Making history interesting to teenagers is a daily challenge for Eric Cochran, AB ’98, chair of the social studies department at Lindbergh High School in St. Louis County.
“I try to show them that something that happened 150 years ago still impacts their lives today,” he says. “I have a passion for history, and I try to share that. If I can get excited about it, they can get excited about it, too.”
Cochran’s teaching has garnered him multiple accolades. In 2011, he won the Milken Educator Award (and its $25,000 prize), was named a Missouri Teacher of the Year finalist, and received the Lindbergh School District Teacher of the Year Award.
So what is the key to his success?
According to Cochran, it’s being himself. As a first-year teacher, Cochran came in thinking he “had to be tough and lay down the law.” But he soon learned that just would not work for him.
“The more I started teaching to my personality, the better I became as a teacher,” he says. “You just have to be true to who you are. The kids will love you if you are genuine.”
And love him they do. Lindbergh’s National Merit finalists have named Cochran “Most Inspirational Teacher” six times.
His passion for history goes way back. As a kid, Cochran was enthralled with the U.S. presidents. “In the fourth grade, I drew a picture of every president and hung it in my bedroom,” he says. “I also remember going through old photos and wondering about life back then. I didn’t realize at the time how rare it was to have that kind of fascination at a young age.”
Cochran did not always want to be a teacher. When he began taking classes at Washington University, he decided to major in political science. While a student, he helped coach a middle school basketball team. “Coaching made me realize that working with young people was my calling,” he says.
Soon after this revelation, Cochran contacted the university’s education department to see how he could get teaching certification. “Phenomenal professors taught in the education program at Washington University,” he says. “They definitely had an impact on what I do in the classroom today.”
Cochran knew that when he began teaching after graduation it would be challenging, but he had no idea just how difficult it would prove to be. “As a teacher, I constantly try to improve my craft,” he says. “I’m always grading, working with a student who needs extra help, talking to parents, or serving on a committee or two.”
He adds that his profession is not just about teaching skills and content. “I also attempt to make a personal connection with kids and help them deal with problems at home and the challenges of adolescence,” he says.
In addition to his teaching appointment, Cochran serves as the assistant varsity basketball coach at Lindbergh, the head of the history club and a member of many different district-level committees.
He plans to apply for a doctoral program in education in the near future. (He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Missouri–St. Louis.)
“I love the classroom so much that I cannot envision a scenario where I am not working hands-on with kids,” he says. “But somewhere down the road, I might realize there are ways I can help even more kids on a larger scale — possibly working through the state with curriculum writing. Those things do intrigue me, but at this point, being in the classroom is what really excites me.”
Cochran isn’t the only one in his family dedicated to teaching. His wife, Jessica, teaches, and his brothers and their wives also teach.
“Our parents taught us to love school and to love learning,” he says. He hopes to encourage this in his two daughters (Kelsey, 6, and Kristen, 4) and in his students, as well.
Cochran ultimately aims “to inspire a love of history and to teach my students to become lifelong learners. I think that people who continue to learn for the rest of their lives always become productive citizens.”
Blaire Leible Garwitz is associate editor of this magazine.