Making education special
From lugging around parade tricycles in his pickup truck to carrying bags of cookies and scotcheroos through the hallway, Merkle does it all to support his students.
“I always told [former Principal] Jerry Arganbright, ‘You know, if you ever hire a new guy [after] me, he’s gonna have to have a pickup [truck],’” Merkle said.
Merkle appreciates the liveliness required in special education.
“[Special education] keeps me moving. I kind of enjoy staying busy and moving around the building,” Merkle said.
After students pitched a staff versus student basketball game in 2017 to raise awareness for Community Inclusion Club, Merkle organized the basketball games, which bring together the staff, special education students, basketball teams, cheerleaders and band. Social studies teacher Gary Neuzil is an announcer for the games and appreciates the community it creates.
“[Merkle] has made sure that his students are part of every aspect of our school, and I think that’s a huge accomplishment. He has had so many programs that incorporate cooperation and support from the student body,” Neuzil said. “I hope [the CIC basketball game] continues, and I hope [Merkle] continues to bring in more and more students and families. It is probably the most feel-good event of the school year.”
Long before the CIC basketball games, Merkle started the tricycle project in 2004 to build community for his special education students.
“The goal [for the trike project] was to create tricycles that anybody could ride based on their abilities or the lack thereof,” Merkle said. “It’s fun to see kids that haven’t ever been on a ’cycle try it out. It’s just a neat thing to do.”
Watching his students succeed is one of the many reasons Merkle enjoys his job. Camp Courageous — a special education summer camp — offers him another place to see this. After learning about Camp Courageous on a camping trip before starting his teaching career, he was inspired.
“I went up [to Camp Courageous] one year, and I thought, ‘Well, if I ever get into special ed, I’m [bringing my students to] Camp Courageous because the place was amazing,’” Merkle said.
Every year Merkle spends at Camp Courageous, he finds joy in watching kids improve their skills over the years.
“[Students] do stuff that we would all find hard. To see kids make it two feet off the ground one year, and then a couple of years down the road, they’re climbing clear to the top of the tree, those things are really neat,” Merkle said.
Regardless of how much effort and time Merkle’s many projects take, Neuzil knows Merkle continuously prioritizes the growth and joy of his students.
“There are so many different things that he does that we don’t recognize because he just does it,” Neuzil said. “He’s doing it 100% for his students, not for himself. That’s what makes him special.”
Merkle believes that these community projects are essential to his students’ growth.
“I’ve always had a theory that if you can find what motivates a student, that’s 90% of the game. I mean, if they’re not motivated, then you’re fighting all the way to teach a skill,” Merkle said. “If [a project is] a hook to get them to enjoy school and find purpose here at West High, I think it’s a worthy project.”
He’s doing it 100% for his students, not for himself. That’s what makes him special.
— Gary Neuzil
A long-standing project that Merkle spearheaded is the recycling routes at West. Merkle, his students and paraeducators devote time to picking up recycling from each room in the building. As his students work on recycling, they build skills like communication, following routines and sorting materials.
“When I see [growth] happening and [students] breaking some of the social barriers that were challenges as [they] went through high school, it’s a pretty good feeling, like I accomplished something,” Merkle said.
Merkle believes that supporting paraeducators is also important to building a supportive and successful special education environment at West.
“You need to empower your paraeducators. I’ve always tried to be an advocate for them and make sure their job was the best job I could make it with whatever power I have to do that,” Merkle said.
Alice Jones has been a paraeducator at West for 27 years and remembers when Merkle joined staff. From the beginning, Jones has felt Merkle’s support and noticed he has a special way of working with students.
“[Merkle] is just able to get [students] to do things that I couldn’t. He was teaching me how to do the things that he was doing. He was getting the results where the other teachers weren’t,” Jones said.
Merkle believes the culture of camaraderie at West is a large contributing factor to the special education program’s success.
“I go to PE and music class almost every day to check in on my students and [see people working together],” Merkle said. “I’d say the people have changed, but [West’s] philosophy of excellence and working together like a family has been [constant].”
To Neuzil, Merkle is a big reason that West feels like a family.
“He is always positive, always supportive, always appreciative — every quality that makes not just an excellent educator, but a fine human being,” Neuzil said. “Anytime you have a colleague who is so talented with his students, you are motivated to do the same in your own classroom.”
From the minute Merkle steps on campus, his son Lyova Merkle ’23 notices the joy that being a special education teacher brings his father.
“He definitely comes into his job with a smile on his face. We’ll be walking through the parking lot, and he just starts yelling with excitement,” Lyova said. “It’s kind of embarrassing sometimes. But usually, it’s a fun sort of embarrassment.”
At the end of the day, being able to witness the growth of his students is what makes the job special for Merkle; seeing the growth of his students at the CIC’s annual Talent Show and Family Night is one of the most rewarding parts of his job.
“We’ve had some students that struggle with communication and being in front of people,” Merkle said. “When they finally perform at the talent show, you [can] see that breakthrough and the parents in the audience are just thrilled — it’s a pretty good feeling. Maybe even the word magical would fit.”