Mark Butcher writes out a joking equation that shows the relationship between money and knowledge. Butcher has taught as a math and science teacher at Rochester High School for 24 years. Voice photo by Regan Ernst
Mark Butcher has been teaching at Rochester High School for 24 years, but he didn’t find his calling immediately.
Before that he worked in a lab at St. John’s Hospital for 14 years. He worked in the computer room and the front office, but after a while, it got boring.
“It was nothing I hated, but I was just getting a little tired,” he said. “We did the same thing every single day, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to look at another 25 or 30 years of doing the same thing.’”
So he went back to something that really sparked a passion for him. When he was a high school student, he had a physics and chemistry teacher that sparked a love of math, science and learning in him.
Now he does the same for hundreds of students every year at his alma mater, Rochester High School. He helps kids find their passion and their paths in life, and for this reason, he is The Voice’s Top Teacher of 2015. Butcher was the overwhelming choice, considering we received more than 40 nominations and 16 of them were for Butcher alone.
McKenna Southard is a junior at Rochester High School. She currently has Butcher for physics, and she will have him again for Physics II.
“Mr. Butcher has been kind of a mentor to me personally,” she said. “He goes above and beyond as a teacher, but he’s supportive of everyone.”
From the beginning
His passion for teaching and science started when he was a high school student himself. Butcher had a physics and chemistry teacher he loved, named Don Loffland. Loffland inspired him to go on to college to get a degree in physical sciences. He later got two master’s degrees: one in physical sciences and one in earth sciences. Then he got his teaching certification and he went back to his alma mater.
In fact, he looked up to Loffland so much, he practically fashioned his career after his mentor’s. Loffland had originally worked in the testing lab at the Department of Transportation before becoming a teacher.
“For my junior year, I had him for chemistry and my senior year I had him for physics and trig, and I just loved the guy,” Butcher said. “I think I kind of wanted my life to be like his.”
Now Butcher spends his days inspiring his students the way Loffland inspired him. And he does it in a way that makes students look up to and respect him.
Dennis Canny is the principal at Rochester High School, and he’s worked with Butcher for 17 years. For years, he’s seen Butcher make physics accessible to his students.
“He’s really a hands-on teacher,” Canny said. “He teaches physics, which is a difficult subject, and he turns it around and designs his lessons from the learner’s perspective.”
Canny said Butcher also sometimes incorporates food into his classes, like pancakes and other foods.
His approach to physics, which can be a complicated subject for some students, makes it much easier for kids to learn the concepts.
For McKenna, his teaching methods have been helpful for her when some of the lessons have been difficult to understand. For example, this year she’s had difficulty with torque, but Butcher’s way of explaining it by drawing it on the board and using real-life examples helps her a lot in understanding it.
“The drawings that he has with his explanation really helps put it into focus and perspective,” she said.
But teaching physics and math isn’t Butcher’s only talent. In recent years, he’s discovered a passion and talent for helping students find success after high school.
In 2001, Butcher helped Rochester High School usher in its dual credit program. He started teaching Physics II, which allowed students to get college credit. Since then, the program has grown to offer 50 hours of college credit.
Then Butcher wanted to do his own personal study. Between 2001 and 2007, 113 students at Rochester High School had taken Physics II for duel credit. He tracked down 112 of those students two years ago to see what they were doing now and the success they had found beyond school had blown him away. Of those students, 107 of them had graduated college with a degree and 43 percent of them went on to professional school after that.
“It just overwhelms me with what these kids go on and do and accomplish,” he said. “That is the absolute best feeling in the world that these kids are successful.”
And success to Butcher doesn’t mean making a lot of money. One of his favorite success stories from one of his students is of a young boy he tutored in math as a freshman and sophomore. When he had difficulty solving a problem, he’d hit himself on the side of his head and call himself stupid, and Butcher would soothe him.
After this young man graduated, he went on to take classes at Lincoln Land Community College. Butcher teaches a few classes at Lincoln Land and he was on the campus one day when he ran into this young man and saw how much he’d grown and how many activities and organizations he was involved in.
“He would have never done that in high school,” Butcher said. “He was just too nervous academically, too nervous socially.”
But perhaps his biggest joy about being a teacher is helping students find the right college. To him, every school has a personality and as does every student, and if you can match them up, the student has a great chance of succeeding. It’s helped that Butcher has studied at many different schools himself, so he speaks from experience.
Since Rochester offers so many hours of duel credit, he often suggests that students got to Lincoln Land for a few more semesters first to help save them money before they go on to a four-year institution.
But he also encourages students to follow their dreams, sometimes by double-majoring. For instance, if a student is a talented singer and actor, Butcher might encourage her to study theater and education or technology.
For McKenna, she turned to Butcher when she started looking at colleges. She wants to study elementary education so she can teach fourth- through sixth-graders, and Butcher helped her narrow the colleges she’s interested in to Lincoln Christian University and Illinois State University. He even offered to take her to Lincoln Christian University to visit.
“He said, ‘My son works at Lincoln Christian, so we can all go visit,’” McKenna said.
In the future
Butcher enjoys helping students find after-high school plans so much that he wants to do it for the rest of his life. Right now he’s in the middle of earning a doctorate of education at Southwestern College in Kansas, and in three years he will retire from full-time teaching at Rochester.
But he fully plans to continue his work with students after he’s left the high school scene. He said he doesn’t care what form the work takes or if he even gets paid for it. He believes his calling is to help teenagers find their paths in life, and he wants to keep doing it.
“I do enjoy high school kids,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve got a 17-year-old mind trapped in a 62-year-old body.”