June 09, 2006

Go the Distance!

One thing I've always wanted to do was to give the charge to the class at graduation. If I was asked to speak, I think this is what I'd say.

Congratulations to the class of 2006! You've successfully survived 12 long years of education. For some of you, this has been a wonderfully happy time of discovery and growth. For others, this has been a challenging time of adversity and change. For all of you sitting here tonight, I hope your school experience has been a worthwhile introduction into the great unknown we adults like to call, "life." On behalf of my fellow educators, let me say thank you for the opportunities to be your teachers, administrators, coaches, confidants, motivators, disciplinarians, and most importantly, friends.

We’ve all seen the famous Kevin Costner film of the W.P. Kinsella story where the voice from above tells the corn farmer to “go the distance.” Understandably the corn farmer is perplexed. He is forced to make some decisions. First, he has to define what the “distance” is. Next, he needs to take a first step in a direction that will lead him towards the “distance.” Finally, he has to commit to “go” this “distance” no matter how difficult or frustrating the journey may become.

Like the corn farmer, you are being commanded to “go the distance.” Now it’s your turn to make some decisions. What will your personal “distance” be, and in what direction will you go? Will you take the first step? And will you follow through and “go” all the way to your destination?

Tomorrow, (or the maybe the next day), when you wake up after having graduated high school you’ll step out into a brand new opportunity to live your life and exercise your most recent, and most important achievement so far in your life: high school graduation. What does it mean to be a high school graduate? Well, it means that, to this point, you’ve gone the distance!


But the distance doesn’t stop with the end of high school. In fact, it’s only the beginning. From this night on and for the rest of your life each one of you will define your “distance” in your own unique and personal way. For some, the “distance” will be attending and graduating college. For others, the “distance” will include going to work and exploring a career. At some point your “distance” might include marriage, and parenting a child, or many children.

The best survival tool I know is holding on to a good attitude. It all comes down to attitude. In your life you can’t change most of the things that affect you. You can’t change your parents. You can’t change where you grow up. You can’t change your grades (not now anyway). What you can change is your attitude. Attitude is one of the few things you can control in life.

Of course, some of you have learned the value of a positive attitude. We all know that nobody likes the high school bell schedule and how it controls us hour-to-hour, day-to-day. It’s frustrating at best. As a student, you can either fight against the bell schedule, and consistently show up late for class, or follow the bell schedule and avoid the terrors of detention, or the dangers of ditching. You don’t have to like the bell schedule, but if you keep a positive attitude about the benefits of six consistent periods of study a day, you’ll have a better high school experience… maybe.

By the way, I don’t know if you know this or not, but you will never again have to follow the high school bell schedule.


Unless of course you end up like one of the many alumni that return to here to become teachers.

Some of these people will tell you, “its not the destination but the journey that’s important.” I’d like to suggest that both are vitally important to your life. You may be afraid to take a first step out into the world. That’s totally normal. Here’s a tip: it’s always easier to take a step after you’ve chosen a direction. Life is full of choices, including making no choice at all. If you want to be successful, if you want to “go the distance,” you must make the choice to do so. The next choice must be a direction.

Does that direction matter? Not really. It could be college, or military service, or going to work. But you must make a decision, and take a step in the direction that will take you the distance to your goal. Along the way you may change course, many, many times, and that’s OK. I tell my students, you must first make up your mind before you can change your mind. No matter what you decide, you’ll need a way of surviving the path you take to reach your distance.

In order for the corn farmer to “go the distance” when the voice spoke to him he needed first to take a first step. That’s a scary proposal! Take a step to move forward without any idea of which direction to go. Sound familiar? Don’t worry, stepping forward into the unknown is a common experience we all share. Look at the people on this stage. Each and every one of them has been where you are now. Some of them even sat where you are sitting at their own graduation. Of course, that was back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.


But each and every one of these people took a first step into the unknown so that they too could “go the distance,” a distance that has brought them to where they are today: right back here at graduation.

Where did these scholars get the courage to take a first step? The answer is as unique as each individual. For me, it was my faith that gave me courage to continue. My belief that life was about more than just a bell schedule, or a diploma, or about doing what I thought my parents wanted me to do. I now take comfort in knowing that I am part of something bigger than myself, and that no matter how badly I may slip up, that there is Grace to save me. You too will find the courage to take the steps necessary to go your distance.

You may be asking, “How far is the distance I will travel?” And, “When will I arrive?” I don’t have those answers for you. No one does. The corn farmer thought he had realized his “dream” when the ball players magically appeared to play baseball on his field in the middle of his corn farm. But that wasn’t the end. There was still a distance to travel. Ultimately the corn farmer would join a youthful representation of his father in a game of catch. That’s where the movie ended, but the story, and the corn farmer’s journey, continued on.

The corn farmer stumbled upon his life’s purpose while he traveled his journey to “go the distance.” You too were created for a purpose. Tonight you fulfill part of that purpose by graduating high school. Some of you have already realized the purpose for your life, others are still searching, wondering, dreaming about what your may one day achieve.

Recently on television Taylor Hicks was voted the 2006 American Idol. What I appreciate most about Taylor Hicks is the reckless abandon that he brings to singing and performance. No one (especially Simon Cowell) would have guessed that a gray-haired white Ray Charles fan would be the next idol, but every time Taylor performed on stage he did so with such genuine joy and enthusiasm that he became contagious. Taylor has realized his life’s purpose and is celebrating his victory. I want to encourage you tonight to continue to seek out and ultimately realize your life’s purpose, and celebrate your own victory just like Taylor Hicks.

