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Virginia Journal of Education

Lessons Learned

by Steven H. Bills

After almost 30 years in technology, engineering and management consulting, I had the wild notion that teaching high school English would be great fun. I’d taught freshman college English when I was younger and adult ESL in two Northern Virginia programs—so what could be so hard about transitioning to high school? Giving something back to the community through the humor of Mark Twain or the sonnets of Shakespeare felt like a noble calling.

I’d managed hundreds of people in my previous career, mostly engineers who had graduated from prestigious schools. In general, I found that many of them, despite their academic credentials, wrote poorly. I could surely help high school students write practical prose that would position them for college while anticipating jobs in business and government.

The chance to shape the next generation of our nation’s leaders seemed noble as well as enticing. In preparation I visited classes at two local high schools and found them a bit chaotic, but everyone seemed quite happy and engaged. I was not dissuaded by sassy teens or warnings from teachers about the road ahead. And so, with unbridled optimism, I marched off in pursuit of a Virginia teaching license.

Because of my schedule I didn’t take the University of Virginia preparatory classes in the recommended order. I started with a class called Curriculum and Assessment, a fascinating adventure with an engaging practical instructor. She spent the first few classes discussing “classroom management.” When I finally asked her why the class was not studying the topics suggested by the course title, she revealed her secret: “If you don’t get classroom management down, you’ll never get the opportunity to teach anything. Classroom management is the fundamental ingredient necessary to curriculum delivery.”

Oh, how I wanted her to be wrong. I wanted students to be so enthralled with the poems I placed in front of them that behavioral disruption would never enter their minds. I envisioned engagement, including discourse and debate over texts. I even had hope that the principles of rhetoric, building blocks for writing in the real world, would appeal to them. Classroom management and discipline (pshaw)--would be an afterthought, an exception.

Such a naive attitude made my first year one of vulnerability and spiking blood pressure. I quickly found that high school students require extraordinary structure and discipline. I failed to heed that wonderful University of Virginia professor’s experience and it took a while to recover from that indiscretion.

In year two I scrupulously followed the teachings of Harry and Rosemary Wong in their popular book, The First Days of School: How To Be an Effective Teacher. (This was one of the texts assigned in the University of Virginia program.) Among its tenets: assign seats, be pleasant but stipulate rules and expectations, explicitly insist on decorous behavior. Find the “old salt” teachers and determine the nuances of the school that need to be addressed. Classroom management breeds academic success. Year two was a comparative breeze and I had students delivering quotes from King Lear in the hallways and cafeteria. Gatsby research projects were spectacularly prepared and rhetorical skills clearly improved in my classes. My blood pressure went down and achievement went up.

Career switcher conclusion #1: The persons sitting in your classroom are not adults like those you worked with as part of your previous job. They are much more interested in text messaging, the upcoming football game, and the outfit they’re wearing than they are in curriculum objectives. Don’t let your own interest in the subject dissuade you from scrupulous attention to classroom management.

Identifying Gaps in Reading and Literacy

“I hate to read. I haven’t read a complete book since eighth grade and I don’t plan to this year,” wrote one high school senior in his journal.

One of my career-switcher preparatory courses focused specifically on “reading across the curriculum.” The course is designed to remind and persuade teachers of every ilk that life is better if students are proficient readers. The course included:

• Methods for testing text readability levels so that appropriate selections can be made.

• Effective vocabulary-building approaches.

• Note-taking methods to assist students in both comprehension and memory building.

• Using graphic organizers (hundreds of options) to help students read, organize, prioritize and understand difficult text.

• Designing lesson plans that address diverse reading levels and learning styles. Choosing appealing texts that motivate students to read through inspiration, or at least appreciation.

• Employment of other strategies and scaffolding approaches including active questioning, predicting, summarizing, reciprocal teaching and many others.

Armed with this toolbox, I immediately encountered the senior’s journal entry cited above. I would fight him to submission, I decided. I would show him that life ahead was going to be difficult if he didn’t take on the task of reading in a serious manner. I’d seen him reading sports websites and knew he could discuss scouting reports on upcoming football opponents as skillfully as any ESPN sportscaster. Additionally, his historical understanding of the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, even the players from my generation, was superb. The only missing piece, it seemed, from all the other reading material that he purposefully avoided, was motivation.

It took me months before it finally dawned on me that poor motivation was only part of the problem. In our county, first semester of senior year is devoted almost exclusively to composition and thus reading comprehension problems are not always immediately obvious—especially to a new teacher like I was, with clouded assumptions about student skills.

When the class finally switched to World Literature as a focus second semester, the light came on. Some of these students just couldn’t read very well. I asked for assistance from our school’s reading specialists to test my football statistician (and others). The results were disheartening. Several students were reading at just the fourth grade level; many were at the seventh and eighth grade levels. How did they get here? How did they pass through with no documented shortcomings except for occasional poor grades or a failed SOL test? Moreover, what should I do now to help them? They needed to pass senior English to graduate.

