Sam Stern: Pathways to Success social studies teacher


Sam Stern is a social studies teacher at Pathways, which is wrapping up its first year. Photo by Jo Mathis
Sam Stern is a social studies teacher at Pathways to Success.    Photo by Jo Mathis.

Sam Stern was born, raised and has continued to pursue his education in Ann Arbor.

Stern began teaching in Ann Arbor Public Schools after earning a bachelor’s degree in history, psychology and secondary social studies teaching from the University of Michigan in 2008.  He earned his master’s degree in public policy in 2014 and a master of arts in education with a focus in leadership and policy this spring, both at U-M.

Stern, a 2004 graduate of Pioneer High School, began teaching at Pioneer and Community high schools in January of 2009, taught at Skyline from 2010 to 2012, and moved to Pathways to Success when it opened in the fall of 2014.

His mother, Sue, is a chief medical technologist in the chemical pathology lab at the University of Michigan Hospital. His father, Jonathan, is the school social worker at Pioneer High School, and his sister, Annie, lives in Royal Oak and manages a swim school in Ann Arbor.

You’ve said that you like asking students “big, complex, and important questions” because you believe that asking the right questions matters more than finding the answers. Can you elaborate? I realize now that the questions need not be “big and complex” to be important, and that the most important thing about questions is that they are asked by students. As far as questions being more important than answers is concerned, I associate the ability to ask good questions with an ability to learn independently. Furthermore, the difference between asking the right (why and how) and the wrong questions is the difference between being open and closed-minded, and being a problem-solver and perpetuating problems.

What’s the best student question you’ve heard so far? “What would Locke say about our social contract with the American (federal) government today?” This was a brilliant question that pushed our U.S. Government class to interrogate the current relationship between the federal government and the American people.   It changed the course of a unit on civil liberties and civil rights.

What made you become a teacher? I became a teacher because I thought teaching was important and that I might be good at it. At one point, when I thought I might change careers, I stayed because of the guilt I thought I would feel for leaving the classroom. I teach now because I find teaching and learning to be fascinating, I enjoy helping young people to take more control, and I feel a sense of urgency about the work.

What keeps you motivated? I really enjoy feeling obligated to people. When work becomes a ‘grind’, the difference between staying in bed and going to work is often a sense of commitment to my students and colleagues.

What is the most rewarding part about the job? I love observing thoughtful student-to-student interaction (i.e., when students answer each others’ questions, or build on each others’ insights). During a recent U.S. Government class, I watched 25 minutes of student-led discussion and debate concerning the federal minimum wage. This moment was seized by students, and was completely unmediated and unplanned by teachers. This is the highest reward!

What would you change about the profession if you could? I would create more time and space for students to try and fail. In the current system, students are penalized for being wrong, and rewarded for minimizing error while completing tasks quickly. This ‘efficiency pedagogy’ kills the richest learning opportunities, which come from being able to engage in discovery and learn from experiences. I think this pressures teachers to cut out the deepest and most meaningful parts of learning—identifying problems, asking the right questions, framing the challenge, etc.—for the sake of ‘keeping up’ and ‘covering the standards.’

If you weren’t teaching, what would you be doing? I can’t help but be a teacher and a student inside school and out. It’s how I frame everything. That said, I can imagine being a community organizer as well.

Is there a local concern right now you would be eager to get behind? I am particularly concerned about the way in which this city has become less and less livable for low-income families.   There has been some recent movement by the mayor and city council to increase affordable housing options in the next twenty years, though housing is just one dimension of what makes a city livable.

What are the perks of working at Pathways? At Pathways, I am afforded the opportunity to form very meaningful relationships with students in a way that I was not able to at the larger comprehensive schools in Ann Arbor.

Many of your students have had and may continue to have a difficult time in school. How does this fact affect you? Do you feel your job is tougher than many others in the district? I think most students—at Pathways and other schools—have a difficult time in school. While I think that we have good schools with good school communities in Ann Arbor, I also think that schooling, as it has been traditionally designed, does not suit most young people. The students at Pathways have especially brought this to light, and have pushed me to find ways to be truly student-centered in my practice. I think all teachers have to do the difficult job of being Maslow and Dewey in a place that is built for Ford. So, no. I don’t find my job to be tougher than others in the district.

Finally, how did you choose that tattoo?  The tattoo is a series of bulls sketched by Picasso.  I have eight sketches that run all the way to my shoulder.  Art has been important to me since I was a small child, and there’s always been something I’ve admired about the way true artists see the world.  In the case of the bulls, most people look at the sketches and imagine that Picasso started with the simplest framework of the bull (actually visible in the photo above my elbow) and slowly added features on the way to drawing a more realistic bull (not visible, located on my shoulder).  But it’s actually the opposite.  Picasso broke down the bull from its realistic image to its simplest form, piece by piece and playing with perspective along the way.  This way, he could create something that couldn’t have been imagined before.  I like seeing the world this way.  Or at least trying to.

– Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor


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