Teaching in the Off Hours

I recently got a text message from my nephew: “Thanks so much for believing in me because I never would have applied if you didn’t tell me I could.”

After a high school career of a 4.0 GPA with numerous AP courses, he attended the local community college, where he also had a 4.0 GPA. As of last summer, he had no plans further than transfer to the local mediocre mid-level state uni, maybe take a year off and work with his dad.

I was unimpressed with these plans, just as I’d been unimpressed with his twin sister’s plans. Said twin had an identical high school and junior college resume, and a stated objective of getting an AA in nursing and then maybe going to an online university in a couple years to get a BA. I threw a small fit with my sister, who balanced my expert input with her husband’s reluctance to pay more than a pittance for college. My sister and husband are wealthy evangelicals, with a high school diploma and trade school AA between them who aren’t so much anti-college as suspicious that the expense is worth it. I don’t disagree these days, but feel that well-heeled parents of high-achieving, hardworking kids who can afford the fees at a top tier public university should buckle the hell down and pony up.

So I educated my sister and niece on the opportunity cost of putting off a nursing BA. Last fall, my niece transferred to a 4-year school, accepted into its well-regarded nursing program. I took my nephew on a field trip to the local mid-tier of the elite university system, including a stop by the transfer admissions office, where he learned he was a near shoo-in for the amazing place of learning he was standing in, and probably eligible for a top tier. His text to me was an announcement he’d been accepted to one of the best public universities in the country.

The cool thing about this story, to me, is that I was able to do my teacher thang for family. Usually, I only get to help students.

Ysenia had a terrible first two years of school only to make one of those miracle turnarounds. Late in May of her senior year, she came to me for advice. She wasn’t a star student, just a good hard worker who’d done really well in the vocational program our school interacted with. Should she take out a loan to go to a for-profit trade school and get out quickly, to start working as a dental technician? Or should she go on a waiting list and wait a year or more for a much cheaper community college? Her family was poor (and, for the most part, here illegally); she wanted to get a salary and help out as soon as possible.

I didn’t know the answer, but spent time researching options and getting her in touch with the right people to advise her. She still hadn’t made up her mind by the time she graduated, and I left the school that year. I still wonder about her, and what the right decision would have been, in light of the Corinthian College meltdown. But what I do know, at least, is that one teen living in poverty who didn’t make the decision unthinkingly, unaware of the downsides, unaided.

Just last week, I met with Javier, who been a top student in both my algebra two and trig classes, at the request of his special ed case manager and his in-school aide, Mr Patel, because they were worried Javier was ignoring reality. Mr. Patel, a retired immigrant PhD, had been caring for Javier’s physical and academic needs since the eighth grade, when Javier’s muscular dystrophy put him in a wheelchair. Javier, who also has a 4.0 GPA and several AP courses to his credit, was making college plans without giving any thought to the physical care he’d need, or arranging for it.

I asked Javier who would take care of him while he was in college. How he would get to college. What support programs, if any, the colleges he was considering had to offer. The answers were all I don’t know, yeah, I need to look into that, and I don’t know. Was it possible, I asked, if he was avoiding the nitty gritty administrative details of his college life. He allowed it wasn’t just possible, but definite.

Like many kids with a severe physical disability, Javier faces life with a preternatural optimism that cranky pessimists like me find somewhat infuriating. This conversation had dimmed his usually cheery face. I felt so frickin’ mean.

But I told him that US law means he gets guaranteed services in high school that are a different matter once he graduates. (Ironically, he’d get the services for longer if he were cognitively incapable of high school level work.)

I gave him specific objectives: file an application for state services, contact the state rehabilitation services for an assessment, get a list of services offered by the local community college and his top state pick. I told him these objectives outweighed his high school homework, which he agreed was getting more focus than it needed out of a desire to avoid thinking about his future.

I heard from both his case manager and Mr. Patel; Javier is making calls, filling out forms, and getting his support in order.

