Life Is Good

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She dutifully arises from her sleep at half past five each morning to care for her beloved dogs, one of whom is a young puppy. She takes them outside and watches them as they romp around the backyard. Then she prepares their morning meals and smiles with contentment as the sun rise and the coyotes utter their mournful cries in the distance. The air is cool and just as invigorating as the coffee that she sips to awaken her brain just a bit more.

After the early morning routine she eats a light breakfast and dresses for a visit with the little goat that she has decided to raise. She lovingly brings the dogs back inside and gets them settled for her departure. She sits quietly and pensively during the short ride to the barn where her kid is housed. It is a beautiful time of day when the morning promises so many possibilities with its cool breezes wafting over the rugged terrain in the Texas hill country. Deer dart in front of the car or graze leisurely along the side of the road. Now and again a group of walkers smile at her as they go past.

Nobody else is yet at the barn when she arrives. It is summer time and most of the young people with animals have chosen to sleep in a bit taking advantage of the final few days before the school year begins. They will come to carry out their duties later, but she likes working in the coolness of the morning and listening to the members of the marching band practicing just across the way. She wonders how her good friends are doing with the rigorous sessions that begin at seven in the morning and continue until four in the afternoon. She thinks of them as she feeds her goat, refreshes his water, cleans his stall and walks him around the high school campus. Along the way she sees the cross country team practicing and greets locals from the neighborhood who are enjoying their daily walks.

Later in the afternoon she will repeat her duties with both the dogs and the goat. In between she enjoys the book assigned by her English teacher for summer reading and practices some Spanish in anticipation of the language class that she will be studying in the coming school year. Several days a week she works at a veterinary clinic observing and assisting in every possible way. Her goal is to one day be a veterinarian, and so she is focused on learning as much about animals as possible, which is why she chose to dedicate her time to a goat rather than playing the clarinet in the band. She enjoys being a musician by being a member of a youth orchestra instead. She is unquestionably focused on her goals with a maturity that belies her age of fourteen, almost fifteen, years. She even chose to stay behind while her family went on a vacation trip so that she might dedicate herself to her animals, at least for now.

On Sundays she takes riding lessons, mostly so that she will have the opportunity to learn about horses. She looks rather tiny as she sits tall and erect on her steed. It takes far more strength and athleticism than she had imagined to manage the animal, and she is often quite tired after guiding the horse around barrels and getting him to jump over gates. She takes instruction from her teacher quite seriously, repeating drills over and over again.

She will be a freshman in high school when the new academic year begins near the end of August. She has chosen a STEM pathway which will feature extensive studies of science and mathematics, but she is also set to take advanced English and Social Studies classes as well. She already understands how competitive it is to gain admission to the universities that she hopes to one day attend. She feels certain that she has chosen a goal that is doable and will also bring her much joy, but she understands how much time and work she will have to invest to get there. She is unafraid.

She is also a quite typical teenager. She sends and receives text messages from her friends all day long. She loves to shop and get the latest styles for her school wardrobe. She talks on the phone for hours once her duties have been completed. She exercises to keep fit and watches makeup tutorials to learn how to use beauty supplies correctly. She loves going to the mall with her best friend and trying on prom dresses and dreaming of one day buying and wearing one to a special event. She is fully aware of world events and has definite opinions about politics. She wants to one day have a positive effect on the environment and the people around her. She is wise and serious, innocent and quick to laugh.

She is our future as are her friends and so many young men and women who will one day be running our businesses, schools and governments. Her earnestness and unflagging dedication leave me feeling quite confident that we have no worries. With the thousands and thousands like her the world will move forward just as it should, just as it always has. When I see her I know that we often worry needlessly. The human spirit always finds a way to shine in people like this remarkable girl, and all of us will benefit from the endless wave of very good individuals like her who step forward to join the ranks of honest, productive adults. When I see her I know for certain that life is good.

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The Real Education

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I enjoy nothing more than visiting with my former students. Like a mama bear I want to know that they are doing well. Whether by way of Facebook or through lunch or dinner dates I keep up with many of the young men and women who were once students in my classroom, and I always walk away feeling quite proud of them.

