A favorite writer of mine, when asked how to find one’s passion in life, responded with the following question: “What makes you most angry about the state of the world?” At first I thought it was an unnecessarily abrasive question, but over time I have found that it was exactly the prompt I needed. This is my story.
As a young student I was eager to learn, excelled in all of my classes, and read an average of two years above my reading level. Seventh grade was the first time I had a teacher who taught from a script, overhead slides in this case, and I experienced what it was like to spend the majority of class staring at a teacher’s back. The trend continued through college and left me frustrated and hungry for fulfillment elsewhere. I felt a great deal of sadness for some of my peers, who struggled to bridge the gap between the textbook and the test materials, and I often watched as teachers overlooked or blatantly contributed to student anxiety and inadequacy.
During my second year of college, I noticed that I had an affinity for grasping concepts from varied or sparse materials. With most lectures leaning well into both categories, I found myself trying to explain, re-explain, and draw analogies to coursework in my study groups. I could often be found scribbling across a white board in a study room, leaning over a table walking someone through a problem, or otherwise entertaining the group. This is where I first realized that I liked being in that role.This quickly led to a position running state-sponsored calculus workshops. This is where I found that many students have a mental block for mathematics, or formal reasoning in general, which I could often trace back to a poor classroom experience in their distant past. As part of running these workshops, I was required to be present for faculty lectures which resulted in my experiencing Calculus 1 eleven different times over almost three years. During the first year, I was amazed at the variations in teacher attitudes – ranging from animated and engaging to all-around unpleasant. It was immediately obvious that without a positive attitude, a teacher stands zero chance of connecting with students. By the second year, I found myself anticipating student questions, appreciating example selections, selectively mimicking wisdom I saw in the classroom, and finding common stumbling points in the material. In fact, one of my biggest realizations was that a student’s performance in Calculus 1 could be predicted based on their performance on an entrance algebra quiz. In other words, it seemed that more effort was spent making up for previous inadequacies than learning new material. In my workshops I took all of this to heart, created all of my own materials, spent countless hours with students after workshop or on weekends, and saw my student’s performance improve steadily over time. More importantly though, I believe that in some of them I not only eased the fear that had previously shrouded the subject – but showed them that (a) they’re not bad at math, and (b) it can be authentically interesting if you take the time to get to know it.
About the same time as I was running the workshops, I was lucky enough to have Ronda Beaman as a speech teacher. Ronda is an ultra-successful international public speaker who teaches part-time at the university for the sole purpose of giving back to her community. Her passion, positive attitude, and “less-traditional” methods are second to none and inspired me to do such things as give a half-spoken half-singing presentation on the inherit dangers of “partying” as a young woman (all timed to the song Roxanne from the film Moulin Rouge). And while that presentation moved some to tears, it was just one manifestation of what I continue to learn through my consistent relationship with Ronda – how to connect with an audience. In my experience teaching the Calculus workshops, this was one of my greatest assets; the ability to dynamically recognize deficiencies in my own communication and to adjust to the needs and styles of my students.
Fast forward three years. I had become an expert in a niche market involving how energy projects financially interact with utility rates and was realizing that the most personally rewarding parts of my work were when (a) I’m challenging myself mathematically, (b) I’m mentoring a peer, and (c) I was presenting at conferences or to clients. Other than that, I didn’t find my work all that rewarding. In fact, I found that corporate America was suffering from the same ailments as elementary America – which was, no doubt, a causal relationship. There was often a huge divide between presenter and audience during technical meetings and I could watch as the eyes of high-level professionals glazed over, just as the eyes of students did during my class observations years earlier. So, after a very successful three years with an engineering company, I decided to transition into a consultant role so I could re-evaluate my career choice and set on a journey across the country with an eye out for two things – what do ‘family’ and ‘education’ mean outside of California. The journey has been punctuated by one primary event – my recent visit to High Tech High.
From the minute I walked into High Tech High, I could feel the positive energy; from the smiling faces and introductions, to the pedagogical brainstorm littering the white-boards, to the healthy snacks. During the information session, existing faculty and students spoke about their personal experiences with both the program and the school and it was immediately obvious that this was a place I could call home. In fact, my old boss used to call me a positive deviant, and when walking the halls of HTH the following day it occurred to me that positive deviance is exactly what HTH is about. By starting as a full-time teacher, my accompanying credential work would be a direct implementation of one of my favorite quotes (as well as, of course, the Michael Fullan quote on which HTH’s innovation is based).
“It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.” ~ Jerry Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” ~ Greek proverb
Let’s plant some trees.