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Auburn teacher’s journey from delinquency to success

Thursday, Oct. 8 | By Karen Parkinson
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Fauquier native and Culpeper resident, Ryan Wicka, whose 23 years have encompassed a very bumpy road, remembers a revelatory moment in time when he decided something in his life had to change.

Graduating, barely, from Liberty High School in 2011, he admits, “Nobody was looking to date the high school jerk, I was jobless, I was living at home in my parents’ basement. I woke up one day and realized that I had nothing. I had absolutely nothing. I wanted to go to college, and I think I decided that I wanted to prove everybody wrong, that I could do things.”

In his short life Ryan hadn’t done much to improve his image in others’ eyes. He started sliding down a slippery slope in middle school – after little to no forewarning during his formative years at Ritchie Elementary where he liked school, behaved well, performed well academically, and had a lot of friends. Moving on to Auburn Middle School, Ryan continued to do well in sixth grade, but seven did not turn out to be his lucky number.

“Seventh grade is where I started to struggle, academically and behaviorally – they went hand in hand,” he said. “My grades fell, and my behavior led the way. I struggled in science and math in seventh grade so I used misbehavior as a way to get attention from other students. It was almost like being the class clown except it was more like being the class jerk. Back then I thought I was the coolest kid ever.”

Ryan now believes he “lived the difference” between effective and ineffective teaching.

“In the classes where I struggled, my behavior was a constant issue. Teachers who worked with me, I did well in their classes. It was the ones who did not give the time to help me that I struggled. It was a testament to the teachers,” he believes.

Looking back, Wicka said he had an excellent support system at home with parents who believed strongly in education. The parents of three did not believe, however, in having their children moved out of any particular classrooms.

“They believed you’re dealt the hand you’re dealt, and I know I grew up a lot through that belief so I owe them. There are a lot of students who struggle with a teacher whose parents move them. My parents decided, ‘This is the teacher you have. You are either going to make the best or the worst of it.’ Sometimes I made the best of it, most of the time not so much,” Wicka said.

While his parents worked behind the scenes to facilitate success for Ryan at school, including providing him with private counseling, he felt at the time that he was “fighting the world” alone. Diagnosed with ODD, or oppositional defiance disorder, Wicka learned he had a chemical composition where if he were told to do something, his first instinct was to push back.

“I didn’t want to do it. I was always super talkative. I was disruptive. When teachers told me to settle down, I would zero in on the fact that they were trying to tell me what to do, and I couldn’t function beyond that. I would shut down. I would lean back in my chair and ignore their lesson, draw on my notes, go out of my way not to do what they asked,”Wicka said.

The self-proclaimed class jerk said he was referred to the office so often that he and then-Assistant Principal Steve Kadilak (who has been Auburn’s principal since 2008) were “almost on a first-name basis.”

“There was a time period that once a week, sometimes more, I was going to see him. He handled it really well, and he never discouraged me from continuing academics,” Ryan said.

Kadilak remembers the younger Ryan well.

“He spent a lot of time in my office, but what I picked up from him was that he had a strong sense of justice – of what was right and what was wrong. If he felt a teacher wasn’t being right or fair, he would question it, and that would get him in trouble with some teachers.”

The principal said the two-way-street aspect of respect is something he has talked about repeatedly. “I have shared with teachers many times over the years that we all have to make sure respect goes both ways, and if we make a mistake, we have to apologize or say we’re sorry. That goes a long way,” Kadilak said.

Encouraging Ryan to let him, rather than a teacher, be his sounding board, Kadilak knew that most of Ryan’s discipline issues boiled down to the student’s perceptions of justice, fairness and respect.

“I felt he wasn’t a bad kid. He had a strong sense of justice, and not just for himself. He would be an advocate for other kids too, and that is what set him apart at such a young age. He was a young man looking for everyone to be treated fairly,” Kadilak said.

Wicka credits Kadilak and former Assistant Principal Eric Doyle at Kettle Run High School with prodding him toward the limited success he had in middle and high school.

“To this day they are probably what saved my grades,” he said, “and they made sure I didn’t fail. To them I wasn’t the worst kid they’d ever seen, and they treated me as such. To them I was just a troubled kid. To some teachers I was the bane of their existence.”

When Wicka left the halls of Auburn Middle School to begin high school, Kadilak said he saw more than a troubled kid. “I saw a ton of potential,” he said.

Unfortunately Kadilak’s vision did not become reality – not yet anyway.

“I relied on my natural intelligence; I did not study, I cheated, and I slept in a lot of classes. That’s how I made it through high school,” Wicka regretfully admits.

