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Middle School History Teacher, Doug Gilbert

Meet Harley alumnus, Middle School History teacher, intrepid globe trekker, and all-round bundle of energy, Doug Gilbert.

Middle School history teacher Doug Gilbert

“You guys better know your Zheng He from your Hong Xiuquan!” quips history teacher Doug Gilbert to his 8th grade class. In his classroom, you might also hear him say, “Pay special attention to current events this year, because you will be telling your grandchildren about the Election of 2016.” Doug says, “We talk about current events a great deal–too much, some students would say. But an essential goal of this course is to open their eyes to the broader world.”

Another day, the group holds a formal debate on communism vs. capitalism. The class chatters boisterously, but as calm descends, the debate begins. He makes an encouraging comment after each student gives his or her argument. “You spoke slowly and clearly—very good.” Or, “I liked that little bit of passion—you spoke from the heart.”  

Doug has dry wit, irrepressible energy, and looks a little bit like the poor man’s Hugh Grant. A Harley lifer and the son of a Unitarian minister, he was raised with a sense of social consciousness and internationalism which eventually led to degrees in political science and history, and a serious case of wanderlust. As a senior at Harley, he says, “I was became increasingly aware that Harley was not typical, but I it led me to be increasingly curious about the rest of the world.” He went on a senior trip to Scotland and stayed in London, and after graduating, returned to London through a program through Ithaca College. Thus began a passion for travel and a global perspective which he brings to teaching.   

Doug’s father, the former minister of the Universalist Church in Rochester, had been a chaplain at Cornell and active in the 60’s civil rights and anti-war movements. That social and political consciousness rubbed off on Doug in his college years, where he worked for a peace group in Philadelphia and went to Haverford College as a political science major. In his junior year, Doug traveled to Kenya to study international development.

Kenya was an eye-opening experience. For one thing, Doug says, “It was a mild dictatorship. You did not see full freedom of the press. But the real experience was encountering poverty. American poverty is quite different from African poverty. Our homeless are people who’ve fallen through the cracks. But to have cracks means you have a floor to begin with. That floor doesn’t exist for many in poor countries.”

While in Africa, Doug met Kimi, an American plant biologist who was later to become his wife. They hitchhiked around central and southern Africa, including Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), which was very challenging at times. “The mud roads had holes that were deep enough that trucks drove down into them. There were teenage soldiers with poor training in military discipline. You realize that someone you don’t fully trust is in control. It’s stuff like that that really stretches your boundaries.”

Despite bad roads, guns, civil wars, and chronic gastrointestinal distress, Doug loved Kenya. His last six weeks there, he volunteered to be a farm laborer.  “I worked for this farmer named Alexander Mwangombe. He was one of the most intelligent and decent people I have ever met. I was amazed this man who had done so much to develop his farm and yet had so little.  I had more money in my bank account–as a kid–than he probably saw in a year. But he was clearly a great man.” Every day, Doug would toil in fields of banana trees and passionfruit.  “I was barefoot, and the first couple weeks I shredded my hands because I had soft hands and no gloves. It was a wonderful experience. I loved digging in the dirt.”

After returning from Africa, Doug finished his senior year at Haverford, then he and his girlfriend—now wife—went to teach English in Japan. From there, they decided to backpack in Central and South America for three months, where he said, “It was not as safe as we thought it would be.”  He spent a month in Guatemala near the end of the Civil War, and hitchhiked in Peru during the heyday of the terrorist guerilla group, the Shining Path. They visited an old friend of his father’s, a world authority on llamas and a member of the Peruvian upper class. “He lived in a nice townhouse, but it was behind a ten foot wall with electrified barbed wire,” Doug says. “You had to pass a machine-gun toting guard. There was a lot of fear among the upper class because the Shining Path were kidnapping wealthy people. In fact, a wealthy hostage had been held secretly in their own neighborhood for months before the safehouse was discovered. My friends had this beautiful little garden, but they were walled up. It was nuts. Like living in a POW camp.”

From there, more journeys—to SUNY Binghamton where he earned a masters degree in U.S. History and Social Studies teaching. Then on to Boston, then Tucson, and eventually back to Rochester, where he began teaching at Harley in 1999.  But when asked what his greatest journey has been, Doug says, “Fatherhood.” He has a three kids, Sam, Jack, and Ellie, who attend Harley.

Doug says his love for history and international relations began at Harley. “I had fabulous  history teachers as a kid. The ones that stand out in my mind are some of the legends of Harley—the much beloved Bill Dalton; and Scott Reisinger was a major role model for me. I stay in touch with both of them.” Doug was originally hired as the “non-western guy” to teach the histories of China, India, the Middle East and Latin America, but he is now also teaching American history.

Teaching 7th and 8th graders is a fun challenge.  “Middle School is when a lot of kids decide they are bored by certain topics,” Doug says. “History can be right up there on the list for some students. It’s easy to believe it’s dates and facts about random things that happened years ago—so the primary function of the middle school teacher is to make kids like history.” As much as possible, Doug uses discussions, simulations, debates and activities to engage students.

For example, when trying to explain the unrestrained capitalism of Dickens’ and Marx’s London and how it led to class division, he has his 8th graders take on roles—employee, factory owner, banker—to walk them through the process of supply and demand.  He says, “It’s a lecture disguised as a simulation. The kids are standing up and being the characters, so it feels more active and engaged.”

Doug says his job is to let kids learn how to teach themselves. “Everyone learns differently. Kids need to teach themselves how they learn best. We can give them all the strategies in the world, but ultimately it’s up to them.”  Although there are hands-on activities, Doug says that often the simple art of discussion where the deepest learning happens. “The great moments in teaching are when the kids are leaning forward, asking questions, absorbing. I love it when they click on whatever it is we’re talking about because that’s when they’re learning to love history. That’s when the best learning occurs—when their curiosity takes over.”