A year out of the classroom

Well, it’s been one year since I left the classroom. I have people in my life that missed the memo and ask me how my school year is looking. The most awkward part of this exchange is the recognition that my friend and I have done a poor job of keeping in touch. But hey, that’s what the internet is for, and if he missed my post then maybe that’s not my fault. What am I supposed to do? Text everyone, “New job. Who dis?”

Now that I have a year out of the classroom I have some thoughts and reflections.

  • Once a teacher, always a teacher. This comes in lots of forms. I still view opportunities as “teachable moments.” I still have 23-year-old former students reaching out to me for life advice. I still see a gaggle of teenagers in public places and pray none of them are students I left behind four weeks into my last semester of teaching. I got carded at the grocery store the other day and the cashier looked up at me and asked, “You Mr. Frasier that taught at McCallum?” Yes A-Aron. Tis me, your Algebra 1 teacher from 2013.
  • Education is a giant complicated mess and everyone is wrong for putting so much pressure on the K-12 system. Now that I work in the higher-ed space, I realize just how messy it is. From Complete College America initiatives to performance-based funding and budget cuts to articulation agreements from two-year to four-year colleges, it’s one big giant mess. I thought for so long that if we could accomplish certain things in middle/high school, we could pat our students on their graduate cap, send them off to college, and the teachers could pull out a pint, cheers each other, and celebrate a job well done. This montage of a fantasy is incredibly satisfying – yet the reality is disappointing. Only 70% of the class of 2016 went to college or university, and of those 70%, 55% of the students we send off to college don’t graduate. So some basic math here says that if I taught 100 students from the class of 2016, I’d be really lucky to have 40 diploma holders when I check back with then in 2020. So, what’s the problem? That’s the million-dollar question our education system has been trying to answer for decades. Is a non-completer leaving because they got the job they want without finishing? How do we track that? Are they leaving because of a major issue in their family, like a parent’s death, that requires them to work while supporting their siblings? Are they leaving because they were simply too immature to handle living on their own? Did drugs and alcohol get in the way? Were they academically unprepared? It’s hard to say which of those types of issues are failures of a system. If we want to improve the system, we need to think about what the system can correct.
  • The higher-ed system can be improved by treating it like a true continuation of K-12 space. Yes, Prof. _____, your 20-year-old college student is technically an adult, but when they were 18 only two years ago, their high school teacher took attendance and called their parents and held their hand. I’m not suggesting that this is a professor problem. When I left my PhD program to become a high school teacher, I remember stating that I wanted to teach students who hadn’t figured out life yet. I assumed by the time the students got to college, their lives were figured out. Higher-ed wasn’t initially created as a continuum of education for all types of students. The reason this continuum isn’t an inherit part of higher-ed is because, prior to 60 years ago, it wasn’t necessary. Before WWII, only 1 in 20 Americans had a college degree. Today, we’re looking at about 1 in 4. If only your educated elite go to college, you don’t need retention programs and academic success centers. The good news is that a lot of 4- and 2-year regional access institutions are figuring this out and starting to put the infrastructure in place. The hard part is the scale at which the work needs to be done.
  • So what works at the K-12 space? Well that’s a whole dissertation but in short it means knowing the students and having everyone be accountable. Parent teacher conferences, department meetings, counselor interventions, attendance checks, 6 week grade checks, weekly homework quizzes, mandatory LMS usage, and whatever the school has found to work for them like providing laundry and free meals on campus. Did I ever feel like any one of these things actually made a difference? More often than not, I found them to be annoying and a waste of time. But they forced me to confront each individual student. That’s what higher-ed needs. How can we get a view of each individual student that provides us with enough intel on which to act? This part will sound self-promotional, but that’s what my new job is about. My company, Civitas Learning, is using data science to customize strategies, communication, interventions, degree planning, and scheduling so that we can maximize intentions at a large scale while minimizing time. In the last HS I taught at, we had “student-led conferences” where we cancelled classes for two days and each student came with a parent for a 30 -minute summary of their life. It was run by the students and was always incredible. It provided me with information like recent family issues, medical diagnoses, strained relationships, or on the positive side students falling in love with new subjects and gaining admittance into prestigious summer programs. The problem with that? IT TOOK 2 FULL DAYS TO DO 16 CONFERENCES. That’s the opposite of doing things at scale. We need a way to cut through the noise and have high yield practices. The good news is that people are starting to figure that out (and luckily for me that’s my job). It is just moving a lot slower than I would like.

In summary, the next 50 years of education will be about adjusting the strategies of the higher-ed space to be about student experience and action at scale. It’s messy, but no messier than when I had to teach middle school PE. And this definitely smells better than that.

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