Sometimes they are apologetic that they are not working in their field of study. I can tell that they worry that I will think less of them. What they don’t realize is that I understand all too well the serpentine routes that life and careers often take. I know how difficult it may be to find that sweet spot that makes waking up each morning something to enjoy rather than dread. In my own case it took until I was in my thirties before I was certain that I had indeed chosen the right kind of work. Even then it took a few more years for me to develop confidence in my abilities.

In college I changed my major so many times that I ended up with over one hundred sixty hours of course work. For the longest time nothing seemed to fit, and even when I neared my graduation date I was being lured by professors who thought I might be a good candidate for the creative writing major at my school or even for a degree in art, both tempting ideas. I finally had to tell myself that enough was enough and I launched a career in elementary education that actually never really gelled. My first position was in the intermediate grades teaching mathematics. I became sought after for my minor rather than my major and my one foray into the lower grades demonstrated that I was meant to be a teacher of older students. By the end of my career I was teaching high school freshmen and sophomores and loving every single minute of the day. Eventually I mentored teachers and found my real niche.

My husband was a sociology major who went into banking. His best friend, also a sociology major, went into sales. One of my brothers was a marketing major who became a firefighter. In fact, the vast majority of the people that I have known ended up doing things that might never have occurred to them had not some grand opportunity presented itself. For most of us the world of work takes many different twists and turns.

These days it’s more difficult than ever for college graduates to find jobs that ideally match their interests and coursework. It used to be that a liberal arts major was a great way of entering a wide variety of careers. Now such a degree is far less valuable and sometimes even those who earn honors in college find themselves working in jobs that they might have landed right out of high school. The days in which diplomas from universities were a sure thing are long gone, and it is quite distressing to young graduates. All too often they find themselves having to be incredibly creative and flexible in finding jobs unless they have extremely high grades and particular skills.

We hear a great deal about careers in the STEM fields but the reality is that the technology and engineering majors provide the best prospects for jobs while the science and mathematics positions often require more advanced degrees or special training. Many who earn diplomas in these very difficult fields find themselves falling back on careers in teaching which are sometimes not particularly satisfactory to them. because of this there are a few too many educators who are simply marking time until a better offer comes along and then they are quickly out the door.

I always recommend that young men and women be open to careers that push them a bit out of the boxes that they have created for themselves. I also want them to understand that in today’s world they will most likely find themselves continually seeking new educational opportunities. Things are changing so quickly that they will never be able to simply be content with what they learned in a distant past. They will be trained and retrained again and again. Much as with limits in Calculus they will slowly approach closer and closer approximations of what they really want to do but may never actually finish the learning process.

I have a student that I thought might one day become president. Four years at a school in Washington D.C. taught him that politics is a cut throat business in which he has no desire to engage. He is now coding software. Another student with a business major worked for a time in corporate America and actually did quite well, but he now uses his acumen in his own thriving furniture building business. A student with an accounting major is managing several companies for an entrepreneur. An architecture student is building and renovating houses. A psychology major is successful in real estate. In other words, so many of my students have learned that their degrees have taught them how to think and to quickly learn knew skills and ideas which they are parlaying into interesting professions that they never considered entering but they truly enjoy.

I would tell any young person to think of college as a stepping stone. The degrees that they have earned demonstrate that they are able to learn a variety of information and that they have a willingness to work hard, forego instant gratification, and complete projects in a timely manner. Those are invaluable abilities that will serve them well regardless of the kind of work that they ultimately do. Those who will be successful are the men and women who show up ready to work day in and day out. They learn something new wherever they go and use that information to continuously improve themselves. They are ready to take risks and give it their all. Getting the degree was just the training. The real education comes on the job.

Grace

Nancy

I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.

