Finding my Place in Higher Ed – #MormonPositive

Continuing my theme on stories from my life where the struggles of being Mormon made my life better.

For those of you unaware, I work professionally as an Academic Advisor.  I currently work for Brigham Young University, but I started in this field 4 years ago (this month!) at the University of North Texas. Prior to that I worked for about 20 months as a Financial Aid Counselor, and before that I bounced around in a few different jobs trying to figure out who I wanted to be professionally. I love being an academic advisor, it is a fun job for a person like me.  And given that my education allows be to become a licensed counselor and working for a university allows me access to free and discounted continuing-education opportunities, I love that I still have a lot of potential for growth professionally (and personally) in the coming decades before I retire.

The interesting thing about all of this is that if I weren’t Mormon, I sincerely doubt that I would have found this career path and I don’t know if I would have ever found so much happiness in my career. In fact, if you were to look at the type of student I was in high school or my undergraduate, you would have never thought that I could become what I currently am.

You see, I was a bad student. It wasn’t that I wasn’t bright, or that I didn’t understand things that were being taught. It was simply that I was terrible about finishing my homework. During middle school and high school, I’d do fine on the tests but I would never read my assignments or do my worksheets.  I’d average out to a “C” when all was said and done, but it was entirely based on my test grades balancing out a bunch of ZEROs on all my homework. One thing that my dad and I would always argue over is that sometimes he’d find an assignment I hadn’t done in the morning and he’d make me complete as much of it as I could during breakfast and he’d make me do it between bites of cereal and tell me to turn it in even though I’d only complete about 25-50% of the assignment. For some reason though, I was more embarrassed to turn in an incomplete assignment to my teachers than to tell them I didn’t do it, so I’d keep it stuffed in the bottom of my backpack. I knew I’d get a lecture from my dad when my teachers would send home progress reports with a bunch of NHIs (Not Handed In) for all my homework assignments, but it didn’t matter. (I think I’m personally responsible for 60% of my dad’s baldness.)

After deciding that the arguments weren’t worth it, my mom finally hired a tutor for my my junior and senior years of high school. She wasn’t there to teach me anything about school subjects, her only job was to track all my assignments and create a schedule for me to get them done. It helped.

Thanks to my extra-curriculars (Academic Decathlon being the #1) and straight A’s in seminary, I was admitted to BYU out of high school.  That was remarkable in the late 90’s, my high school GPA probably put me in the bottom 5% of admits.  Today, theUndergrad Graduationy wouldn’t have bothered with the likes of me, I was too much of a risk.  In fact, I was a risk. Without the skills needed to manage my study schedule without a tutor, and since so much of the work at the university level requires self-directed study, my past habit of being able to at least get passable grades thanks to my test scores didn’t work.  I was failing my tests too. Somehow I pulled off graduation, but I spent all my time as an undergrad in and out of academic probation.

So, what does this have to do with being Mormon? Well, as you can imagine there were many times that I was ready to call it quits on this whole school thing.  I wanted to take the easy way out, just get an associates or a professional certificate and just get on with life. I probably would have done that if not for one thing: my Patriarchal Blessing.

I don’t want to offer too lengthy a description of a Patriarchal Blessing in this post (you can learn more here), but in short it is a blessing of guidance given typically during teenage years that offers inspired counsel for how to live your life. Most items said in the blessing are broad guidelines that relate directly to scripture. It is a personal thing though, so often we can find very specific guidance in those broad guidelines.

One of the guidelines in my blessing reads almost more like a commandment. My blessing counsels me to “continue throughout your life in your education and seek to grow in knowledge and wisdom.” It seems like a good bit of counsel for just about anyone to follow, but it felt very personal to me each and every time I’d get another email telling me that I had to go to the Academic Support Office because I was back on probation. So many times I wanted to call it quits and walk away, but thanks to a few words spoken to me during a blessing given by a total stranger, I kept on trying. And eventually, my efforts paid off and I graduated.

