What’s the deal: Mr. Deal

A teacher who doesn’t conform to the norms.

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During this Tuesday Mustang Block, Mr. Deal’s corner desk is, as usual, covered with papers. There are bits of LSU gear (a scarf, a mug) and on top of the bookshelf, with everything from treatises on government to Shakespeare, sits a bobblehead of a movie character who could be Mr. Deal’s doppelgänger: glasses, grey hair and all. Before sitting down for our interview, Mr. Deal walks to his coffee maker on the other side of the room and fills up his mug. It’s not his first cup of coffee of the day.

Man drinking from a mug.

Mr. Deal sips his coffee during a lecture. Most of his classes are lecture-based, so he ends up standing in this spot for a large chunk of the period. It’s not boring, though, because his lectures are much more like conversations. (Photo by Elisabeth Snyder)

I ask him a question over the noise of the coffeemaker. “If you could describe yourself and your teaching in five words, what words would you use?” He thought about it; the coffeemaker filled the silence. “Inquisitive.” A long pause. “Traditional.” A long “um,” a sigh. “Loyal! Loyalty is very important to me. And…” He stops to think. “I guess compassionate and active?” He finishes pouring his coffee and comes back to the desk, but doesn’t sit down.

Mr. Deal is one of those teachers who is always standing, who is always walking around the room, who doesn’t in any way resemble the stereotypical teacher. In his words, he’s “active.” Even though this isn’t class and I’m the only one in the room, his voice isn’t any quieter.

“I’m traditional in my presentation.” I would have to agree with him – usually, you can’t find him wearing anything less casual than a button-up shirt and slacks.

“Being traditional seems a bit at odds with being inquisitive, but it’s not. Being inquisitive leads me, as a teacher, … to be open to learning things from my students and being willing to be more open-ended in my assessment and grading. If a student has a different way of wanting to do something, as long as they get to where they’re supposed to get, that’s fine.” Mr. Deal is traditional, but I don’t think he’s a stuffy kind of traditional.

He prides himself in his modernity. Even though he’s decades older than his students (he couldn’t remember whether he’s 56 or 57, if that says much), he’s adept with technology and teaches with an energy uncharacteristic of most folks his age. “The standard way that teaching and learning happened fifty years ago is simply not appropriate for today’s world.”

After nearly twenty years in hotel management, which he says gave him a lot of the people skills he uses as a teacher. Mr. Deal went back to school to become a teacher in 2001 and credits that to why he isn’t like the typical teacher is age. “I did not become a teacher forty years ago. When I first went to college, I went to college for something other than a teaching degree. The world of education had already started to change.”

Man holds mug in front of cabinets.

Mr. Deal makes his morning coffee as he explains economic concepts to his AP Government students. Though it’s the first class of the day, he’s energetic and the conversation never stops. (Photo by Elisabeth Snyder)

He vividly remembers some of his own teachers. “Mrs. Hawkins, my first-grade teacher, thought that I was stupid and should be moved back to kindergarten, when the truth was, the first couple of weeks of school, she was teaching people how to read. But I already knew how to read. I was bored. And for the rest of the school year, I just resented her because she called me stupid in front of the class. That experience informs me now. You know, ‘don’t be that person.’”

Mr. Deal is the kind of person who has strong opinions about nearly everything and everyone. “My fourth-grade teacher was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. I could go on. My seventh-grade French teacher is the reason I fell in love with French as a language and ended up with a French major and a degree in French education. She is everything I’m not. You know, very soft-spoken.”

Mr. Deal has many opinions. He’s the kind of person who could talk for hours, switching from topic to topic with ease. He has this way of talking that’s chock-full of anaphora. In class, sometimes his speaking reminds me of a politician’s: chock-full of repetition and contradiction and overuse of words like “overwhelmingly.” And he didn’t lose that politician-esque flair during our conversation.

When he’s not in his classroom, Mr. Deal is usually with Mr. Pepper and Mr. Duchaj in the Hy-C rooms. He doesn’t teach any Hy-C classes, but he finds their company refreshing. During a Mustang Block when I was in the Hy-C room, Mr. Duchaj greeted Mr. Deal with a trivia question: “At this point in the 2004 Democratic Party primaries, who was the most likely nominee?”

Mr. Deal thought about the answer and then leaped into a whole conversation about the 2004 primary elections, how quickly a frontrunner can fade, and what that might mean for the 2020 primaries. To anyone watching, this might have seemed unusual. But for Mr. Duchaj and Mr. Pepper, conversations like this are daily phenomena.

“If there was a podcast and it was Duchaj and I, … we’ll have a section called ‘What’s the Deal?’ where Mr. Deal comes in and offers his opinions and insights on whatever.” I asked if there would be any specific topic, and Mr. Pepper just said, “Whatever topic! Deal is a big sports guy.” His brain is chock-full of facts on everything from the 2004 primaries to the Louisiana Saints, and he has a unique take on any and every issue.

“He’s got great stories and he’s got pretty good insight,” said Mr. Pepper. “Mr. Deal keeps me grounded when I worry about things.”

“The only word to describe Mr. Deal would be G.O.A.T.,” said sophomore Ashley Zigler, who has been taught by Mr. Deal this year in AP Government. “His stories and hilarious quotes always make [class] so much more enjoyable.”

“I go home and I tell friends all the time that being around high school students, especially in the City of Falls Church, is sort of like watching puppies, and I’m not saying that my students are dogs.” I laughed. Mr. Deal has a strange sense of humor. “But if you watch puppies play, you can tell that they’re having fun. And the older you get, the easier it is to get jaded and just sort of worn down. The things that brought us joy when we were twenty, we’re used to them by the time we’re forty.”

Two black dogs in front of pink flower bush.

Two of Mr. Deal’s dogs, YaYa and Juliette, pose in front of some flowers. Mr. Deal has had Portuguese Water Dogs, which he shows, for nearly twenty years. (Photo Courtesy of Mark Deal)

Mr. Deal is around students all day, and when he does home, he’s around his dogs. “I always walk the dogs when I get home.” Mr. Deal has Portuguese Water Dogs, who he shows and breeds.

Most of his routine revolves around his dogs. “When I go home, I feel I’m sort of eight years old again… Now, I’m fifty-six (fifty-seven?) years old, I think I’m fifty-seven, and… I go home, I do some chores, I maybe do something amusing… I will give myself forty minutes of political news and that’s it. Forty minutes. I will spend about forty minutes reading Le Monde Online, the Paris newspaper, and the Guardian, UK Edition, to get some sort of feel for international affairs. When Glen, my husband, gets home, we have dinner, walk the dogs again.”

“I love my dogs, I’ve always loved dogs… Dogs are very good at keeping me grounded.”

Mr. Deal spends the bulk of his time outside of school pursuing a wide range of interests, being with the dogs, or going to the opera. “We love to go to the Kennedy Center for theatre and opera. We love to do that, maybe once a month.”

Over the course of this year, as a student in his second block AP Government class, I’ve gotten to know Mr. Deal through the tidbits of stories I hear during class. Each story may not seem like much on its own, but together they amount to a person whose most defining experiences and characteristics can’t be defined by the titles of “AP Government Teacher” or “Business Teacher” or “Personal Finance and Economics Teacher.” He can’t even be described by the five words he used to describe himself. Mr. Deal is, frankly, a person who escapes description.