“I teach students how to write and read a little bit better than they already do,” said Tom Romano, Ph.D.
On June 19, not even a month into his retirement, Romano waits for the Observer at Kofenya adorned in a breathable, orange, Hawaiian shirt. For anyone who knows Romano, this clothing choice would not come as a surprise.
The John Heckert Professor of Literacy finished his 24th year teaching English Methods and Writing at Miami University in the Department of Teacher Education. With music in the background, the espresso machine hissing while the occasional customer orders, Romano told the Observer his story.
Romano is the epitome of a classroom teacher. He strays away from the standard way of teaching which he explained as handing an assignment out for students to complete. Romano teaches his students how to write by writing with them. "I'll write with you, I'll time you, faith and fearlessness.” He is adamant about having his students write in multiple genres not just the standard five paragraph expository essay. This could range from different forms of poetry, journal entries, to-do lists and monologues.
He has written a number of books that have been used in classrooms to teach future teachers and has presented at conferences about his multi-genre approach to writing.
He has been teaching for 45 years: 17 years as a high school teacher and 28 years as a college professor. Romano earned his bachelor’s and master’s in Education at Miami University and his PhD at the University of New Hampshire. But, he admits transitioning from high school to college as a student was not a smooth one. He credits his small high school in Malvern, Ohio. “I was unprepared in so many ways.”
Most teachers can credit a teacher they once had in school that inspired them to become an educator. For Romano though, it was to escape embarrassment.
“When I came to Miami I was a political science major and right away even before school started, I changed it to journalism. And then I was in the College of Arts and Sciences and I didn't know how to study for a language and I was getting embarrassed in class and I thought I had to get out of here; and I heard that if you majored in education you didn't have to take a foreign language, so I switched it,” he said. “That's the rude truth there.”
A spark came alive once he started student teaching. This is a make or break moment for most future teachers. Some love it and know that this is the correct career path while others aren’t as lucky. Romano loved teaching so much that he decided to get his PhD at the University of New Hampshire, but he hit another obstacle. He became overwhelmed, lost weight and felt like he bit off more than he could chew. “I quit and went back to teaching at Edgewood High School.”
Romano became an inspiration to teachers and students as well as a pioneer of sorts.
Sipping on his Kofenya coffee, Romano took the Observer back to 1987 when he published his first book: “Clearing The Way: Working With Teenage Writers.”
“There were books by college professors about how to teach writing to high school kids, but there was nothing by a high school teacher,” he said. “That was the strength of that book.”
He also introduced multi-genre writing in the high school classroom. From his research, he noticed that style of writing taking place in Michael Ondaatje’s novel, “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.” The novel is detailing the life of an outlaw but written in multiple genres, using prose, illustration and poetry to tell the story.
“I read that book right after I quit UNH in the summer and my first thought was I wonder if my high school students could do this: to pick someone they are interested in, research and then write a multi-genre research paper. That's how multi-genre got its start and that was in 1988,” Romano said. “I presented at conferences about multi-genre, but I wrote a book in 2000 called “Blending Genre Altering Style” that was about multi genre. Then, in 2013, I wrote another book called “Fearless Writing” about multi genre.”
Maria Ramos, a former student of Romano and current teacher at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center in Chicago was one of thousands that were taught by Romano. She remembers how caring he was as a professor and going above and beyond what is expected.
“I was also really moved that Dr. Romano invited our entire class into his home for a barbecue. Watching him warmly welcome my classmates demonstrated how truly he loved all his students,” she said.
His tender personality didn’t just show up when students were watching. Angela Faulhaber, a literacy coach with the Hamilton County Educational Service Center choked up a bit while describing how influential Romano was in her teaching career.
“I can hardly put into words the way he has influenced me. For 18 years he’s been a part of my educational journey. Every step of the way. He has informed my practice as a classroom teacher, as a writer and as a teacher of teachers,” she said.
Faulhaber recounts the previous six summers when she received a postcard from Romano while he taught his two-week course at the University of New Hampshire.
“Every summer, these postcards show up in my mailbox with his handwriting and that’s not something you get from people very much—in their own handwriting.”
Although Romano has retired from Miami, he has a full calendar scheduled. He will be teaching his multi-genre class in July at the University of New Hampshire, consulting for two days in August with the Cheektowaga, New York school district as well as speaking at the Ohio Writing Project Conference in September and at the National Council of Teachers of English in November.
When asked how he felt about retirement, Romano seemed ready yet hesitant.
“I’ve been teaching for 45 years and I'm 70 years old, I don't have the energy that I used to have,” he said. “[The Heckert professorship] a five-year appointment was up and with my age and all my experience I thought it was time to retire.”
The endowed professorship allowed Romano to teach a decreased class load two classes the first semester and only one class the second semester. Typical faculty members in the department taught three classes one semester and two the other.
Although his Heckert professorship was only for five years, Romano wasn’t quite ready to stop “teaching kids how to read and write a little bit better than they already do,” so he signed up for Miami’s retire-rehire program. Beginning Jan. of 2020, Romano will be teaching his favorite class, Writing for Educators (EDT 284).
“I've heard people say [retirement] is the best thing they ever did; I've heard other people say that they had a little trouble at first, so I thought I'm going to sign up for this retire-rehire program if I can teach that one writing class once a year,” Romano said. “It's like a safety net.”
“Dr. Romano will forever be a legend! Even before I came to Miami, I remember my own high school teachers who went to Miami speaking fondly of him. He has touched an entire generation of educators, which means his impact will live on for many generations,” Ramos said.