The story doesn’t end there though.  After three years out of school and finding myself professionally unfulfilled I began to realize that I needed more education to move forward again. The thought of putting myself through the stress of schooling again, and this time while married and with children, was almost too much to bare. I still had that counsel to lean back on though: “continue throughout your life in your education and seek to grow in knowledge and wisdom.” So, I eased my way back into school. I started with some independent study, then took some leveling-courses to get back into the swing of things, and then got into grad school and finished my Master’s, and I did so with a 4.0 GPA.  Every semester, as I’d get my report card, I would already know that I had satisfied the requirements for A’s, but I was still amazed to see them added to my transcript.Graduate Graduation

The most interesting thing about this story to me is where it actually led me. I didn’t plan on becoming an academic advisor when I started grad school, that was just a tangent that was supposed to help me pay my way through my master’s program.  Now though, I work every day with students who struggle the same way I did and don’t know how to turn it around. My life and experience with school has helped me develop knowledge and wisdom to help these students. I know how to help a struggling student change his or her habits in school, and it’s not a theoretical knowledge, it is genuine knowledge that I learned through effort and trial. Seeing these students who struggled like I did, and then make their lives better is what makes being an academic advisor the funnest job I could ever ask for.  And, it would have never happened if not for a stranger, who when I was 18 told me to “continue throughout [my] life in [my] education and seek to grow in knowledge and wisdom.” Another reason I am one very happy Mormon.

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Academic Advising?

I’m attending the annual conference for NACADA (the National ACademic ADvising Association).  It has thus far been a very educational experience and I’m learning a great deal about how to help the students that I am responsible for.

One interesting aspect of this profession is that it is one that we advisors unexpectedly find our way too.  No elementary or high school kid is likely to say “I wanna be an academic advisor when I grow up,” since they likely don’t know the job exists. Those of us who have found ourselves in this profession stay with it because we love it and find it fulfilling.  However, whenever I get a chance to collaborate and talk to advisors at other schools we all share in the common frustration that few people understand what it is that we do.  Often times our own family members can’t even fully picture what it is that we do all day.  Last night I went out to dinner with 3 other advisors and it was so much fun to just “talk shop” without having anyone at the table tune out because they didn’t understand the nature of what we were talking about.

So, I would like to do an experiment.  Later this week, I’m going to write a blog post on what I think academic advising is, and what it should develop into in the coming decades.  Before I post that I would like to get some feedback.  If you are not an academic advisor, please comment below what you think academic advising is or what it should be.  If you have experience being advising (either good or bad) please share that too.  Lastly, please share this post with others so I can get additional responses.

Once you have written your comment feel free to go to our professional clearinghouse and look through the definitions of academic advising that we are currently debating within the profession.

Thank you for your feedback!

So, We Americans Suck at Teaching Math…

…and Common Core is going to make it worse.

Math Mark

My daughter started 5th grade this year, and I’ve been nervous about her starting this grade because that’s when school started not working out for me.  Seriously, my 5th grade year was handled so poorly by my teachers that it destroyed my attitude towards learning up through high school.  The worst teacher that year was my math teacher, and I’ll get to her in a moment, but the fact was that she didn’t know how to teach math.  Now that my daughter has been in school for a month, coming home with “Common Core” stamped assignments, it has become clear to me that our math curriculum is worse today than it was 22 years ago, when I had to suffer through it! I have sought to keep her spirit alive despite whatever speed-bumps get in her way, but these new Common Core stamped lessons sure make it hard.

pointsMy experience with math in school was poorly managed from the beginning, but basically I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth between good teachers and bad teachers every other year, starting in the 3rd grade.  I remember learning multiplication and division and not getting anywhere, and it not making sense.  Then one day I had a sleepover at a friend’s house and their family had a computer with a math game on it (we didn’t have a PC at home yet, so I loved playing with my friends’ computers).  I have no idea who made this software, but it had challenges based on skill level, and mini-lessons between levels.  During that one night, I did lessons that caught me up with my class and actually took me several levels beyond, and it all made sense.  But then a memory that sticks in my mind was doing a long division assignment, and doing it the way the computer taught me instead of the class, and I had points taken way for not showing my work properly.

