Better Together: Colleges & Teacher Unions

A challenge facing rapidly growing Lone Star College is providing the right mix of support programs for its diverse student body. This can be especially confounding when business metrics are favored to guide budget decision-making. That is, what’s the ROI (return on the investment)?

One prograroim that got chopped in the LSC-North Harris budget was the annual Sisterhood Retreat, sponsored by the Women’s Resource Center. The program is a one-day retreat that takes female students to spend the day in Navasota in my home so they can feel the hospitality of a faculty member and enjoy a day of respite and reflection. The program serves between nine and twelve students annually.

Despite its positive evaluations from past retreats and reputation for encouraging females to speak their truth, a decision was made by the administration to eliminate the budget for the retreat. Better to protect the larger programs that serve more students, someone said.

Really?

My colleague Angela Gant and I have helped Cassandra Boyd organize and host the retreat in the past, so we decided we’d handle the materials for the workshop and pay for lunch. But it wasn’t quite enough; there were no funds for transportation from big metropolis Houston to rural Navasota.

When our union (American Federation of Teachers) heard, AFT president Alan Hall offered the needed $450 to lease two vans and fill them with gasoline. As a result, nine students spent the day in a circle of trust reflecting and discussing their core values, their goals and aspirations, and their gifts and blessings. They discussed their past accomplishments, their current contributions, created bucket lists, and planned their legacies.

The experience was both powerful and empowering for these woman. In their evaluations, participants shared what they got from the retreat:

  • The retreat really made me think about what I want out of life.
  • Sharing something deep was powerful.
  • The retreat allowed us to get out of our shells.
  • I see how embracing my strong points helps me be my best/become my best self.
  • It was so calm and relaxing to be able to take a step back and look at our goals in life.
  • I loved how we all came together and reflected on how every woman is fabulous.
  • We were able to get to know people different from ourselves and communicate (on a deeper level).
  • Everything was amazing. There should definitely be more retreats in the future.
  • This retreat was a blessing to me.

This program would not have happened this semester without AFT’s contribution, but bigger is not always better, and the union saw the inherent value of a small, intimate retreat for young women who are still developing their identities. Thanks to the AFT, a tiny retreat program was saved, and nine invigorated students returned to campus to face final exams with unshakable confidence.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I call that a worthy ROI.

Circling Back

small-townsWhen I was growing up, I could hardly wait to blow past the city limit sign and watch my small hometown grow smaller in my rear-view mirror. I was not alone. Most of us were drawn to the bright lights of Houston or Dallas. Or somewhere exotic like LA or The Big Apple. A few truly adventuresome friends dreamed of heading to Paris or London. We had such a yearning to taste life, maybe even walk on the wild side.

For sure, we wanted to escape the confines of “Hooterville,” our nickname for our hometown, population 11,999 (not counting the convicts incarcerated inside the Huntsville prison). We wanted to go to real nightclubs instead of sneaking around to the bootlegger’s house on Gospel Hill or the country honky-tonks in Trinity and in the backwoods between Willis and Conroe. We wanted to see live theatre with paid actors who were seasoned in their craft rather than school plays and band concerts.

We wanted to sit in candle-lit restaurants and drink imported French wine in delicate crystal stemmed glassware that chefs paired with their signature cuisine delivered on fine bone china dishes. We were so tired of sweet tea and chicken fried steak at the Texan Cafe.

We wanted to vacation on the beaches of Hawaii or the mountains in Colorado instead of shared cabins in Garner State Park. We wanted to shop Nordstrom’s and Macy’s instead of Kerr’s and Penny’s.

We wanted  our own apartment and our own money, and most of all, we wanted to live somewhere, anywhere else. Our little hometown was too small, too settled, too confining for our young ambitious selves.

So we escaped.

And got as far away as we could to find the excitement we craved to feed our creativity, our ambitions, our curiosity.

