Gerald Neff sits on a kindergartner-size table at the front of his classroom on a recent morning and welcomes his class to a new day.
“Morning Georgia! You’re wearing a dress. Are you getting married today?” he asks a youngster in a blue frock and pink leggings. “Hey Miles, does your ear still hurt?” he asks a boy who holds a paper towel up to the side of his head.
“Lucas, you want me to try your breakfast for you to see if it’s all right?”
Their responses, respectively: “No!”
“When I stood up, the ear drops fell right out.”
And again, “No!”
A girl with a giant heart on her T-shirt bee-lines over for one of Neff’s morning hugs (as opposed to the mid-morning, afternoon and mid-afternoon kind: he is always good for hugs). Neff spins her around and takes her by both arms, then improvises a rhyme while he flaps her arms:
“I am a cheerleader, yes I am,
I am a cheerleader, wham slam bam,
I love my mother,
I love my fluvver,
But most of all I love my brother!”
His pint-sized charges giggle profusely when Neff’s attention is turned toward them, but otherwise they head to their assigned tables and chatter quietly amongst themselves.
To get the class’ attention before he takes their lunch orders, Neff chants “Michigan, Michigan, Michigan” as he points both thumbs downward, then the class chimes in unison: “State!” with an all-thumbs up. Clearly, they have done this before.
“A lot of times, I’d say they don’t even realize they’re learning, they’re having so much fun,” he said. “My teaching style is not for everyone, but these kids learn in my class. And I have the best job in the world.”
From File Plant to Filing Grades
It took Neff until he was closing in on 40 to pursue his idea of best job in the world. He had worked at Steelcase’s file plant for 20 years since shortly after graduating Godwin Heights High School before he started coaching his oldest daughter’s soccer team.
“I realized I love being with those little kids, seeing them learn things right before my eyes,” Neff recalled. “I told my wife, ‘I think I want to go back to school and be a teacher.’ And it was always kindergarten. I didn’t want anything else.”
From the first day of elementary education classes at Aquinas College, where Neff was the only male from start to finish, he said, his goal was to teach kindergarten. He insists he knew what he was getting into.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics reported that in 2014, males accounted for just below 3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers in the U.S. The number has hovered between 2 and 3 percent since at least 2004.
Part of Their World
“I’m the first and only male (kindergarten) teacher Grandville has ever had,” Neff said. “When I first started, I used to get surprised reactions from parents. They worried, could I get down to (their children’s) level and interact? Not so much anymore.”
Get down to their level? Ha. How’s this? Neff is an unapologetic fan of Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.” In his desk drawer are dolls, figurines and accessories of the popular Disney princess. Before entering third grade, a student named Mason, now a freshman, gave him her Ariel scepter. “I don’t need this anymore,” she told him.
Students also know this about him: He loves popcorn. He had a Pop-Tart for breakfast. He tells a boy he calls “Blakester” he could “squeeze the bejeebers out of you,” and the boy giggles.
“A teacher should be more than just someone who recites numbers and words out of a book,” Neff said. “Teachers are role models, second parents, a listening ear for someone’s troubles, a safe place for students and at times, someone the student can always count on.”
Worth Every Exhausted Moment
Neff takes seriously his life-shaping role as an educator.
“I took an $18,000 pay cut to go into teaching,” he said. “It’s so rewarding for me. If you truly love your job, and love seeing what happens when it clicks for kids … I’m 61 now, and I have no idea when I’ll retire. Keeps me young, I think.”
It does not mean he never feels drained. In addition to teaching, Neff still regularly coaches middle-school and freshman girls soccer in the spring and eighth-grade boys in the fall. He also sells sports trading cards in his spare time.
It’s getting close to lunchtime, and while his kindergartners are just starting to amp up the volume, Neff is starting to yawn. He admits “a nap sounds nice right now.”
But he insists the job is worth every exhausted moment. He recalls getting a high-school graduation announcement from a student he hadn’t heard from since kindergarten. He usually attends eight to 10 parties every spring, he said. This one was in Wayland, where the student had moved many years before.
“I just didn’t want to go to another one,” Neff admitted. “But she remembered me after all those years, enough to invite me, so I owed it to her.”
He showed up at the rural event, got out of his car and trudged toward the festivities. That’s when he saw his former student, and watched as, from 100 yards away, she broke from her friends and into a run toward him, calling his name.
“And that’s…” Neff’s eyes filled with tears and he shook his head. “That’s why.”