On Hawley-Day

My first impression of Dave Hawley came long before I met him, on the day I got my class schedule for freshman year. I told my friend’s older sister I had Mr. Hawley for World Cultures, and she responded, “Oh, I love Mr. Hawley! He has such dad vibes.”

This assessment certainly wasn’t wrong, but it barely scratched the surface of how much Hawley means to our school. After 22 years of telling bad jokes, excitedly unrolling maps, hating on his home state of Ohio, and truly touching the lives of his students, Hawley is retiring from his position as a social studies teacher at Oyster River High School.

A key aspect of Hawley’s teaching is the connections he makes with his students. “There’s nary a week that goes by where I don’t connect with a former student outside of school. I’ve had them in my life for years—a lot of my students see me in their 30s and even in their 40s now. It’s quite lovely. Those initial connections, they haven’t gotten old,” Hawley said.

Former student Hannah Muessig (‘22) attested to this, saying, “by his stories, you can tell he was once a teenager too, and that he knows what we’re going through, which is something I really liked about him. He’s pretty relatable. I would come to him about anything that wasn’t even a part of his class. He’s just very welcoming and knowledgeable.”

Hawley explained that “the most important thing is to create a connection with whoever you’re teaching, because that’s going to go a lot further than any content you generate. That connection has to be born out of mutual trust and respect, and so I have always tried to be a teacher that’s approachable.”

He does this from the first day of every class, asking students to fill out a form about their interests and learning preferences. He references these throughout the course, and tries to connect with students through analogies, relating to their own interests when they struggle with class material.

These connections are also built by Hawley’s background as a student and adventurer. Growing up, he hated school, prioritizing drumming and skiing over just about anything else. After high school, Hawley spent time skiing in Colorado before going to college, later leading outdoor adventure programs and travelling to New Zealand before becoming a teacher. All of these experiences have given Hawley a wide range of interests and experiences to connect with students over, as well as a heightened level of empathy for students who would rather be skiing than in history class.

Even the walls of Hawley’s classroom are a testament to the connections he has with his students. “Every single thing on the wall is a gift from one of my students,” Hawley said, “and they all have an inside joke to them.” From student artwork of years past to a lab coat for use in scientific emergencies to a giant golden shovel, just entering into Hawley’s classroom makes you feel like you’re part of a long line of students who have enjoyed his teaching.

In addition, Hawley said he avoids “making my ideas or my opinions part of the class. I think that engenders a certain amount of safety and trust. I’m not trying to preach.”

In the many classes I’ve taken with Hawley, I’ve been impressed by his talent at keeping students engaged and talking through carefully-worded questions while somehow not including any of his own opinions. Hawley manages to make daunting topics feel approachable, so that his students are able to discuss deep political and social issues maturely and with confidence.

This is an incredibly important skill to build, pointed out Muessig. She said that Hawley “prepared us well for the real world. With all this news, and some of it’s very biased, he really taught us how to research and find good sources and understand a well-rounded idea of certain topics. He also got us to understand how events lead to the big issues we have today.”

Shawn Kelly, an English teacher who co-taught American Studies with Hawley for eight years, noted that Hawley “stood out as someone who could both manage and instigate really difficult content.” Kelly recalled that “he always impressed me as deeply knowledgeable. He would bring that into the classroom, but it was usually through asking students questions—it wasn’t just like ‘take out your notebooks and take notes on this.’”

Hawley has an incredible ability to make the mundane interesting. His passion and excitement for any topic (especially maps) make it so you can’t help but be excited with him, even if you’re suffering through five million pages of Howard Zinn for American Studies. I’ve frequently overheard students complaining about something along the lines of, ‘ugh, I have history next period—but at least it’s with Mr. Hawley so he’ll make it interesting.’

“He’s so great at leading a class discussion and having students engage with him instead of just lecturing,” said Sarah Lyons (‘22), another of Hawley’s former students. “This is a great skill, and in college professors, it’s a rare one. I appreciate it more now after taking college classes where some of the professors are not the greatest. I’m like, ‘ugh, I want Mr. Hawley to teach me again!’”

