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Home Stretch

written Saturday, 5/27/2006

Final grades

We’re almost done with this school year! In my classes, we wrapped up the academics a week ago. My students spent much of this week watching movies, playing games, and relaxing while I calculated final grades. Many students have already stopped coming to school. Next Thursday will be their official last day, and the faculty’s last day will be Friday.

My grading curve was even more generous than in previous quarters. While trying not to hand out any undeserved credits, I think it’s appropriate to end the year on a relatively high note. The fourth-quarter and final course grades for all of my students break down as follows:

Fourth Quarter
A (4 grade points)
B (3 grade points)
C (2 grade points)
D (1 grade point)
F (0 grade point)
total number of grades
average grade points
Course Grade for the Year
A (4 grade points)
B (3 grade points)
C (2 grade points)
D (1 grade point)
F (0 grade point)
total number of grades
average grade points

I showed the final scores to my students on Friday, and no one contested my fairness. In fact, a few were pleasantly surprised. The students who received Ds and Fs seemed to acknowledge what they were getting the grade that they deserved.

Final thoughts for students

I started off the week by sitting on my barstool in front of each class and sharing some final thoughts with them for about 5 minutes. I explained that due to my lack of job security in the Jefferson Parish Public School System, I would not be returning to West Jefferson next year.

From the notes I had written the night before, I also told them:

  • There were times this year when it was easier for me to see the bad things about this school, and we all know this school has its share of problems – especially in this difficult year.
  • As I look back on this year though, with a clearer perspective, I also see a lot of good things about this school that make me proud to have worked here.
  • The best thing about this school is you (my students).
  • As much as I fussed with you guys, and as much as I may have butted heads with some of you, I hope you realized that I am the way that I am because I care very much about seeing you succeed.
  • I was constantly trying to push you guys to be your best, and conquer this challenging subject.

I went on to explain that the most important lessons in my class have less to do with the Pythagorean Theorem than with broader lessons in life. I praised those students who never stopped trying. Regardless of what grade those few determined students earned in my class – some earned an A while others received an F – I speculated that those would be the students to find the most success in life. I challenged the less-persistent majority to constantly fight the temptation to quit in the face of a daunting obstacle (such as math!) I reminded them that everyone struggles with their own hurdles:

  • We’ve all got our challenges that weigh us down. I know what it’s like to be raised by a single parent with health problems, to have a learning disability, to almost flunk out of school, and to feel like giving up in school and in life.
  • Whatever success I’ve achieved in life is not due to me being the smartest guy in the world (I certainly am not!), or always having luck on my side. My successes are due to the fact that although I’ve been knocked down before, I eventually get back up and keep moving forward.

I also remarked that the greatest value of my course, or any secondary math course, is in learning how to think in a logical, sequential manner. For example:

  • When you’re in the market to buy a car, do you just walk on a car lot and say “I want that pretty one” or do you go through a structured thought process that leads to a good decision? How do you weigh all the factors such as aesthetics, options, new vs. used, reliability, sticker price, mileage, your earnings, your bills, tax/title/license, financing, etc.
  • I honestly don’t care if you never see the Cosine formula again in your life. This course helped you exercise the part of your brain that is required to break down complex real life problems (such as buying a car) into manageable pieces, and then solve the problem in a logical way.
  • Also, employers of entry-level positions don’t just care about what specific skills you already know. Many jobs require skills that aren’t taught in any school. Employers want to know “Is this person capable of learning what he/she needs to know for this job?” Succeeding in your high school math courses helps demonstrate that you’re able to learn, and you know how to think in a manner that will help you succeed in a real job.

I concluded the sermon by telling my students what I’ve gotten out of this school year. I revealed that this was my first year teaching – a fact that I’d previously kept secret from them. I told them how just a year earlier, I was still earning good money in my relatively-stable mechanical engineering career, but I felt the need to try a different direction. My new job has been tougher than anything I ever had to do at Lockheed Martin.

  • However, as tough as this job is, I find that I get something out of it that I can’t imagine getting out of any other job. When I see you succeed, and learn something new, and grow – not just as math students, but as young adults – that really makes it worthwhile for me.
  • Even though I feel a little guilty by abandoning you for another school next year, I want you to realize that you are a big reason why I’m staying in this profession. It would have been very easy to quit this year, and I know some teachers who have, but you guys have made me feel like teaching is a worthwhile thing to do with my life.

Sure, my “final thoughts” were meant to be a bit of a sappy feel-good pep talk. I neglected to mention all the times this year when I resented my job and wished I was somewhere else, but my words to my students were genuine. Most students respectfully listened to what I had to say. As teenagers tend to do, many didn’t show much emotion. However, a good number did express sorrow that I was leaving, and appreciation for having been in my class. A boy in one of my Geometry classes even wrote an impromptu petition to ask the school board to let me stay at West Jefferson. I was flattered by the thought, and ended up keeping the petition for myself. Among other things, he claimed “Mr. White has inspired everyone in the class to do better than we all thought we could do.”

I still haven’t completely fallen in love with this new career, but I do see reason to hope that this could develop into something very gratifying.

Fun & games

After talking to my students on Monday, I showed them some slides and computer animations from one of my Lockheed Martin programs. I reiterated that the type of thinking skills I had developed in my high school math classes helped me become very proficient in certain aspects of my previous job.

