Not many middle-school teachers wear Native American headdresses and oversized sunglasses and sing with their students on YouTube. But sixth-grade science teacher Jason Dapkevich does.
His class’ “The Eye with Mr. D” video has more than 5,300 views on YouTube.
Singing about stars’ life cycles and how the eye works to Lady Gaga and One Direction songs may be part of the reason he will be awarded the First Year Teacher of the Year Award by Wake County Public Schools on May 17.
Dapkevich’s connection with students began at the Cary YMCA, where he started working when he was 16. This will be the first year he hasn’t worked at the YMCA because Salem Middle School in Apex, where Dapkevich teaches, is year-round. He stays involved by organizing leadership clubs and encouraging students and fellow teachers to participate in events such as the YMCA’s TOMS Walk a Mile In Our Shoes.
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Q: Were you in drama club? You aren’t afraid to be silly in your videos, but how do you convince sixth-graders to be silly, too?
From the beginning of the school year, I talked to them about being comfortable in their own skin. Everyone is original and unique. I let them know that they can be themselves. I know students at this age have a lot of pressure to look cool, but I show them that I don’t care about that; differences are good.
I think my ability to be silly came from growing up and working at the Cary YMCA. I learned to build relationships and connect with the families and kids. There, you can go crazy and act like a fool, and no one cares.
Q: How much did the students do, and how much did you organize the videos?
The students did everything. I gave them the idea. It was supposed to be a small project. They ended up writing the song lyrics and chose the songs we would use. By the time we did the second video, they printed up the lyrics, tried out and auditioned, and their classmates decided who would be in the video. I’m very proud of them.
Q: Do you think creating a video helps them remember the material?
I was an awful student; I tell my students all the time what I did wrong so they don’t make the same mistakes. I was focused on sports and social stuff.
Looking back on middle school, I don’t remember any of the projects I did. But I hope keeping things interesting and doing this kind of project helps them learn.
Q: So if you weren’t a great student, how did you end up becoming a teacher?
I knew I was good at connecting with kids.
I started out in college as a pre-med student; I thought I wanted to be a plastic surgeon or even a general practitioner. But I wasn’t connecting with it.
My parents were very supportive. They agreed that I was meant to do education, and I started to see that I could really make a difference.
Q: Many teachers quit within the first five years of starting to teach. After your first year, do you still feel that you made the right choice?
I completely feel it’s the right choice. Teaching is so natural to me. I already knew how to handle discipline and how to connect with the students. Even when I began student teaching, I already felt comfortable.
Q: What is the leadership club that you created at Salem Middle?
It’s called the Salem Ambassadors. I was in a leaders club at the YMCA in high school, and then I became an advisor after college. I wasn’t able to continue doing that and wanted to come up with a way that I could use that concept to help the community.
Salem Ambassadors, which is about 20 students, serve as role models to show new students their lockers and classrooms or to show parents around the school. They are the representatives of Salem Middle School.
Since February, when the club started, we have done a stream cleanup, a school cleanup, visited the Ronald McDonald House and will soon visit the Food Bank. I want the students to see that they have so much and that we all need to give back.
Q: How did your students participate in the YMCA Walk A Mile In Our Shoes walk?
The walk benefited kids in other countries who don’t have shoes and have to walk long distances to get water or go to school. I wanted to raise awareness with the students.
We did activities for a whole week. I got stories from people who have been on mission trips. I showed the students pictures of kids, and we talked about the different foot diseases children can get and tied it into our unit on soil and the environment.
The students set up booths and created flyers, and then over 350 students from our school and some teachers attended the walk at Bond Park.
The students who wanted to walked with no shoes. Most of the pathways are paved, and I noticed many of the students were walking just to the side of the path. They said they wanted to get the whole effect; feel the sand and rocks. I got a little teared up, because I realized they got the message.