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The Student Voice of Forest Hills Central

The Central Trend

The Student Voice of Forest Hills Central

The Central Trend

The Student Voice of Forest Hills Central

The Central Trend

As Steve Labenz closes out his 26th year at FHC, the (life) lessons he has taught will stick with his current and former students

Steve Labenz and his date at their prom dance in 1982.
Steve Labenz
Steve Labenz and his date at their prom dance in 1982.

Being one of FHC’s most beloved teachers, it may be surprising to learn that, as a teenager, Steve Labenz hated school. 

While he had a few exceptional instructors, the majority were simply awful. However, because of lazy math teachers who would entirely abandon their classes and other instructors who he wasn’t sure even knew his name, he learned first-hand the importance of personable teachers. 

“I try to be straight with kids,” Labenz said. “If I’m having a bad day, I [tell my students], ‘I’m upset because of this.’ [Teachers] are people too. We have good days and bad days. We get upset, and we’re happy. I think that’s something that’s important for teachers to be: authentic. I’ve always tried to just be that way. I’m the same way here as I am with any other thing that I do.”

Accordingly, Labenz’s genuineness has proved apparent over his 26 years at FHC. Whether through the way he chats daily with his classes about recent goings-on in the world or encourages discourse about current events, he treats his students like real people. 

At the school, he has taught a plethora of Social Studies oriented courses: Civics/Economics, US Government, AP US Government, World Studies, Current Events, Model UN, AP US History (APUSH), and AP Seminar. Currently undertaking APUSH, he does his utmost to ensure he has a deep understanding of all the periods of American history. 

Considering that Labenz already knows much more than most of his students will begin to have a sufficient scope of, his further research showcases the wholeheartedness he puts into teaching the course.

“I try to make sure that I know the content [I’m teaching],” Labenz said. “I usually spend summers trying to read about parts of history that I feel like I’m weakest on. There are times when I have to say, ‘I don’t know,’ but I want to minimize that as much as possible. Getting your mind around the content, and how you’re going to best deliver that content, and how to make the kids understand it [is a challenging aspect of teaching].”

However, even though Labenz is seen as one of the most notable teachers at FHC, it wasn’t his original intent to pursue the profession. Only after a convoluted process of college, radio, sales, and student teaching, did he finally come to the position that he is now known to have. 

Initially, Labenz was involved in the world of radio and had been since high school. After taking a couple of positions at radio stations, however, he realized that the job wasn’t something he particularly enjoyed. 

While being around music and getting to experience the backstage scene of concerts was appealing, he didn’t feel like his work was actually benefiting anyone. But, after finally completing his student teaching requirements, he found education to be a much more fulfilling occupation.

“Certainly, [teaching] has given me a lot of meaning,” said Labenz. “When I was in radio, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything. [Teaching] is, to me, a very meaningful job. It really becomes who you are. You wake up, and you’re thinking about your kids, what you’re going to be doing, [if] this lesson plan [went] well, [what you] shouldn’t have done, [what you] shouldn’t have said, and whatever it is. It does become really consuming. I will be somewhere and write down a lesson plan [that I think of]; I’ve taken my phone out at places that I probably shouldn’t have my phone at, and my wife [asks me], ‘What are you doing?’ And [I tell her], ‘I’ve got a lesson plan idea.’ It is consuming, even in the summertime, because a lot of teachers are doing college classes, tutoring, or doing something. It just becomes a part of who you are. A huge part of who you are. At least for me.”

[Teaching] just becomes a part of who you are. A huge part of who you are. At least for me.

— Steve Labenz

While Labenz has undoubtedly taught many lessons in history, government, social studies, and English, some of the most important have been on non-textbook material. 

Aside from the belief that students should have educated and developed opinions on societal issues—regardless of which side of the spectrum they may lie on—he stresses the importance of consistently bettering oneself. 

“I think one of the [life lessons I have taught to my students is to] try and improve a little bit every day,” Labenz said. “Do something that you’re becoming a better person or student [through]. [Like] the Teddy Roosevelt quote, ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’ That’s what I would hope for kids, not just here, but in their lifetimes: leave things better than how you found them. Hopefully, that’s what they’re working toward.”

