Retiring Mt. Abe History teacher to leave students thinking about current events

BRISTOL — Posters line the walls of Rick Desorda’s classroom. They were made by the Mount Abraham Union High School history teacher’s students, and explain key terms and figures from the Vietnam War — the Tet Offensive, Lyndon B. Johnson, the Silent Majority, Kent State.
For the students, these people, places and events mark a distant time in the past, decades before they were born. But when Desorda was their age, events from halfway around the world figured greatly in his future.
Desorda graduated from Mount Abraham Union High School in 1971, during the waning years of the Vietnam War. He registered for the Selective Service System, as required by law.
“By the June of ’71 I turned 18, and by September I was involved in a draft lottery,” Desorda recalled last week. “I now had a real interest in what was going on.”
Ultimately, Desorda was not drafted. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Johnson State College and completed his graduate studies at Castleton State College. Determined to become a teacher, Desorda landed a job at his alma mater, and joined the faculty at Mount Abraham in the fall of 1975.
Now 61, Desorda will retire at the conclusion of the current school year, his 39th as a teacher. The bespectacled, bow-tied dean of the Mount Abraham faculty sat down with the Independent Thursday to talk about his career, his profession and his plans for the future.
Enlightened by his own experiences, Desorda said he wanted to teach history because it offers invaluable insight to both our past and future.
“I think history helps explain how we got to this point in time,” he said. “You keep going back and realize, ‘Haven’t we done this before? How come we’re doing this again?’ Because people don’t really pay attention.”
He said that it is incumbent upon history teachers to demonstrate how national and global events affect their lives. While the possibility of being sent to fight a war in a foreign country may have piqued Desorda’s interest in world events as a high schooler, he acknowledged there may be a disconnect with students today.
“A lot of students really believe they’re at the center of the universe, and our society seems to think that,” Desorda said. “When they start to look at what people have done in the past, if you do it in such a way that involves a student digging around for information, as opposed to just telling them, they latch onto it.”
Desorda said he engages students in current global events that may directly or indirectly affect them — this year he led class discussions on the complex, unfolding conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. He said the high school curriculum when he was a student lacked this focus on current events.
“What was weird is that we never really talked about the Vietnam War in high school, because we had a curriculum where you’d start at the first chapter of the book and try to fly all the way through it,” Desorda said. “It was like you were out of breath when you got to Vietnam, which played out every night on your television screen, and people around you were involved in it.”
When he teaches about the Vietnam War, Desorda doesn’t rely solely on a textbook or regimented curricula. For the last 20 years, he has invited local Vietnam veterans to speak to students about their experiences in the war, which claimed the lives of 100 Vermonters, according to Department of Defense records.
“I think it’s really important to keep in mind that today we have an all-volunteer army, and some of our kids will be in that army,” Desorda said. “What’s lost on our kids is the actions of the United States government affect their future, and in my mind that’s incredibly important.”
Desorda said the linear model of teaching American history — that is, starting with the first European settlers and slogging chapter by chapter to the 21st century — is not the best way to present the subject to students.
“I think it’s immensely important to teach current events,” Desorda said. “I’ve been beating the drum, and I don’t know if anyone is going to listen to it — you’ve got to do more of the storytelling. We can’t do the ‘ready, set, go’; it’s more the important things you ought to have when you leave high school.”
When important events occurred around the globe, Desorda said he took time from the scheduled lesson to discuss them with students.
“We’d go away from the curriculum, because that is the curriculum,” Desorda said. “I think that’s what makes history fun and come alive.”
Desorda said that his role as a teacher has changed greatly since he started at Mount Abraham four decades ago, largely because the expectations for high school graduates have changed.
“Kids used to be able to graduate from high school and get a job that didn’t have to do with anything post-secondary,” he explained. “Now the game has changed so much that if you’re graduating from high school and are undecided about what you want to do, there’s not a lot of jobs out there that people are willing to give you. They want you to have certain skills.”
Desorda said teachers and administrators can no longer allow students to merely skate through high school without demonstrating proficiency in skills needed to succeed afterwards.
“I don’t think I’m the only teacher in Vermont that’s saying we can’t just have kids walking out of high school, just getting by,” he said. “The society around them doesn’t want them just getting by, they want people that are capable and have skills.”
Desorda said his years at the chalkboard have taught him to never judge kids for who they are when they are 18 years old — many times he said he was pleased to see a troubled youth find success later in life.
“I think we give up on kids sometimes too soon,” Desorda said. “The good days outnumber the days when you scratch your head.”
Desorda said he truly enjoyed coming to school day after day, year after year, and that his most trying times as a teacher had nothing to do with his students. He cited the sudden death of longtime colleague Greg Clark in 2012 as one of his darkest days at Mount Abraham, and praised his students for handling his death with grace.
“There is a resiliency that kids have that you don’t realize,” Desorda said. “The kids were exceptional, better than most of the adults.”
Looking back, Desorda said he would have chosen the exact same career path.
“I cannot think of a career in which I could have had more satisfaction, because working with teenagers for all these years has been more rewarding than I ever could have imagined,” Desorda said.
Come next week, Desorda said he plans to slow things down, but only just a little. He said he looks forward to spending more time at home with his wife, Sandy.
“There are enough things around the house that need to be done,” Desorda said.
He’ll also continue to officiate soccer and baseball, his longtime passions.
“Whatever I do I want it to be done in the morning, so I can play in the afternoon,” Desorda said. “That has always been a stress reliever.”
But he acknowledged that he won’t be able to completely step away just yet.
“You can’t just walk away at the end of the year and say ‘I’m done,’” Desorda said. “Some kids are scrambling, and parents are calling an emailing you — I think I’m gonna miss that in some perverse way.”
His colleagues said he will be deeply missed around the halls of Mount Abraham.
“I think the thing that amazes me the most about Rick is his ability to personalize his teaching,” said Co-athletic Director Mary Stetson.
Stetson, and her husband Jeff, the other Co-athletic Director, said that Desorda isn’t ever off the clock, even while hunting.
“Personally, he is probably the only deer hunter Jeff and I know that takes his papers from his classes into the woods to grade while waiting to slay the ‘big buck,’” Mary Stetson said.
Principal Andy Kepes also praised Desorda.
“Rick wants all his students to be successful and will bend over backwards to help them in his classes,” said Kepes, who also served with Desorda on the faculty. “His bowtie and sense of humor will be missed by all.”
Desorda said he may also work in some part-time capacity, and that his students have taken to giving him unsolicited career advice. He recalled a conversation with one particular pupil, who said he would make a good applicant because he enjoyed his job and rarely missed work.
“Could I use you for a reference?” Desorda asked the student.
“Yeah, I’d give you one,” the student replied. “I’d hire ya.”

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