June 1, 2016

PROFILES IN EDUCATION: Jeff Lucker Looks Back on 47 Years Teaching History at PHS


“AWESOMENESS PERSONIFIED”: Jeff Lucker, after teaching history for 47 years at PHS, still looks forward with enthusiasm to every day in the classroom with students in his AP World History, Latin America studies and Middle East studies classes.

Jeff Lucker, Princeton High School history teacher for the past 47 years, didn’t expect to spend a large portion of his life in the classroom. “In trying to decide whether to become a cellist or a doctor,” he recalled, “I decided to become a history teacher.”

Several thousand of his former and current students, many of whom have described him on ratemyteacher.com in such terms as “incredible,” “awesomeness personified,” “the best of the best,” “funny, intelligent,” “so smart,” “flipping hilarious,” and “a great teacher,” are glad that Mr. Lucker’s career trajectory shifted early on.

Teaching was not on his radar when he was a history major at University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, but he decided to get his teaching certification, and “The day I stood in front of my first class as a student teacher was the day I knew I wanted to become a teacher.” He remains interested in medicine and music, still playing cello regularly with the PHS orchestra, but clearly he had found his calling in education.

“Then I really knew I wanted to teach. I knew that that was my destiny.”

The experience of discovering his love of history teaching has helped to shape his approach to working with his students at PHS. “Not only did I find my calling, but I wonder whether many of my students have callings that they may never find. That’s why it’s important to expose young people to all kinds of different things, because there may be many people that have something that — little do they know — they have an aptitude for or an inclination for until they actually stand in front of a class or cut a piece of wood or whatever it is.”

Brooklyn to Princeton

Mr. Lucker, who grew up in Brooklyn before heading off to college at age 16, ended up at Princeton High “by total accident.” He worked through Wisconsin’s teacher placement office, which provided access mostly to Wisconsin schools, “and then this one opening—in Princeton, New Jersey,” and, in January 1969, “I slipped in here and I loved it.”

Unlike many local Princeton teachers, who for economic reasons or for reasons of privacy choose to live outside of town, Mr. Lucker has happily lived in Princeton for the entire time he’s taught here. “I enjoy living in town and running into kids and parents and being able to avail myself of everything the town offers,” he said.

He lives with his wife, Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. They met about 32 years ago, introduced by her daughter Maud, who was one of Mr. Lucker’s students at the time and has since become Dean of Brown University.

Mr. Lucker has communicated his enthusiasm for learning — and his love of the culturally rich Princeton environment — to his students both directly and indirectly. “The experience in my Latin America course of talking about Latin American literature, then being able to tell my students to go over to the University and hear Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa give a talk — that’s the kind of thing we have in this town. It’s phenomenal. So many enriching experiences, and most of the lectures are free and open to the public.”

Over the past 10-15 years, Mr. Lucker, who teaches about 130 students in five different classes each day, has taught Advanced Placement World History and a senior elective in Latin America (first semester) and The Middle East (second semester).

Facing the challenge of bringing the material to life and engaging the juniors and seniors in his classes, Mr. Lucker tells parents on back-to-school night, “If money were no object, I’d just charter a plane and fly down to Mexico City, to Quito, to Rio, and do home stays and visits, but in the absence of that, what I try to do is bring that into the classroom. One of the things I use is my own travels. Travel is my passion, and I bring pictures and slides into the classroom. The kids really seem to enjoy that. I’ve been to over 30 countries: Mexico, Belize, Cuba (legally, on a 2000 fact-finding trip), Brazil, Argentina twice, Israel twice, Turkey, Egypt, Cyprus, and Australia last summer.

Rewards and Challenges

“The interactions with the kids every day are the best part of the job,” Mr. Lucker affirmed. “The kids are great. It’s always nice to hear from kids I’ve taught over the years when they come back and thank me or tell me what they got out of my class. I don’t care if they’re a bartender or on Broadway, and I’ve taught both, whatever my students are doing, if they enjoy what they’re doing and they’re doing it well, it doesn’t matter, as long as they’re happy.”

And the two hardest parts of the job, he contends, include the massive grading job of hundreds of student essays, and also “dealing with mandates and nonsense in terms of satisfying state requirements.” He expressed mixed feelings on the controversial subject of standardized testing.