We Can Do Better

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The truth is that there is a price for everything and that is no more apparent than in education. Few parents are able to afford the cost of private schools for their children, so the vast majority of our youngsters attend public schools. The bulk of educational expense lies in teacher salaries and benefits. Budgets are tight because the only flow of income to pay for all of the people and things needed to run a great academic program is found in taxes and a bit of federal money and grants. Parents sometimes chip in with fundraisers for a few extras. On the whole educational funding is a balancing act wrought with so many difficulties. Teachers want and deserve a fair wage commensurate with their education, knowledge, skills and experience. Schools need a certain level of educational resources all of which require additional money. At the same time citizens are only willing to accept so many taxes before they rebel even if it means cutting back on school funding. The tug and the pull is never ending, and a source of great concern both for educators and parents.

One has to be somewhat altruistic to accept teaching as a vocation. It requires not just an initial degree, but continual certifications and retraining, aspects of the job that are necessary and almost always paid for by the teachers themselves rather than the schools. Few classrooms are stocked with all of the materials necessary to keep students learning on the cutting edge, and so almost every teacher that I have ever known spends vast amounts of his/her own money to supplement what is provided. Teachers work longer hours and more days than most people realize, and often do so with little fanfare. It’s a difficult job, and I have witnessed former engineers, accountants and sales people run from its challenges after thinking that changing to a career in education would be a lark.

We see teachers across the country walking out of their classrooms to draw attention to the problems that exist. They are enduring the brunt of insults to insure that the future of public education is assured, because it is certainly true that if the conditions get bad enough the entire system will begin to fail just as it is already doing in certain corners. If we are to provide the best for all of our children, then we must get serious about the kinds of changes that we need. It’s a new world with a new way of doing things and a box of chalk and an eraser won’t cut it anymore. Nor will a salary that borders on insult be sufficient to attract the kind of teachers that our children need and deserve.

In the Houston area and other parts of Texas there are schools where the students are consistently failing. Instead of getting to the heart of the problems inside their walls the suggestions run from shutting them down to turning them over the charter programs. Perhaps thinking out of the box is the way to go, but it will take innovation, dedication from gifted educators, support from parents, time, patience and money. There are many success stories on the educational horizon, but they arose from a willingness to invest heavily in the lives of underserved populations. Drawing upon research and lessons learned there are no doubt answers to the problems, but it will require honesty and a willingness to address the staff, the facilities, the procedures, the role of parents and the students from the ground up. It may even require creating schools within schools whereby the buildings house smaller groups of youngsters who never fall through the cracks because they become part of an educational family. It may also mean providing financial and educational incentives to teachers so that the best of them will be willing to work with the most challenging populations.

It’s fairly well understood that the problems that plague failing schools are complex and include the reality that some children come from environments in which there is little understanding of the value of education. When parents become an integral part of the process the changes are almost magical. The heart of the KIPP Charter Schools lies in the commitment of parents, teachers and students to a daily routine of rigor with a goal of getting to and through college. There are more than just teachers driving the program, including counselors who follow the progress or lack of it from pre-school all the way through earning a college degree. The mantra “Once a KIPPster always a KIPPster.” is very real and every person who works in one of the schools takes the challenge to heart. The schools are kept purposely small so that everyone knows everybody. It is a true team and family atmosphere. The organization also provides opportunities for advancement paid for by the system. The best of the best have the opportunity of being awarded thousands of additional dollars in the form of stipends for excellence. At five year intervals teachers are honored with travel vouchers as well. These may appear to be small things but they drive the enthusiasm and dedication that teachers must have to make it for the long haul.

It’s time that we rethink how we treat our teachers and our students. We need to begin to redesign the way we do things and that doesn’t mean forcing the experience to revolve around standardized testing. It has nothing to do with dismantling the pension programs or simply purchasing a few computers. It will take a willingness to set things aright with funding, hard work and support from all of us, not just those who have children. Our future demands that we do a better job.