Now as we ease into the late afternoon of our lives, I’ve noticed we are circling back. Many of my high school friends have returned to Huntsville or a similar smaller community in Texas. Ronnie and I, for example, are making our home in Navasota, population 7,049. We’ve come back to our roots, sinking back into the simple life, focusing on civic engagement and community preservation. We’ve joined the Two River Historical Society. I’ve been invited to join the Robert Raines chapter of the D.A.R. and I’m om the citizen advisory board of the Examiner, our town’s weekly newspaper. There’s a book club in nearby Plantersville that I’m interested in joining. Ronnie is on the board of directors of the Navasota Theatre Alliance and the Navasota airport advisory committee, and he’s  joining the Volunteer Fire Department and the Grimes Country Crime Stoppers. We’ve attended church with the Catholics, the Methodists, the Baptists and the Presbyterians, and I think we may have found a church home. Occasionally we go dancing at the Western Club or drop by the Dizzy Llama to listen to our friend Mitch White and his band Brickyard Kane. But normally we’re in bed after the 10 o’clock news… sometimes earlier.

When we were young, we hated living where everyone knew our business. We longed for the promised anonymity in a big city. But now we’ve come full circle to a more intimate place. We are in a house that feels like home, living in a town where everyone knows our name, integrating into the fabric of community life, and we love it. Yes, finally, we understand why our parents chose a small town as their permanent address.

Working hard

teacher-gradingI’ve been thinking about my work ethic, now that I am winding down, nearing my official retirement from my career next month.

I credit my daddy for my work ethic.  He told me if I did the work I loved, the money would follow. He said that I’d never be rich, but I wouldn’t be poor, either. He was right. Teaching is steady work. When the economy goes south, people go back to school to sharpen their skills—and I am the teacher they seek to improve their writing skills.

It’s taken 49 years to earn (barely) six figures, and many still complain I’m overpaid. One acquaintance constantly suggests that since I am in the classroom only 16 hours a week, that I’m making an enormous hourly rate. Never mind that I’ve been at it for almost fifty years and have a doctorate in my field, and never mind that it pales in comparison to corporate pay, and never mind that the challenges for teaching the unprepared are mind boggling and I’m constantly reinventing my teaching methods to stay relevant. I once kept a record of my actual time working—class time, PLUS grading 180 essays every week, committee time, lesson development time, meeting with students for individual tutoring, sponsoring student organization, advising student media activities, mentoring students and young faculty, and sharing in college decision-making. I typically work 60 hours per week, which is far greater than my acquaintance works. But he likes to say I’m on the public dole, sucking taxpayers dry.

I disagree with that acquaintance. My college colleagues and I make our economy stronger by inspiring and teaching adults to become skilled in their professions. We also challenge them to become critical thinkers so this country can continue to function as a brain trust for innovations in commerce, environmental science and health care, and for transforming hate and prejudice into human kindness, love and tolerance.

You’re welcome.

 

Flying the V

55021f16603bd-imageWhen I was young and ambitious, I felt I had to stay in front of the team and be the bird in the apex position leading the way, no matter how tired I became. More than once, I ignored warnings and flew too close to the sun, and like a female Icarus, I plummeted. How much better I would have fared if I’d tried to emulate a Canadian goose rather than a Greek filled with pride and grandiosity.

Wild geese fly across the sky in a solid V formation, you see, which reduces air resistance for the entire flock. With wings moving in harmony, the flock travels more miles together than any individual can. And when the bird at the front of a migratory flock gets tired, she moves toward the rear of the formation where the wind drag is lowest, and a more rested bird takes her place. If I’d learned from the example of the wild geese while I was in my prime, I’d be in better health as I move into the late afternoon of my life.

Today, I caution the ones who are coming up behind me to avoid my mistakes and work in communities of like-minded people. Share the struggle, the adventure, the challenge, and the glory. Allow yourself to feel the strength of others traveling with you, and let their presence lend power to your wings as you take flight. When you begin to tire (and inevitably, you will), let someone else fly at the front until you are rested.

Collaborate, don’t compete. Individuals, like flocks of wild birds, move faster and farther when they move together. American needs all its bright minds.

Learn to fly the V with the understanding that when you work together in community, everyone has opportunities to lead.  Just as importantly, the synergy creates economical, intellectual, and spiritual plenty. Isn’t that what the world needs now?