“The only reason I passed my classes – my only motivation – was football. I maintained the minimum GPA I could [in order to qualify to play]. My idea was the least amount of effort for the highest grade. That meant zero effort for straight C’s if I was lucky,” he said.

The two-time MVP winner at Auburn continued his football prowess in high school.

“I played the star at Kettle Run,” he said, as free safety, wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner.

Yet the discipline issues continued.

“I was suspended every year I was in high school,” he said.

At age 18, he ended up moving in with a friend’s family and finished his high school education at Liberty High School.

“The Daffan family really helped me in a time period when I was really struggling. I was on probation at the time; I had gotten in trouble with the law. They opened their home to me. Their son (Broc) came to my rescue the summer between my junior and senior years when I was floundering; he’s always been a nice guy and has always been there to help when I needed it.” In need of only six credits, Wicka graduated early in 2011 after one semester at LHS.

“That was the greatest thing I ever did for myself – to graduate early. I had eight months before college. I was looking for a job hoping I didn’t have to go to college, but no one wanted to hire me,” said Wicka. “I had mediocre grades and nothing going for me.”

A few months passed and then came that pivotal moment that changed Wicka’s future – that moment he woke up and realized where he was in life.

“Nobody was looking to date the high school jerk, I was jobless, and I was living at home in my parents’ basement. Football wasn’t carrying me anymore,” he said. “I decided I would go to college and try my best.”

He even reached out to his former assistant principal and mentor Steve Kadilak – the one who saw the potential – for a recommendation letter for college.

He applied to five colleges – James Madison University, Longwood College, Old Dominion University, Radford

College and Christopher Newport University – and was surprised to be accepted at all five. One wonders how that happened, given his academic journey thus far.

“I’ve always thought it must have been the end of the day in the admissions office and someone wanted to go home so they stamped approval on a stack of applications and mine was on the bottom. That’s the way I like to picture it,” he said with a laugh.

Wicka opted for JMU and set off for college with the mindset that he would prove everyone wrong about him.

“I decided I would take all the extra time that I put into football [and put it] into academics, and it worked out well for me,” he said. Secluding himself in JMU’s library day in and day out to study, Wicka laughingly said, “I had no friends, zero, none; my roommate was my only friend.” His diligence paid off as he earned 4.0’s his freshman year and made the President’s List.

At his parents’ advice, he joined a fraternity his sophomore year to expand his social circle and heighten his college experience, he said. With a new attitude, a new determination to succeed, new friendships and a new level of maturity, he worked hard at JMU and graduated early. His major was speech language pathology and audiology and his minor was special education, areas he specifically chose “because I wanted to help kids,” he said.

He remembers well a particular college assignment.

“I had to write a paper on the topic ‘If someone was given the same opportunities you were growing up, would they be more or less successful than you?’ I wrote eight pages saying they would have been 10 times more successful than me. I ignored 95 percent of [the opportunities afforded to him]. I don’t know how my parents did it, or how some of my teachers did it. [Mathematics teacher] Ellen Nosal at Kettle Run tutored me; she made sure I didn’t fail. She was probably the best teacher I’ve ever had in Fauquier County. She understood difficult kids; she enjoyed difficult kids. Some teachers are just born to handle those types of kids.”

Wicka said he eventually reached out to some of the teachers who had impacted his life along the way.

“Once I grew out of my tough mindset, I did try to write letters to all my teachers who made a difference. I will never forget that Ellen Nosal wrote me a postcard when I was a junior in high school, and it had four words on it: ‘I believe in you.’ I framed it and kept it on my wall in college. The day I graduated, I tagged it and let her know I still had it,” he said. He also wrote thank you letters to his sixth-grade math teacher Steven Miller, his 12th-grade English teacher Cindy Adrian and his former assistant principals, Kadilak and Doyle.

Wicka could be the poster child for the difference a new attitude can make. A 2014 JMU graduate, he is husband to high school sweetheart Aryn, father to their daughter Evelyn, and teacher in the very middle school where his trouble started. Since he graduated college mid-school-year in December, he “played construction engineer for a year” in Washington, D.C., while hoping to land a teaching job at the beginning of the next school year. He contacted Kadilak to let him know what degree he held and what provisional teaching licenses he qualified for, and then he hoped for the best.

Two and half weeks before school started this year, he said he was sitting at his desk in D.C., “not enjoying my job,” when Kadilak called asking if he would like to interview for an 8th-grade special education position.

