

By Robert Hemphill

Photography by Jeff Amberg

The standard operation of teaching in elementary school has historically been the same for many years –– a teacher sits at a desk at the front of the classroom with a blackboard behind, walls adorned with themed displays and information on a particular lesson all create a familiar picture. Student desks are arranged in a design of rows four and five deep vertically, horizontally or otherwise. The dawn of the computer age has ushered in laptop computers and projectors, replacing blackboards and chalk, and notebooks and pencils became obsolete for taking notes with the introduction of iPhones and iPads that now also provide instant information, social media and entertainment. 

Elementary school teachers continually deal with a student’s boredom, fidgeting, attention span, focus, drowsiness and general mischief. How does modern education compete for the attention of its students? Ways to have students learn and retain the information, outside of regurgitation, thus becomes the primary issue. 

In response to the declining effectiveness of the typical lecture and blackboard model, one particular teacher, a fourth grade teacher at the Upper Campus of Lake Carolina Elementary School in Blythewood, has implemented an innovative and exciting technique that engages the student to learn and enthusiastically retain the material. That teacher is Tal Thompson.

Tal Thompson is a 6-foot-8-inch fourth grade teacher in his early 40s who is married with two young sons. His hobbies include playing the guitar and drums, traveling and spending time with his family. He has taught at the Upper Campus for approximately three years, but he is not new to the profession. Initially, he had planned to study engineering but, due to boredom, changed to general education. Later, he obtained a Master of Science Education, Mathematics Grades sixth to eighth, to enhance his mathematics expertise. 

Upon seeing him, one would immediately, and correctly, think of basketball, but after six knee surgeries during college play; the NBA was forced to take a back seat. He began teaching at Shelby Junior High in Michigan as a full-time substitute teaching math and physical education immediately upon graduation from West Virginia Wesleyan College. He subsequently became a full-time elementary teacher the following school year teaching sixth grade at Montford Elementary in Michigan. Within that year he married, and Ann Hickey Thompson, his wife, got a job in Chicago. In Chicago, he taught middle school for one year, then taught fourth grade elementary in Colorado and afterward taught high school alternative education for five years in Michigan and two years in elementary education before landing in Blythewood. Coming South, particularly to this area, was a decision made after a recommendation from several friends.

Given the history of his teaching locations, one would ask how he adapted to all the changes. Tal explains,“I was an Air Force brat bouncing all around the place and given my circumstances, I had to learn perseverance, adaptability and flexible social skills. I had to be strong and forge through in order to find success.”

While his wife’s family lived in a farm town in Michigan located between Grand Rapids and Lansing, Tal actually grew up in Martinsburg, West Virginia and attended high school there. Having two brothers and two sisters, Tal partially credits his birth order (a middle child) as the reason for his exuberant personality and teaching style.

He admits that his persona is not calm or quiet and that other friends and colleagues consider him a human iPad. His focus in teaching is to be creative and engaging to match the level of excitement that students experience from outside influences. Tal emphasizes, “There is now such electronic competition. It’s a world where kids are so connected with technology that they find themselves disconnected from people.” 

The same could be said for adults. He continues, “You’ve got to come to their level to connect and reach them.” Having two young sons has made him think and realize just how hard it is and will be to connect and relate to his children. He just doesn’t want to disappoint them as they grow up.

Tal’s style of instruction encompasses a medley of singing and movement within the classroom. The physical activity acts as a valued part of the learning experience and as an educational form of recess. He co-teaches with another colleague, Bekki Toda, who combines high expectations with a family atmosphere. Each teacher covers a different subject in the classroom. His subject areas are math, social studies and history while his colleague covers science and language arts. To facilitate his teaching style, he built an 18-inch-by-12-foot platform in the classroom from where he disseminates the lesson. It is a given that a 6-foot-8-inch guy on a platform that large with a wing span described as a B-24 bomber coming in for a landing is hard to ignore. When not on stage, he continually walks about the room in between the desks teaching as he goes. His height, booming voice and vibrant personality help boost morale. 

