Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Retiring Teacher Impacted Countless Lives

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Retiring Teacher Impacted Countless Lives

Article excerpt

COMMENTARY

It doesn't take much to make Dr. Burns cry.

A beautiful piece of poetry. The way a sunset glistens off a pond or an old barn house. Students from diverse socioeconomic, racial and geographic backgrounds uniting for a common purpose.

But on that February morning of 2009, I was the one who burst into his classroom with tears welling in my eyes.

What he taught me on that day and the days before changed me.

Hugh Burns -- known as Dr. Burns to his students -- will retire this month after giving the commencement speech at Suncoast Polytechnical High School's graduation today.

At 77, he is the oldest teacher in the Sarasota County School District, sharing his love of English and literature with students for more than 56 years, including 15 in Sarasota.

He often jokes about his age and the young rapscallions who sit in his classroom. But beneath his jovial facade is a man who cares deeply and passionately about his students and their success.

On Thursday, he handed awards to seniors graduating from Suncoast Polytechnical. He wore an oversized mortarboard when he began speaking, only to transition to a more "appropriate" jean baseball cap with the word "SEXY" above the brim in rhinestones.

One student earned an award for crafting creative excuses when showing up late to class. Another was honored for inventing innovative ways to annoy teachers.

Burns called a group of three young men to the front of the room.

"These three scare the hell out of me," he teased. "Every time they take out the bathroom pass, they go together. For that, they have earned best use of the bathroom pass."

Such jokes and antics are common in his classroom. He'll sarcastically berate students, calling them "dummy dog," "mole person" or "dweeb."

Students will joke about his age, asking if he lived through battles alluded to in Shakespearean plays. One of his students this year, who is taking courses to be a nurse, would measure Burns' blood pressure every day to make sure he wasn't too feeble to teach.

He said the teasing serves a purpose: It helps students open up and engage in the classroom community.

"It's about that give and take," Burns said. "They feel more comfortable answering a question because if they get it wrong, they know we can joke about it and relieve any pressure."

But it's not just the lighthearted jabs that attract students to Burns.

It's his heart.

Zack Robinson, a Suncoast Polytechnical senior, said Burns helped guide him through difficult personal problems. He only had Burns for a year, but said it only took a few months for the teacher to earn a spot on his all-time favorites list.

"A lot of people can relate to Dr. Burns. He's had so many students over the years who have gone through a lot, and he's gone through a lot himself," Robinson said. "He's the most loving and caring person I've ever met. …

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