Classroom Heroes: Retired Air Force Major Michael Weiland Gives His Students Wings
When Michael Weiland's social studies class learns about Thomas Edison, they listen to an authentic wind up phonograph. When it's time for a lecture on the Wright brothers, they see a vintage biplane wing up close. During their lesson on the Civil War, they pass around a bullet recovered straight from the Confederate battlefields.
His students learn beyond the covers of their textbooks because Weiland, a teacher at Georgetown High School in rural Texas, incorporates his personal life into the classroom: artifacts from a lifelong collection and anecdotes from his 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.
"I've traveled quite a bit," says Weiland. "I've flown into typhoons in Guam for weather reconnaissance and on cargo missions throughout Europe and around the world. When students can see their teacher as a real person who has done stuff, that's when they connect."
Growing up in Milwaukee's public school system under the care of first generation immigrant parents with eighth and ninth grade educations, Weiland recognized early on the advantages that come from a good education. He earned his teaching certificate right out of school in 1973, but a lack of teaching jobs steered him to the Air Force.
After a decade of flying planes, Weiland finally got the chance to teach. He started out as a celestial navigation instructor before running Keesler Air Force Base's school, where he taught crews how to fix the planes' conventional navigation gear. When Weiland retired from the forces in 1994, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
"I've always wanted to teach 'the regular kids,' " says Weiland. "They're passed over and are more in need than the college-bound students at the top of the class and the special education students at the bottom, who get funded programs. There's a vast number in the center just left to drift."
And so he has -- for 17 years.
Kendall Shiffler, a 25-year-old social media marketer in Dallas, had Mr. Weiland for 11th grade U.S. History at Georgetown and still regards him as her all-time favorite teacher.
"I was in a class with people who didn't really care about history," Shiffler says. "But he inspired kids who weren't that academic in a way that made it really relatable. He used to bring in bayonets and cool flags. He got in trouble once for bringing an artifact into class -- I guess you can't bring knives to school!"
Shiffler remembers Weiland outside the classroom, too. "He came to every football game and pep rally," she says. "I asked him to write the recommendation I needed to try out for head of the cheerleading squad. He did -- and gave me a great speech about leadership and how one role can affect your life. When I made captain, he gave me his captain's bars from the Air Force for my letter jacket. It meant so much to me."
"I may not even understand the sport," says Weiland. "Like lacrosse! But I try to make it to at least one of each of my students' events every year. It makes it easier in the classroom -- when they understand you care about them as a person."
Weiland regales his students with anecdotes of trips through the States and South America, hoping to inspire them to move out of state for college and experience new places.
"There's nothing for them here," he says. "There are no industry or jobs or anything. Ask yourself, what can they do if they don't go to college? I force them to step outside of their comfort zone."
It's that instruction that pointed another one of Weiland's students, Erica Kovach, to Boston University and a career working with special needs students in Boston.
"He knew my personality," Kovach says. "He said that the East Coast would be the place for me. Mr. Weiland was the reason I came up to visit B.U. in the first place. Eight years later, I know he was right."
Mr. Weiland has encouraged countless students to travel. He says he tells his students, "I want you to go see the world. And when you do, I want you to send me a postcard."
Kendall Shiffler did just that. She sent him a postcard from Argentina during her junior year of college studying abroad, thanking him for being such a wonderful teacher.