Tall and affable, McIlquham is a favorite with most everyone at Ashley Academy, where he is fondly known as Mr. Mac and teaches fourth grade with a passion.
He attributes his popularity at the pre-K-8 private school to his morning service as car-line greeter, a daily ambassadorship for which he arrives early to welcome everyone to school and keep the parking lot safe.
That he never misses a school dress-up day, is a lot of fun in his costumes, started the school golf team and participates in the annual field day dance-off also add to his rank among Ashley’s students, parents and teachers. But when you talk to Mr. Mac about teaching, you suspect it’s his approach to learning that makes that makes him a hit.
First there is his name. Should you ask, he will oblige you with the phonetic spelling. It’s Mac-il-wam. It’s Scottish. It was only during the years he and his wife Wendy spent in England that they found people who were familiar with the pronunciation. And he’s fine with the Mr. Mac moniker attached to him by his students and friends at Ashley.
Mr. Mac hails from Ontario, and together he and his wife, Wendy, have traveled the world. While still in their 20s, before they began their careers and their family, the couple spent two years backpacking around as much of the globe as they could cover. And it was those two years that Mr. Mac believes had the most impact on their future.
He came late to teaching. His first degree and his original career path was in computers. It was Wendy’s job as a marketing executive for American Greetings that took the two to England.
They were there four years, during which their son was born and Mr. Mac took up his second profession as a stay-at-home dad, doing computer consulting from home.
From there, American Greetings deployed Wendy to Melbourne, Australia, where they spent another four years, added a daughter to their family and spent their spare time exploring yet another country with their children.
Then company sent the McIlquans to Cleveland, Ohio. And to their happy surprise, they loved it. Downtown Cleveland had been through a major revitalization and they landed on a lovely cul de sac with a host of other young families with dozens of children.
Still at home with the kids, Mr. Mac was volunteering at his son’s school, as he had done in Australia, when finally found his passion.
In Australia, he said, kids start school at age 3 and by begin first grade at 5. When they got to Cleveland, his son was too advanced for traditional first grade and so they enrolled him in an independent private school.
Whatever country or culture the kids were studying, Mr. Mac had photos from his and Wendy’s travels to show and tell them about. He enjoyed it and began to realize, he said, “teaching is where my heart is. ... That’s when I realized, this is what I want to do.”
Alas, after seven years in Cleveland, technology pulled the plug on the greeting card industry. American Greetings laid off its senior management. Wendy took her skills to a flooring company named Harris-Tarkett in a little city in Northeast Tennessee that they had to look up on map.
On the same day of her interview, Mr. Mac enrolled their kids at Ashley. And not long after he enrolled himself at East Tennessee State University and earned his master’s degree in teaching.
Counting his years in the computer industry and his years as a stay-at-home dad, Mr. Mac said, “I figure I’m on my third career. Hopefully it will be my last one. But you never know. I was 52 years old when I started teaching.”
“I’m in that sweet spot between 10 and 12 years old, where they’re old enough to understand the concepts without all the drama of teen age.
“I try to get over to them, you’ve got to be well read and learn about everything and be able to connect with the material, that things they can’t experience first hand they can experience vicariously through books and connect to concepts like math so that the boring subjects are aren’t boring anymore.
In other words, Mr. Mac makes it fun to learn. On the last day of this school year, his class was gathered around their work table for a marathon game of Monopoly. It went well with the classroom economy they engaged in all year.
Mr. Mac pays the kids Mac Bucks for classroom employment in jobs that range from custodial to librarian. They use their bucks, which come in various denominations and bear the photos of his and other faculty members, to pay rent on their desks. They get bonuses for things like giving and receiving compliments and they get docked for not having their homework.
Early in the school year, Mr. Mac’s students built a replica of Jamestown with palisade made from pallet wood. And when their Jamestown study was over, they took it apart and used the wood to build an Adirondack chair for the school.
His approach to teaching involves overlapping circles of heart, mind and body and inside those circles are the subjects — social studies, science, music, visual arts and more. His classroom is a reflection of himself, he said. One wall is lined with shelves filled with the books he loves and on the opposite side of the room there a corner cabinet heavily laden with games of all varieties.
When parents ask him what to do to keep their kids learning over summer break, he tells them to build something “because it requires lots of measuring. Play games. Read, read, read. Read whatever you like. And one more that is hard to convince people to do is give your kids and allowance and let them spend it and learn to make change.
“I try to teach kids to make the most of whatever you do. Find your passion, whatever you’re good at, what you’re passionate about and go after that.
“My job I think is to expose these kids to all these things and hopefully inspire them. Hopefully they will find their passion, find what they’re good at and do it to the best of their ability.
“That’s what makes this work fun.”
Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.