In spite of teaching being Labenz’s most obvious occupation, his involvement at FHC has expanded further than just the classroom. Beginning in his early years at the school, he avidly took part in announcing athletic competitions. Now, he has done so for virtually every sport—for at least one season—throughout his 26 years.

In the very beginning years of doing so, he vividly remembers the staggering attendance and crowd engagement of a tense wrestling match against Lowell High School. A victory for FHC, the memory of such enormous school involvement sticks with him. 

Similarly, when recalling his fondest memories of FHC, the school’s immense homecoming festivities quickly come to mind. Whether the stadium was struck by sweltering heat or enveloped by blustery winds that tore floats to pieces, the enthusiasm he had for the school prevailed. 

However, his involvement and attendance at athletic events, including homecoming, have translated into more than solely spectating and announcing.

“Few people know [this],” said Jeff Manders, a former student teacher of Labenz’s and current FHC Media Communications and AP US Government instructor, “[Labenz] was a bowling coach, a girls softball coach, [and a hockey coach] for a while. He’s done a lot, and I think he’s done a lot because he really cares about students here. And he cares about [them] not only [in just] being successful in the classroom. He teaches one of the hardest social studies classes out there, and he puts everything into it. He really wants the kids to do well, and he wants students to enjoy, as much as possible, their four years here.”

The diligence Labenz puts into helping his current students is clear. However, pertaining to some of the past travelers of FHC’s halls, Labenz’s initiation of the Veterans Wall of Honor serves as a memorial for those who have gone on to join the country’s armed forces.

The wall, located in one of the main corridors of the high school, is filled with names of former students who either serve, or have served, in the military. Aside from reminding current students of their predecessors’ valor, the wall serves as an important remembrance for the people mentioned on the wall to know that the school hasn’t forgotten them.

Understandably, the wall is something Labenz is glad to have been able to contribute to the school.

“[The most] rewarding [aspect of teaching] is seeing kids do well, where they end up, and the careers that they go on to,” Labenz said. “I hope that, and I feel like, I’ve done a good job, and I’d like that to be my legacy. I’m proud that we were able to do the Veterans’ Wall because we worked on that for a long time, and it’s nice that there’s something to leave [behind]. We have a lot of guys and women on that wall, and it means a lot to them. I’m glad that we’re able to continue to add names to it.”

Regardless of the area of FHC that Labenz has been a part of, throughout them all, the common factor is the care he expresses while doing so. This can be seen through the unique nicknames he allocates to his many students and the way he chats with them, as if they’re more than just names on the attendance sheet. 

Lisa Penninga, FHC’s AP Literature and Composition teacher who previously taught AP Seminar with Labenz, holds him in high regard and emphasizes this legacy he will leave behind. 

“Mr. Labenz is one of the best humans in this building for lots of reasons,” Penninga said. “He always puts students first. He gives them his utmost attention, is in the moment with them, and puts everything else to the sidelines. I learned a lot from teaching with him for two years. He has such integrity and kindness that he exhibits in everything that he does. But, he also has a little bit of sass, which I appreciate too. It’s fun to see when he reminds students of what’s important and to kind of forget the rest.”

As he closes out his 26th year at FHC, Labenz is unsure of what his future may hold. 

Having enjoyed vacationing on Lake Huron as a kid, he may choose to move from Grand Rapids toward the east side of the state. 

However, he has also considered possibly continuing his career in education by teaching children on defense bases across the world. In doing so, he would be able to teach children whose parents are stationed in the military. But, with the lengthy time it takes to obtain the position, it may or may not be the right fit. 

On another note, being an automobile enthusiast, he has contemplated taking up a job in car sales. Or, maybe he will open the bakery he’s talked to many classes of students about. 

Even though he is uncertain of what the coming years may bring—no matter what they hold—he knows that they will doubtlessly be a large adjustment. 

