February 15, 2023

Jeff Lucker, 53 Years at PHS: “It’s Amazing What Can Be Done”

TEACHING WITH PASSION: Princeton High School history teacher Jeff Lucker is surrounded by a couple dozen of the many thousands of students he taught and inspired in a career that spanned more than five decades. He retired on February 1. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lucker)

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton High School (PHS) students, teachers, administrators, and staff continue to go about their business, but, over the past two weeks — for the first time since 1968 —Jeff Lucker has not been present in the halls, meeting rooms, and the history classroom where he taught for 53 years. He retired on February 1.

After teaching more than 12,000 students, presiding over some 48,000 classes, and delivering who knows how many assignments, quizzes, tests, provocative discussion questions, and words of wisdom, Lucker decided it was time to move on.

Widely celebrated over the years and particularly in his final month at PHS, Lucker has been variously described by students, alumni, colleagues, and others as “a great teacher,” “awesomeness personified,” “the best of the best,” “beloved,” “funny,” “flipping hilarious,” “dedicated with a zest for learning,” “incredibly popular and incredibly talented,” and in many other laudatory terms.

In an early afternoon interview on February 10 in the Princeton Public Library, Lucker, relaxed, feeling a bit like he was playing hooky, reflected on his career and the state of high school education.

He discussed the attributes that powered and sustained his successful career. “I found my calling, and I didn’t know that I would enjoy it until my first day in front of a class,” he said. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he was a history major at the University of Wisconsin and was thinking he would either be a cellist or a doctor, but he signed up to get his teaching certification, and after his first day as a student teacher knew he’d found his calling.

“It’s more than simply passion for the subject,” he said. “It’s passion for the students and an interest in communicating with the students and the interaction with them. It’s amazing what can be done if you have that.”

He went on to point out other important qualities involved in effective teaching. “The way you relate the students to the subject is important,” he said. “One thing I’ve been told again and again about myself is the way I relate travel with history, and my personal travel experiences with history. I show them pictures and I tell them stories about places, so they’re not abstractions. They’re not just names in a textbook and words on a page. They’re physical places, and I can describe what it was like there and what it looked like.”

Another passion for Lucker, and one that he looks forward to pursuing further in retirement  is travel. He has visited more than 30 different countries on six continents. In April he’s headed for Malta, and he is well prepared.

“I’ve always been interested in the islands in the Mediterranean,” he said. “I’ve been to a number of the Greek islands. I’ve been to Majorca many times. Malta has always been on my list. It’s very historic. It was a British colony and has been invaded by almost every group in the area. It’s an independent country now and a member of the EU. They speak two languages there, English and a language linguistically related to Arabic. It’s right near Tunisia.”

After Malta, other destinations on Lucker’s list include Corsica, Sardinia, New Zealand, Thailand, and more.

Lucker, who has taught a wide assortment of courses over the years, including AP World History, popular senior electives on Latin America and the Middle East, and others, described what he is most proud of in looking back over the past five decades.

“It’s when students get back to me after many years,” he said. “My retirement news has been on social media, so kids have been getting in touch from all over the world, and the theme I’m getting is so interesting. They say their name, and then they say ‘You won’t remember me because I never spoke up in your class, but you had such an impact on me.’”

He continued, “That reinforces what I’ve always felt. In evaluating teachers we always equate the visible signs of engagement — raising your hand, speaking up —with being engaged, and we always dismiss the fact that the student can be sitting there quietly and be very much engaged in the class. Those are the kids who are writing to me. There’s one for example who’s in Rome and she’s lived all around the world and she’s involved in NGOs. She never spoke up in class, but she attributes her interest in doing that kind of work with what she got out of my class.”

Lucker recalled many alumni who have gone on to achieve prominence in the world in a variety of different fields. “I enjoy having taught them and my memories of all that, but it’s those other students that I’m most happy about,” he said. “I remember during the summer I got an email from a group of students I had taught. They were at the British Museum, and they said, ‘We just saw an exhibit on the Minoans, and we thought about you.’ That to me is better than a 5 on the AP exam. That’s what makes me feel I’ve accomplished something. It’s the lifelong learning that’s important, not what students can produce on a test. It’s what shows up later in life.”

As Lucker looks back on the world of education and the high school classroom, he worries about the future. “I’m more concerned than optimistic,” he said. “National trends are disturbing.” He pointed to an emphasis on rubrics, compliance, standardized tests, accountability instead of the values of rapport, passion, joy, creativity, risk, and energy that prevailed in the past, particularly in the 1980s. 

“My sense is that it’s cyclical with the pendulum swinging back and forth between the more open classroom idea, encouraging creativity, empowering teachers, and then there’s this movement to clamp down,” he said. “I think we’re at one extreme now. That’s my hope and that it’s just a matter of time until we depart from all these quantitative assessments and this emphasis on testing and compliance and standards. If ever we needed creativity, the time is now. We’re dealing with an unprecedented situation.”

The pandemic only exacerbated Lucker’s concerns and in part influenced his retirement decision. “I was sitting in my study at home one day after a Zoom class, and I found myself saying out loud, ‘I’m not enjoying this.’ That was the turning point for me. It’s the trauma that we’re all going through, the stress we’re all experiencing.”

In response to a question about how students have changed since 1969,  he replied, “The change pre-COVID to post-COVID is more dramatic than any change I’d seen in the previous 50 years.”   

He described the impact of too many Zoom sessions, too much screen time, and the consequent loss of focus for many of his students. “It’s been a really dramatic change, and I don’t think anyone is dealing with it head-on. It’s the elephant in the room. They are aware that there’s a wellness issue, but it’s not being framed as a direct consequence of the pandemic, of everyone being on Zoom.”  Most of his colleagues share his concerns, he says, and in history it’s not so much that students got behind and are struggling to make up content lost. It’s more the fragmented attention spans and inability to focus. 

Last year when students came back to the classroom, Lucker saw many students losing focus on tests and not answering parts of questions or giving wrong answers further off-topic than he’d ever seen before. He has also seen many students who got used to unenforced deadlines during the pandemic now handing in assignments several days after deadlines.

Lucker’s concerns, however, are tempered by a powerful dose of optimism — faith in his colleagues, in the school where he spent so many happy, productive years, and in the interactions with the students that he stated were “the best part of the job.”

He commented on the high quality of the PHS faculty, and, despite memories of brilliant teachers from the past, he declared the current staff to be the best he has ever known. “In my view we have a better faculty now than we have ever had — the hardest working, most dedicated faculty I’ve ever known,” he said, though he regretted that staff members were not getting to know each other the way PHS teachers had in the past.

He also insisted on giving a shout-out to the PHS Performing Arts Department. “I feel a part of it because I play cello with the high school orchestra,” he said. “I think performing arts at the high school is incredible. That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most, going to the performances and being in the performances. The studio band is phenomenal and the orchestra is just terrific, and that’s a combination of the incredible teachers and the students.”

As Lucker’s retirement moves into week three, he is still spending time in the classroom, but now he’s the student, auditing a course on antisemitism at Rutgers, and looking forward to a course at the Evergreen Forum at the Princeton Senior Resource Center on Shakespeare’s plays, taught by Princeton University Professor Emeritus Lawrence Danson, who, like so many Princeton residents, is the parent of one (in his case two) of Lucker’s former students. 

Lucker is also enjoying going to the gym every day and planning his upcoming travels. “Retirement is a work in progress,” he said, and the next chapter is yet to be revealed.