The Heartbreak of Misbehavior

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In my early years of teaching I worked with many students who had very troubled lives. My kids were known for moving from one school to another in three month increments. That’s because it took about that long for them to either exhaust the free rent promotion at apartment projects, or for their families to be evicted for nonpayment of rent. I used paper grade and attendance books back then and they were riddled with marks denoting subtractions and additions of students. My classroom was like a revolving door with many tearful goodbyes on Friday afternoons and greetings of new faces on Monday mornings. It was hard enough on me as a teacher to maintain a sense of continuity, but even worse for the students whose lives were constantly in a state of flux. In some ways the ones who went from one low rent apartment to another were the luckiest ones, because I also knew of kids who were living in someone’s garage or in the family car.

I struggled to manage my emotions in those days and often felt as though I was making little educational progress with my pupils. Sometimes I focused my anger on the parents and in other moments I simply felt a sense of extreme frustration. So many of my kids were listless and seemingly unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities that education afforded them. They didn’t appear to care about learning no matter how exciting I attempted to make it. They came without supplies and rarely did homework. Many possessed skills far below grade level. It was a daily battle to keep them engaged and all too often just as I had finally reached them they left for a new school.

I remember voicing my complaints to my mother who had been a teacher herself. I literally ranted about the situation and the fact that I felt as though I was the only one who cared. My mom listened calmly and then turned the discussion on end when she calmly but forcefully suggested that I needed to take the difficulties of my students into account. She noted that a hungry child can’t think of anything but the pains in his/her belly. A frightened child is only focused on the dread of going back home to a bad situation. An abused child doesn’t have time to worry about homework. In other words I had to consider the most basic needs of my students first and then worry about learning.

I knew from my mother’s stories about her own childhood that she was in many ways much like my students. She grew up in a tiny house with seven siblings who shared two bedrooms. Hers was an immigrant family that was often scorned and even abused by the people in her neighborhood. When she first began school her mom was in a hospital recovering from a mental breakdown. I suspect that there were many moments when she was too worried to learn, but she always spoke of how her teachers made school a haven for her, a place where it felt comfortable. For that reason education became a source of positive reinforcement in her topsy turvy world.

I changed the way I did things with my students after that conversation with my mother. I got to know my students and mastered the art of showing sincere concern for them. The stories that I heard were often heartbreaking, but I began to also see the courage and resilience that they possessed and I praised them for that. Once I adapted my methods to their needs my students began to demonstrate talents that had been hidden. They bloomed like lovely flowers and my classroom became a happy place where all of us wanted to be.

What I learned about my kids was at times so tragic that I had to steel myself to keep from crying in front of them. There was the girl with thick wavy black hair whose mother shaved those locks in a fit of anger. There was the boy who was an emotional wreck because his mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only three. Then there was Robert whose mom was a prostitute who left him in charge of his younger sister while she worked each night. He was little more than a child himself but he bore the responsibilities of an adult. When his sister was raped one evening it was Robert who called the police and waited up until dawn to tell his mom what had happened. She flew into a rage, not at the man who had committed the crime, but at Robert who in her mind had shirked his duty to protect his sister.

Students with such severe problems acted out and sometimes appeared to be lazy or even defiant. The reality is that they were simply attempting to deal with the horrific realities of their lives. Somehow learning how to perform operations with fractions was not at the top of their priorities list and I had to learn how to help them to concentrate on the moment rather than fretting over what might happen when they returned home. It was a balancing act that took great compassion on my part.

Whenever I would witness bad behavior from kids who had such terrible lives it would break my heart. I knew their stories all too well and only had control over what happened to them when they were with me. I wanted to make that time as positive as possible, even in the face of horrific challenges. I’d like to believe that in some small way I gave them a tiny break from the ugliness and maybe even taught them something along the way. All too many times they left my care just when I felt that we were on the verge of breaking through the issues that were holding them back. I would never see them again but I would always remember them and worry about them and wonder how things turned out for them.

Every educator and psychology student learns about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It appears to be such a simple and common sense theory. We should all understand that until the most basic requirement are satisfied little else will happen, and yet we still ignore the signs of trouble far too many times. Hunger, hurt, fear, pain overtake a mind and shut it down. Once we understand that basic truth and begin to address those things, then and only then will we be able to extract the full potential of our young. It’s a big goal, but one that we must pursue just as my mother taught me to do.