District News


Matt Breines: "I try to let people be who they are in my classroom."

Posted on: February 5, 2016

Should you ever doubt that great teaching is still going on in American classrooms, you have only to stop by Matt Breines's busy, active, crowded-with-curiosities biology class to be reassured. 

It's not a class for the faint of heart -- Mr. B's students work their gluteus maximuses off -- but they leave with a deepened respect for the natural world, for "B" and for themselves. Here's his take on teaching, connective tissue and the questions students ask.

So there are a number of things living in your classroom.

I have three pythons, one corn snake, turtles, a bearded dragon, a Congo eel, a salamander and I’m expecting a tarantula soon. I’ve had alligators in here. I’ve never paid for animals. People give them to me all the time. Kids find snapping turtles.

What are their names?

Kids name them. Their names change every year. The bearded dragon is Puff. I’m not very anthropomorphic. I don’t like putting human names on animals.

Do they ever come out of their aquariums?

Kids like to hold snakes. Turtles don’t like to be held. Kids lose points for tapping on the aquarium. There’s a respect factor here. You can’t swat an insect. You’ll lose points. I say, just call me over.

You’re teaching them more than just the lesson at hand.

My goal is twofold. Part is to get them to be environmentally conscious and respect life in all forms. The other part is, I want them to have a reaction leaving my class – can be good or bad, I don’t care. But what is criminal in the teaching world is for people to go through a class and be indifferent to the experience.

What is it about your class that makes it a Finneytown legend?

Most kids have a pretty darn good experience – I give them an experience. Some days I’m a comedian up here. Sometimes I’m a disciplinarian. Sometimes I’m a Bill Nye nerd. Some days I have to just get things done, and I say I have to go into boring mode. But it’s hard for me to do. I taught an entire class in an Australian accent when Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, died. I do accents all the time – Indian, Russian, British, Scottish, Irish, Kung tribe. I have a very formal class that I teach informally.

Your students find you intriguing.

I don’t tell them anything. They always ask me questions. Do you have a wife? Do you have kids? I tell them I do have – a few wives scattered throughout the world, but I don’t know their names.

Does anybody ever try texting in your class?

I only let them use their phone in my class if I say (so). I’m not the biggest fan of technology. One day my phone rang in class. I was like aggrrrr, so I just threw it in the garbage. It was ringing in the garbage. After class I went to get it out of the garbage. But in class, my phone is locked up. I have to model that.

So what were you like as a student?

I rose to the expectations of what teachers asked of us. If a teacher came in and put his back to the board and lectured – blah, blah, blah – I didn’t respect that teacher. But if a teacher came in and commanded my respect, I sat in the front row and I interacted. I got away with whatever the teacher allowed. In one class, my buddy and I designed a phone system with a plastic cup and a string. We put the string under the carpet, and my friend and I would have a conversation from opposite ends of the room.

What’s the first day of school like in your class?

The first day of school I have every student’s name memorized by halfway through class. I don’t ever give a syllabus until the second week. I’m not the guy who’s going through the syllabus and telling them how great the class is going to be because they’ll figure that out. I don’t know why they want to be in here, but I think they like the experience.

Describe your teaching style.

The first thing I did was eliminate a textbook. I think off the top of my head. Books are good – the AP biology book, I use that – but all of my lectures are off the top of my head. I’m wrong all the time, but I encourage them to call me out – “B, you spelled that wrong.” My passion is about the content because the content is the coolest thing.

Is there anything you don’t like to teach?

I’m never bored with anything I teach. That’s why I teach it. However, there’s no fun way to teach connective tissue. It’s hard so I tell them, this unit is going to suck. I’ll try to make it interesting – there are lab practicals that are just brutal – but I say it’s not as fun as dissecting.

What were you like as a teenager?

I was a highly insecure kid growing up – until about sophomore year – so I get the insecure kid. I had no confidence. What did it was soccer. Soccer got me out of my insecurity.

At what level did you play?

U-17 national pool player. Two-year captain at Marquette University. I did play professional indoor soccer – that was my job. It took me from an insecure state to a narcissistic stat – from A to B. I learned humility in college and from my dad. I’d score five or six goals in a game, and he’d be like, that’s all you got?

So how do you inspire confidence in your students?

I try to let people be who they are in my classroom. I know the insecure kid, the “rad” kid, the sarcastic kid, the quiet yet eccentric kid. I can pick out the kid who will try to prove me wrong.

Most of the time I’m sympathetic to the kids who want to get a glimpse of what I’m trying to help them with. I am not sympathetic to the kid who’s a complainer, who wants to be enabled or wants to bring me down. Those three types get on my nerves. Those are going to be the ones who always complain.

How do you feel about teaching at Finneytown?

It’s cool. The part I like about Finneytown is the communal aspect of a school that’s a melting pot. You have a lot of different social backgrounds. It’s a small school where kids know each other enough to make an impact.

What made you decide to teach at the high school level?

The high school kid is on its last developmental stage of brain scaffolding – that prefrontal cortex is still developing. The paint isn’t dry. It’s complete in mid-college. This is the last time I can make an impact.

They’re confident or not confident. A few are way smarter than I’ll ever be. I feel like I can challenge them to see things differently. I can’t do that with middle-school students. They don’t get sarcasm.

Tell us some interesting fact about yourself that no one knows.

I was on a show MTV made in 2006-2007 to attempt to transform a young girl into a high school soccer player. I also applied for Master Chef and didn’t get very far, but I love to cook – everything from scratch, organic. My go-to food is sushi. I’m a human-rights activist. I belong to World Wildlife Foundaction, SPCA, animal rights. I enjoy reading the latest developments in molecular Biology, genetics, and the impact these disciplines have on disease. I also enjoy staying fit and healthy.