Friday, February 25, 2011

A sad day for education in Idaho

Hey. This is Ryan. The Idaho senators passed two bills onto the House yesterday that effectively destroy teachers' collective bargaining rights and allows for merit pay among other things. The vote was 15-20 on both which leads me to believe that no amount of debate was going to change those 20 senators mind. It makes me sad. Our state superintendent of schools, who has no education background, is dead-set on destroying morale. Our representatives from Idaho Falls were instrumental in pushing this legislation through. I could not sleep this morning and wrote a letter to them. Here it is:

Dear Mr. Luna, Mr. Davis and Mr. Mortimer,

I’m kidding myself in thinking you might actually read this. I had to write, nonetheless, to appease my conscience (it’s 4 a.m. and I can’t sleep) and validate to myself that my chosen career matters. Let me start by saying I was crushed yesterday by those whom I elected to represent me in Idaho Falls so blatantly disregarded their constituents and misrepresented them while all of Idaho watched. I am embarrassed and saddened that our legislative system failed us yesterday. That is not supposed to happen in the United States of America. The democratic theory upon which I was raised is, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and it was destroyed by your antics, “good senators,” on the floor. To say I’m disillusioned is putting it mildly. My confidence in the system is shaken and it is hard to teach my four children that if you are politically active, what you believe can help shape our laws. That is a “happily-ever-after” lie.

However, though my belief in the system is crushed, you cannot and will not crush my resolve and dedication to the profession I have chosen. I am a teacher at Idaho Falls High School. I teach yearbook, newspaper, speech and photography. I love what I do. My students love my classes, I’m proud to say. I teach classes that some may deem unworthy of recognition because they are electives. But, I am here to say that my classes are worth something and I am worth something. As I and my journalism classes watched the senate proceeding live yesterday, we discussed how to report them accurately and without bias. We noticed the details, such as facial expressions and wavering voices and reported those in impromptu news stories. We discussed at which angles we would take photos had we been on the floor that would better portray the emotions and importance of the event. Then we talked about why it was important for our student population to know the facts and how these pieces of legislation would affect them. And then we got back to work to publish our newspaper.

In 2003, as I graduated from Idaho State University, I was working full-time for the Idaho State Journal and going to school full-time. I won an Associated Press award for my writing and was shopping for schools at which I would teach. My editor-in-chief, unbeknownst to me, had given my name to the Gannett Corporation which owns USA Today. They called and offered me a job. I promptly turned them down saying I knew what I was supposed to do with my life and it was to educate future journalists. My editor then offered me a higher wage and better hours to stay at the Journal. I turned him down, citing my passion for education. He called me “a stupid, ignorant, idealistic ass.” It just fueled my fire.

In my seven years of teaching, I feel I have helped kids beyond what I could have done as a career journalist. And it hasn’t just been to find a love for a chosen career. I’m proud to say that about 95 percent of my journalism students go on to college. And of that 95 percent, 90 percent choose to take some journalism classes as they decide which path to follow. That is a success rate.

But the real passion for what I do comes from my personal experiences growing up in Arizona. Indulge me by letting me share a couple of stories.

When I was 14 years old, my mother abruptly died from lupus. My dad was faced to raise four boys alone. As a farmer, we hardly saw him after school. He would come home late at night after I had made dinner for my brothers and made sure everyone got their homework done, etc. Her death devastated us, as you can well imagine. But my dad made sure we understood school was our job. He would take care of the rest if we maintained good grades. It was difficult to go to school because anytime anyone said anything about their mother, it only reminded me I didn’t have one anymore. In my small community (and class sizes), every teacher knew my situation. And every teacher strived to raise me and help me graduate.

I remember the day I returned to school as a high school freshman after being absent for two weeks because of the death. I was in geometry class and the kid behind me started asking me if “my mom was a pig” because I “was such an oinker.” I promptly turned and punched him in the face. I started crying and our teacher yanked us out of our seats and put us in the hall. She demanded to know what was going on and, through breathless sobs, I told her what this kid had said. She sent him to the office and said he was lucky all he got from me was an elbow to the mouth. She then put her arm around my shoulders and let me sob for about five minutes and sent me to the nurse to recover.

My other teachers recognized I needed emotional help, as well. You see, they weren’t interested solely in advancing me to show results. They cared about me as a person. My journalism teacher nurtured my passion for accurately reporting the truth. It was she who encouraged me to take journalism in college. Come to think of it, she kind of nudged – or pushed, I guess – me to even going to college. My drama teacher checked in on us as she went home almost every night for about two months. She would come to the door, asked how we were doing and make sure we had started our homework. My English teacher encouraged me to express what I was feeling through writing – even if it didn’t match the assigned essay topics. It was a support system at school that got me through those difficult teen years without a mother. I can never thank them enough. I can only strive to live up to their examples by emulating how they treated me to my students now.

Last night I was rewarded once again and validated even though the events in Boise so disheartened me. I know now, come what may from uninformed elected “representatives,” I will continue to teach because what I do matters beyond academia.
At the art show my students display their photographs to the public (well-attended, I might add), I noticed a woman with slumped shoulders and a worn look on her face picking her way through the displays of hand-drawn art and mounted photographs. My colleague told me she was Ben’s* mother and had brought some cookies for the patrons of the show. I quickly stepped up to her and smiled, “I need to meet you. You’re Ben’s mom, right?”