“I immediately said, ‘When? I can be there in two hours,” Ryan recalled. He went for an interview the next day. “I was so excited for the opportunity to work as a teacher. I asked him, “Please just give me a shot. At the end of the day you’re going to have kids like me, but you’re not going to have teachers that know how to handle them. I just knew that this was the perfect chance for me to show a kid that despite behavior, you can be something.”

Kadilak said Wicka joined a slate of outstanding candidates, and “He blew Helen [Oriend, assistant principal] and me away during the interview.”

“What better role model for our students to have than someone who fought the system, got into trouble, pulled himself up and became successful? A lot of our students are similar to Ryan. He challenged things, he made it through and he’s very successful. If a student has behavior or academic concerns, Ryan has faced them both.”

Wicka said he particularly wanted to teach at the middle school level in order to reach troubled and troublesome

students earlier.

“I didn’t get targeted by teachers willing to help troubled kids until high school. At 10th grade it’s too late, about three years too late. Middle school is the time to let kids know, ‘If you’re struggling, it’s okay. Don’t let it affect your future. Don’t wake up at 18 and have no life plan.’”

Wicka said he is now “living the dream” and already recognizes his former self in one or two of his students.

“I try to make sure they’re paying attention and taking notes. I give rewards, extra credit, for kids who do things they wouldn’t normally come out of their shell to do. I’m teaching the way I know I would have learned best. We do a lot on the smart board, group work, hands- on stuff. I do little lecturing because [as a student] I struggled with that.”

Wicka currently teaches two inclusion classes (integrating special education students into a regular education classroom), co-teaching with AMS social studies department head Kay Conners.

“Ryan has the ability to relate to any student,” Conners said, “but especially those students who need extra support and may need more redirection in the classroom. I believe his empathy and strength as a teacher comes from his past experiences as a student. Even though Ryan is a new teacher, he has quickly become an integral part of my classroom by having the confidence to work as a co-teacher in my inclusion class.”

Conners said that Wicka brings a great perspective to discussions and his philosophy that all students can learn is consistent with her own.

“Ryan will become an outstanding educator because he makes students feel like they can succeed and belong. He knows how a teacher can impact a life and is passionate to make a difference in students’ lives,” she said.

Kadilak said he is already seeing and hearing about that difference.

“I got an email this morning from a parent saying how her daughter loves his class. He’s building relationships already with the students and that’s the key. When the students know you care about them as people, they’ll do great things. Building relationships comes natural to Ryan,” Kadilak said. “He’s got a great sense of humor, and I can already see a passion for teaching. He’s done such a terrific job, and he’s off to a fantastic start.”

Kadilak believes that the moral of Wicka’s story is that it’s all about establishing relationships.

“As a kid, Ryan bucked the system, but it wasn’t to be mean. I feel he wanted to be respected. He felt students should be respected, and if they weren’t, he let the teacher know it. He had a social intelligence that was beyond his years. Ryan would get in trouble if he felt another student was being wronged; he was the one that would voice his concerns.

“I believe that in [the field of] education we have the power to do great things,” Kadilak said, “but we can also do great harm if we don’t look at the student as a person. That’s the bottom line. When kids know you care about them, they’ll do anything for you. We can all learn content, but if you don’t care about the student, it’s all for naught.”

Looking at teaching from a perspective that not all teachers have, Wicka has definite ideas about what makes a teacher effective.

“My idea on good teachers hasn’t changed,” he said. “They are people who don’t look at students as a pass/fail but as a human. A lot of times you get caught up at work, and you can dehumanize things, thanks to the news, video games, things like that. You have to look at students as if they are your own child. Looking at them as somebody else’s child makes it easier to neglect their extra needs if it causes extra work.”

Wicka said he would like to talk to the teachers who got him when he was at his worst and discuss the strategies they used to help him do his best.

“That is my goal this year: to contact some of the teachers who did really well with me and ask them how,” he said. For now, Wicka is thrilled to be teaching, but admits he’s struggling on a humorous level with one particular issue regarding his colleagues.

“The teachers that were here when I was a student here – I’m still calling them by their last names [along with Mr. or Mrs.], even though they’ve all introduced themselves with their first names. Their last name naturally comes out,” he said with a laugh.

Other than that, Wicka is feeling “very comfortable” at his old school.

“I like where I am, and I know the kids really well on a good level. Middle school seems

like the right fit. I just feel like if my own struggles had been caught earlier, things could have been different.”

Even so, Wicka’s story appears to be headed for a happy ending – thanks to that pivotal moment four years ago when he decided, “This is not how my story will end.”

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