Don Packard, Pioneer High School English teacher

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

Ann Arbor native Don Packard grew up on the northwest side of town and attended Newport, Forsythe, and Pioneer. Following his 1983 high school graduation, he made the long journey to West Quad as a University of Michigan freshman. Packard started on the engineering/business track before he found his true passion for English and education.

Packard started coaching water polo at Pioneer in the fall of 1987 and continued for 15 consecutive years. His polo squad earned five state titles in his tenure and he was named coach of the year three times.

Packard started teaching at Pioneer in 1988 and—except for a semester at Huron and three years at Slauson—has been there ever since. He is married to Maria Murphy, who teaches English at Slauson. They live near Allmendinger Park with their children Emma and Maggie, a senior and sophomore at Pioneer, and  Luke,  a Slauson eighth grader.

Don Packard as a Pioneer student

What are your favorite memories of English class when you were a student at Pioneer?   Two of my biggest role models are David Tabler and Sue Frazier. They had the ability to make class fun and encourage us to step out of our comfort zone. To them, I am eternally grateful.

What is something you did as a member of the Class of 1983 that you hope your students never find out?   I think that I’m a teacher to help kids navigate not only the content of high school that will serve them well in the future but the socio/emotional side of growing up. I’m not sure what I did is all that relevant now. What is relevant is providing kids with opportunities to discuss what is important in their lives and support them in making sound, healthy decisions as they move forward.

What was always written on your report card in grade school? I’ve always been a social kid. I love to interact with others and found pleasure in communicating with a diverse group. I’m sure there was something about socializing too much, but I’m sure that’s not a real thing.

You supervise Trailblazers, which arranges for PHS students to work with elementary students. Why are you committed to that program? Trailblazers is a unique program because it services two populations: the elementary students and the Pioneer students. In this day and age of STEM/STEAM, kids aren’t encouraged to explore fields where they help others. Trailblazers not only help their elementary mentees, but they also get a taste of what it’s like to work with others. Trailblazers don’t all become teachers/social workers/psychologists, and some become engineers and computer programmers, but they all get a sense of what it’s like to work with others toward academic success.

What inspired you to become a teacher?  The summer after my freshman year at Michigan I took a job at a local swim club to earn money for school.   I still remember the kids I taught that summer. It was thrilling to help kids that couldn’t swim learn the skills necessary to enjoy the water. One day they couldn’t swim at all, and within a week or so they could swim the length of the pool. That was powerful. Empowering kids to read and write is equally exciting. Kids have so much to say that it’s great to play a small role in their development as students. And when I see them years later, it’s just as thrilling to hear where they’ve gone and what they are doing.

In your 30 years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning? It goes so fast. Seems like I just started. I’ve learned that teaching is about communication. Students want to learn. They all really do. They just don’t all learn the same way. We need to offer them options and opportunities to develop their skills. More now than ever, kids need to graduate with a diverse skill set that they can put to use in whatever they do next.

Describe an average workday.   Wow. This year, I teach Contemporary World Literature Hours 1-3. Then it’s to the Annex for the Learning Center during lunch where I help kids by offering resources and/or tutoring. Then it’s Trailblazer time. I may travel to the elementary school or work on emails to make sure the mentors are doing what they should be doing and that they feel connected and relevant. Then it’s back to Pioneer for seventh hour and the after-school Learning Center. That usually goes until 3:45. Of course, there is prep and grading later at night. It’s a busy day, but it’s worthwhile.

What advice would you give to a first-year teacher? Keep going. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Keep going. Teaching is a lifestyle. Enjoy every minute!

Favorite websites:

Fill in this sentence: I wish I had gone into any other field but teaching when … I’ve never felt this way. I’ve found my passion for teaching and never looked back. What comes next is a mystery. (Can’t teach forever.)

Apps you can’t live without: Google Suite.

Three favorite devices: Books, laptops, and iPhone.

So you grew up in Ann Arbor, attended the University of Michigan, and live in Ann Arbor to this day. What are your favorite local hangouts?   I have spent countless hours at Sweetwater’s downtown working/grading. I love all the new restaurants that have popped up downtown. The Ann Arbor vibe is stronger than ever!

How do you stay organized? I once figured out that I have to keep track of 25,000-plus assignments a year. I use a lot of binder clips, and with Google Forms, I can accept papers electronically—at times.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager? I use 3-by-5 notecards and I have a leather holder that a former student gave me as a gift. She’s a doctor now!

What is the most rewarding part of teaching? Each day when kids file out and say, “Thanks.”

What has surprised you most about the profession? I’ve been surprised how fast the years have gone.

How do you recharge? I enjoy traveling, swimming, reading and spending time with family. The summers are important to me. I did work a few summers, but when I came back to school in the fall I wasn’t ready. So I stopped that.

You say you’re not an actor, but you recently had a key role in the Pioneer Theatre Guild’s “High School Musical.” How’d that happen?  The producers of PTG are interested in offering opportunities to a diverse group of people that make up the Pioneer community.  That’s why they worked hard to have the boys basketball team involved as well as a staff member like me.  It’s good for everyone when we work together and learn about each other.  Being in the show has inspired some of the kids to think differently about theater and how they can be involved in the future.  I think that’s a win for our school and community.

 Any stage fright? No stage fright.  I was certainly nervous leading up to opening night.  But compared to how I used to feel as an athlete and coach, I was more settled.  It’s comforting to know that there are 60-plus kids and lots of adults that are there to support me.  As a swimmer, it’s more individual.  More in my own head.  Here I had a group of experienced actors that could help me out if I needed it.  I did jump a line opening night.  I felt awful, but my partner in the scene didn’t miss a beat.  She was great!
What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life? I’ve enjoyed working with Jen Kunec to develop the Pioneer Learning Center. It’s a great place for lots of kids to get help/get work done. I was so excited to pass the 10,000-student sign-in milestone in just over a year. Personal life? I’ll let you know next summer. It’s pretty much all work right now.



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