I’m now running a school club that offers free 30 minute test prep after school two days a week, but for years, students have come by after school for practice sessions. I’ve coached kids, read application essays, advised on college selection, provided perspective on parent priorities (alliteration!), and basically operate my own small, free, consulting service to many students of all races and ethnicities who couldn’t otherwise afford it–even after graduation. There are kids in top colleges today who once never had a thought of attending, because I had the opportunity to work with them. There are kids with scholarships and grants thanks to respectable SAT scores achieved working off-the-clock, in my classroom, coming in weekly on their own time and mine. There are also kids who I’ve helped convince their parents that community college is their best plan, and saved themselves considerable debt, kids doing better in high school because I’ve convinced them they have a future, kids who will be going to trades with a high school diploma because I’ve convinced them that they can put in the time and make it pay off. There are kids in the military who entered as officers with more prospects and kids who took the time to work at math to get a better ASVAB score and more career options.

High school teachers all have gigabytes of memory archives of similar stories. This isn’t a Huggy Happy Teacher Tales Edition, though. I actually have a point, one related to my time in the tech halls of corporate America.

The best, happiest time in my tech life was my five years at a major financial company, a time that made an appearance in this autobiographical essay of a few years back, specifically this bit. I loved that job. I ran a whole bunch of applications for every aspect of change, problems, and service that IT (information technology) supported. None of my apps were business critical or even known to business, making my job laughably uninimportant.

I tried, my first year or so, to get into a more glamorous line of work supporting the line of business systems, either operations or apps, and came close a couple times. But ultimately, I stayed and offered apps that provided essential, timely data to enabled business critical staff to support equally important systems or justify their budget, or an increase in budget. Over time, I became a known quantity–almost, dare I say, respected. While at first my job was the butt of good-humored jokes (which I took in kind), I ultimately became a bit of an institution. When a department needed to improve their services, they’d always send a friendly naysayer who’d come in dramatically waving his arms (“I can’t believe I’m doing this”) and ask if I could build or modify an app.

For the last two years, I ran my own little empire. I took on my own projects, had my own little service request form. I’d build new reports, add fields to collect new data. I was part of the corporate ecosystem. Project managers pulled me into meetings and new initiatives so I could plan changes to their service apps as they changed their business apps.

And then I left. Never regretted it. I never got paid enough, and after my divorce, money and time at home became a premium. I became a consultant, worked less and got paid more for the next decade, before the dot-com crash.

It was never as much fun. I often got paid $15-20K for jobs that never happened; people just hired me to talk them through meetings then decided not to move forward. Or I put hours and hours in on a project that lost its funding even though I got paid nicely. This is quite normal in that line of work; it was only my longevity in my last job that allowed me to build a suite that got used and trusted–and then expanded. But consulting work is quantified and measured; it’s a budget item. Everything must get approved, politics and leadership change, plans change, you know how it is.

So I suddenly realized last week when talking to Javier that finally, I had my old job back. When I was a tutor, I could talk to the kids whose parents or well-meaning philanthropists paid for me, or for Kaplan classes. That was satisfying–much more satisfying than any tech job. But now, my salary covers all sorts of services that would never survive a budget or line item query: ad hoc test prep, counseling advice, adult supervision, sometimes just a place to sit and chat. Many kids just stop by and find me and sit, talking about their parents, their plans, their hopes, troubles at school. While I’m sure many teachers just listen, my support is usually a tad more active. I’ve been paid to give opinions most of my adult life. Why stop now?

Rick Hess talks a lot about cagebusting teachers, and how teachers can influence policy and practice. I like Rick Hess; he’s usually right in his assessments if often wrong in his prescriptions. But he’s a guy who left teaching after two years, frustrated at the bureaucracy, feeling he couldn’t make a difference. And as a policy wonk, Hess particularly pushes the dramatic, bold teacher-driven initiatives–leaving teaching to work at the district level, heading up a grant-funded after-school tutoring program.

Me, I like becoming part of the community–part of the eco-system. I don’t need to be an invasive species. I’m not interested in getting grants or extending my power. I want and have my own locus of control. I am….unconvinced….that charter schools as a whole will ever be able to build a sustaining ecosystem. They have way too much turnover. Most of them are obsessively interested in either a) good test scores or b) progressive ideology. Teachers are more constrained, in my view, by one of these goals—and then, turnover prevents slow growth. I could be wrong.

I’ve mentioned many times on Twitter that this has been a simply awful year for education reformers. So let me say again: you can never change teaching until you understand it, and understand the people who enter the profession long term.

