Teaching Profession

A Notion at Risk

By Robert C. Johnston — October 01, 2003 12 min read
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Remembering an era when teachers actually had time to point high schools in the right direction.

As an assistant managing editor for Education Week, I know a good reporting assignment when I see one. That’s why I jumped at the chance to return to my former high school in Lake Tahoe this past spring to write about how it has changed in the 22 years since I graduated.

The newspaper sent three reporters to revisit their high school alma maters as part of a project for the 20th anniversary of the publication of A Nation at Risk. Released in 1983 by the Reagan administration, the report cast grave doubts on the quality and rigor of U.S. public schools. In the two decades following the scathing assessment, policymakers at all levels of government have scrambled to find ways to improve education.

Even before returning to Incline High School, my memories of the place bore little resemblance to the academic mediocrity highlighted in the report. I recalled a small school of about 350 students, where I worked hard and where most of my teachers knew me and took an interest in me. When I finally arrived in March in Incline Village, the rural mountain resort town in Nevada where I had been the oldest of three siblings, I was also reminded of my mom’s long hours working in casinos and my dad’s singular advice. A carpenter from Alabama, he hammered at one thing harder than he did nails: Often, usually late at night, as he nursed his dry, cracked hands, or during winter months when work was slow, he insisted that I get a good education so that I would have the options he lacked.

Ultimately, I did just that, graduating with my 95 or so other Incline Highlanders in 1981, and then from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, in 1985. I have since worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala and for a professional football team. I’ve written government regulations, interviewed two presidents, and, for 12 fulfilling years, I’ve been a reporter and editor at newspapers from Southern California to Washington, D.C.

Just as my dad said, education has been the key to such varied endeavors. I tell my three children the same thing. But my most formative experiences didn’t involve homework or preparing for the kinds of fill-in-the-bubble tests that occupy so much of my own kids’ time. My secret is that I actually liked high school. I’d do it again, if I could. And for that, I credit my teachers. The opportunities they provided were not part of any curriculum, or test prep, or list of prescribed goals. They were opportunities that grew out of my teachers’ willingness to try new things and to take a personal interest in their students.

After my four-day visit, I was convinced I would still be able to get a great education at Incline High today. I’m not sure, though, it would be the same education, one that afforded me experiences that catapulted me, with great momentum and focus, toward my future. But before I give my reasons why—reasons related to the state of today’s teaching profession—I’d like to recount two life-altering experiences from more than 20 years ago.

It was the beginning of spring term, senior year. Kevin and I sat in our newest elective class, each of us awkwardly sunk into one of those one- piece, one-size-fits-all desks that don’t really fit anybody very well. Mass communications seemed like an easy credit; at least that’s why Kevin, my best friend since kindergarten, and I had picked it.

The teacher was Mr. Stephens. He was the other reason we’d picked the class.

Mr. Stephens had taught two of my English courses. He liked to meditate and play Cat Stevens music while we wrote in journals. He was pretty cool. I think he actually read my journal and its less-than-probing entries about weekend plans and dreams of football greatness. He was nice enough to scribble “good” or “interesting” in the margins, though it’s hard to believe my journals were either.

Mass communications had no set curriculum. This was not necessarily a good thing, and it certainly contradicts the call for demanding coursework later sounded in A Nation at Risk. On the other hand, it forced Kevin and me to generate our own project. After no small degree of pondering, we asked Mr. Stephens if we could start a school newspaper. Incline High had no printing resources and no journalism class. We had no experience, no budget, and no reporters. So what did Mr. Stephens say? Yes.

My secret is that I actually liked high school.

We took it from there, setting up a meeting with the publisher of the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, a twice-weekly newspaper, who agreed to print our yet-to-be-named newspaper for a modest price. We returned to class with the good news and sought volunteers to help. Little did we know how much talent was in that elective class.

Rhonda, who sat quietly at the back of the classroom, wrote horoscopes. Something in her nonchalance and big earrings hinted of a mischievous but subtle creativity. And yes, she delivered some astounding astrological insights. Then there was Martin, a quiet sophomore who doodled a lot. He was our cartoonist. His first panel was perfect: a military tank labeled “senior” rolling through a hallway toward a cowering mouse with “freshman” printed across its tiny chest. Serious, bespectacled Steve was the obvious choice to make money for us by selling advertisements. We lived in a small town with three stoplights, so there weren’t many options. Still, Steve managed to hit up a tuxedo rental business and some restaurants that catered to teens on tight budgets.

