Teacher Ties Lessons Together with Students’ Neckwear Choices

Of the dozens of ties hanging on his teacher’s bulletin board, Kamden Klaasen picked out one with special meaning for him: the one showing Bugs Bunny and friends playing golf.

“Before my grandma died, she used to take me miniature golfing all the time,” said the Red Hawk Elementary sixth-grader, explaining why he chose that necktie for his teacher to wear.

Christmas ties are big seasonal favoritesKamden was one of 65 students this school year who got to pick out a tie for John Willette, their language arts and social studies teacher. It’s a tradition Willette has kept every school day for nearly 10 years, after deciding his collection of colorful ties could serve a better purpose than hanging in his closet at home.  

“I thought, ‘Wow, these ties take up a lot of space,’” said Willette, a 23-year teaching veteran. He realized he wore all but three of them only at school. So why not hang them in his classroom and let a different student choose which one to wear for the day?

“It’s just a tiny little piece of whimsy for the kids, to have that moment to be the one that picks it out,” said Willette, who has collected whimsical ties from friends, family and students over the years.

You could call them kid-friendly. Peering out from the rows of ties you can see Bart Simpson, Snoopy, Winnie-the-Pooh and Where’s Waldo. Also a map of Manhattan, a stack of ice cream cones, the U.S. Constitution and a replica $100 bill.

“If I wanted to wear every Christmas tie, I’d have to start before Thanksgiving,” said Willette, who was sporting a pike-shaped number on a late spring day. By the way, he is also the district’s energy manager, in which role he has helped Cedar schools save $2.5 million in utility costs over the past 10 years. That’s worth about four teachers a year, he said.

♥Each Choice Has Meaning

For his students, picking just one necktie from his colorful cavalcade is a treat and an honor.

“We all get to pick out one that suits our personality,” piped Avery Petersen. “He gets to see our personalities, and he gets to see how we appreciate him.”

Many pupils picked their choices for personal reasons. Audrey Visser, for instance, chose a teddy-bear pattern.

“I got this teddy bear when I was little,” Audrey said. “I really like that tie because it kind of reminded me of it.”

Brianna Weber chose Bugs Bunny because she likes bunnies (though she never watched the cartoon). Cristian Leggett picked a tie of computers because he finds them “fascinating.”

Sarah Adkison chose “the crescent dude,” by which she meant the Pillsbury Dough Boy. “He’s my favorite guy on the planet, because he’s so small and he’s really cute.”

Willette wore this pike-shaped tie after letting the whole class voteFor Cody Mongar, it was a flame-like pattern of red, gray and black, “kind of like Cedar Springs’ colors.” Emma Earnest went with palm trees: “I picked it out in the winter, because I was really looking forward to the sun.” Shelby Beeman chose a fish tie, “because I like going fishing with my dad.”

Sure, they’re just picking out ties. But for Willette’s students this year, it was a special way to tie them to their teacher.  

“He walks around the room and everybody gets to see it,” said Isabel Miller, proudly. “It’s kind of like a big deal.”

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Red Hawk Elementary School

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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