Don Sankovitch is the poster child for not judging a book by his cover. He looks, acts, and smells like hippie: patchouli wafts around his long hair and his eyes indicate he’s drifting somewhere over Woodstock. He seems a little lost in his own world, happy to strolling around town festivals dressed like a pirate or walking down to the beach bars to listen to karaoke. At first glance you may assume he’s drifting through life in a dream state.
If you want to see his other side, ask him about his kids.
That’s how I found out about the other side of Don. I’d met him a few times, mostly when I’d taken his photo for the Gabber. As far as photo appeal, Don usually meanders around Gulfport festivals with tons of it. At Geckofest, he stomped around in pirate garb, clutching a teddy bear. I snapped a photo and asked him, “Why the bear?”
“I sleep with pirates,” he replied. “Those guys are scary.”
I asked him if he brought the bear to school. In an instant, he went from all-around comedian to a totally different person.
The bear, I find out later, has a name: Fuzzy Wuzzy. Standing in the street last fall, I didn’t know that, but Don told me how his students – third graders considered “at risk” by the system – struggle not only with learning, but fear. Fuzzy Wuzzy helps them not be scared.
Fuzzy Wuzzy isn't just any old bear: he was Don's bear when Don was a little boy. He dad gave him to him; his mom sent Don's dad the bear when he was stationed in Frankfurt in the Army. Fuzzy Wuzzy has no hair.
Fuzzy Wuzzy, Don tells his students, is a very famous bear. He has, after all, a song named after him. Next, he tells him why he has no hair: Don rubbed it off when he was little and worried all the time.
Don and Fuzzy Wuzzy teach the kids to read. Right now they have 12 students at Gulfport Elementary.
Most of Don’s students can read, but many can’t read well. Others don’t perform well in school for other reasons.
“In general it's not an IQ problem,” he says. He cites one little girl spending her third year as a third grader. It was his first year teaching her. He handed her a test to take. She put her hands in her lap and looked up at the ceiling.
Later that day, he called her mom. Together they found out the student felt she couldn't take a test if she couldn't whisper read the questions. He moved her desk, gave her a reading lamp, and let her whisper the test questions to herself.
She passed the end-of-year-tests, took the fourth grade tests, and passed those, too. After spending three years in third grade, she skipped fourth grade and went right to fifth.
He teaches other students who can’t read. When he talks about them, he gets angry – not at the students, but the administration.
“Who promotes a kid who can't read at all? To the third grade?” he asks. Often, he can get them to read. This year one of his students went from illiteracy to writing stories.
“They’re simple, but he can write them,” he says.
He didn't start as a teacher. He painted and worked at a Wendy's before going back to school for an education degree. He applied in Arizona, California and Florida. Florida offered him a job first. He taught at Schrader Elementary in Pasco and then transferred to Gulfport Elementary, where he started teaching in the early success program. He used reading techniques taught in his native Ohio.
“I'm really strict, but I'm not mean. I have to be. If you have a class of 18 kids, and 17 are listening, what do you do? What I hear most teachers saying is ‘I'm not going to stop teaching to get the other kid on task.’ What I'm saying is, ‘I'll stop my whole class to get that kid back on task’.”
Doesn’t that take too much away from the other students?
“You would think so but my data says it's not true,” he says. Friends say that when Don talks about “data,” he’s talking about learning and education research he’s spent his free time finding. He looks up methods and researches what’s working in other places as well as what isn’t.
He loves his job, but he faces challenges. He bought a home in Gulfport when the market was up, and his teaching job barely pays the bills. He supplements his income by bartending annually at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival. He doesn’t earn a salary, only tips.
"If I could do that all year, I'd probably quit. I'm sorry, but it's true," he laughs.
It isn’t just the money that gets to him, he says. Some days he doesn’t feel like he’s helping.
“Sometimes in the middle of the year I get really down because they're not making progress. I get really down that I've had 110 days to try, and I can't get them to try,” he says. He loves teaching, but the other demands can get to him, too. He's not good at paperwork (“That stuff's tough. It wastes my time," he tells me). He says when they ask him what training he needs, he asks for time management.
“I don't see how teachers do it,” he says. “It helps a lot that I have an incredible assistant.”
He has strong feelings about how the educational system is failing today’s kids. Among other issues, he cites fundamental schools as one strategy that penalizes kids whose parents, he says, “aren’t helping.”
“What you're doing is penalizing kids whose parents won't do paperwork. That's essentially what the fundamental system is: the parents have to go to meetings. If they parents aren't willing to do that, why penalize the kids?” he says. He believes that culling kids with a strong support system from the larger pool of students hurts the students who don’t have that level of support.
“What it does is concentrate the kids with parents who aren't helping – it kicks out those kids,” he says. Then, he says, those kids “have no positive role models.”
Don’t misunderstand: he loves a lot of things about his job. He speaks with pride about the kids he’s helped and their successes. He brags that one of his students was just selected for an art show in Clearwater. It’s clear that despite his issues with the system, Don Sankovitch loves his students and his job.
Officially, Don teaches the third grade curriculum, but "I can teach them the curriculum and they can fail all year long." He teaches also them how to figure out answers.
“They come in thinking that guessing is the number one strategy,” he sighs. He shows them instead how to work things through to find an answer, and he tries to drive home why it’s important that they know how to find answers: the way the state predicts how many prison cells to build in Florida, he says, is to look at the third grade retention rates.
“I say, you guys need to fix it now,” he says. “Get caught up, pass, and you'll have no worries.”
Don, like most teachers, knows he must help his students learn. He knows that for him, that also means helping his kids learn to learn. By the time they come to him they have struggled for a few years already. They feel lost in a sea of words and numbers that don’t make any sense to them.
That’s where Don comes in. Don and, of course, Fuzzy Wuzzy.