So start by understanding that teaching goes on in the off hours. Many–I’d never say all–teachers find some way of offering extra value for their salary. They provide ad hoc services that would cost a small fortune if ever quantified and salaried and required, but because they’re just baked in, never cost an additional penny.

Think of it as your tax dollars at work.


About educationrealist

12 responses to “Teaching in the Off Hours

  • anonymousskimmer

    Check paragraph 8 (Mr. Patel). Read closely for names, because I think you may have unintentionally outed the student’s real name. (You use the fake-name Javier all but one time).

  • educationrealist

    Thanks–that wasn’t his name, just the wrong pseud. But I appreciate you pointing it out.

    I actually have the opposite problem. The kid I call “Jake” in the linked essay walked into my class last week to say Hi and I said “Hey, Jake.” Boy, was he confused.

  • anonymousse

    Serious question: why do you pooh pooh your sister and brother-in-law’s views? I’ve read plenty of accounts of young people having enormous student loan debt (just read one today about a guy in London, with $800 dollar payments that will balloon to $2000 in 2020), while earning perhaps $4,000 a month (hard to tell-he related his take home pay, so I don’t know his gross pay).

    I have, my entire life, been a pro-education, pro-college kind of guy (I’m in my 50’s, so my understanding of educational finances is from a different era). But the different economics of today’s education even give me pause. I can’t see the value of going into debt, to that degree, for my own kids.

    I specifically question your statement about the kids getting into a ‘top tier public university,’ which to me sounds like Virginia, Michigan, perhaps a California school. And it would only coincidentally be in the state where the kids can pay in-state tuition.

    And that is specifically what I’m concerned about. Would you still recommend getting into the best school you can get into, even to the point of paying out-state tuition? I just read on another website today (in passing) that UCLA ( or USC-I get them mixed up) charges $67k a year. That is $250K+ for a degree. Frankly, I can’t see any circumstance where that would make financial sense. Not to become a teacher, obviously. Not even to become an engineer. But not even to become a doctor: you start medical school $240K in debt? Add medical school debt, then 3-6 years of resident pay, and you are looking at 1/2 million of debt before you are a doctor!

    So if you were suggesting that the kids got into a top-tier public school, and it happened to be in their own state (so in-state tuition), it may have been reasonable, depending on scholarships and family support. But are you suggesting that even out-of-state tuition is worth it? Are you suggesting that $67K per year is worth it, regardless of professional goals (nurse, teacher, etc) or only for particular career paths (engineer, accountant, dentist/doctor)?

    Educate me a bit on the tuition/debt load that can be expected. I went to school on an ROTC scholarship, and returned to graduate school a few years later on a fullride teaching/assistanceship scholarship-I grew up in the ‘affordable public school’ era. But it really does seem different today.


    • anonymousskimmer

      I’m not Ed, but have opinions on this.

      “why do you pooh pooh your sister and brother-in-law’s views?”

      According to Ed, their opinions were ignorant (unresearched), except in the “common wisdom”, or “follow me” sense.

      “which to me sounds like Virginia, Michigan, perhaps a California school.”

      There are about a dozen states with a public school within the top 200 or 250 in the world, which is what I’d consider top tier.

      Even disregarding that, the state flagship of any state is almost universally superior in program content to any community college within that state, which was the other side of the comparison along with: “he had no plans further than transfer to the local mediocre mid-level state uni, maybe take a year off and work with his dad.” Taking a year off to work with a parent, or to get a job an AA will get you, is a serious opportunity cost in today’s economy.

      This is all considering the likelihood (given the twins’ backgrounds) that they will graduate from a 4-year school. Otherwise, if they were at risk of dropping out, then yes, an intermediate AA would be a better choice.

      “Would you still recommend getting into the best school you can get into, even to the point of paying out-state tuition?”

      Ed already wrote that the opportunity cost calculus was an important part of the analysis.

      Even out-of-state tuition is not the final cost for most students. This is what scholarships and grants are for. Though admittedly those still aren’t a great deal for any but the top-tier private schools or the military academies.

    • educationrealist

      Anonymousskimmer’s answer is good, but I’d add a couple things.

