Greg McFall, MAED ’07 came from three generations of teachers, but it took him a while to find his own way into the classroom. When he did, he was named California Teacher of the Year for his innovative and relational teaching style at public schools in Orange County.
“Once I knew I wanted to teach, I really tried to become a master of my craft,” says McFall. “I tweak and adapt things to make them interesting to myself and to the kids. I think that’s the trick … You have to look to non traditional ways, to take the kids wherever they are and have exciting lessons, and build upon each success. It takes time.”
McFall’s first career path was in corrections. He earned a BA in criminology and started working as a deputy probation counselor at juvenile hall. “That was tough because by the time they get into the correctional side it’s really hard to make the changes in people’s lives,” he says.
When a friend offered him a job selling insurance, McFall, disillusioned, took it.
“I was successful [in insurance] but there was something always missing,” he says.
He reconnected with his teaching passion ten years later as a student at a martial arts school, where he eventually earned his black belt. One of the owners suggested he start teaching. McFall recalls the pivotal day when a mother dropped off two brothers for lessons.
“It was a complete mess,” he says. “They were bouncing off the walls. I was just happy by the end of the day that I got them to kneel and talk to them one on one. As we slowly developed a relationship I learned there were family problems and they were not doing well at school. Through martial arts I was able to connect with them and create some discipline. That translated slowly into better grades, better relationships with their parents. My wife is a teacher and always had these stories about success and I thought, ‘I really want to do this.’ I felt like I could connect well with other people and motivate them.”
I’m willing to take chances, willing to fail, willing to look ridiculous.
He sold his insurance practice and enrolled in three colleges simultaneously, earning his degree in U.S. history in two years by “driving back and forth” to different campuses.
“I’d always been goal-driven, but I’d never been that focused singularly on something,” McFall says. “I had a goal and that belief in God and in what I was doing.”
Faith was a foundational part of his life as well. Along with his brother, he came to faith when he was 12 years old. “It was a turning moment in my life,” McFall says. “It set the stage.”
A New Career
McFall found a job at a middle school in Orange County, teaching language arts, history and reading. “It was beautiful. It was great,” he says. “I was able to go into depth with historical thinking skills and connect it with language and reading standards, biography, creative writing, poetry. It lends itself to something I was good at, which is instilling a love for learning and getting kids to be more of renaissance thinkers rather than focusing on one subject.”
But his first day also brought an eyeopening lesson.
“I had prepared an awesome lesson on dangling modifiers, anticipating that kids would know exactly what I was talking about,” he says. “There were wonderful visuals, overhead transparencies. I looked out and nobody was talking and I thought, ‘What an engaged audience.’ Then a girl put a note on my overhead. I read it aloud thinking it was a question. ‘Dear Mr. McFall. You have a booger out your nose.’ That was reality shock. They weren’t looking at me but at the booger sticking out of my nose. I realized you have to make it accessible and engaging to kids. I picked that up right away.”
His goal became to inspire natural curiosity. “You can’t force kids to learn. You’ve just got to make it interesting enough and create the desire to do it,” he says. He developed what he calls “a bag of tricks” to make classroom learning engaging. He uses a lot of music, gets kids up and moving around, cooks food and has guests come in to share their experiences.
Risk-taking is a big factor: “I’m willing to take chances, willing to fail, willing to look ridiculous,” he says. “I try to get students to try as many new things as possible until they find something they are successful at and then carry that success to other classes.”
You can’t force kids to learn. You’ve just got to make it interesting enough and create the desire to do it.
One tool was surfing, McFall’s passion and hobby for forty years. With little encouragement from the school administration, he started a surfing club fourteen years ago, scouring garage sales for wet suits and boards he could loan the kids. He used the process of learning to surf to teach kids how to overcome challenges in life.
“Some kids get it right away, and others have to go through each step,” he says. “You have to go through certain challenges to get to your goal. I try to instill that in kids. I’ve noticed that great teachers love challenges. They are always challenging themselves to learn new things, not just in the classroom but in life.”
The club’s popularity grew and other teachers got involved. Then they started taking out special education students.
“That was a little more intense,” McFall says.
To ease them into it, he brought a bunch of sand from the beach into the classroom, along with blue construction paper to simulate the ocean, and surf music playing in the background.
“I wanted to eliminate as many variables that would be new to them as possible. And it worked,” he says.
Kids with severe autism, cerebral palsy and other disabilities went into the water with McFall and an occupational therapist and “loved it. It was a big success. They held onto boards screaming and shouting. The ocean can be very therapeutic. It’s as close to God as some kids ever get.”
In addition to the surfing club, McFall also leads the track and field club, and has a club of students who join him for lunch every day.
“We listen to music and talk,” he says. “Kids feel a sense of belonging. It makes a connection. Their attention level is better in the classroom, they’re more on task, they smile more, are more respectful and wanting to please.”
In the mid-2000s, McFall enrolled in Concordia’s Master of Arts in Education: Curriculum and Instruction program.
“I loved doing the cohort and getting to know the same people for two years,” he says. “What I liked about Concordia was it was a nice blend of pedagogy and practical application in the classroom. It was really tailored to the working educator. All the instructors were former or current educators and knew what the everyday life was like. It was really nicely crafted for working professionals. It was something I knew would further my professional growth and it certainly did.”
Soon after graduating, McFall was one of five educators named California Teacher of the Year for 2008. He already had been named District Teacher of the Year and Orange County Teacher of the Year.
“Mr. McFall truly believes in his students and in their ability to succeed,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. “He is committed to finding what works for his students with limited social and cultural experiences and building upon their accomplishments, one success at a time.”
McFall feels that “you grow into that award. My goal is to continue making positive connections with students even as I age into my mid-50s, being a positive role model, showing kids there’s more to history that fits into the real world … I pray and always remember that life is fragile and to keep your eyes open, your ears open to help people. If you allow that to occur, pretty miraculous things can happen.”