Fourth grade has no major math memories that stick in my mind, but I wasn’t like a genius or anything.  The biggest problem that I think was getting me in trouble in 4th grade was keeping up with my homework.  Between my older brother and me, this was the first year that my parent’s had two kids bringing home a substantial amount of homework daily.  I’ll freely admit that in my 10 year-old brain I didn’t understand the value of homework, because 95% of the time it was busywork that taught me nothing.  I could sit in my class all week, listening to my teacher, and doing the in-class assignments, and ace all my quizzes and tests, so homework felt superfluous and I treated it as such.  During parent-teacher conferences my teacher and parents would try to impress on my how much better my grades would be if I just turned in my homework, and come up with strategies to stay on top of me, but they rarely lasted more than a week or two.

The consequence of my attitude towards homework in 4th grade led to terrible ramifications in the 5th grade.  Based on my 4th grade math grades (as opposed to my ability), I was assigned to a remedial math group in 5th.  Oh my, oh my was I bored out of my mind.  On top of that my math teacher had a terrible attitude.  Her way to assess if we were progressing was timed tests, and she had little cards that we would move around the wall as we passed from the 1 times-table up through the 12 times-table.  We started class with a 1-minute quiz every day.  Unfortunately, the way my brain works when it comes to math is that I actually do the problem in my head every time I see it.  So instead of just memorizing, for example, 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56, 63, 70, 77, 84, for the 7 times-table, I would sit there and work each problem out in my head.  So even though I was passing all other assignments and tests, the mere fact I wasn’t progressing through this arbitrary and ungraded challenge of hers told her everything that she needed to know about my math ability.  And this apparently meant, in her perspective, I wasn’t worth any extra effort on her part to help me level-up.

After months on complaining to my parents and getting nowhere, everything finally came to a head a couple months before summer when all 5th grade students were to be given an assessment test for overall math ability and algebra readiness.  Unfortunately, I had a dental appointment scheduled for that morning that went long, and I arrived with only 10 minutes to complete a 45 minute test.  My dad assured me, as he dropped me off that my teacher would give me the full 45 minutes, after all, recess was right after my math class, so of course she would use recess to give me the same amount of time as my peers.  Well, my dad was wrong.  I got into my classroom, took the test for 8 minutes, then the recess bell rang.  I stayed in my seat as my dad had instructed me and kept working as everyone else put the test on our teacher’s desk and filed out of the room.  My teacher then told me that my time was up, and I said, “but I got here late, don’t I get to finish?”  She walked over, picked up my test out from under my pencil, and said, “don’t worry about it. It doesn’t even get graded.”  I followed her instructions and went out to recess.

When I got home that night my parents asked me about the test, and I told them I wasn’t allowed to finish.  My dad was convinced that I had just blew off the test so I could go to recess, or that there had been a misunderstanding between me and the teacher (I was the kid who always managed to weasel out of his homework, his suspicions were justified).  So the next morning he took me to school to talk to my teacher.  As I walked down to my locker, my dad went to my math teacher’s room.  I was talking to a friend when every kid in 5th grade was suddenly aware of a disturbance in the hallway.  I back up the corridor to see my dad and my math teacher yelling at each other in the middle of the hallway, surrounded by half my grade staring at them with dropped jaws.  Other teachers quickly rushed to get these two adults out of sight, while one teacher (whom I had a good relationship with) took me to a classroom that was empty for first period, and told me to hold tight and not go to class yet while she figured out what was going on.  She eventually came back and told me that I could now go about my day.  Yeah, right!!!  Everywhere I went every kid kept on telling me how awesome my dad was, or asking if I was in trouble.  All the teachers seemed to be treating me with kid-gloves, worried that if they weren’t super nice to me, my dad would barge in and yell at them next.

Finally, I reached my math period and made my way to my math class.  One step inside the door, my teacher looked at me for half a second, and then looking away from me as though she were addressing the class instead of me, and said, “Kyle, you’re not in trouble, but you have to go to the principal’s office.”

