Ch. 11: The unexpected

un·ex·pect·ed adjective
/ˌənəkˈspektəd/
not regarded as likely to happen

In the fall of 1972 I was a teacher on special assignment at ALPHA, a small alternative high school which a team of four, including myself, had spent the summer planning.

Our start-up challenges were both expected and unexpected.

The anticipated challenges were with our students, many of them with long histories of academic failure and disengagement from school, as we oriented them to new approaches to learning and to school.

At the same time we were designing and implementing all the school’s processes and procedures.

The list of unexpected challenges was much longer.

The district administrators who oversaw our program thought that it would be a good idea for us to explain our school at faculty meetings in the two high schools from which we drew our 40 students, both experiences I remember as being quite contentious.

Some teachers felt strongly that students who broke attendance rules and had various behavioral problems should not be “rewarded” by a school that offered them more choices.

Most surprising was the resentment of some school counselors who thought that “problem students” were their domain, although many of them were in the group that thought such students should be punished rather than rewarded by undeserved opportunities.

That tension with teachers and counselors dissipated during ALPHA’s first year, but it never totally disappeared.

Another unexpected, but stretching challenge, was engaging with the broader educational community in unfamiliar ways.

Almost immediately, even in the midst of these start-up challenges, we had visitors from around Southeast Michigan and occasionally from farther away. Rather than simply observing we asked them to participate in the daily “workshop” and other meetings with students.

In addition, for the first time in my 4-year teaching career I was regularly invited to participate in district, regional, and state committees and administrative meetings.

It was also the first time I experienced what I would later describe as the “serial monologues” of such meetings with the discussion quickly shifting from topic to topic.

At one of those meetings I noticed Dolores Pascal, a woman who I would come to greatly admire, saying something I thought was similar to what I had just said (after summoning the courage to speak among my “elders”), but receiving a more favorable response. I observed her closely at several meetings, and over time tried to emulate both her positive tone and the clarity with which she spoke. It was a form of just-in-time on-the-job professional learning that served me well throughout my career.

Over the next several years I gradually became viewed as an “expert” on alternative education, a status with which I was distinctly uncomfortable because I knew how much we still had to learn to help our ALPHA students be more successful.

Several times a year I was invited to make presentations at regional and state conferences for administrators where I soon learned that older “learners” could present challenges not unlike those I experienced with my high school students.

I remember on one occasion a “participant” in a group of administrators who would not engage in a small group discussion as I requested because, as he put it, “If I had wanted to work I would have stayed in my office.” I didn’t know what to say other than to repeat my invitation to participate, which he again refused, sitting off by himself in a corner of the room.

During that time, and since, I marveled at how far I had come from the Western Michigan village in which I had grown up. Even more, I marveled that I had found success as a teacher after being at best a mediocre high school student.

I have heard it said that teachers who struggled with school themselves often better understand their students’ learning challenges.

I doubt that I became the teacher I aspired to be, but I do know that I had a kind of empathy for my students born of my own school experiences that helped me be a better teacher.

I will have more to say on that subject in my next post.

What is your experience with “one thing leading to another” in your work or life?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

3 Responses to “Ch. 11: The unexpected”


  1. 1 Robert (Bob) Jackson December 11, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    I identified with much of the content in your post, Dennis. I struggled in school and still attribute much of it to a late birthday after reading Gladwell’s, “Outliers.” Being born 1 day later and I would have been a grade back but hard work, parental support and resilience, I achieved average grades.

    In my final year of high school, I was suspended for inappropriate conduct on a field trip which was warranted; however, like your teachers who wanted a pound of flesh, the supervising teacher wanted more. He undertook revenge through assessment. I learned to work hard, produce high quality work and take the predictable ‘C’ grades despite classmates disbelief.

    I now work with principals around the world both online and face-to-face. When we talk about assessment, I start with the quote from Rick Stiggins, which is always on my computer screen, “You can enhance or destroy students’ desire to succeed in school more quickly and permanently through your use of assessment than with any other tools you have at your disposal.” Fortunately, I had the resilience to overcome it but I worry about those students who do not get the help you provided in your alternative educational setting and end up dropping out because of a vindictive teacher wanting a pound of flesh.

  2. 2 Joellen Killion December 11, 2019 at 4:43 pm

    You are the teacher I wanted when I wanted because you gave me the courage to question the status quo and to seek and understand assumptions that served as the foundation of my thoughts and actions. You are among my most significant mentors, teachers, leaders, and fellow learner.

    I am pondering and seeking to examine the effects in schools today that grapple with the paradox of control and freedom for students and educators.

    • 3 Dennis Sparks December 13, 2019 at 7:02 am

      Thank you for your kind words, Joellen. There is much to grapple with these days as teachers face unprecedented social and economic challenges and systematic efforts on the part of some politicians to undermine public education.


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