Finally, like any good newspaper, we needed a hard-hitting editorial. That was Barry’s job. He was headed to Stanford University, and his journal entries were undoubtedly better than mine. I asked him to take a principled stand on the recent incident involving drinking, several members of the varsity basketball team, a road trip, a graveyard, and a missed curfew. I recused myself because, well, I was there when it happened. Anyway, he was willing to say that we blew it and deserved our punishment, which was to be kicked off the team for the three final games of the season.

Eventually, the first edition of the Highlander Hotline rolled off of the presses. We proudly went from class to class, selling the paper for 5 cents a copy. The paper was a hit, andI think everyone involved got pretty good grades in theclass. We put out at least one more edition before Kevin and I graduated.

That’s not the end of the story. Although the paper no longer exists and Mr. Stephens has long since moved on, I fell in love with journalism that year. I went on to major in communications in college and, after a failed tryout as a player, I landed my first job in the media office of the Portland Breakers, a team in the now- defunct United States Football League. Later, I covered sports and news for the Bonanza, and since then, I’ve had many interesting journalistic stops along the way.

I wonder, though, what would have happened if, after Kevin and I had proposed our ill-conceived plan, Mr. Stephens found a reason— and there were many—to say no.

In the fall of my senior year, I was asked to coach Incline High’s 7th grade girls’ basketball team. (Back then, the school included grades 7 through 12; today, Incline Village has a middle and a high school.) Mr. Preston, my government teacher and former track coach, had decided I was right for the post and said as much to the guidance counselor for 7th and 8th graders. But coaching was usually a job for a teacher. Interesting idea, I thought, but why me?

I suggested that my football practices might be a conflict. Mr. Preston demurred, saying that basketball practices and games took place during seventh period, which was my study hall—50 unstructured minutes in the library. He also argued that because I’d played two years of varsity basketball, I surely could teach the younger kids the basics.

Then came the clincher: I would get $250. It was exactly what I needed for the next six months of insurance on the ’69 Mustang I’d bought with savings from a summer landscaping job. It was a pretty easy decision.

Tryouts began immediately. There were lots of girls vying for just 15 positions. My friends’ sisters were trying out. Daughters of my parents’ friends showed up. So did sisters of friends’ girlfriends. So many people dropped in to sway my decision that I banned onlookers from the gym.

Once that tortuous two-day tryout was over, I had a team of 15 eager 7th grade girls, a couple of whom could dribble, one of whom had a nice shot, and all of whom swam in the oversized practice jerseys they had to wear. We improved considerably by the time official games began, though we were never world- beaters. As I’d learn, though, that wasn’t the point. We would win a game, then lose one, and so on, mostly having a great time along the way.

I marveled at the girls’ bluntness regarding the finer points of basketball. There were observations such as “We can’t beat them, they’re too big.” And, after being scolded for taking a running jump shot from beyond the top of the key, one girl rebutted, “But it went in!” To which everyone else, except me, nodded in agreement.

Today’s students might not have as much of a chance to have the same kind of defining experiences I once had.

The season passed rapidly. Before I knew it, my little Scotties—a take on the school’s highlander mascot—were playing their final game against our across-the-water rivals, the Lakers. We were down by a couple of points at halftime. The game was running late, and I had to go to football practice. I gave the girls a pep talk, told my replacement, Mike, that he’d better do a good job, and headed to the locker room.

Some 30 minutes into football practice, I forgot about basketball. It was bitterly cold, and an early-evening snow flurry made it hard to see. The offense was huddled. I was the receiver on the right side, blowing into my hands to warm them as a play was called. Then I heard a high-pitched voice shouting for permission to talk to me.

