From carpenter to teacher
Vic Svec, instructor in Russian, explains why he won't be retiring any time soon
April 03, 2017
—Vic Svec has seen a lot in his nearly 40 years at PA: thousands of students (and now their children!), advances in teaching tools, and many hard-fought battles on the volleyball court. An early adopter of technology in the classroom, Svec also strongly believes in a more traditional, direct approach, what he calls the “lessons of learning.” Below is an edited version of his conversation with Andover magazine.
by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
What inspired you to become a teacher?
Svec: Terrible teachers.
Svec: Because it was easy. I started studying Russian my junior year of college. I did an undergraduate degree in Russian in a year and a half. Once I got started, I was obsessed.
You say you don’t teach Russian, you teach young people. What do you mean?
Svec: I teach students to learn. It’s the only thing I do. I don’t care if students learn any Russian. Yes, I grade them on their Russian, but I’m really grading them on how well they’re taking the lessons of learning. Just today I asked a question and a student answered in a questioning tone. “No,” I said. “You learn nothing if I acknowledge that answer. Tell me what your answer is. If you’re right, your mind will say, ‘Got it.’”
You were one of the first teachers to use iPads in your classroom. How has technology changed your teaching?
Svec: Technology has extended the classroom. In my class, the typical student does their homework the day before. They get their homework back the day before. They correct it the day before. They re-correct it the day before. They come into class knowing what’s right, and I come in knowing where their problems are. The ability to keep that connectivity is the biggest advantage of technology. Instead of 45 minutes and forget Russian, there’s another six minutes of Russian later in the day and another 30 seconds of Russian the next. Bringing it back again and again is really what learning is about.
What is your secret to constantly learning and growing as an instructor?
Svec: I love what I do. I love these kids. They stress me and test me and push me—and they give back, which is why I ultimately switched from carpentry to teaching. I am a carpenter. I can build something beautiful. I can build something strong. I can build something for the ages. But it doesn’t ever really give back. The kids give back.
You’ve been coaching volleyball since the 1980s, currently boys' JV. Why volleyball?
Svec: When I first came here, I was the soccer coach, and you knew when I was coaching because you could hear me from two or three miles away. It wasn’t pretty. I was just learning to learn about things back then. I asked myself, why am I doing it this way? Because the coaches I had had were loud, abusive, rude, and angry.
Then I thought about it. What did I ever learn where I didn’t have a coach like that? Volleyball. My volleyball coach was patient. He was instructive. He was helpful. And he loved the sport. I thought, that’s really who I am. I went to Athletic Director Joe Wennik ’52 and said, “Can I switch?” Joe said yes, and the rest is history.
Which is harder, teaching students to speak Russian or volleyball players to spike?
Svec: Neither, because it goes back to the fact that I’m teaching them how to figure out how to do something. Whether they can do it or not isn’t my goal. Last year, I had this wonderful young man in JV volleyball. Every single match I put him in the game and every single match I had him serve. It was the week before the end of the season and he finally got a serve in. It put him over the top.
That’s the difference between getting a medal and learning how to do something. If you get a medal every time you step on the floor, it’s meaningless. If you continually work and improve and learn how to do something, you ultimately feel the accomplishment. No one has to tell you that you did a good job.
How does PA support your work?
Svec: The biggest thing I get is understanding. I’ve been allowed to do the things I do in the frequently unconventional ways that I do them. Like when I created the Language Learning Center. I had no business creating that. I’m not a techy. But I’ve never asked the school to let me do something if I couldn’t do it.
In Russian, there’s a word for this concept of ownership and responsibility: хозяин [khozyain]. To the gross meaning, it’s like “lord of the manor.” I own it, I’m responsible for it. If it doesn’t work, it’s on me. If it doesn’t work, I need to fix it. It’s not always looking for someone to fix your problems. The school has been very good. I’ve stumbled, sure, but I’ve always known I can fix it.
What profession other than teaching would you like to try?
Svec: If I weren’t teaching, I’d still be teaching.
What profession would you not like to try?
Svec: I would never want to be anything where I couldn’t teach.
What new teaching innovations are you interested in?
Svec: What I’m dying to get to—though I’ll probably be dead before it happens—is a holodeck. Like in Star Trek. The holodeck is the future of language learning.
What’s your favorite Russian food?
Svec: A well-made Ukrainian borscht.
Favorite Russian word?
Svec: взгляд [vzglyad]. It means glance. Why is it my favorite word? Six-letter word, five consonants, one vowel.
Favorite place in Russia?
Svec: Kizhi. It’s an island off of Petrozavodsk. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s sort of an outdoor museum, if you will, of old buildings. The main cathedral is this incredible thing. All out of logs with no metal in it. No nails. I’ve gone there so many times and I’m always learning something new about it.
Any plans to retire?
Svec: I’m 12 or so years into teaching kids of kids that I taught. I remember my current students’ parents. Several years ago, there was a young woman here, Thea Rossman ’15. Years and years before, I’d taught her father, Jeff Rossman ’83. Grandparents’ Day arrived, and a woman came in and I said, “Mrs. Rossman.” She was Thea’s grandmother. I had never seen her with Thea, but I remembered her from when Jeff was a student. I will retire when I teach the first grandchild of a student.
A freelance writer, teacher, and novelist, Bair O’Keeffe is the former editor of Andover magazine. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kbairokeeffe.