“[Teaching] has become such a routine,” Labenz said. “It will really sink in after [the students] go back to school [in the fall]. Just to not be a part of the ‘everyday’ [will be a big adjustment]. Life goes on; someone else will be in my classroom and take my classes. That’ll be the hardest thing: just not being a part of the every day.”

Labenz’s absence at FHC will not only be odd for him, but it will be felt by his former students as well. Many students, whether ones he actually teaches or just ones who stop to chat during passing periods have become accustomed to his hospitable nature in the halls. 

The teachers of the school will, of course, have to endure the effects of his retirement as well. Morgan Beckett, Labenz’s current co-teacher for AP Seminar, has expressed how odd it will be next fall without him.

“I know [Labenz] is feeling down because he’s now worked with a series of teachers who have come and gone,” Beckett said. “It’s weird for him, even in this very room, [because] some of these ‘big name’ teachers were here and everybody knew them, and now we’re in a cycle of teenagers who don’t know who [they were]. It makes him feel like he’ll be forgotten, which is very saddening. FHC is its own insular world, but what is exciting about teaching is that you impact people and they go off. Maybe there will come a day in ten years when a student won’t know who Mr. Labenz was, but the students that had him will definitely be talking to their kids about their amazing history teacher and hoping that their children will have a history teacher like him. Of course, [his impact] is great here within these walls, but what’s exciting about his legacy is that it’s going to just expand, even beyond them. He is one of those teachers who really makes students feel seen with the nicknames [he gives students] and asking [them] about what [they] do outside of class. Not only [is] passion that he puts into delivering his lessons for APUSH or AP Seminar [special], but I think the thing that sets him apart from all the other teachers is that he really cares about students.”

As the year closes out, Labenz needs to know this: he will be greatly missed. 

“I guess you could say thank you,” Labenz said. “It’s been great; these have been the best years of my life.”


While some fantastic quotes were able to make it into this profile, there were many students and teachers interested in giving their own commentary on Labenz which, unfortunately, could not all fit. So, Mr. Labenz, enjoy some additional messages!

“I think that Steve Labenz has had an absolutely tremendous influence on FHC,” AP World History teacher Brad Anderson said. “In fact, he has helped shape and build what we now know as FHC. From his APUSH class, which is kind of seen as a right of passage, to helping coordinate the Veterans Day Assembly, the Senior Recognition [Ceremony], to painting the hallways, and just being a generally good person in the hallways. He has helped build the school spirit here and he has helped build the PRIDE tradition of excellence. He is an icon, in my opinion. Not only is he important to the students here, but he’s also an important faculty member. He’s so well respected; he’s loved by his peers and respected by his admin[istration] team. He will be sorely missed.”

“On a personal note,” Anderson said, “he is one of the reasons I am a teacher. I had Mr. Labenz [when I was] a student, back in 1998, for US Government. It was his personality and his ability to make great relationships that really made an impact on me. It was our conversations after class that really encouraged me to think about teaching because I so admired what he did. So, I’m sitting here and I’m at FHC because of him, largely. That’s what he needs to know: I’m one guy who is a legacy of his. [There are] many thousands of others are out in the world doing good, [being] good citizens and good parents and responsible folks who had Mr. Labenz as a teacher and remember him fondly. 

“[Labenz] will be missed because he’s just innovative in everything that he does,” Penninga said. “He started our AP Seminar program with a group of students taking it as an elective [class], which in this building, is so hard. He also endured three different teachers in that class and really maintained the integrity and rigor of the program. So, we really owe him the credit of just such an awesome AP Seminar class. He’ll just be missed. He’s an awesome human and he’s a legacy, for sure.” 

“Well, [Labenz’s] impact on FHC, I think, is monumental,” Manders said. “We were just talking the other day as a social studies department and somebody brought up the term, ‘the voice of FHC’ [to describe him]. He’s gotten so many assemblies [together] and he and Mr. Anderson were the ones who spearheaded the whole Veterans Wall that’s [here]. He’s helped with [being] the senior class advisor for I don’t know how long.”

