Now in his 39th year of teaching in the Williamsport Area School District, Randy Laird, a self-proclaimed "traditional teacher," will say that his belief in making a difference in the lives of students doesn't always come strictly by educating them.
Sometimes, he admits, it's about the personal connections - the relationships - with the students that can "be more impactful than teaching."
Having spent 36 years as a middle school football coach (the last three of which he has spent as a volunteer) and in his 39th year as a track coach at the same level, the Lycoming Valley Middle School math teacher's dedication and loyalty to his job is given a lot time and energy.
Above, Lycoming Valley Middle School teacher Randy Laird, talks to some of his students.
"I like being involved with the school," he said. "The kids know me in a different light. It's important for students, other teachers and families to see you out there. I think to be a good teacher, you have to care about students as people."
An Altoona area native, Laird came to the district at just 21 years old, securing a teaching position at the former Roosevelt Middle School. He taught there for 36 years until it closed in 2010 to undergo renovation to become the Williamsport Area Middle School, which is scheduled to open for seventh- and eighth-grade students in the 2013-14 school term.
By becoming an educator, he fulfilled a desire instilled by his own teachers and love of education.
"I always enjoyed school and had good teachers," he said of his inspiration to teach, which originated in history in middle school and later evolved into an interest of mathematics during his sophomore year in high school.
Since then and since his employment in Williamsport, he has mentored and inspired several other district teachers - some of them former students-turned-colleagues - such as Matthew Palmatier, Brittnee Roan, Derek Slaughter and Allen Taylor.
"He loves to do what he does," said Lycoming Valley Principal Tim Fausnaught. "He's always finding new ways to teach - he's not set in his ways. The students love him. He's the consummate professional."
As he taught a group of Algebra 1 students recently, the rapport of which Laird spoke was clear. Despite minor challenges with the lesson (simplifying expressions with factorials), the students sat attentively, were respectful and engaged, and ultimately were able to express their understanding of the material.
Part of the reason for his students' achievement is not so much based on innovation or cutting-edge strategies, he said.
It's because of his liberal, but "traditional," approach to teaching that gets students to think critically and by showing them multiple ways to see the same thing. Recognizing the many different learning abilities, Laird said he knows that, in math, there are many ways to get to the right answer.
One of the things he said he learns most from his students is that everyone's thought process is different, so if they're able to get an answer through what he calls a "divergent method," he encourages it only on one condition: "They have to be able to explain it to me. Why and how did they get it?"
He also often has students use manipulators (i.e. hands-on activities) that allow them to work out formulas or mathematical concepts - physically - at their desks, either in groups or pairs, so as to keep them engaged. "At the middle school level, they need to be able to move that stuff around. It helps them find their own way of getting solutions," he said.
Reflecting on his career as an educator, Laird said teachers always are adapting to the changes in education and learning new ways to do something differently.
"As a teacher, I'm a lifelong learner," he said. "I'll always try to get better by relearning and self teaching."