When Jonathan Gans was a kid, he’d wake up at 4 a.m. to help his dad milk the family’s 150 dairy cows. After school, he and his dad would repeat the process.
After college he worked as a foreign policy analyst for a number of major think tanks in the Northeast.
In Miami he worked as a high-end contractor, and said he worked on the homes of Madonna and Sylvester Stallone. He was earning a six-figure salary, affording him a Mercedes and a Jaguar. But despite earning enough to take his children to Disney World several times a year, he didn’t find all that money fulfilling. He was constantly stressed out, had to drive all over the city and racked up a thousand-dollar phone bill every month.
“I just kind of woke up all of a sudden,” Gans said “and I thought, ‘there’s got to be something more meaningful than this.’ ”
So after the last of his children had graduated, Gans went back to school at Nova Southeastern to get his master’s degree in elementary education. Soon after, he was the first gifted teacher at Charles R. Hadley Elementary. There he taught the school’s brightest third, fourth and fifth graders. But at first, he said, he faced some resistance from administrators who were skeptical of his somewhat non-traditional teaching style for a public school.
Gans said he tried to assign projects that integrated different subjects like math, science, reading and social studies. For example, the class built a scale model of the Parthenon. For another project, the class split up into teams to play a mock stock-market investing game. They also had a long, comprehensive unit about the Everglades that examined at the history, biology, ecology and politics of the river of grass, culminating in a three-day, two-night camping trip.
Gans disliked the idea of rote memorization and emphasized the importance of independent, creative and critical thinking. It was about incorporating knowledge and “how to question the answers that you find,” he said, “not just teaching kids to memorize things, but how to get them to think beyond questions and answers.”
“Some projects were only possible because of him,” former student Jose Pacheco said. He added that the workload tended to be heavier than other classes, including higher-grade-level reading, but that the work was meaningful, and not just busy work.
However, Gans had to defend his teaching style to administrators. “I think they just gave me enough rope to see if I would hang myself,” he said. Far from hanging himself, he weaved a rope ladder that helped his students climb to academic success, and the administration came to approve.
“He was the first teacher I think who thought we really had a chance,” said Jessica Martinez, one of his students. Martinez graduated from high school this year at Doral Academy, and graduated with her associate’s degree from Miami Dade College. At least 10 students from that Gans’ 2006 fifth-grade class also graduated with associate’s degrees this year a month before their high school graduation.
Martinez said Gans had “a different way of teaching” that had a minimal role for textbooks and pushed students to step out of their comfort zone. Martinez tended to be shy, and had a hard time getting up and speaking in front of the class. But Gans encouraged her to stand up and speak out.
“Jessica, just stop and breathe,” Martinez said he told her “you’re going to go far in life.” Martinez said she remembers Gans’ words every time she does any sort of public speaking.
“Mr. Gans was more than a teacher to us,” Martinez said. “He was the first teacher who really showed he cared about us.” She said she felt comfortable going to him with problems, and that he would listen to her. Gans said he encouraged students to come to him before or after school if they were having problems, if they ever felt uncomfortable.
“You’ve got to have a rapport with your kids,” he said. Gans fostered close relationships in his classroom, with many students describing their class as a “family.”
“He was like a second dad to us,” Martinez said, adding that they still write to each other through Facebook. One student wrote on Gans’ Facebook wall, “Mr. Gans, you were honestly the best teacher we could’ve ever hoped to have...you’re the reason we’re going to our great colleges :) <3”
“Most of the class is pretty tight, still,” Manuel Rodriguez said, describing the everglades fieldtrip as an experience that helped them form close bonds. “I’m just grateful that he gave us that first invitation to aspire to do something greater.”
Gans now owns a bison ranch, Rancho Picante, in Bozeman, Montana. He is also earning his Ph.D. in Education from Montana State University where he teaches undergraduates how to teach.