Distilling the joy of critical thinking
He’s been called bristly, tough, eccentric, and a host of other things, but one descriptor resurfaces no matter whom you ask: “passionate.”
Inside Mark Halpern’s fifth-floor classroom overlooking downtown Portland, his bike rests against a counter littered with a stash of reusable water bottles, a Chemex coffee maker, a coffee grinder, an electric kettle, and a small bookshelf.
Halpern teaches English literature at Lincoln High School to juniors taking advanced International Baccalaureate classes. He’s been teaching for roughly three decades, the last two of which have been at Lincoln.
Even after 20 years at the same school, increased pressure on educators, and a pandemic that crippled classroom learning, the term “burnout” doesn’t resonate with him.
“I teach some of the brightest kids these great books, and if you get the right book at the right time, you get inside them,” Halpern said. “They’re talking about themselves, but always through the books. The best of the writers are prophets who see into the mystery of being.”
Teaching at an IB school allows Halpern to move through the material slowly and explore texts through a deeper lens.
“I love what I do. I’ve always loved it,” Halpern says. “I still some days can’t believe I get paid to do it.”
His first teaching gig was at an all-girls prep school in Western Massachusetts — a state known for its prestigious private schools.
Halpern moved to Oregon in 1999 when his wife landed a job in Portland. He started at Jefferson High School, then started teaching at Lincoln three years later. He’s got three daughters—two in high school and one in middle school—and rides his bike to work.
His classes aren’t easy. They’re not supposed to be. But when students can connect with the books and poems, “every aspect of the class is redeemed in a moment,” Halpern said. “All those books live in you a little bit.”
This year, his students are reading Mary Oliver’s poems, James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and E.M. Forster’s “A Room With a View.”
“He helps his students understand the complexities of language and uses his books and poems to help students not only grow their skills of analysis but to understand some of the greater underlying concepts of humanity,” said Riley Yoo, a student of Halpern’s. “He is strict but caring, and his witty and dry humor makes his class one of the most fun to be in, even for students that may be struggling.”
Halpern, who grew up in Baltimore, has an allegiance to rigor and still maintains many of his east coast sensibilities. He admits that made for some initial culture shock upon moving to the Pacific Northwest.
“I couldn’t understand people actually having conversations with people pouring coffee,” he said. “I was like a square peg in a round hole for a while.”
Halpern’s known for his authenticity and candor — for better or worse. As a result, he’s been compared to Seinfeld creator and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David.
Retracing his journey into education, he can remember a particular college professor who left an indelible impression.
“It was the way this professor talked about books and did what I’m trying to do,” Halpern recalled. “He talked about them like they were real and made them come alive. He opened up the metaphors and shared the brilliance in the minds of these writers.”
Now, Halpern is doing that for his students. His teaching style also caught the attention of a colleague early on.
“Mark stood out as one I wanted to (emulate) but didn’t know how to,” said Jordan Gutlerner, who also teaches English at Lincoln. “His class and presence can be somewhat of a crucible. You can really test one’s metal and find out what you’re made of.”
The two now enjoy lunch together daily, peeling back Tupperware lids and letting the conversation flow. They’ve been doing it for 20 years.
“His intensity and the fact that he wears his emotions on his sleeve can definitely be shocking and a surprise for many, but for the most part, he brings things out of kids in a way that other teachers probably aren’t able to, just be sheer force of his personality,” Gutlerner said. “I’ve never seen anyone as passionate and open and confident in their teaching. I’ve worked alongside him all these years, and none of that has waned.”