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Teacher shares thoughts about teaching, education in America
Manteca Unified Board of Trustee Sam Fant presents the certificate of recognition to Sierra Highs Science Department chair Larry Grimes for being selected as recipient of the 2014 Cortopassi Excellence in Science Teaching award. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

When people hear about what Larry Grimes do for a living, they cringe.

That’s because teaching high school students has had a “bad rap,” the Sierra High School Science Department chair with 15 years of teaching on the Timberwolves campus sadly noted.

Cringe-worthy reactions notwithstanding, Grimes manifests no compunction and offers no apologies over his decision to be a teacher in the secondary level. His family and his students are the focus of his life, firmly states the reluctant recipient (only for the unwanted spotlight it generated) of the 2014 Cortopassi Excellence in Science Teaching award which came with a $10,000 cash prize with half of it going to Sierra’s Science Department.

“I truly love it. I have the best job in the world!” Grimes said wholeheartedly.

We threw some questions about teachers, teaching, and the state of education in the United States to Grimes. So as not to reduce his answers into caricature forms, here are his thoughts in their entirety.

“Thank you for the using the word Cliché,” he noted in his emailed response to our questions, and admitted that his answers “are very cliché-ish (b)ut I mean it from the heart.”

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I’m always doing research. All scientists are. But I happen to value teaching higher. Many post-secondary institutions emphasize research over teaching. Pacific is a refreshing exception to this national trend and yet Pacific professors manage to do world-class research. I’m not comfortable with the typical R-1 philosophy and much prefer working in an environment where teaching is my primary job and research is what I do on top of it. This, I believe, is the proper perspective for an educator and it keeps everything fun. But why (teach) high school? I just love teaching high school students. I love their energy, their spirit, their hope for the future. It sounds stupid to say, but teaching them keeps me thinking young. Teaching high school has been given a bad rap. People cringe when I tell them what I do. But I truly love it. I have the best job in the world!

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Again, we are confronted with words so misused in our culture that their meanings get all screwed up. Teaching is a “vocation” in the classical sense. A vocation is the response of someone who is responding to a calling. It literally means following a voice that guides you. Good teachers know inside that they are pursuing their highest calling.

 Do I teach for the money? Not really but I couldn’t afford to do it for free. When I resigned my senior pastoral position of a large protestant congregation to take this teaching position in Manteca I took a 40% cut in pay. Teaching for me has never been about the money. It is not about the money today. It is about what is important in life...investing in children and seeing them develop into the people they can become. This is what is important. My 403b (retirement/savings calculator) woefully attests to this fact.

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I am surrounded by dedicated and gifted teachers who spend their lives behind closed doors, pouring out their lives for their students. As I travel around the district and county, I meet a lot of teachers and almost always leave feeling humbled by their dedication and creativeness. Most of them spend their lives with their great accomplishment unsung.

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This depends on the student and why they might be interested in teaching. People entering teaching for shallow, transient or misplaced values will be very unhappy and not survive in the profession very long. More than half new teachers don’t last five years. I’m sure there must be bad public school teachers out there somewhere. But in all my years of teaching I’ve met very, very few. Most who survive the first five years are astonishingly good at what they do. They are passionate and motivational. They are relational. They see more in their students than the students see in themselves and they strive to bring this out. Yes! I would recommend teaching for people who are optimistic by nature and value seeing others rise above their belief in their own capabilities.

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How to improve education? That is the question that drives the cyclical nature of school reform about every 20 years or so. I’m sure you don’t have the column inches for me to express the reasons behind what I feel, so rather than going into great length, I’ll just mention a few things that I feel are NOT the way to improve education and a couple that I feel will.

• There is a strong push in America for privatization and charter schools. These can serve a very important role in education. I love the idea of the magnet school. But all I will say here is that many that are corporately managed are serving hidden agendas. Some are nothing more than corporate grabs into the public purse. Many lack the inclusive mandate of traditional public schools, lack transparency, emphasize student scores over the value of the student and many fail to deliver even higher student scores on standardized tests with none of the restraints of traditional public schools. I have taught in the private education sector where the teachers sacrificed great things because of their belief in the school’s mission and vision. I wish this were the case with most of the corporately managed charter schools. Maybe I’m wrong but I just don’t see it.

• We need increased contact hours. We are currently attempting to teach 21st-century information-age curriculum in a 19th-century agrarian structure and calendar. What we need is more meaningful contact time with individual students. The old factory model of education won’t work with the new Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. This is why I work with students before school, during lunches and after school. We need time.

• Study after study have shown that the single greatest factor influencing increased student achievement is the teacher, not fancy new curriculum. Nothing can beat one-on-one time between the learner and the dedicated educator. Education is more about relationship than curriculum. One of the greatest ways of improving public education is class-size reduction. But reducing K-4 classes sizes from 35 to 34 won’t accomplish anything. If we are serious about improving learning we need dramatic class-size reduction rather than investment in the newest and hottest data-driven curriculum. Make class sizes really manageable so the teacher can have meaningful face time with individual students and learning dramatically increases. This is a very unpopular view because it can’t be done without serious investment of resources and it doesn’t sell the latest corporately driven curriculum.