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URBANA — If you were trying to sum up what kind of person Michael Pollock is, you probably could not do better than the way he once described himself.
"I'm an Urbana kind of guy," he told Urbana school officials about 10 years ago when he'd finished earning his teaching certificate later in life and stopped in to inquire about jobs.
At an age when some teachers are looking forward to retirement, the former Urbana alderman and businessman was just getting started in education.
A decade later, the well-known teacher is starting a new chapter in his life. He is 64.
Pollock recently took a medical leave of absence from his teaching job at Urbana High School to deal with what a Facebook group in his honor describes as a "daunting," recurring health crisis.
His path to teaching started when he considered his ownership of Record Service, a Champaign-Urbana enterprise that sold vinyl records, CDs, tapes and posters. He wondered if he was on the same path as a typewriter salesman might have been on 25 years earlier. Big-box stores and the Internet were daunting challenges to locally owned retail music stores like his.
So, he sold his share in the business and went back to school at Eastern Illinois University, earning both his teaching certificate and a master's degree in history. He and his daughter, Elisabeth, were in college at the same time.
Pollock said he specifically chose to teach high school students, after doing some substitute teaching in Champaign at all grade levels.
If a high school student is having a bad day, you can reason with him or her, Pollock said, and that's not necessarily true of a third- or seventh-grader.
He student-taught at Central High School in Champaign and finished his certificate at the end of the fall semester in 2002.
It was then that he popped in to the Urbana school district, asking them to let him know if a social studies job opened. Turns out, a teacher at the high school was considering a dean's job at another school.
When it was decided that Pollock would replace that teacher, they spent a few days in the classroom together. After that, Pollock was on his own.
Many of his students that year were lifelong friends of the Pollocks' younger child, Henry.
"They had been hanging out in my back yard since they were 3 years old," Michael Pollock said. "It was great fun."
'Force until itself'
Pollock is steadily modest; he attributes his success in the classroom to "an unwillingness to do anything less than all the way." Many good teachers do the same, he said.
His wife, Renee, is more willing to mention Pollock's strengths as a teacher: He gets his students thinking critically and spends 17 or 18 hours a day plotting ways to engage them, support them and prepare them for life after high school.
"It's a force unto itself," she said.
Pollock believes that, because of his age when he started, he never had trouble controlling his classroom. His advice for reaching young people: "Make sure they know what to expect and treat students with respect. You'll get it back."
From the first day of class, Pollock said he made clear that his classroom is a safe space where all opinions should be accepted, and that students are expected to respect one another, even as they discuss controversial topics.
"I push it every day," he said.
That's one skill — along with being able to think critically and write well — that Pollock said is "just as important as the fact that William Howard Taft got stuck in the bathtub, which students always remember."
He wants them to be prepared to move on, and he believes they leave Urbana High School ready to take on whatever is next. He won't take credit, though.
"UHS is a great public high school," he said. "There are a lot of good teachers in that building."
Michael Pollock was inventive in getting and holding students' attention. For example, when it was time to talk about freedom of speech, he would plan beforehand with one student to have him or her throw a fit in class, perhaps throwing books or swearing. Once, administrators came running down the hall toward Pollock's room, getting ready to call the police, he said.
Once the other students got over their shock, Pollock and the actor would take a quick bow.
"At that point, invariably, they're mine," he said. "I've got them for the day."
His wife describes him as "one of the most creative people I have met."
'He got things done'
Pollock said he's lucky to have had two vocations he enjoys: Record Service was started as a small music ordering service and grew into a multimillion-dollar business with four locations.
It was a reflection of the generation that started it, he said, and was tied in with activism and the anti-war movement of the time. A portion of every sale was donated to community organizations, like the Earthworks grocery store or Frances Nelson Health Center.
He has been able to combine his passion for music and teaching into a class at the high school that uses film and music to help students learn what has happened throughout history.
"I think it's a great way to engage students," he said.
Urbana math teacher and instructional coach Dan Bechtel said he's known Pollock to be a great teacher from the way students talk about him.
"He is the person who, in some cases, kept them coming to school," Bechtel said.
He said you can also see it in how Pollock talks about teaching and in all the things he hoped to help his students accomplish. Pollock could challenge students in a way that was respectful, but get them talking about their thoughts and experiences with hot-button issues, such as abortion.
Every teacher aspires to do that, Bechtel said, but "Michael went after it every time he did anything."
John Taylor, a federal public defender in Urbana, has known the Pollocks in several different capacities over the years, and his time on the city council overlapped with Pollock's.
"Michael is a doer," Taylor said. "He got things done."
He also worked hard to serve the city, and was congenial, even when trying to persuade you to see something his way.
"If he wanted to move you in one way or another, he had a way of sitting down and talking to you in a friendly manner, and bringing you to his point of view," Taylor said.
Libby Tyler, the city of Urbana's community development director, said Pollock is a champion of fairness. They worked closely during Pollock's years chairing the city's plan commission.
"He's just really good at bringing people together, and you feel like you're in good hands," she said, calling that "a remarkable trait."
"He just commands people's respect," she said. "That's been a gift for the city for all of these years."
Urbana High School Principal Matthew Stark said it's clear that Pollock is passionate about his students and the subject matter they cover in class.
"He's everything we aspire to be, in education," Stark said.
Stark is new to the district but said Pollock has already urged him to give students more opportunities to advocate for themselves.
"He's passionate, and he truly cares about what happens to these students," he said. "He adores them. And that comes through. He doesn't necessarily want them to believe the way that he believes, but he helps them argue their points and make stronger advocates for themselves."
Urbana Superintendent Don Owen said Pollock's experience in business and local government help him share firsthand experiences.
"It's almost like an oral history," Owen said. "That's the fun part. He brings those personal experiences to almost every lesson."
As Pollock has taken some time off to deal with his health issues, his Facebook support page has exploded with thoughtful comments from former students, parents, Urbana residents and friends.
He's also received many notes from students and others and said he's "more gratified than I can possibly express" by their words.
"I guess, over a period of time, you can have a big impact," Pollock said.
District establishes scholarship
The Urbana school district is establishing the Michael Pollock History Scholarship and is accepting cash and checks as donations to the scholarship fund.
Those who want to donate can make checks payable to the school district, with "Michael Pollock Scholarship" on the memo line. They can be mailed to Superintendent Donald Owen, Urbana School District 116, 205 N. Race St., Urbana, Illinois 61801.