Through the snow, I saw a pack of green shorts and gold T-shirts gathered along a section of the fence that surrounded the field. Coach Adair, probably as entertained by the sight as he was worried about the girls’ health, told them to be quick. In an explosion of enthusiasm, the girls shouted in unison, “Coach Robert, we won! We won!” I gave them a thumbs-up, and they ran the 100 yards or so back up to the warmth of the gym.

In that moment of shared success, I knew I wanted to coach again. And I did, first as a Peace Corps volunteer organizing youth sports and recreation programs in Guatemala, and more recently as a coach in youth baseball and basketball leagues where I live in Virginia.

And whatever my coaching duties, I still recall the unbridled excitement and abandon of my 7th grade girls as a barometer for the kind of job I’m doing. Would my kids today run through a snow flurry, as a team, to celebrate a win with me? I hope so.

My visit to Incline High was my first time back in more than a decade. The three-story, red-brick building was still surrounded by stands of pine trees that lead to nearby mountains. About the same number of students pass through the hallways as 20 years ago. I recognized only a few teachers, though. And it was downright weird to see the faces of former classmates in their children who now attend the school.

But for all the similarities, there were plenty of changes. The most notable was the influx of Spanish-speaking students. Drawn by the availability of jobs in casinos, restaurants, and other resort-industry sectors, their parents have settled in the Tahoe region in increasing numbers. Nearly one-third of Incline High students are children of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. That’s a dramatic shift from the mostly white, middle- to upper-middle-class students of the 1970s.

My teachers in the late ’70s and early ’80s always seemed to be everywhere.

There was one other glaring detail I noticed right away. I asked Richard Brandt, the school’s assistant principal, why there seemed to be so little activity in the hallways. Block scheduling is the reason: Students now attend fewer, but longer, classes each day, he explained, as a way to extend learning time and reduce the amount of time wasted during and between classes.

This increased focus on getting more students to perform at higher levels was evident in other ways. An Incline honors diploma, which didn’t exist 20 years ago, requires, among other things, four years of English, three years of math, and two years of a foreign language—just as A Nation at Risk recommends. In addition, AP classes are common among college-bound students, and state testing requirements continue to get more demanding. Again, more Nation at Risk fingerprints.

To be sure, I was impressed. Students at Incline High were being challenged with sound instruction and high expectations. But other changes seemed to be making it more difficult for them to have the same defining experiences I once had. For example, skyrocketing real estate prices have pretty much forced teachers out of Incline Village. When I was growing up, a carpenter, a schoolteacher, or a restaurant manager could own a modest house—even with a coveted view of the lake. Not anymore.

As a result, many teachers travel roughly an hour each way, over mountain roads, to reach the school. When the weather is bad, it takes even longer. Harry Haaser, who taught my government class in 7th grade and is now the principal of Incline Elementary, said that the problem is so acute, he’s studying schools in other resort communities in hopes of finding ways to retain teachers.

Meanwhile, the commute to Incline High puts a serious strain on teachers’ free time. Twenty years ago, when most of them lived just a five-minute drive away, they could be sought for help in the lounge after school or in their classrooms as they corrected work. That kind of extra attention is a luxury now.

Outgoing senior class officer Jennifer Fuetsch told me, back in March, that one of the biggest challenges to generating school spirit during her tenure was the lack of time and interest on the part of teachers. She explained that it was difficult to find teachers who were available to help with after-school activities. And, she added, they often resisted supporting non-classroom activities, including pep rallies, during the school day, because they cut into learning time.

As I listened to Jennifer, it occurred to me that my teachers in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s always seemed to be everywhere. Supervising meetings. Coordinating activities. Holding study sessions. And even when they weren’t running things, they seemed to be watching from behind the scenes, as when I was tapped to coach basketball. It would be a shame, I thought, if the combined effect of local economics and a push for more standardized curricula made that wonderful, multifaceted resource—the teacher— less accessible and available to today’s students.

Leaving Nevada, I had mixed feelings. It was exciting and reassuring, certainly, to see the work being done at Incline High to push the academic envelope. With so much focus on producing measurable results, though, I worried about the students being given the same chances that I had to be creative and expansive and—perhaps most important of all—to fail. Mr. Stephens, Mr. Preston, and many of my other teachers understood the value of these opportunities. They knew then that even a nation at risk must allow schools and their students to take risks.


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