He uses songs of all genres that are familiar to his generation of students, and he is open to their suggestions within reason. From his point of view, a more collaborative effort promotes better engagement from the students. Tal explains, “Taylor Swift has a song that works perfectly with teaching about the Revolutionary War. The song is called, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. So we take the music, change the lyrics to fit the historical facts, and voilà –– you have revolutionary history that becomes interesting, fun, remarkably remembered and learned.” 

The tests are a combination of oral and written. The year-end exams are left to state testing. As the state test scores help measure teacher effectiveness, Tal indicates that feedback from current students and alumni isn’t factored in. At the end of every school year, he and his class hold a concert and a potluck banquet for the parents where they demonstrate what they’ve learned in word, song and dance. Everyone brings a dish, and it is a joyous celebration for all involved.

When asked about concentration in each particular grade, he indicates that children between the fourth and eight grades are the most receptive to his type of instruction and can develop the skills to gain success through high school. He believes that high school aged students have already developed their outlook, opinions and attitude toward the education system and learning, and he wants to catch them earlier than that.

Tal gained some of his training for his method at the Ron Clark Academy located in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The academy is a training school for fifth through eighth grade teachers. The academy contains a curriculum with musical instruction accompanied by high expectations. Ron invites 300 teachers every Friday to tour the facility and learn strategies that he uses to effectively engage and excite students in what he is teaching. 

Tal comments, “Unfortunately teachers now, out of necessity, feel pressure to teach to the test instead of students being encouraged and fostered to think independently, critically, and not just going through the motions.” 

Tal received a major accolade during the 2015 school year. The nationally televised talk show, Live with Kelly and Michael, announced a competition to find America’s top teacher. There were several nominations from different parts of the country. Tal was enthusiastically nominated (17 letters) by the parents of his current and former students. After several rounds of elimination, Tal became one of the four finalists. A video of each of the final four contestant’s teaching style was produced by the members of the Kelly and Michael show. The show’s producers flew him and his family, both immediate and extended, to New York City for several days. Hotel accommodations, food vouchers, chauffeured rides, free time to tour the city and time with the celebrity hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Statham were included. The producers, meanwhile, did a profile on him for the show. After several days they announced the winner live: a teacher from Kansas City, Missouri. Tal is incredibly grateful and very appreciative for the nomination, support and experience.

As his method of instruction is a bit unorthodox, it takes awhile for kids and parents to get used to what goes on in his classroom but, eventually, they see a method to his madness. Tal indicates that he has not received a lot of push back from colleagues, administrators or the school board. He normally receives normally enthusiastic support of his methods (with an occasional raised eyebrow) as long as his class activity stays under control. Tributes from parents and students range from very positive to exuberant.

Tal is driven in his quest to do things differently. From his research, he discovered that, due to the current teaching environment, 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching. Through his method, he is trying to stem that tide while producing a huge benefit for his students. It is called adding a fifth C to the Four Cs that drive the educational system. The Four Cs for successful 21st century learners are: critical thinking, creativity, commitment and collaboration. The fifth C that drives his philosophy is confidence. Confidence encourages his students to be risk takers in learning. He wants to ensure that his students have a learning experience that they believe is vibrant, exciting, fun and challenging.

When asked about his desire to be a principal or administrator, he quickly dismisses such talk as he has witnessed how confined those positions are by rules, regulations and school district policies. Would there ever be a different position that he would consider? It would be a position that allows him to travel and hold seminars that support and encourage teachers to be free to instruct in a way that brings back their passion and in turn ignites in their students a passion to learn.

Tal Thompson’s goals are to inspire students to learn in a fun, dynamic and vibrant environment and to encourage and support teachers to teach in an environment within their personality that promotes and models their love of teaching in the classroom. From all accounts, he is well on his way to accomplishing those goals.

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