This talent at drawing in students comes not only through Hawley’s class discussions, but also from his humor. While he frequently grades his own jokes at a C+ (followed with a deadpan “at least that’s better than my GPA in high school!”), most students know and love Hawley for his comedy.

Hawley in his first year of teaching– look at that hair! (Image courtesy of Dave Hawley)

“He’s really funny. Like, students have fun in his class,” said Kelly, who was frequently the other half of Hawley’s stand-up routines and slapstick bits in American Studies. “I think that goes a long way when you’re a student, if you have this person who seems to think about you as a person and care about you, but also you can joke around and relate with.”

Matt Pappas, one of Hawley’s friends and colleagues in the social studies department, has taught in the classroom next door to Hawley for almost his whole career. “His sarcasm is perfect,” Pappas said. “He has an A+ in sarcasm, and he uses it to improve the educational atmosphere of all of his students. Whether it’s even just casual conversation with friends and colleagues or a conversation with students, the sarcasm is always there.”

I had always thought that the humor was just who Hawley is (and it is!), but in my interview with him, I learned that his jokes are much more strategic than he lets on. “I use humor a lot, because it can break ice. It can also warm things up a lot,” he explained. “But here’s the thing, you have to strike this balance between your sense of humor and potentially being perceived as mean, because humor can be perceived as mean if you’re just railing on someone. What I try to do is more self-deprecating humor: I turn it on myself and just softly address it that way, and that’s a safe way to avoid it.”

Over time, Hawley has taken student feedback and refined his in-school humor to be less sarcastic—a testament to his care in listening to student feedback and focus on always improving. Still, his silly, occasionally over-the-top style of teaching shines through every day in the classroom.

In my interview with Pappas, he started laughing at the recollection that “being neighbors next to him for 20 years in our old classrooms, there were so many times where he he’d just yell and scream. And I’m like, ‘What’s going on in there? Is he torturing his students?’ But it was just whatever he was doing at the time. Just the sarcasm, exaggerating his story, or what have you.”

Hawley’s silliness balances out with an authenticity that’s rare to find anywhere else. When a student talks to him, he listens, and makes everyone who sits in his classroom feel valued and cared about. As Sofia Self (‘23), one of Hawley’s philosophy students, put it, “he’s the kind of teacher that really cares about the individual students. He’s not just there to get the topic done. He’s got more emotion in his work than most teachers.”

As for what’s next, Hawley plans to take the summer off to clear his head, and then will travel with his wife (and potentially also his adorable dog, Mallory). He hasn’t chosen a definite first destination yet, but is contemplating sailing in Croatia, hiking in Europe, or exploring America’s national parks.

“I realized it’s time for a change, and I’m happy to do it now,” Hawley said. “Once I’m done with the first six months of travel, I’m probably going to switch careers. No idea what I’ll do, but it will not be in education.”

Hawley with Pam Raiford, his teaching mentor, and Brian Zottoli, another coworker and friend in the Social Studies department (Image courtesy of Dave Hawley)

With his time as an educator coming to an end, I asked Hawley what mark he hopes to have left on Oyster River. He replied, “I hope there’s a mark on any of these students to be more thoughtful. This generation is more thoughtful in many ways. But, I don’t really need a mark on the larger community. I love the idea of, ‘do your work, and when it’s done, leave it.’ That’s a beautiful Taoist saying. It’s not about me, you know? I’m here for you people, I’m not here for me. I mean yeah, I’m getting a lot of satisfaction out of being here, but the most satisfaction I see is when students get something out of the deal.”

It’s hard to see Hawley go, and, to be honest, his retirement is making me really glad that I’m graduating along with him. According to Pappas, “anyone who has had a class with him knows that, in Mr. Hawley, you probably have one of the best teachers one would ever have. Filling his shoes here at Oyster River is not going to be easy. In fact, I feel sorry for anyone who does step into his shoes because it is going to be very difficult to replace the wisdom of Mr. Hawley, the sarcasm of Mr. Hawley, and even just his ability to connect with students. He just has that gift.”

Hawley’s retirement is certainly a loss for the future students of Oyster River, but he will surely be spreading thoughtfulness, connection, and a healthy hatred for Ohio anywhere he goes 

– Zoe Selig