January 26, 2007

The Greatest Teacher I Have Ever Known

My Best Friend

My best friend for thirty-two years was an amazing man by the name of John Matau. He was a teacher!

When I first met him I was on my visit to Kittitas High School to interview for my first full time teaching job. His room was right next to the Principal’s Office and while I was doing my interview, I could hear the laughter of students through the cinder-block walls that separated the office from John’s classroom.

After my interview, I walked to the door of that classroom and peeked in to see what all the laughter was about. The guy in front of the room was playing some kind of a game with his students and it was obvious that everyone in the room was engaged in what was going on. It was near to the lunch hour and the principal had invited me to stay for lunch. I decided to stay and vowed to try to meet this teacher who was having so much fun with the kids.

Learning Can Be Fun

Well, I did not have to wait long to meet the fellow… he walked out of his room when the bell rang, came over and introduced himself to me and invited me to go to the cafeteria to eat lunch. He said it was a bit of a walk but it would be worth it because the menu was for hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes that day. He said the cooks did a wonderful job with this lunch, and they always made fresh bread so it would be a great meal!

The cafeteria and lunchroom were in the grade school, and when we arrived there was a long line of students waiting for lunch. I showed him the ticket the principal had given me and mentioned that he told me that teachers and guests could eat without waiting in line. John’s response was simply, “Would never do it!” So… we went to the end of the line and waited our turn to eat with all of the students.

When I arrived home that afternoon I told my wife I had met the most amazing fellow at my job interview. He seemed to be a truly unique teacher! I told her that if I was lucky enough to get that job, I was going to get to know this guy and try to figure out why his classroom seemed to be so much fun! I told my wife that he just might be my best friend that I had not yet met! Little did I know the meaning of those words?

John rapidly became my best friend. I, too, became his best friend and we remained as such for thirty-two years. I guess he is still my best friend, we just don’t get to spend much time together since he died of cancer almost four years ago.

The Best Teacher

I want to tell you why I call John Matau the best teacher that I have ever known. John believed that education should be fun for all kids, not just for the most talented or gifted. He had run away from home at twelve and he told me simply he always tried to make his class into a place for kids like himself! He wanted the wild and unruly kids to have a place to learn too. I found that the “normally-good” students liked his classes because he made learning fun for them too.

John and I taught and coached together for four years there at Kittitas. I learned from that guy every day. John taught me that there was a place for every boy on a team so we invited every boy to be involved with our team in some way. We all learned the position of manager or equipment guy as is essential to the success of the game of football as are the players.

After four years together went our separate ways and taught and coached in different communities. John returned to the town of Elma, where he had graduated from high school, and I accepted an opportunity to try coaching at the college level… but our friendship seemed to grow with the physical distance. We shared our many experiences with kids and I continued to learn from John at every turn. I think he learned from me too and most of all we learned together. We loved kids and we were both proud to call ourselves teachers. Most of all, we, together realized what an awesome responsibility it was to be called “Teacher” or “Coach” by one of our students.

I watched John teach at every opportunity. I learned that while teachers must never cross the line and become buddies with their students, they could earn a special place among students by never considering themselves superior to them. I always ate school lunch in the cafeteria like John did and I always waited in line with the kids, even though every school I worked in offered teachers a separate line where they were served ahead of the kids. I always wrote my telephone number on the board the first day of school so that if any of my students wanted or needed some kind of help, I could be easily reached.

Now to get to the meat of this story… John and I got to teach and coach in the same district again down in Walla Walla, Washington. In my last year of teaching in that great school district, John told me that he had harbored a dream for years of building a school that was dedicated to his beliefs about teaching! Charter Schools had just become a new possibility and the concept of building a different kind of school got John to thinking.

The Courage to Try Something New

He went to the Administration and asked permission to build a school there in Walla Walla. By this time John had become Vice Principal at the local high school and he was becoming disillusioned by the common practice of letting kids drop out of school. He was even more alarmed at the practice of kicking kids out of school for attendance and behavior problems. When John talked about these kids being out on the street with no education, I always watched his eyes fill with tears.

As I saw his tears, I would reflect back upon his statement at Kittitas, when he told me he wanted his classroom to be a place for kids like himself; the wild and unruly. However, we had talked so often about how we wished the world could be different, that I just thought this dream of building a new kind of school was another bit of wishful thinking on John’s part.

I was so amazed when John Matau actually received permission to build his own school. I will not go through all of the red tape and hoops he jumped through to build his school, however I will share with you how his school was able to succeed with kids that the formal educational system had failed.

Why His School Worked!