She nodded “yes” and pointed out some of her favorite art. “I probably need to talk about Ben with you,” I interrupted.

By the look on her face, I knew I had a difficult conversation on my hands. It wasn’t one of anger or frustration, but that of desperation and exhaustion. Ben is one of my photo students and I’ve seen his grade slip this trimester. His attendance has also been poor and he was failing my class. With just two weeks left in the trimester, I knew he had to do some work to get his grade up and not fail. Ben is a good kid. Something had been going on with him.

“Have you checked PowerSchool lately?” I asked. She said she hadn’t had time yet. “Did you get my note I sent home in the mail today?” She replied she hadn’t been home yet that day.

“Well,” I began, a little hesitantly, “Ben is failing my class. But, to his credit, he stopped by yesterday before the failure notices came out and asked me what he needed to do to pass. So, that’s a start, right?”

She looked at her feet and shuffled a little bit. Then, looking in my eyes, said, “I don’t know what to do with him anymore. He’s rebelling, obviously, and I can’t seem to get through to him. It just sounds like nagging and he’s ignoring me.”

“Well, he is a teenage boy, you know,” and laughed to take the edge off. “What can I do to help you?”

“It’s not just your class, Mr. Hansen,” she said. “It’s every class. He’s missing them and not doing his work.”

“That doesn’t sound like Ben.”

“I know. Honestly, I don’t know if there is anything anyone can do. It’s up to him and I’m afraid for what might happen with him.”

I saw her pain as she turned and looked at the artwork and then back to me. What could I do to help this woman besides giving him some extra-credit points for attending the show?

“Look, could I talk to him tonight and maybe shake some sense into him? No offense, but sometimes it takes a male authority figure talking straight with a boy to let him know that he needs to shape up. I can give him the, ‘it’s-time-to-man-up’ talk. Would that be alright?”

Then, she surprised me. Her eyes brimmed with tears and she choked a little as she nodded. I was worried. “Did I overstep my bounds? Have I upset you?”

She shook her head and composed herself a little. “It’s just … that’s supposed to be his father’s job and he isn’t around very much anymore. It’s just hard raising him by myself. It doesn’t have the same impact coming from me. I would like you to talk to him very much.”

I told her I would do my best to kind of “forcibly nudge” him into the right direction. I then told her that Ben was very talented and very intelligent and that she would get through this. I asked her if I could give her a little side hug and she said OK. She left in better spirits, I believe, and I waited for Ben to come to the show. When he did, I pulled him aside and said, “We need to talk.”

“I hate it when people say that to me,” he said, his body language telling me he was putting a up his guard.

“Ben, do you know you’re the only one in class that didn’t have a photo on my wall tonight?”

“That makes me sad. It makes me sad because I know how talented you are and nobody else here can see that without your photos. Ben, I spoke with your mom tonight and she’s worried about you. I’m worried about you. I care about your future. You are so intelligent and talented that you are starting down a path that will waste that intelligence. Do you know that?”

Another mumbled, “Yes.”

“OK, Ben. You’re doing the teenager thing where you’re just agreeing with me to get me to shut up. But I want you to hear me. There comes a time in every man’s life where they can point to and say, ‘This is where I decided to be a man.’ Ben, this is your moment. It is your time to decide, do I use my talents to build a life for me or do I be a bum? What are you going to decide?”

Then, he did something that caught me off guard. He started crying. This senior boy started crying and said, “I want to be better, Mr. Hansen. I know I wasted this trimester and I want to do better. I am working to catch up, but I know I messed up.”

“Then, what do I need to do to help you? And not just in photography. In all your classes. What do I need to do?”

We decided that he would check in with me every day and let me know of his progress. I asked him to stop by and say hello next trimester, too. I gave him until Monday to get caught up in my class instead of Friday. I told him to be honest with his other teachers and let them know he’s turning it around. And then I told him to go home and hug his mother and thank her for everything she does for him and for being a concerned parent. I told him I cared about him and his future. I told him I believed in him. I told him to get to work.

Now, will this kid turn it around? I’m not going to be cynical and say, “Probably not” or “He pulled one over on you.” I choose to believe my intervention matters to this fractured, tiny family.
That, sirs, is education. I can drill writing techniques, photo composition, how to battle stage fright and other things into their heads, but the heart of education is that we believe we can influence our young students for good. We are working to change the world, one kid at a time. I may have 50 kids in speech next year, but I will work to make sure every one of them knows that they have at least one person in their life that cares and will root for them, no matter what.
I ask you to look yourself in the eye tonight in the mirror and see if you can honestly say the same thing. Despite my frustration and disillusionment, I can do just that.

Ryan Hansen,
Proud educator

P.S. And, just so you know, our last year’s yearbook is a finalist for an award called the Pacemaker. It is the scholastic journalism equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize and we are recognized as the top 11 journalism programs in the nation. We are the only school in the West (besides two schools in California) that has received this honor this year. We will find out in April if we won. Where’s my merit pay for that?


Brenda said...

Great letter. So heartfelt and so good.

Sandi said...

Ryan, you are awesome.

Rebecca Chase said...

Um--Yeah I cried. Ryan, you are a rockstar.

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