A Portage Life in the Spotlight: Jim Wheeler

By: Michael Raines Last Updated: December 11, 2013

james-wheelerFor 35 years, Jim Wheeler has been making an impact on the lives of young people in the Portage community.

A social studies teacher at Willowcreek Middle School, Wheeler has spent nearly his entire career teaching eighth grade U.S. History. It’s a career path that started in high school and has seen few deviations over the years.

“Actually, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Wheeler said. “I sat there at Carmel High School and thought my US History teacher – who I liked – was just a horrible teacher. He would just give us work sheets. It was always one worksheet after another and then a test...I thought, ‘I can do better than this.’ When we started talking about occupations, I thought maybe I should be a teacher. I pursued it, and it’s really been a home run for me.”

The key to teaching, Wheeler said, is engaging with the students. He sees 118 students a day and figures there are probably 118 different things happening in the lives of those students.

“Some of [the issues] would be similar but some of them would be different,” Wheeler said. “You just try to be there for everybody that you can.”

Wheeler’s connection to the students – even ones he doesn’t have in class – starts early in the morning, before the first bell.

“Every morning, I have morning duty upstairs where there is no one – so I’m securing an area where there isn’t anybody,” Wheeler said with a laugh. “It feels pretty useless. So as the kids are coming upstairs to go to class, I thought, ‘I’m going to high-five everybody.’ So I’m just like, ‘Hey, high-five, high-five,’ as everybody walks by me. Now it’s like a ritual: everybody looks for Mr. Wheeler’s high-fives. [Monday] for the first time I was just a little bit late and they were high-fiving me as I was coming down the hallway to get to my spot.

“That’s teaching,” Wheeler continued. ”Just being there and reaching out to them in a different way. In the classroom, it’s just the same way. Now it’s not a high-five, but you’re still trying to find that same kind of groove with everybody.”

When students can’t get excited about standard textbooks, Wheeler does his own research to find stories that students will find interesting, typing the information out on a computer – or, in the past, a typewriter.

He said he’s probably done enough research to write several books, but he’s not interested in trying to get published for money. He just does the work to better engage his students.

“That’s another way to reach out: find out they’re bored with the textbook, so make something better than the textbook,” Wheeler said. “In teaching, that’s what you’re doing every day. You’re finding one more way to get them to read and write and think.”

While Wheeler works every day to improve the lives of students in his classroom and his school, Portage isn’t the only community where he’s having an impact. Thirty minutes away from home, Wheeler is working on changing lives as the head girls basketball coach at Westville High School.

It’s a journey that started over two decades ago as something to do after school and has come full circle with Wheeler’s first head coaching position at the high school level.

“I think every Hoosier loves basketball,” Wheeler said. “Little by little, you learn on the run. I just kept trying and trying. I was always researching. Every game that was on, I taped it and broke it down and looked at everybody’s plays and what they did.”

After many years coaching at the middle school level, Wheeler took his first high school job at Calumet High School. He spent three years as a varsity assistant before starting the search for a head coaching position.

After three or four fruitless interviews, Wheeler nearly gave up the dream – until Westville came calling. Now in his third season with the Blackhawks, Wheeler faces a third straight losing season while he tries to create an atmosphere of winning. It has been a long road, and there is still a long road ahead, but the impact is being made. Wheeler knows the culture is changing because of what he’s seen in the gym this year.

“We’ve lost games by 50 points, 70 points. But the next day, they’re all in the gym and they work hard, they listen, they get excited,” Wheeler said.

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