On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Bill Kennedy’s AP Government class kicks off as it does on most days: with video news footage. Today it’s a story about a Defense Department study buried by the Pentagon that found $125 billion in wasteful spending in that agency. That amount could largely be cut, the report concluded, by reducing personnel.
“Well, what do you think?” Kennedy asks his class.
After a brief silence, a hand goes up in the back of the room.
“Could they, like, really lay all those people off?” asks Matthew Katz.
Kennedy resists the instinct to provide an answer. It appears to be OK to let his students mull the implications.
The conversation drifts to government spending, and a recent tweet from President-elect Donald Trump that a pair of Air Force One mobile command centers under contract with aerospace giant Boeing are too costly.
“I never even thought about how much it costs to build Air Force One,” says Nick Weykamp.
Adds Charlie Anderson: “Four billion dollars; that’s a ton of money.”
After Kennedy points out that they should consider that Boeing’s stock price took a dive after the tweet, Brett Bauman has his own take. “Sometimes I think there are things that shouldn’t be negotiated on Twitter.”
“Is (Trump) going to have to delete his Twitter?” muses Avery Williams. “I mean, can the president really just tweet about anything?”
Kennedy mostly stays out of the discussion in his Forest Hills Northern High School class. Instead, he gently nudges it along, encouraging discourse that remains respectful, on topic and encourages all opinions.
What comes across again and again when talking to his students is that they feel respected by Kennedy. And it’s something he consciously works at conveying.
“The No. 1 most important thing for me as a teacher is my relationships with my students,” Kennedy says. “As teachers, if you can relate to them, they can relate to you.
“The relationships I had in high school with teachers who I consider friends even today are the ones who talked to me like an adult. Those who talked down to me I don’t remember.”
AP Government is one of three subjects Kennedy teaches at Forest Hills Northern. He also leads a civics class as well as Sports Marketing, a class he created.
The Baltimore native earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management from Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. He originally had an education minor, but dropped it. “I was just ready to be done with school,” he admits.
Kennedy interned with the Pittsburgh Penguins and worked with three minor league baseball teams, but said he wore down quickly from the demands of the position.
When his wife got a job offer in Michigan, he went back to school and earned a general teaching certificate from Grand Valley State University. In the meantime, he contacted every high school in the area with an offer to volunteer-coach football.
Forest Hills took him up on it. The rest began at the head of a Central High U.S. History class, where he also served as athletic director for a time before moving to Northern High five years ago.
“I grew up in a very politically minded household,” Kennedy says. He remembers being brought to the polls as a child when his parents voted, and said he gravitated to social studies even in elementary school. For years, his father has written a political column for his hometown Baltimore newspaper.
Teachers were his role models, and his favorite in high school also was his football coach. The two plan to get together for a beer over winter break.
Kennedy’s students are always trying to guess his political beliefs, and that’s the way he plans to keep it. Well, maybe not forever.
“I keep thinking that at the end of my career I’ll hold some kind of event and announce,” he says with a laugh.
At the end of the day, his students don’t seem all that serious about learning Kennedy’s personal position. In fact, many say, it helps to not know.
“Government classes can get really heated, and he does a really good job of keeping the conversation on track,” says Ella Streng.
“It’s good to be able to say what you want to say and not be judged,” adds Charlie Anderson. “For example, I disagree with Ella on a lot but I still really like her as a person.”
What Kennedy’s students go back to, though, is the feeling of intellectual parity they get from being a part of his class.
“There are teachers who still act like teachers but are cool enough to be friends with,” explains Rasheed Karadsheh. “It feels like an accomplishment to be treated like you’re on the same level as someone you look up to.”