“Throughout my entire time at FHC,” junior Benny Laidlaw said, “Mr. Labenz really seemed to be one of the few teachers who actually cared about me and my prosperity at school.”

“Mr. Labenz is a really nice teacher,” junior Rayyan Dar said. “He’s always made me feel at home. He cares about every student and tries to make them laugh. And he has very good assignments, in which you think, but they’re not [too] hard because you don’t know the [material].”

“Mr. Labenz is a very knowledgeable and interesting teacher,” sophomore Ellie Stone said. “He teaches us a lot about history along with other, lifelong, useful facts. Mr. Labenz is very passionate about what he does and he makes sure that we all know what we’re doing and we’re all prepared. I think a lot of kids see that and appreciate that he’s putting in the work to make sure we understand what we’re doing.”

“Mr. Labenz is a really great teacher,” sophomore Ella Peirce said. “I feel like what makes him so special is partially that he’s been teaching here for so long, and so many kids have had him. He’s really left this long-lasting legacy as a great teacher—especially in APUSH. So many kids have taken his class and done really well, and that’s because of him. He’s also just a really great person and you can tell that [because] it reflects through his teaching. He’s just really, really interesting, and he has all these stories and lived such a cool life—like he was a radio host. I would just love to get a coffee with him and learn about his life because he is clearly such an interesting person and a really, really great teacher.”

“Mr Labenz is someone who I will be forever grateful to have taught me,” recently graduated senior Gigi Sincrope said. “I feel for the students [who will] come to FHC [and] won’t get to experience his classroom. He is excellent at making students’ voices and opinions heard. Earning his respect—something I hope to have done in the past few years—is something I am very proud of, and something I will continuously work to obtain. I hope that he and his wife are able to start the bakery they aspire to own, or whatever endeavor his next chapter holds.”

“I loved AP Seminar with him!” FHC alumna Payton Dailey said. “[I am] so thankful for the way he—and Mrs. Potts—prepared me for writing APA papers in college [in AP Seminar]. What a blessing it was to feel known in his classroom and loved as a person first!”

“In APUSH, PACE club, and the first year of AP Seminar,” FHC alumna Abby Stead said, “Mr. Labenz always built a positive environment through his patience and humor—despite clashing personalities, especially in AP Seminar. He showed me [the album] Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads and The Last Waltz by The Band, launching some of my favorite music obsessions to date, and giving me the drive to make my first college friends at the radio station! He was one of the first people to inspire me to pursue a degree in history, and I still think of him and his classes often when I look back on the educational and personal experiences that carried me to today.” 

“Thank you for challenging me,” FHC alumna Lindsey Larson said. “You made me a better student because of it.”

“Thank you for your eloquence, intelligence, and kindness that make you ‘Labest’ teacher,” FHC alumna Lauren Brace said.

“You were one of my all-time favorite teachers!” FHC alumna Katya Berjawi said. “I hope you enjoy the retired life.”

“Through high school, college, and med school, Mr. Labenz remains one of the kindest and most encouraging teachers I have ever had!” FHC alumna Maddie Cole said.

“I have such fond memories of APUSH sophomore year!” FHC alumna Katie Ritzema said. “Best wishes to Mr. Labenz!”

“Your class forever shaped me as a student and person,” FHC alumna Krystal Koski said. “Thanks for your enthusiasm!”

“Thank you for being such an awesome teacher!” FHC alumnus Owen Gorsuch said.

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About the Contributor
Elle Manning
Elle Manning, Staff Writer
Elle is a sophomore beginning her first year on The Central Trend. She loves to read novels, create extravagant Pinterest boards, and journal in her seemingly scarce free time. Her biggest passions include writing and fashion, and she hopes to one day be able to combine the two into a future career. She has been a cheerleader since fourth grade and continues to spend her time on the sidelines every football season. In the spring, she enjoys playing tennis, even though she is still learning. She is often found with Spotify open; she loves to listen to music from a variety of different genres and decades. Most recent musical fixation: Weyes Blood Dream school: Columbia University Favorite book: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Favorite comfort films: All of The Twilight Saga (primarily the first two movies)

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