First, John named this school The Opportunity Program, simply because that was what it was… an opportunity to succeed for kids who had never been given a chance!

To build his school, the district simply said that he could not recruit students from the traditional high school or middle school, and he could not recruit his students from the already existing alternative school. He could only recruit students off of the streets who were not in school. Also, he was told that his funding would come from the exact formula that governed the rest of the schools in the district. He would only get funding based upon the number of FTE’s (Full time Equivalent Students) that he had in attendance at his school.

John based his school on a couple of basic ideas. 1. The bar would be lowered for no one! Excellence would be the standard. However, he also said that 2. This school would be built and run for the convenience of the students rather than the convenience of the adults running it!

The Opportunity Program opened at 6:00 A.M. and did not close until midnight. Teachers came and went to meet with the schedules created by the students. (I know, I was a doubter too until I saw this school operate!)
He Treated Students with Respect and Dignity!

Now here is where John really broke with convention… when a potential student was located and came for a visit to see what this school was like, they were immediately escorted in to meet with John, the principal of the school. John would then take the potential student into his office to a huge calendar on his wall and he would ask the student to tell him what time would be most convenient for them to have their entrance interview. He would point to the calendar and say, “You tell me what day works best for you and you tell me what time of day or night works best for you and I will be here. However, you must pick a time when you are willing to give me two hours of your time! I will make time for you but you must give me two hours of your time.”

Once the date was scheduled, John would give the potential student one of his business cards with the selected time for the meeting written on the back, and tell the young person that if something came up he would like a call, in advance, to let him know that there needed to be a change in the time of the appointment. He also offered that if the student needed a ride to the appointment, they could just call that number and he would gladly provide transportation.
Be Your Best You

The only requirement he made of the student was that on the day of the appointment he expected all prospective students, “to show up here on time, and bring your best YOU! That means that you do not have to show up looking or dressing like me. You do not need to conform to my standards but you must conform to the highest standards that you set for yourself!”

The original Opportunity Program was in rented space in the basement of a house owned by a neighborhood church. In one year John’s school had so outgrown that space that the Opportunity Program moved into a vacant building that had once been a super market.

When a student would come for the entrance appointment they would find John, the Principal of their new school, waiting out on the sidewalk or in the parking lot to meet them. John was always dressed very professionally in a suit and tie for these occasions and he would run to meet the kid with his hand outstretched for a handshake. John would always call the student by name and tell him/her how glad he was to see her/him.
Treat Them Like They Are Special...
and They Will Act Like They Are Special!

Next they would go into the school where John would take the kid on a tour of the facilities. The student would be introduced as if he/she were being interviewed for a CEO position in a Fortune 500 Corporation! John’s introductions consisted of stating the name of the teacher or staff member and then telling the staff member all about the new student. (Are you noticing a different emphasis already? We can tell kids that they are important but our actions speak much louder than our words ever could.)

Then John would escort the student into his office where he would offer a cup of coffee, a glass of juice, or a cookie. He would offer the student one of the comfortable chairs in his office and he would sit in another chair just like the student’s chair. (Are you beginning to see a trend of treating the student as an important person?)

John would then pick up a clipboard and a pen and the interview would begin. John would ask the student first to list for him any Personal Goals that she/he might have. Many students were caught off guard by this manner of questioning and most had really never thought much about personal goals. If the student seemed to be stumped, John would produce a big sheet with some of the personal goals that had been submitted by other students. Honesty, integrity, laughter, self-worth, a family, and so on. This sheet ran the gamut from wanting a good job to wishing to be a rock musician.

After writing down any of these goals the student had offered or picked, John would tell the student that he would type this list of goals for the student to have for permanent records and that he would always have a copy of the goals in the student’s personal folder there in his office.

Next, John would turn the questioning to the student’s Professional (or Career) Goals. He would ask the student where they saw themselves in ten, twenty, or thirty years. What job would you like to have? How much money would you like to make? What kind of a house would you like to live in? Just like with the personal goals, if the student seemed stumped, John would offer a big sheet of possibilities. Once the potential student had selected some professional goals John said the same about these. He would type up a copy of them, give a copy to the student, and keep a copy of them in the student’s permanent file. He also pointed out that these were the exclusive property of each student and that they could and would be changed at any time that the student wished!

Then John would then turn the conversation to Educational Goals. “What would you like to get from your education?” he would ask. Most of the time this question would really throw the interviewee for a loop. Most of these kids had never thought much about what they personally wanted from an education. When prompted with a list of some ideas many students would open up and admit that they really could not read very well and they would like to learn to read! Others were very specific in simply wanting a diploma. A few would even own up to having a dream of someday attending college. John wrote them all down with the same promise to type them and have them available to the student at any time, simply to look at, to change, add to, or modify!

