PLEASANT GROVE — At 6 feet 10 inches tall, Fred Roberts towers over his class of Lincoln Academy sixth-graders in a way that should command attention, but unfortunately the rambunctious preteens have him figured to be "a nice guy."
"He's really fun and makes us laugh all the time," said 12-year-old Chloe Burkey. "Out of all my teachers, he's the coolest."
And when the kids balk at the idea of daily quizzes and basically anything other than creative art projects, the fun-loving giant can buy their love with his stash of breath mints, sunflower seeds and chocolate-covered raisins. Occasionally, he'll offer a signed trading card featuring himself to a student who has done something spectacular, but, he said, sometimes "they're not all that interested in that."
The former power forward who brought success to the basketball program at Brigham Young University during the time of Danny Ainge and Greg Kite played for seven different NBA teams from 1982 to 1997, including the Utah Jazz in the mid-'80s, as well as a couple of teams overseas. Now, he's found his niche in the classroom. On Saturday, he graduated with a master's degree from the University of Phoenix, an accomplishment that he said will give him the certification he needs "to be the kind of teacher that I want to be."
Math, he said, might be one of his favorite subjects to teach, even though he's "a history guy." But his favorite thing about being a teacher is discovering the unique things that each of the students likes to learn about.
His 25 students have memorized the words to more than 20 well-known poems, and several of them have enjoyed their teacher's pick of literature, as they've read dozens of books as a class.
"It's the one career where I feel like I belong," Roberts said. In addition to playing professional basketball, he's tried his hand at four or five different jobs over the years, but teaching at Lincoln Academy gives him a different kind of satisfaction. "I find myself bragging about all the things that my students are learning and how they're growing," he said.
The children seem to be thrilled with his stories about things both on and off the court, as Roberts has lived in so many different places across the globe. He tries to incorporate as much of the varied cultures into his lessons as possible because he said it helps the students to remember more when they associate their newfound knowledge with an experience.
Basketball makes its way into a lot of the classroom discussion, too, and Roberts said his experience with the NBA is helpful because just as every team needs a leader, so, too, does every classroom. "But we're all learning together, and it takes teamwork for everyone to learn," he said.
Seventh-grader Sam Andreasen chose to return to Roberts' class as a peer tutor because he liked his experience the year before.
"He's by far my favorite teacher," Andreasen said. "He taught me the most I've ever learned, he has fun with us and he never yelled at us. He also made us read a lot of books, but one of them has become my favorite book of all time."
Roberts can't imagine his life without his squirrelly counterparts and said the additional hours he's put in for his most recent degree are well worth it, even if it did involve one of the biggest learning curves of his life — having to learn to use a computer.
"I missed the electronic age," he said. "I was playing basketball during all that."
In addition to the extra efforts, Roberts learned from his classmates at the University of Phoenix.
"I am very impressed with their sacrifice and efforts that they are making to get their degrees," he said. "We are all working hard, but most of my classmates still have young families that they are trying to take care of through this ordeal. I know that I could not have made it through without their help and support."
More than 1,150 students were to graduate from the University of Phoenix with Roberts on Saturday at the E Center in West Valley City. This year's most popular degrees went to graduates who will boost the number of professionals in the field of education, where shortages are a concern, and in mental health and school counseling, psychology, criminal justice, business and technology. The majority of the graduates received bachelor's degrees, while 440 walked away with graduate degrees.
The schoolwork has helped Roberts stay focused during the NBA playoffs, which he says is the time when he most misses playing basketball.
"In my brain, I still feel I can do it, but my body says otherwise," he said. He's looking forward to having more free time to exercise and get back into shape. But as far as he's concerned, the sixth-grade teacher is at the prime of his career.