Tag Archives: cagebusting

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, my nephew got the same excellent grade point average at the  local community college. 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 eighteen months earlier. 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, and my sister, the twins’ mom, 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, and aren’t so much anti-college as suspicious that the expense of paying a bunch of liberals to attempt to indoctrinate their children wouldn’t be worth it. I don’t entirely disagree, but as I told my sister, well-heeled parents  should buckle the hell down and pony up the funds for the top tier schools that accept their high achieving, hard working children.

After chastising my sister, I educated her and my niece about 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. (Update spring 2018: she’ll be graduating in May.)

So when my nephew explained his lackadaisical thoughts for his next steps, I invited him up to my section of the state and  took him on a field trip to the local mid-tier of the elite university system. After he was utterly wowed by the campus, we stopped by the transfer admissions office, where a counselor informed the young man he was a near shoo-in for the amazing place of learning he was standing in, and probably eligible for a top tier.

My nephew went home, scheduled a meeting with his community college adviser. The text I mentioned above was an announcement he’d been accepted to one of the best public universities in the country–one several tiers higher than the one we visited. (Update: he’ll be graduating in December).

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

For example, Ysenia was one of my favorite students at my last school. Before I knew her, she’d 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. His special ed case manager and his in-school aide, Mr Patel, had asked me to advise him 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.

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