Once you’ve realized your life’s purpose you may think that you have arrived at your destination. But much like tonight, or the corn farmer playing catch with his Dad, it will simply be another lesson on your journey as you continue to “go the distance.” The collection of lessons you will learn on your journey will be like discovering gold nuggets that you will invest in your future. You won’t always know how you’ll use these lessons, but as you continue to “go the distance,” be prepared to use them all.

I can tell you with complete certainty that every moment of my life, every lesson that I have learned, every experience that I have had has prepared me for this moment, right here, right now.

But this moment does not belong to me; it belongs to you, the class of 2006. Make no mistake about it, all the experiences in your life have prepared you for what you will do here tonight in this place. Regardless of how you started out, tonight you prove that you can indeed “go the distance.” Well done Class of 2006.

June 02, 2006

Teachers Matter?

What is the heart of a teacher? What are the elements that constitute a teacher? What is the essence of teaching? What does it mean to teach? In the last few months I’ve written just about everything I can think of (so far) on these topics. I’ve used “Teachers Matter” as a subtitle for this blog because I truly believe that teachers not only matter but they are also crucial to our society and our future. If you are embarking on a teaching career then read this carefully.

If you choose to become a teacher my first suggestion is to read this and as many other teachers’ blogs as you can find. Why? Because this blog format that is taking over the Internet gives a voice to anyone willing to sit down and take the time to write. Are all blogs worth reading? No. You need to pick and choose. However, within the lines of a teacher's blog is the reality of teaching, and what teaching is really all about: working from your heart and soul and giving up your self to improve others. Teaching is about service, just like medicine, law enforcement, fire fighting, and other jobs that require those who choose them to sacrifice their time and energy to help others survive life.

My second suggestion is to start substitute teaching right now, before you pay any money into a teacher credential program. Credentialing programs are necessary and useful, but a collection of university courses cannot give you the same experience as you will get standing in front of a classroom full of up to 35 students who do not know who you are, or why they should care. Learning how to use your lasso to rope and tie that steer and bring it down to a level that you can manage for a day must be learned first hand, not simply discussed in theory.

When you student teach (assuming you can afford to work for free) pay close attention to your master teacher. True, there are some rodeo clowns out there, but the odds are in favor of you being placed with an individual who “knows the ropes.” I would not suggest soloing right away, but waiting until you have a very clear understanding of how your master teacher conducts business in his or her classroom; and make sure that you chose a lesson that incorporates content you know backwards and forwards. I taught part of Julius Caesar during my student teaching experience. I thought I had Shakespeare down… There’s never anything wrong with saying, “that’s a good question, let me get back to you on that one.”

Once you have your preliminary credential in your back pocket apply for jobs everywhere you might want to teach. Go to every interview, and DO NOT ACCEPT YOUR FIRST JOB OFFER! Unless of course it is your dream job at your dream campus in your dream community. Of course you need to get your foot in the door somewhere, but be very selective about where that somewhere is. Why? Burnout. Working in some districts is like “battle pay.” Many young inexperienced teachers are literally thrown to the wolfs or tossed into a pool of hungry sharks by being given classes they are not prepared to teach. Don’t be a statistic.

Yes, somebody has to work in these districts and teach these kids, but those teachers should only be the ones who are willing, well equipped, and ready for the assignment. That may not be you. I once visited a school in the Los Angeles Unified School District that was in the center of gangland. The teachers there were brilliant. All of them were veterans who had chosen to teach in at this school because they wanted to help these kids. However, I would not want to be a first year teacher in this environment.

If you find yourself drowning from day one, it may not be because you are not a “good teacher.” It may be that you just aren’t ready for that difficult of an assignment yet. Unfortunately, its fairly typical for the “new guy” to get slammed with the worst class assignments. My first year of teaching English at my current school I taught 4 preps! That means out of 5 classes I taught during the day, 4 of the courses were different. I survived, but it wasn’t easy; it wasn’t my first year teaching either.

Sometimes it’s the teacher that is the problem; and sometimes it’s the assignment that is the problem. The best way to survive your first few years in the classroom (until you’re offered tenure) is to befriend a veteran who is teaching like subject matter and willing to share. Our Social Studies department does a fantastic job of helping new teachers along. They have written curriculum that can be quickly learned and easily taught to high school students. New teachers have an advantage in the Social Studies department because they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

But not all new teachers are so lucky. Sometimes you will be faced with a blank white board and no idea of what to write. Good luck. It gets better over time for most of us. Do your best to draw a single prep to teach all day. If you are loaded up with multiple preps, see if a compassionate veteran is willing to trade (yes you can do that.) New teachers should be babied into their departments and given a more manageable class load so that they can work up to the more difficult challenges. But veteran teachers feel that their tenure gives them the right to “have it their way,” so at course assignment time (this time of year) the new guys get to pick up the leftovers.

Some teachers love the end of the school year. I hate it. I hate it because the end of the school year means that I will be saying goodbye to people with whom I have spent, in some cases, every working day of the last three years of my life. I’ve watched them grow, mature, learn, and become amazing young adults, (well, at least older teenagers). Saying goodbye is difficult. Sure, many will come back to check in, but we will no longer be working together, and I always miss that.

My favorite time of the school year is the beginning. Of course, that’s the time most teachers and students dread. While everyone else is moping around, lamenting the loss of summer, I am smiling and happy. I’m weird that way. I love the opening of the school year because it means that I will have up to 210 new people to get to know, to teach, and most importantly, to learn from. Teaching is a blast and a great reason to be optimistic about the future. When I go to bed every night I know that my efforts during the day have been worthwhile because teachers matter.

Please post your comments below.

Administrative Update
Thanks for all your support on the administrative question. However, I've decided to wait a while longer before I take that leap. I am going to pursue teaching at our local University, and focus my attention on working with fellow teachers in their classrooms at my campus.