Thursday, February 2, 2012

Why I Became a Teacher

Vicki Davis, one of my Facebook and Google+ education friends posted a question asking folks to tell why they became a teacher. Because my story is neither typical nor short, I decided to blog about it and just provide a link from Google+ to here.

Forgive me if there are more typos and run-ons than my usual posts. I'm writing this pretty much as a stream of consciousness, or stream of semi-consciousness as I often call my ramblings.

As a student, I slid by on my ability, often asking teachers, "When will I ever use this?" Even in junior high school I questioned the value of much of what we were being taught. However, I wasn't a rebel nor a trouble maker. So I just cruised along with a C average right through college.

Because I received a 4 year grant at the end of my freshman year of college, not because of my academic ability, but because of my performance on the wrestling team, I stretched my college career into 5 years and took classes that I would not normally have been able to fit in my schedule.

In my senior year, I only had classes three days a week. An injury prevented me from wrestling and I took a part time job on the other two days. I was a substitute teacher in the projects in Philadelphia. My experiences there were makings of a small book. It was an entirely different world than I had experienced up to that point and it gave me a hearty respect for the dedicated souls who tried to provide these students with an education.

I graduated from college with a liberal arts degree, but didn't go into teaching. I took a job as a management trainee for Rickel Lumber, the Home Depot of the 1960's. I didn't really care for the politics or the organization in general, and so I went to work for the newly formed Pathmark Supermarket Corporation as a warehouse management trainee.

After about six months with them, I got drafted (into the Marines), and I have a story that would rival Arlo Guthrie's tale of White Hall Street and the Group W bench, but that's for another blog. To make a long story short, I got out at the last minute, because of my wrestling injury.

That night, at the end of August 1969, my friends and I were celebrating the fact that I would not be going to Viet Nam. I mentioned that I wasn't really crazy about warehouse life. As far as they knew, I was in the army and I could take a week and look for another job. One of my friends said, "Hey, there's new middle school opening down the road. Why don't you try there?"

That Monday I walked into the Sayerville Middle School and ran into a man in jeans who was pushing a large cart of books. I asked if he needed a hand and he answered that he could use one. I helped him move the books and put them away. Then I asked him for directions to the Principal's office. He asked why I wanted the principal, and after telling him, he informed me that he was the principal.

We went down to the office and chatted. He told me that they were fully staffed, but with a large young staff, he expected to lose people to draft. He said he would go to the board to see if they would hire me as a permanent substitute in the building.

The board agreed and thus began my teaching career. The two years I spent in Sayerville were absolutely amazing. The first year I as a permanent sub, I made it my mission to teach things the way "I" thought they should be taught. Whenever I encountered a sub plan that would have had me asking, how will this every help me in life, I tried to change it so that it had some relevance.

At the end of that first year, the Assistant Superintendent asked me if I was interested in a special class. I asked what he meant and he told me I would have the 14 worst discipline cases in the 9th grade in a self-contained classroom. I would have full control and answer to no one by him. Other than that, they would be mine. I could send them to regular classes if I felt they could handle it and I would deal with discipline and parents. The only time he wanted me to come to him would be if they did something that was a police matter.

I was interested, but still had a few questions. What about curriculum? Would I be constrained? What would I do about teaching material. To the first question, he answered, that aren't learning anything now, so anything I could teach them would be a bonus. As to the second question, he reached into his pocket, handed me the master key to all the classrooms and told me to take anything I needed.

That sealed the deal and thus began what was unquestionably the toughest, most challenging, and most rewarding years of my life. I don't know how much the kids learned from me, but I know that by the end of that year, I had learned more about teaching and about life than I had learned in the previous 20+ years. It set me on a path that I followed for the next 30 years and will follow until the day I die.

Toward the end of those 30 years, I was conducting a WebQuest workshop with Tom March. At the end of the workshop a participant came up to me and asked how I made the change. I asked her to explain what she meant by "the change". She said, "You know, from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side."

My answer was simple. I told her that I never made the change. I've been doing the same thing for 30 years. The only thing that changed was the labels, which prompted her to ask me what I meant by the labels. I told her that 30 years ago, I was labeled a radical nut and the other day someone called me a visionary.

Thanks for asking the question, Vicki. I brought back a wonderful flood of memories.