Career switcher conclusion #2: I missed the opportunity to focus on missing skills for several months because I didn’t diagnose the submerged reading problems quickly enough. New teachers—this is an agenda item that needs resolution early in the school year. Reach out for help from reading specialists and seasoned teachers as soon as you can. Collaboration with teachers from other rhetoric-based departments is also useful to find students who need reading help. Don’t assume that just because a student is sitting in your class that he reads at grade level.

The Challenge of Technology Gaps

For career switchers who have had access to state-of-the-art technology in their previous positions, don’t despair at the uneven and lagging state of public school technology. Many aspects, such as computer security and network reliability, are quite impressive in my county. Data storage, bandwidth availability, software utilization and hardware access, however, are challenges.

Career switchers from organizations battling to keep pace with technological advances in order to stay in business may be frustrated with what they find in school. Technology in the schools often emerges as a result of a budgetary process rather than a prioritization process designed to deliver optimal solutions to the classroom. Additionally, many existing software investments and hardware assets failed to capitalize on full functionality. A mismatch between technology acquisition planning and the speed of digital innovation is evident. Most futurists suggest that the speed of technology is accelerating and thus schools face an even more daunting challenge very soon.

Switchers need to help solve this problem. Using our business experience and computer literacy can help ensure that students are prepared for operating in the digital world. Switchers will find empathetic compatriots in their colleagues who recently completed undergraduate and graduate programs. The sophistication of university networks and software solutions has assuredly left its mark and created a digitally-savvy population. Research, modeling, product development, content enhancement, new forms of global collaboration, and more efficient administrative systems are integral to virtually all universities.

The issues for mapping a technology path for the public schools are extensive and complex. In preparing career switchers for the classroom, the University of Virginia program focused on issues such as selection of credible and appropriate websites for student use, proper documentation of Web-based research, avoiding plagiarism, and optimizing learning via technology-based lessons. Discussions also considered the gap between student populations from affluent homes and those whose families can’t afford a computer.

The importance of being integrated in a “flattened world” as Thomas L. Friedman writes in his book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, cannot be overstated. If we’re to position our children for meaningful jobs and future prosperity, we must find ways for schools to collaborate with government, industry, universities and individual families to ensure that our students are prepared. The educational paradigms we now know are surely going to disappear. Futurist Roger Schank suggests that if we recognize the “outdated notions of the educated mind” now, we may have a modest chance of being able to cope with the challenges that technology acceleration poses. Transitional steps we should take need to be implemented quickly.

Career switcher conclusion #3: Career switchers and other digitally proficient teachers can make significant contributions to the process of “technology refresh” and computer literacy. The evolution of policies, investment planning that optimizes the use of public funds, and computer-based implementation decisions need continuous monitoring and discussion. The status quo will never be acceptable for teachers sitting at the intersection of education and technology. Computers, cell phones, display systems, and other unknown inventions will soon be so small that their presence will be undetectable. What then?

How can the schools leverage the career switcher?

Having confessed and demonstrated significant personal inadequacies in the pedagogical process, I hope my final suggestion is not too presumptive. This recommendation is for principals and other administrators concerning how they leverage outside experience and expertise. Faculty members who have had careers in government and business bring practical dimensions to schools that can be used in valuable ways. They are well positioned to offer students and faculty members firsthand understanding in many areas including:

• Job Market—where the jobs are and what industry and government needs to accomplish organizational missions.

• Understanding of what certain jobs are like from a practitioner’s perspective.

• Shortcomings of recent college graduates as they enter the workforce and recommendations for overcoming them.

• Practical application of theory so that students understand why they must study certain subjects.

• Social and behavioral expectations in the job market. For example, students who use drugs risk the chance of not being able to obtain a security clearance or allowed to enter the armed forces.

In my school there are three former lawyers who boldly gave up private and government practice to become teachers. Other career switchers included computer scientists, defense program managers, professional musicians, editors, engineers and bankers. Many faculty members served in some capacity in the military. Teaching in the context of life experiences can be an effective motivator.

I would assert that an important priority for administrators is to take time to understand a career switcher’s experience and attempt to take advantage of it. In one sense career switchers are rookies who have a great deal to learn. In another sense, however, they have expertise and “life experience” to offer that can make the educational process even better. Administrators who take time to understand these capabilities can make teaching and administrative assignments that will truly benefit student learning. Streamlining administration, optimizing information technology, forming meaningful alliances with local businesses, revealing personal histories from the private workplace, and other pedagogical enhancements will help produce well-grounded students.

Career switcher conclusion #4: The experiences and maturity of career switchers are often very valuable to students. Faculty members from outside professions offer useful insights into commerce, technology, government and business. Administrators must take the time, even if the schedule is gradual, to understand the value of this experience and make appropriate classroom, administrative and collaborative assignments to utilize it.

Bills, a member of the Loudoun Education Association, is now in his third year of teaching English at Stone Bridge High School.



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