I got there and the assistant principal took it from there.  He apologized that I had not been given an equal opportunity as my peers and took me to the empty lunch room to take the test.  I was told I had 45 minutes.  I finished in 30.  I aced it.  Later that week, they thought it was a fluke and made me take a slightly different test.  I aced that one too.  Now, I’m not a math genius, but these were ability tests, and had instructions on how to solve all the problems at the top of the page.  Basically, it was to see how well we could solve problems that we had never been exposed to before with minimal instruction.  They were a piece of cake for the way I learn math.

Now, to rewind a bit and explain what triggered that loud, disruptive argument between my dad and my math teacher.  My dad asked her if I could retake the test with the appropriate time allowed, and my teacher’s response was this: “sure, but I don’t know why you are worried about this.  He’s not graded on it, and you and I both know that Kyle’s not going to pass.”  Needless to say, my dad did not agree with her.  Apparently the argument got pretty ugly from there.  Fortunately, once things had settled down and my dad and teacher explained the argument to the principal, the teacher was reprimanded.

I wish I could say that this was a “happily ever after” story, but it’s not.  While I did jump from the remedial math class in 5th grade to the top math class in 6th. I hit another speed-bump in 7th grade when I was put in a math class that was half 7th and half 8th graders (seriously what school is THAT dumb?).  The 8th graders weren’t about to be shown up in ability by a bunch of “kids” so we were bullied, and since at that age I had a pretty bad external-locus of control, I provided the most entertaining results for their bullying efforts.  I eventually spent that grade sitting in the back of the classroom focusing mainly on not drawing attention to myself.  After not learning anything that year, the school made me repeat the class in 8th grade.  In 9th grade, the same thing that had happened in 7th grade happened again, only this time it was the slacker seniors who were taking this class for the 2nd or 3rd time in hopes of graduating that I got saddled with.  Fortunately, by then 2 years of therapy had trained me how to not present myself as a target, and I had better emotional regulation, so bullying wasn’t a problem, but the teacher had to spend so much time disciplining the seniors that she didn’t teach much of anything.  After that horrific year, I was so burned out on math that I just completed the minimum requirements for college admission, and was lucky enough to get the minimum ACT math score that I didn’t have to take Core Math in College.

It is a rather sad story.  I ruled out a lot of majors and careers because they required above the minimum Core Math requirement, and by that point in my life I genuinely believed that I was bad at math.  No one could have convinced me otherwise while I was an undergrad, I figured my experience learning math could have not have been that problematic unless something in me was incapable of learning math.  It wasn’t until my late 20’s when I realized how I had hobbled myself career wise by avoiding math, that I finally went back to school.  One of the first classes I took as I prepared for graduate school was a math class through the local community college.  The teacher was fantastic.  He was an engineer from Texas Instruments who taught adjunct for the fun of it and LOVED math, and wanted us to love it too.  I learned so much in that class, but the biggest thing I learned was that I was in fact capable of learning and understanding complex math.  Better late then never, but still a pity I had to wait until I was 28 to learn that.

Having now worked as an university academic advisor for several years, I have found with incoming freshman that my experience is far from unique.  Well, at least everything except for the part of the story where my dad yelled at the teacher.  That part of the story is FAR TOO UNIQUE!!!  We need more parents willing to do that!  We need more dad’s willing to risk arrest to put school officials in their place.  My local school officials and teachers are MY EMPLOYEES, and they must me responsive and accountable to ME.  Common Core robs me of that right, and gives crappy teachers cover when we challenge their incompetence.

Common Core lowers the math standard, and couldn’t even win the support of the one math professor who served on the committee.  The curriculum that has been built around common core has no validated studies that support it as a teaching technique, thus meaning that this is just an experiment.  We don’t need to experiment!  We have validated studies that show curriculum in other countries work.  Let’s emulate their success!

My life experience has taught me to be extremely distrustful of the K-12 educational-industrial complex.  No offence to all you good teachers out there, but too many of your peers are not worthy of respect, and until the system has changed to weed them out, I’m gonna paint with a broad brush.

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TFA Math Teachers Get Better Results

Common Core Lacks Common Sense