While the student was in the beginning of the interview John would take a picture of the prospective student with his digital camera. While the interview was being conducted, one of the Opportunity Staff would take the picture, blow it up and make a poster of it. Under the picture would be typed the student’s name. Below the student’s name would be placed one of each of their sets of goals: a Personal Goal, a Career Goal, and a Professional Goal.

By the time that the interview was over the poster would be placed on the "Wall of Fame" next to all of the other students in the Opportunity Program, with the promise that it would remain there until the student asked to have it removed.

Now do you see why I say that John was the best teacher I ever met? When I would visit his school and talk with his students I would always ask them why they were succeeding in this school when they had failed in other schools and they would always answer with a few common answers; “This is the first school where they asked me what I wanted!” or “This is the first school where anyone actually cared enough to know my name!” or “This is the first school where I have been treated with respect for who I am.” or “I can still work to support my baby and also go to school here.”
A Demand for Excellence!

Now go back for a moment and reflect upon something that I said earlier about John’s premise for the school. “We will lower the bar for nobody!” He set up a school that honored and recognized every student and their different needs and different goals. His school saw each student as important and unique yet his school demanded the same level of excellence that the traditional school did! Often his school’s standards were even higher! And he was getting this excellence from students who had never before succeeded in school. What was the difference? Very simply, he had done as he said he would; this school was built for the convenience of the students! This school treated its' students as if they were capable of excellence and the students rose to match those expectations!

A number of times the Opportunity Program was challenged by the traditional educational community because many doubted that the Opportunity Program could be achieving the excellence they were reporting. I was there one day when a few members from the high school were there challenging John on how he could be awarding full credit for a course offered at the traditional high school. John simply replied, “I don’t know, but we are using your curriculum guide, your Student Learning Objectives, and your tests. If you would like to review any of our student’s work we operate on the “portfolio method” of evaluation here. So, if you would like, we can pull out the work of any student taking a course you feel is not being properly taught or evaluated and you could show us where we are falling short. As a matter of fact, one of our biggest tasks is evaluating our students’ work, so if you feel that our standards are not high enough, we would welcome having any of you come and help us to evaluate our students’ work!”

It is amazing to note that in every year John ran that school, they had a minimum of 95 students who had been cast aside as unfit for school by our traditional school system, but who were now working in pursuit of high school diplomas. As a result of John’s demand, all of his graduates walked across the stage along with students who had attended the traditional high school and received the real High School Diplomas they had earned from the Walla Walla School District.

Great teachers meet every student where they are and take them as far as they can go. Sometimes those teachers reach beyond what has always been done to meet the needs of their students.

John was forced to retire by his bout with cancer. Almost four years after his death, the Opportunity Program still is a living monument to the dedication of the best teacher I have ever been privileged to know.


Anonymous said...

I am forwarding this blog to all our school board members and principals. There are so many way to improve our education system. Thank you for sharing your best friend, Mac. I wish all of us could have him for a teacher.

Mac said...

I just received this comment from a former student of John's. It is pretty moving to read so get ready! Here is the comment:
"I just wanted to say that I read your blog that talked about John Matau and the Opportunity Program. I was a student there and Mr. Matau helped me sooo much. I was living in Milton-Freewater, Oregon and a DSHS worker was trying to convince me to give up on a high school diploma and go for my GED. She called up Mr. Matau and I loved the look on her face when he told her what a disservice she was doing me by telling me to give up. I moved to Seattle before graduating from The Opportunity Program, but I did graduate from high school 3 months early and I graduated as the Class Salutatorian! I was a unwed teen parent with a drug addicted family and very little hope, but John Matau was a huge part of my success. I now manage a large clothing store, own my own home, and I feel very lucky to have met such a great teacher and great person. I know you already know how great this program is, but I hope it helps to hear success stories!"

Do you think that America needs more people like John Matau and more programs like the Opportunity Program?

Anonymous said...

Opportunity, unfortunately, is under attack by the school district. The Superintendent does not like it, the new high school principal thinks that all students should succeed in the traditional model, and the former principal of the alternative programs has made "alternative" a dirty word in Walla Walla.

A new principal has now taken over the alternative programs and he is trying his hardest. The district, however, seems, to put it kindly, disinterested at best, and outright hostile at worst.

I hope that the intentions John had for Opportunity can remain. I am not optimistic, however.

All districts need alternative programs for their kids. I hope that the Walla Walla School District can see that.