Gordon Heaton carries lessons from his childhood on a farm to his teaching.
by Christina Danek
While growing up on a farm in rural Illinois, Gordon Heaton never imagined that he would one day be teaching a class of high school students about the Boston Tea Party; young Heaton planned on going into forestry or banking. Fifty years later, Heaton believes that he has truly found his calling in teaching. “It’s what I love to do. I believe that somehow I was meant to do this,” he says.
It started one morning in early fall when a young Heaton walked into his first day of 11th grade at Jacksonville High School. The unsuspecting farm boy had no idea that his course was about to be changed, by a man named Mr. Moffatt. The educator was astonishingly passionate about teaching history, and spoke as though he recalled each event, and knew each figure, personally. Heaton recalls that the teacher used to refer to President Andrew Jackson as “Andy”, as if they were old pals. His use of humor in his teaching was also quite memorable, and Mr. Moffatt often had his students in stitches. Heaton took much away from that high school history class, and now does his best to express the same passion and humor in his own classroom. Stop by Heaton’s room sometime, and you may get to hear one of his history jokes, such as his account of the famous debate in “Roe v. Wade”: George’s Washington’s dilemma the night he crossed the Delaware with his troops.
After finishing high school, Heaton went on to become the first in his family to graduate from college. He majored in History and Government and minored in English at Illinois College—notably the oldest college in the state, and alma mater of William Jennings Bryan.
Since the beginning of his career, Heaton has explored a wide range of educational opportunities. He taught for one year at a rural junior high school in Illinois before being employed by Denver Public Schools, and teaching for a decade at Horace Mann Middle School. Following this, Heaton took some time off to co-host a TV show on Channel 6 on high school career opportunities. He then served the Denver Classroom Teachers Association as president for two years, and was President of the Colorado Education Association for six years, but soon found that he missed the classroom. He returned to teaching, taking up the Social Studies department at the Career Education Center (CEC), a comprehensive career and technical magnet school in Denver. It was in the fall of 1995 that Heaton began teaching at Thomas Jefferson, where he has now taught for going on 13 years.
“My roots go deep to the country and rural areas,” Heaton says, and it’s clear that his history makes Heaton the man and the teacher that he is. Heaton has brought his farming heritage into his teaching, putting meaning into the old cliché that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
His work ethic is a distinct trait that defines Heaton in all that he does, and he admits that he learned it on the farm. “We would literally work sunup to sundown on the farm. We worked until the job was finished. Even now, I think I still carry some of that with me.” The dedicated teacher continually pushes himself and his students, and believes this has helped make him a successful teacher.
Just as preparation is essential to success on a farm, it is one of the keys to successful teaching, Heaton believes. He draws the analogy of preparing his classroom each morning to a farmer preparing his land. “I can’t ever remember coming into my classroom where I didn’t feel that I was pretty well prepared to teach a lesson, or guide the students in a project. I think preparation and organization link both occupations.”
Growing up in the country as the oldest of five boys, Heaton also learned independence and personal responsibility. He recalls learning how to take care of himself, and to be responsible for his actions. In the classroom, Heaton enjoys a similar independence that he has with his teaching. Respect is another quality that was imbedded in Heaton through his family as he was growing up. “In my family, no one was judged—whether by age, gender, race or color, and this is something I do my best to apply in my classroom.”
This teacher enjoys seeing the results of all of his hard work and preparation. “When a farmer does well, he stands back and says, ‘Hey, that turned out well. All my hard work has paid off.’ I think in teaching you have the same privilege. At the end of a school year, you look out across your classes of students, and you realize that you’ve come a long way.” Heaton acknowledges that one of the most valuable aspects of teaching is seeing improvement in his students, whether they have achieved high on the AP test, done well on their research papers, or even improved their essay writing.
The Civil War, Heaton’s favorite unit to teach, became an interest of his thanks in part to Mr. Moffatt and two outstanding college professors. Heaton is fascinated with the war among brothers that tore the country apart, and the man who patched it up, Abraham Lincoln. In fact, Heaton is proud to claim the same home state of our 16th president. (Though Lincoln was born in Kentucky, the state of Illinois claims him, as he lived there much of his life.)
Heaton’s extensive knowledge of American history is complemented by his knowledge and experiences with government and politics. A firm believer in the democratic process, Heaton was a registered lobbyist for six years, and has met many famous politicians over the years. Former President Jimmy Carter, Former Senator Gary Hart, Activist Jesse Jackson, Former Vice President Walter Mondale, Civil Rights Leader Coretta Scott King, and Senator Ted Kennedy are just a few of those whose acquaintance Heaton has made.
Though teaching is his passion, nothing matters more to Heaton than his family. He believes that he has been blessed to have two families, consisting of two daughters and a son from his first marriage: Angela, 40, Robb, 38, and Melissa, 33, and a daughter and two sons from his current marriage: Arianne, 17, Luke, 13, and Caleb, 13. Heaton is happily married to Lisa, his wife of 22 years, who teaches the Gifted and Talented program at Willow Creek Elementary. Some of Heaton’s favorite pastimes are watching his three younger children participate in school, church and athletic activities, and spending time with his nine grandchildren. A huge fan of sports, Heaton can be found on many weekends switching roles from teacher to parent as he cheers on his children at their soccer games.
To this day, Heaton has a great appreciation for his humble upbringing. He still loves to go back and visit his family in Illinois, and slow down from the hectic city lifestyle once in a while. “It’s a different pace,” he explains. “Here, we are so caught up with our schedules…at the farm, I’m allowed to take the time, and reaffirm what is important.”