I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was a sophomore in high school. It was my ag teacher Steve Nichols who inspired me. Then Don Dunn encouraged me to follow that career path. I was in such a hurry when I graduated from Bellevue High School in 1971 to be an ag teacher, that I couldn’t wait to get started. I enrolled in summer school at Midwestern State University to take algebra and English. Thanks to Mrs. Vannie Lee Randolph, I passed that first English class and thanks to the daily tutoring from our school superintendent Ellis Benham I got a D in college algebra. Hey, I figured D stood for a diploma so I was good.
Then I made it to Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Tx where my professors challenged me, but never discouraged me. Thanks to a Chemistry professor, who seated us alphabetically, I met my bride. As you can see, Tarleton was very good to me!
Students who want to teach ag science go through what is known as the block. That’s where you wear a tie every day, build large quantities of lesson plans and then finally you get to do your student teaching. Wichita Falls had just implemented the ag program at Rider thanks to the University Kiwanis Club that had raised the money for the building. I knew that is where I wanted to do my student teaching. I also knew that married students got first pick. As a result of that information, Tricia and I gave her mom a heart attack when we told her we wanted to get married in October instead of June. The plan worked! We were able to move to Wichita Falls and student teach at Rider.
I will always remember the first day Benny Clark allowed me to have the class all by myself. It was actually my first day at Rider. The county show was going on and both he and Fred Pruner needed to be there to help the students get ready to show. I don’t mind telling you, I was so nervous I could thread a sewing machine with it running! But I was prepared. The lesson that day was on internal parasites. I was ready for a 55-minute class that would be awe inspiring. My students would know everything there is to know about internal parasites. I delivered that 55-minute lesson in about 10 minutes. That’s what happens when you're nervous. But I got better every day and made it through thanks to Benny Clark and students who had mercy on this student teacher.
Six weeks later, with a degree in hand, I convinced Marvin Finto, Vocational Director for the Lamar Consolidated ISD that I was just what they needed for their ag program. I was part of a three teacher department located in Rosenberg, Texas. I had four classes of ag one and an ag co-op class. My students were a combination of Czechoslovakian farm boys and Houston transplanted city kids whose parents had moved to the country and bought a ranchette. It was a blast! Tricia and I learned to love Kolaches, not the ones in donut shops today, the real ones with fruit filling.
We didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but my students' parents were awesome. When students do what students sometimes do, their parents were there to help us keep them on the straight and narrow. That was 1975. We don’t always see that today.
In 1978 Benny Clark was named Area Supervisor for the ag science division of the Texas Education Agency. He called right after Christmas and asked if I would be interested in teaching at Rider. To Tricia and I that was the dream job, a great shop and classroom plus an eighty-acre school farm. Plus, it was closer to our parents and we wanted our children to grow up knowing their grandparents. By February 1st, we had bought a house in Wichita Falls on Cypress Street and was right where I always wanted to be.
For the next eight years, I taught welding, electricity, small engines, leadership, parliamentary procedure, public speaking, animal science and life. We sold fruit, turkeys and sausage to raise money for students travel and show supplies and the community responded! Our students traveled to the National Leadership Conference in Washington DC, the National Convention in Kansas City, all major stock shows, and leadership contests. We had Lone Star and American Farmer degree recipients as well as district, area and state officers.
So, for anyone who will listen, my students did well not because of anything I did. It was a team effort! The science, math, English, band teachers, and coaches that had dedicated their lives to providing our students with what they needed to be successful. The elementary and junior high teachers who don’t give up all play a huge part in any student's success. The ag program was just where they could see what they had learned actually put to use.
That was all before STAAR tests and today's A-F rating for schools. It was when teaching was an honored profession and communities understood it takes everyone to make it work. Today, there is nothing more rewarding than to see a former student tell me about his or her family and what they are doing in their careers. I love to hear about the welding truck they run or the business they manage now. My students keep cities safe as law enforcement officers, utility department supervisors, firemen and transportation managers. My students are welders, plumbers, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, and ranchers. Some are even teachers. I take great joy in their success, not because I was very good at any of that, but because I was able to encourage, advise and sometimes discipline them to a point where they had the self-confidence to find their purpose in life and as Nike advertises, “Just Do It.”
So, why this trip down memory lane? Like Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy, I’ve been thinking. Since my time in the classroom, I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve in many careers. From broadcasting to computer sales and now my work for the last twenty-four years at Region 9 Education Service Center has allowed me to observe educators. Especially my twenty-one years on the Henrietta ISD school board. I have been able to observe education from several angles.
Here’s what I have observed. Next Saturday, January 21st, at Region 9, there is going to be an informational meeting on how to get certified to teach. It’s designed for those who have the gift of teaching, but somehow got talked out of pursuing that career. So why do we need a meeting like that? Well, somewhere along the way young men and women choose careers other than teaching. Our college education departments are now about half of what the were even ten years ago. The Teacher Retirement Centers are adding additional staff to process seasoned teachers who have had a gut full and are hanging up the chalk (markers). Why is that?
This is what I think. In the last decade, there are those that realize there might be good money to be made in charter schools. Charter schools don’t have to play by the same rules as traditional public schools. All they need to do is convince legislatures that traditional public schools are failing. So they devise squirrely accountability tests and scare kids and their teachers to death by making them think they are useless if they don’t do well on this one high stakes bubble test. A test that has instructions for what the teacher must do if someone throws up on the test because every campus has a student who will. They actually have a zip lock baggie provided that they use to send the test in any way. It doesn’t matter if a teacher dies in a car wreck on their way to school that day, the test will still be given and it still counts. It doesn’t matter if the poet who wrote the poem that students are tested over can’t answer the questions either. That’s where we are today. So I can understand why someone might not want to go into a career where your worth is measured on a bubble test one day a year and you will need to take a second job to make ends meet.
Okay, I’m not doing a very good job on why you should attend this meeting on becoming a teacher. Here’s the deal, I’m going to give it to you straight, no sugar coating. The average tenure of teachers today is about five years. Beginning teachers start at around $36K. You will top out around $50K after 20 years. If you do it right, the hours are long and the work is demanding. You will have students who refuse to learn and parents who will blame you for their failures. You will meet new people, like CPS workers who are overworked and underpaid too. They will be there to take that child that you have poured your heart into to another place. There will be tears. Lieutenant Governors will continue to come up with ways to defund and devalue what you do so their contributors can get rich building schools that promise the moon, but close soon after because of financial mismanagement.
But take heart! We still have Senators and Representatives that understand the importance of fully and equitably funding schools. They can see what’s happening today is wrong and they understand that to take care of the children, you have to take care of those who have dedicated their lives to those children and in most cases, it’s their God given mission to teach in public schools. The Bible says if you are given the gift of teaching, then you should teach.
There will be days when your students light will come on and you can see in their eyes that they get it! There will be days when parents will say thank you for what you do. There will be days when you attend a graduation and you can look at that stage and say, “I was a part of that.” There may even be a day when a former student comes back to your classroom and in front of all your current students, they give you a hug and say thank you. That’s why we do what we do. You will never be rich teaching in a traditional public school, at least not in money, but you will have made a difference and that’s what really matters.