Saturday, November 22, 2008

Your mama is sooooo cool...

This is a reprint of a letter I sent to my children last week.
Hi kids,

I'm going to take some time out from news this week and tell you how much I admire my sweet wife.

We had lived for 22 years in a one-income family, where Dad worked and Mom stayed home and raised the kids. (See ) When I got laid off in 2003, Valerie decided she needed to go out and find a job. She didn't want to, and I would have preferred to get another job myself. But we knew that would take a while, and engineering jobs were scarce, so she took her college degree and went out to find a job.

Nobody would hire her as a teacher at first, so she took a job as a para (that's "paraeducator", basically a babysitter for the NCLB kids) in the Poudre School District, and kept looking for a teaching job while working as a para. Her persistence paid off when she got hired to replace the C&FS teacher at Erwin Middle School.

The previous teacher was just coasting, waiting until it was time to retire, so the C&FS program was rather a mess. Valerie put her organizing skills to work cleaning up the program and turning it into something useful. She had to overcome a lot of inertia from the 7th and 8th graders, who had been there with the old teacher and were expecting the class to be an easy A like it had been. She turned it back into a serious class, where the kids were expected to earn their grades and to learn stuff. (Imagine, having to learn stuff at school. The very nerve of the teacher!)

The school had been given several thousand dollars and a mandate to use that money to install a new computer-based C&FS learning program. The money was supposed to pay for 8 computers, the software and the supplies, but not for training. Valerie insisted to the district administrators that the computers et cetera would be worthless if the teacher wasn't trained (and that they were short-sighted and a few other choice words for not being willing to spend $2500 on training after they had spent ten$ of thousand$ on the rest of the project), and she kept saying that to whoever would listen, until the district finally paid for her to spend a week in Michigan at a training class.

Then she came back to Colorado and supervised the installation and startup of the system -- the first one in all the school districts along the Front Range. She worked hand-in-hand with the vendor's tech support staff to resolve the startup problems that she encountered in the system's first year of operation, and became the "go-to girl" for the district and for neighboring districts, as people would call her about problems with installation, startup, and curriculum.

Sometimes Valerie would come home and tell me about a computer networking problem she had solved, and she would be using computer jargon that I never expected to hear coming out of her mouth. I would sit there with my mouth hanging open as she rattled it off, not realizing what she was doing. She became so good at computers and networks that someone at the school asked her if she wanted to take over part of the computer tech's job, when the computer tech was badly injured in an accident. (She declined. She doesn't think she's that good.)

Her first year at Erwin, she observed that the cooking options in the classroom were limited by the length of time of the class. Some kids had expressed a desire to cook things that took longer, so she started a cooking club, which would meet after school one day a week to do some of these more advanced recipes. Wildcat Cuisine is now in its fourth year, and has grown from 12-16 members to 40 members. An article (with photos!) was published in an alternative local paper. She has gotten offers of assistance from a state dietician (with an office at CSU), Applebee's, and other local businesses. And the benefits of the club go beyond just trying the fancier recipes. For the first time, some of those kids have something they're good at, something they can be proud of, and a positive group of peers, where they feel like they belong. Other kids have impressed their parents with their culinary skills, and a few have even taken over mealtime at their homes.

In Colorado, after three years of teaching, you become tenured. The state is serious about those "three years." The third year doesn't expire until the first day of school in your fourth year. So on the first day of school this year, Valerie walked into the building and became a tenured teacher. But I knew she was "in" last year. She is a fixture of the school, as far as both students and teachers are concerned. Kids come to her for advice. Teachers seek out her opinion, either confidentially or in meetings and group discussions. Her classes, though not the easy A, are very popular.

She has a reputation as a straight shooter. One day in October, during passing period, one of her students came into class fuming with anger, because the art teacher had written her up for a rather flagrant dress code violation. It was something like a too-short skirt, or spaghetti straps, or something like this. The girl's friends were also upset, and they all wanted to know why the dress code was such a big deal. Valerie could tell that they weren't in a mood to learn about the food pyramid or anything else that day. So she set aside her planned lesson and spent the whole time talking with the kids about immodest clothing and so on. Valerie got very frank with the kids, and by the time she was done, they understood everything about dress codes, immodest clothing and so on. Word got around during passing period, and her next class wanted to have the same lesson, so she obliged them. No other teacher or administrator had ever laid it on the line like that.

And she's earning a reputation as a straight shooter among the parents, too. She doesn't take any crap from them. When a student is a slacker and the parent tries to excuse the kid's behavior or blame it on someone else (especially on Mom or another teacher), Valerie finds out VERY quickly what the real story is, and then tells the parent exactly what's going on and what they, not she, need to do about it. She's still training the parents, but word will eventually get around that she can't be deceived or bullied.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, two things happened. First, Valerie realized that she'd be a lot better set up for her (future) retirement if she could get further up the wage curve, and second, she realized that a lot of her students have trouble learning because they cannot read. So she decided to get a Master's degree in literacy and reading, and morph from a C&FS teacher to a reading/literacy coach. You kids probably don't remember how hard I had to work to get that MSEE degree from Stanford when we lived in Corvallis -- but if you do, then Valerie's working just that hard on her degree. She's acquiring quite a reputation with her professors at UNC, and I wouldn't be surprised if she ends up with a published paper out of at least one of her classes.

What makes all of this even more impressive is that she started teaching at age 47, and many of her colleagues (and UNC classmates) are Jason's or Kellie's age, or even younger. She went to a conference with one of them (Cinnamon Garner) and told her, "I hope you don't feel like you're hanging around with your mother." Her colleague replied, "No, I think of you more as my fun-to-hang-around-with aunt."

She is looking forward to graduating from UNC so she can have more time to devote to being a mom, a mother-in-law, and a grandma. (I think Chris and I are looking forward to that, too.) You know, in 2003 she could have gotten a job as a waitress instead. But then none of this would have happened. She's too modest to acknowledge "greatness" in any of this, and she doesn't take praise very well. She's blown me off every time I've tried to tell her what I've told you. But she really is a great lady.

Dad/Ray/Brother Depew

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