Testing Industrial Complex

“I’m not unalterably opposed to standardized testing,” he said, “but I think it’s really gotten out of hand. One of my concerns is that there has grown up in this country what I call the testing industrial complex. Pearson [company producing the PARCC Test] is the best example — multi-billion dollar, multi-national company that makes you wonder about the tail wagging the dog.”

Expressing concern about the money and time involved in testing, he continued, “Every time there’s a mandate from the state, it generates kits, workbooks, and these companies start putting these things out and schools around the country have these things in boxes stored away—never used years later. That’s one of my concerns and the extent to which this industry has been generating the testing. The effect of so much of this stuff is to standardize everything, almost the opposite of what was intended.”

Mr. Lucker expressed some of his most strongly conflicted feelings in describing his work with the AP World History course, which, for most of his students, leads to the AP exam in May. The District is currently considering alternatives to some of the AP courses, and Mr. Lucker is eager to move in that direction. “There are a number of us who are seriously thinking of opting out of the AP system and offering rigorous courses in their place. Students would have the option of taking the AP exams on their own.” Mr. Lucker reports that other schools that have taken that route have gotten the support of almost all major colleges and universities.

Though he praised much of the content of the AP World History curriculum, he criticized the restrictions of the timeline, its emphasis on movements and trends rather than people in history, and its lack of emphasis on culture and art. He referred to the AP curriculum as “World History Without the People and the Cultures.”

“What grabs kids are the people, their quirks, their life stories,” he said. “When I read history, I like reading biography. We don’t have much time to do that. I get it in anyway, but we’re fighting against time.”

Mr. Lucker reflected on his own experience as a student and the importance of generating students’ interest in the subject matter and desire to learn more, rather than giving in to the “obsession” with testing. “I suspect many of my students are like myself when I was in high school and college,” he said, “I mastered the ability to memorize a lot of material, did well on many tests and may have been perceived by my teachers and professors as an example of their success. But my ability to ‘test well’ was not necessarily reflective of my interest in the material or my desire to learn more.”

He added a thought from his current perspective, “One of the most rewarding things in teaching is to hear from a student that you have sparked their interest in the subject—not that they want to pursue it as a career, but that it made a positive difference in their lives.”

“Better than Ever”

After almost half a century, Mr. Lucker wondered if he perhaps lacked some perspective on Princeton High School and the world of education, “Change evolves over time,” he said, “so it’s hard to see,” but he mentioned several observations.

“The students I’m teaching now,” he stated, “are the nicest kids I’ve ever taught. They’re not only nice people, they’re nice and kind to each other. Every day I have kids who when they walk out of the room, they thank me.”

And, as for his colleagues, “In all my years here, I think we have the best faculty we’ve ever had,” he stated. “We had fantastic teachers when I first came here, but the difference is the consistency. You have more outstanding teachers and more consistent quality than ever.”

And, himself a participating cellist, Mr. Lucker paid tribute to the PHS performing arts departments. “I did want to give a shout-out to the arts at PHS. It’s phenomenal. The band, the orchestra, the drama department — they are just fantastic. These kids are incredibly talented.”

In looking to the future of education, Mr. Lucker described himself as “a cheerleader for public education,” but admitted that “I’m concerned about privatization, as in the testing industry, and the consequences that can have for education.” He pointed out that teachers in many European countries are accorded higher status and “are held in much higher esteem than they are in this country. Teachers are constantly mindful of being treated as professionals there and not as hired help.” Defining a professional as “someone you allow a certain amount of discretion based on their knowledge and experience,” he expressed his concern that standardized testing becomes a form of micromanaging, depriving teachers of the leeway and discretion they need to be successful professionals.

After 47 years, one would think that retirement might be visible somewhere on the horizon, but not necessarily for Mr. Lucker. “Given my 47 years,” he laughed, “I think it would be unconscionable not to go for 50 — and then after that, I’ll think about it.”

But for now, he’d rather look forward to what he enjoys most. “I love teaching here at PHS. It’s an incredible student body, a great faculty, and a great community. That keeps me going and I think it keeps me young. I love the experience of having colleagues who are half my age and teaching the students I do. It’s a great experience and I don’t want to lose that.”