On Tuesday, I demonstrated one of my favorite hobbies: Photoshop. I showed some of my past projects, explaining that math skills are frequently utilized in graphic design. I then took digital photos of randomly selected students from each class, and merged them with photos of their favorite celebrities (retrieved from the Internet)

Throughout the day, I merged photos of my students with Ludacris, Chris Brown, Chad Michael Murray, Spiderman, Usher, and L.L. Cool J.

I bought board games to occupy the final days of class. By far, the most popular has been the classic Connect Four. Students have loved playing against each other or just watching others compete. Many have challenged me and had to suffer through my teacher trash talk (“You’re lucky we’re not playing for a grade… Beating you this bad is illegal in 27 states.”) I’ve consistently defeated a dozen or so students. Interestingly, the only student who has a winning record against me, 3-2, is a boy in my Geometry class. His math skills are extremely poor, and I’ve wondered whether he has a learning disability. Nonetheless, he has an excellent Connect Four strategy that has so far baffled me. Go figure!

Called to the principal’s office

On Friday I was called in the middle of my 5th period Algebra 2 class to go see the principal, Mr. Geer. We were only watching a movie and playing games at the time, but I still wondered what could possibly be urgent enough to require seeing me in the middle of a class. I could only think of one thing: On Tuesday, most of my students enjoyed the Photoshop demonstration. They seemed to especially like one of my projects that I had made for a boy I met while mentoring for Child Advocates. He had developed an enduring infatuation with hip-hop floozy Lil’ Kim, so for his 18th birthday, I merged him into a racy photo with her. Perhaps one of my students had taken offense to me showing this project?

It turns out my meeting with Mr. Geer had nothing to do with Photoshop.

Rather, this year West Jefferson had taken in a large number of students from Orleans Parish. It’s anticipated that many of those students will return to their former schools as more of them open up next year. Accordingly, the projected West Jeff enrollment is down significantly. Based on seniority and certification, the school board cut 12 teachers from our school. I was one of them.

Part of me was thankful for this turn of events. It affirmed my decision to hire on with Lusher last week. There’s a good possibility that I would have been able to rehire back into Jefferson Parish as openings become available due to retirements. However, who wants to wait until the summer for a “maybe?”

Mr. Geer requested that I consider returning someday, as circumstances allow. As a former Marine, he asserted “This is where the real battle is.” West Jefferson takes in all kids, and many of them come from impoverished and unstable households.

I’d never had much contact with Mr. Geer throughout the year. He primarily hears about teachers from other administrators, but he also gets much of his information directly from the students. He mentioned that he’s heard nothing but good things about me, and that I’ve been a great role model – especially for the boys who don’t have positive male influences at home.

I agreed that I’ve had a tremendous opportunity to make a positive difference at a school like West Jefferson. I told Mr. Geer that I’m thankful for the experience I’ve had at his school. In spite of whatever problems may exist at West Jefferson, I’ve learned to love these kids, and I’ll leave with mostly positive memories. Given the unpredictability of the past year, I noted, it’s not unthinkable that I may end up back at West Jefferson some day.

One of my inspirations

This past week I resumed my attempts to get in contact with my Geometry teacher, Mr. Halliday. Almost two decades ago he convinced me to believe in my abilities at a time when I hated math. During my freshman year, I developed a confidence and love for math that would form the foundation for many future successes.

Almost ten years ago I called Lynbrook High School and found that Mr. Halliday was teaching at nearby De Anza Community College in the California Bay Area. I wrote a long-overdue thank you letter to him and received a gracious reply.

Last summer I contacted the community college again, and learned that Mr. Halliday had moved to Austin, Texas some years ago. A Web search revealed that he had been teaching at Austin Community College. The listed business phone extension was no longer in service. Before I could research much further, Katrina hit, and my search was suspended.

This week I finally called the administrative staff at Austin Community College, and they confirmed that Mr. Halliday had retired from the college last year. They tried to contact him for me, but the phone number and email address he had left were no longer valid.

I’m still searching, hoping to let Mr. Halliday know that I’m trying to follow in his footsteps and inspire children in the same way that he inspired me.

My supporters

Last year, family friends Nat and Joan provided me a loving home for the summer while I got settled. I remember worrying whether the demands of my first year in teaching would leave me enough time to see them often. Fortunately, about every two weeks I’ve been able to make the time to drive over to Avondale for a visit. They’re always interested in hearing about my experiences, and they invariably comfort me with their reassuring perspective.

Nat has battled all year with his health problems. Kidney dialysis three times weekly drains him of appetite and energy. A broken leg is taking an extremely long time to heal due to the poor blood circulation in his paralyzed lower body. Various other complications seem to constantly arise and make me wonder how they both carry on with such positive outlooks.

No matter how tired or weak Nat feels, they insist that their door is always open for me to drop in. I’m one of very few who’s been awarded such status! Both Nat and Joan seem to perk up when I visit, and I always leave their home feeling better too.

Yesterday we had to postpone one of my scheduled visits when Nat had to be admitted to the hospital, for what seems like the 20th time this year. Lately he’s had severe stomach problems and worse-than-normal fatigue. Doctors are now trying to figure out the cause of fluid buildup in one of his lungs.

I’ve been so fortunate to have Nat and Joan out here to help support me. I’m being reminded that they won’t be here for me forever, and I am especially thankful for the time that I do have with them.