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Political Philosophy: Lessons learned from another go at teaching

By John McColgan

For The Chieftain

Published on October 24, 2016 8:17AM

Not counting my experience as a parent or volunteer, I have had three stints in teaching. The first two occurred about 20 years ago in southern Oregon and were each a year long. The most recent one was here in Wallowa County and lasted for only a month.

Back in 1996, after I had spent nearly 20 post-college years doing home construction, I enrolled at Southern Oregon University in the fifth-year elementary education program. As part of my teacher training for a K-9 certification, I served as a student teacher at Briscoe School in Ashland. There I had the opportunity to work under master teachers in their classrooms in grades 1, 3 and 4.

Briscoe was innovative and well-funded. It was located in an affluent neighborhood in a flourishing, progressive town, and most of its students were the children of young professionals. Ultimately, the thriving real estate market (“above the boulevard,” as they say in Ashland) proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Even as soaring home prices helped enable Briscoe to provide a half dozen brand new Mac computers for each classroom, those same prices eventually squeezed many young families out of town in search of more affordable places to live. As the town’s young population was gradually supplanted by well-to-do retirees, Briscoe and two other elementary schools in Ashland closed their doors just a few years after I had the good fortune to teach there.

My next teaching gig came immediately after my graduation from SOU. A week before the start of school, I was hired on a one-year contract to teach first grade at Central Point Elementary in a rapidly growing, blue-collar region of the Rogue Valley. Like its surrounding neighborhood, CPE did not have the same resources that I had been blessed with in Ashland. I was provided with 24 students, desks, chairs, paper and pencils. The rest was pretty much left to me to improvise.

Fortunately, I have always been an excellent scrounger, so I rounded up as many resources as I could assemble by turning to some of my cooperating teachers from Briscoe and scoring whatever I could find at yard sales. I arranged a curriculum consisting of about 15 20-minute segments each school day. A month into the school year, I received math workbooks. Halfway through the year, we were finally given a new series of first-grade readers. The entire experience was very challenging for me as a beginning teacher, but when it concluded, I was pleased that my students scored very well in reading and writing, while their math scores were right about at the district average.

It came as a blow to me that I was not rehired in Central Point, and with four kids of my own still at home, I chose to return to general contracting. I continued in that work until about a year ago, when I decided that at age 60, scrambling around on rafters might no longer be a good bet for my health. When I let my contractor’s license go, I considered myself semi-retired.

But a couple of months ago, a teacher at Enterprise Elementary School asked me if I would like to apply for a position as a Title I math aide. My teaching license had expired many years ago, because I had never returned to the field of education after my experience at CPE. I agreed to apply for the job with some reservations, because I knew all too well how stressful teaching can be. The Title I teacher, the new school principal and I agreed that it might make sense for me to take on the job for a trial period of about a month to see how well things seemed to be working for all concerned.

As with each of the schools where I have taught, I found the teachers and staff at Enterprise Elementary to be outstanding professionals. I worked in classrooms in grades 1-6, sometimes assisting students while the teachers were demonstrating lessons, and sometimes working in small-group pull-out sessions. I found the math curriculum, which is based on the Common Core program, to be challenging both for me and for the students.

When I taught 20 years ago in the Rogue Valley, the average age of teachers there was about 50. At the time, I was in my early 40s. Now I am 61, and I am pleased to report that the average age of teachers at Enterprise Elementary School is about mid-30s.

After having given this work another try for about a month, I decided that this grandfather did not handle the stress that the job can bring nearly as well as teachers 30 years younger. God bless everyone who still has that deep reservoir of energy and patience that this challenging profession demands.

John McColgan writes from his home in Joseph.


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