      First, I actually am very conservative on this topic these days, given the economy. I don’t think kids from a low income family should take on more than $20K in debt, and that’s a kid with good grades and test scores. These days, I’d still tell a motivated kid whose parents couldn’t afford it to bypass debt for two years of community college if it required them to take on 40-60K debt.

      Then, I don’t think you’re taking into account the specifics. My sister and brother-in-law are wealthy. They can pretty much write checks for the tuition cost out of pocket.

      Hence my sentence: “I don’t disagree these days, but feel that well-heeled parents of high-achieving, hardworking kids who can afford the fees at a top tier public university should buckle the hell down and pony up.”

      Therefore, I completely agree with your take on debt, but it’s just not an issue here.

      Sadly, there are different responses for choice of school based not on your grades, but on the debt you take on–which has to do less with your parents SES and more with their ability to pay out of pocket. My ex and I paid for3 years of my son’s college out of pocket; my son paid the rest from his own work and grants.

      • anonymousse

        Pretty good, but I’ll be more specific.
        1) First, I’m guessing Ivy League calculations are in a world of their own: if you are bright and motivated enough to go to Harvard, that opens up the world-go for it. Correct?
        2) Would you recommend a kid go to Virgina (or Michigan) out of state over Iowa State, or Vermont, or U. of Arizona, in-state?
        3) By state flagship, you are referring to Iowa State, and U. of Arizona, and U. of Vermont (as well as each state’s university-ranging all the way down to mediocre). You’d almost always recommend those?
        4) 20K in debt seems almost impossible today (outside of ROTC or some kind of freeride scholarship). Even cheap schools, when including housing, are about 30K a year (or 120K total). Unless you are getting scholarships for 80% of your costs (even at a cheap flagship university), its not going to happen. So how is this realistic advice?

        If I sound flippant, I don’t mean to be. I’m just trying to pin you down on specifics. Admittedly, specifics given the wide variety of schools, family finances, and goals are almost impossible-which is why I’ve expressed it in the three tiers (Ivy League, Top public, flagship public) above.

        I have thought, for my own kids, of pursuing something similar to what you mentioned in passing: AP courses and good community college to try to get two years done, and then a good school for the final two years (note that my motivations are twofold-both the financial, and the aspect of keeping the current University culture and politics away from my kids as long as I can).

        But my questions kind of go beyond my own personal finances and goals, and are aimed at defining or understanding the educational cost-benefit analysis systemwide.


      • anonymousskimmer

        “AP courses and good community college to try to get two years done, and then a good school for the final two years”

        A student can miss out on potentially important internships or undergraduate research opportunities by attending 2 years of a community college first.

        OTOH, if there is a good transfer plan, this seems like a good idea to me. Though I wonder why you’d choose AP classes in HS instead of community college courses and dual credit, where the cost of community college is paid by the HS (though the second half of your parenthetical might explain this).

  • educationrealist

    This is probably part of a larger conversation, and my views have changed so dramatically over the past just 3-4 years that I’m hesitant to act certain.


    1) An offer to Harvard that doesn’t come with tons of money attached probably isn’t worth it. All evidence sez kids who are accepted to Harvard but don’t go do just as well. More importantly, if Harvard isn’t giving you lots of money to go, they don’t think you’re worth it. Screw ’em.

    2) Internships–still possible from a community college, and again, as time goes on and quality of AA kids improves (as it will, as more kids make this decision) more opportunities will appear.

    3) Instate probably better than out of state public.

    Recall that all cases the objective is $20K debt or less. That is, parents spending money on kids increases the options available.

    • Roger Sweeny

      FWIW: All Harvard College financial aid is “need-based.” No matter how much they want you, the University won’t allow them to offer a greater discount than they do to anyone else in a similar financial situation. As I understand it, this is pretty much true in all the Ivies.

      • David Speyer

        This has a big loophole (or at least did 15 years ago) — the Ivy commitment to meet need is a commitment to allocate grants+loans = need. The balance of grants and loans could be effected by how much they wanted you.

  • A Clarifying Moment | educationrealist

    […] preps should in and of itself be so draining (for me). As I wrote this,  I suddenly realized that club adviser should be added to the list. Then I’m an induction  mentor. And oh, yeah, an administrator […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: