Richard Mertz did not set out to be a high school teacher. First he became a lawyer. But after working for three years at Chapman and Cutler, a large downtown law firm, he was miserable on the job. His then girlfriend, now his wife, told him he should do something else because if he was miserable, they were going to be miserable and since they were planning on staying together, she didn’t want that.
“It wasn’t a good fit for me at all,” said Mertz of being a lawyer. “I’m not adversarial. I don’t care about money like that. I like money but I don’t need it. I don’t want to bill, so to speak.”
Mertz, who had graduated from the University of the Michigan Law School, one of the top law schools in the country, thought back to the brief stint he had as a high school debate coach when he was an undergraduate at Michigan State University. So he decided to become a high school teacher. He went to UIC, asked what was the quickest way for him to become a teacher and was told he needed four history classes or five math classes, plus education courses. So the one-time economics major and lawyer decided to become a history teacher.
Less than two years later, after doing his student observations and student teaching at Oak Park and River Forest High School — in the fall of 1994 — Mertz began teaching American History at OPRF. This week, 29 years later, he is leaving his fourth floor OPRF classroom for the last time as he retires from a job he loves.
“There really hasn’t been a day that I haven’t wanted to come to work,” Mertz said. “I love this place; I love my job.”
He spent his entire career at OPRF and, from the beginning, teaching felt right to him in a way that practicing law never did.
“It fit like a glove,” Mertz said. “I never expected it to fit like a glove because nothing I had ever done had ever felt that good.”
Going to law school was not a waste of time; it influenced his teaching style. He uses the Socratic method, asking questions of students rather than lecturing all the time.
“I rarely stand up and talk,” Mertz said. “And I’ve never done that because my joy of learning is conversation.”
In addition to teaching American History, Mertz teaches a class in law that he basically created in its present form. In all his classes, he asks questions, then probes and pushes his students, forcing them to refine their thinking. He describes his method as high expectations and high support.
“I won’t let you not learn,” Mertz said. “The most exciting thing for me in the world to do is to watch a kid learn. It’s mesmerizing to me. It never got boring.”
He loves the classroom and the interaction with teenagers.
“I get to teach them something I have passion for and watch them, with fresh faces, get excited about it and that’s the best energy anyone can give me,” Mertz said.
Students find his classes challenging but interesting.
Mertz spent five years as a division head, chairing the history department from 2007 until 2012. But he did not enjoy working as an administrator and only teaching two classes a day, so he returned to the classroom full-time.
“While I knew pretty quickly that teaching was perfect for me, I knew pretty quickly that division head was not perfect for me, and if I wanted to sit at a desk, I probably should have stayed lawyering,” he said. “It just wasn’t rewarding because the joy is watching kids learn.”
Mertz had a slide rule and the periodic table in his classroom because he wanted kids to be curious. Because teaching is a challenging job, passion is an essential component.
“You’ve got to love it because it’s just the hardest job in the entire world; you’re trying to motivate adolescents to learn.”
Mertz and his wife moved to Oak Park during the summer of 1994 after he was hired to teach at OPRF. He taught his three sons how to ride their bikes in the fourth floor hallway of OPRF outside his classroom when he would come in on weekends to grade and plan.
Mertz, who turns 59 on June 2, said he is retiring this year because he put in for retirement five years ago before the salary bump that teachers get in their final years was reduced. His wife, who was also a lawyer at Chapman Cutler where they met, retired May 31 from her job as a lawyer for the SEC. Mertz said he would rather retire a year of two too soon than too late.
But he admits it will be hard to walk out of his classroom for the final time at the end of this week.
“I am such a better person because of this place,” Mertz said. “It’s unbelievable. I am much more transparent, I am much more vulnerable, much more emphatic, and I am much more committed to scholarship than I ever thought I would be.”