Reinventing Myself: Spreading My Wings

Spreading My Wings:

From uneducated outsider when I left Louisiana, I had become aware of a much wider world. I had seen great cities, met interesting people who barely knew where Louisiana was, and who certainly shared few if any of the concerns that had motivated me when I was growing up. I spoke German as readily as English, if not as grammatically, even thought in German. I discovered that knowing two languages was enough to allow you to travel from Greece and Spain in the south of Europe to Holland and then Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in the north. And everywhere I went, I toured museums, ate the local food, enjoyed conversations with locals. I was not aware of it at the time, but this was an aspect of learning and I had become addicted to that; learn by doing, by observing, by conversing as well as by absorbing books. I was not a skilled practitioner of a lot of things, but I tried to experience as much as possible, history through hiking the countryside and even skiing in the Alps.

Finally, it was time for a change. I had progressed through the Army’s ranks to Chief Warrant Officer, but nothing was ever as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. Optimistic, yes; the new change would be better, right? Instead, there was a certain sameness, old challenges repackaged. There was no real challenge to the me I was becoming. I was offered a ‘regular’ appointment as warrant, but it would mean changing from the system I’d worked on for 20 years, the Nike Ajax/Nike Hercules and attending a course to prep me for duty with the newest Air Defense system, the Patriot. That, in turn, would require that I remain in the Army for the next 4 years at least. I decided that it was time to make a big change while I still was young enough to do that. I declined the regular appointment and became a college student full-time.

I had intended to major in history and teach. Teach I would, but not history; a professor in that department managed to turn me off the subject while one in the department of biology interested me in science. I would graduate in three years with a teaching certificate and certification in various sciences. Along the way, I immersed myself in college; I was often leading the course in grade-point average, leading in class discussions, Joe Student in everything. I joined a ‘fraternity’ for veterans, ran for the Student Council and won, became vice president of several campus clubs including Alpha Chi, the honor society. I was even the MC for the Friday pep rallies for a while!

I had no problems with assuming responsibility, but I never seriously considered politics. It’s not what you accomplish, it’s the mud you crawl through to get there. I had become interested in a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism, SCA, and that would be the framework for several other hobbies for the next 30 years. The experience would be useful later when I began writing.

Teaching was interesting, rewarding, frustrating. I found myself in a strange culture, half American, half Mexican, where students were virtually ALL children of recent Mexican immigrants. Most were as poor as I had been. College had given me no more than a bare framework; I learned to teach in the first two or three years, not by attending lectures or courses but by learning on the job. I learned much of the science of conveying information, especially to unwilling minds, from students. Eventually I became pretty good at it. I also constantly looked for ways to do it better. I became as much investigator and theoretician as teacher.

The new development at the time was in use of computers, and I began this as soon as possible, first using on for record-keeping and grade averaging, then as a tool to develop better lesson plans and eventually to replace most of my chalk-board work with overhead slides from a projector using copies in oversized letters that I’d printed using my computer. I used department funds to purchase a computer for the department and eventually television monitors for visual learning. I acquired a tiny camera that I could use to video record small demonstrations of things such as dissection, running the camera through a VCR and then directly to the twin monitors. I would eventually tie this in with a suite of sensors for the computer that could measure such things as heart rate, light intensity, and many others.

My classroom became open as a ‘safe place’ during lunch periods. I would skip lunch, perhaps munch an apple if I did anything at all, and go for a walk around the quarter-mile track. I lost weight, and I’ve kept it off now for 25 years. After my walk, I would open the classroom and usually it would fill with students, 25 or more of them. They could talk quietly among themselves and amuse themselves playing with the computer and the sensors. There were also videos available for the VCR, but those got little use. It WAS a safe place, and the doors were wide open for any student, any teacher, any parent to come in at any time and observe.

I not only welcomed parents and school officials, I often made them a part of the class. I loved the student interaction, got along well with administrators, got a lot of satisfaction from doing the job and improving things for some of the poorest and most needy people in a poor city. Another teacher and I began a program called ‘No Failures’.

It was simple in concept. For the unmotivated, we would provide motivation. Failure didn’t come from lack of ability among our students, nor from lack of involvement of the teachers; it came because students were drawn to other interests. Some of them included gangs, drugs, and of course sex. They experimented. A few of the 8th grade girls became pregnant before they left middle school, and as many as half of them had one or more pregnancies in high school before they left. Many students dropped out. If you’re not succeeding, why stay?

So the two of us began accepting students for after-school sessions. They were similar to detention, in that attendance for selected ones was mandatory, and any teacher or administrator could assign a student to our program for any reason they chose. Tardy? Sure. Unexcused absences? Why not? Failing a test, not turning in homework, disruption in class, you’re in the program. And we would go to the classroom during last period and escort the student to the program, held in the cafeteria, when they didn’t choose to get there on their own.

It was tutoring at heart despite the resemblance to detention. An arriving student got a worksheet to finish before he/she could leave. We helped as needed; I did science and language and history, my colleague did math. There was more need in that discipline for help than the ones I tutored.

Eventually, using funds supplied by the principal, we would hire other teachers to help when the work load got heavy, and finally we experimented using students as mentors/tutors. For the unwilling, we were prepared to stay there, and keep them there, until they finished the work. For the misbehaving, we brought in parents, usually a mother, to sit there with them while they worked. We simply accepted no excuses, and earned the title: no failures.

A couple of the unproductive ones tried to challenge us early on. We would smile and tell them to just keep sitting; they could take as much time as they needed, we were getting paid by the hour for keeping them, and we needed the money. Thank you for your help. That tactic became unpopular quick, and then the students started working. Come into class, begin work, you could finish and be gone in half an hour or less. Stall, dawdle, daydream, obstruct, it might take two hours. And for misbehavior, we assigned another day in the program.

For the few who needed help, we were soon able to spend one-on-one time with students. It began to make changes in behavior and grades began to turn around.

That year the program was voted by the faculty as the best thing that had happened to the school that year. Surprisingly, it was also voted the best thing by students, including some of the ones who’d been to our program. Someone cared enough not to accept excuses. Someone cared.

And then the bottom fell out. The school had been ‘underperforming’ for years. Poverty, language difficulties, some of them were Mexicans who slipped over the border every day to attend school, whatever, they had not done well. The school board decided, after suggestion from the superintendent, to ‘reconstitute the school’. From principal to janitors, all of us would go elsewhere except for a few selected to remain by the new principal. Neither my colleague nor I were selected; many of the new students were on their first job after finishing college, and the new principal had been a counselor before this appointment. All of them got bonuses for teaching in the school we’d cared so much for, worked so hard to improve. Parents supported us, the old faculty, but it didn’t matter. My colleague and I had been selected to be teacher of the year by the faculty and runner up, but we were booted anyway.

The program we’d developed died.

I continued to teach but never with the sense of satisfaction I’d achieved, and I simply didn’t like the new principal I was assigned to at the new school. He reciprocated. It became a near state of war between us, coldly polite, never a good working relationship. I liked the students, but things were different here. I began applying to teach at a high school, and did that every year until I finally retired. I took courses, became certified to teach any science at any level, kept applying for a transfer without any result.

I finally found out by accident that the principal had been denying my requests for transfer. That was apparently an unwritten policy, the new principal asked the old one if he would approve the transfer. Despite the mutual dislike, he never would. I suspect it was because of standardized test scores; the department I chaired, science, took a ten point jump from 74 to 84% passing rate the first year I got there. I shared everything I had developed with other teachers in my department. The following year test scores went up again, and continued that every year until I retired, finally topping out at 94% one year, remaining over 90% every year thereafter.

I finally bought retirement credits from the Texas Teacher’s Retirement System, based on my years of Army service, and retired. Bittersweet…the principal was forced that year to transfer to a different school.

I retired, and just as when I retired from the Army, I never looked back.

Next: Retired life, and a final reinvention.


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