Q&A: William “Doc” Carter

This is part of a series of two Question and Answer sessions. In this session, Dr. William Carter, one of Aberdeen High School’s recently retired teachers answers questions about his background and views as an educator, although some have which have been modified to be relevant for his retired status. New teacher, Katie Foulds, appeared in last week’s Q and A. Carter is 69, born in Spokane, raised inThompson Falls, Mont., a small logging town of about 3,200 people. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Education with an English major, minoring in economics and sociology at the University of Montana. He received a master’s in guidance counseling and psychometrics from the U. of Montana and a Ph.D in educational leadership from Seattle University.

What subject(s) did you teach?

I taught 9-12 English/language arts of American and world literature including speech, debate, senior honors English, Advanced Placement English and University of Washington English

How long did you teach?

Forty-four years, the first two years for the Peace Corps in the Caribbean.

How long did you teach at Aberdeen?

Forty-two years.

Why did you become a teacher?

I changed my major several times in college and took a second junior year to elect whatever course I wanted for the sheer pleasure of knowing about subjects that would not otherwise be a part of my normal study or degree. One day, my adviser called me into his office and said that maybe it was about time for me to graduate. “What do you want to do?” he said. “I am not sure” said I. “Why don’t you become an English teacher? You have enough credits there for a degree and a half. If you take one more economics course, you will have a minor in economics and you already have a minor in sociology as well.” That was a pivotal point of realization for me. It seemed a logical choice to become a language arts teacher as an exercise of my spirit and my somewhat unconscious interests of study.

Did it meet your expectations?

Without question. I chose to work 12 years beyond qualifying for retirement. Teaching was my joy; it energized me, it aided me to become a person who learned to ask the most important question of all, “Why?” Do you have a guiding philosophy about education, if so, what is it?

The greatest minds of the world through the eons of history have contributed to the sophisticated civilization in which we now live. Their success is measured by accolades of thanks and sometimes money; however, none of these people or their contributions would be possible without teachers. Teaching is of the first order. All other occupations are really second-best to teachers. Teaching is the cornerstone of all else. Whatever you are, you owe to your teachers.

How did your philosophy change over time?

My philosophy became strengthened in that I focused more on becoming the “creator” of my own classroom pedagogy with as much objective integrity as I could muster. I was always willing to listen to criticism although I did not always like it.

What did you like most about teaching?

Two examples come to mind. When students beautifully reason, relate to, and write a rhetorical composition based upon writing/thinking skills we studied in class. There is no better reward of splendor than reading that student’s work. Any student of any ability can produce such a composition. The key seems to be capturing a universal topic of interest and empowering the student’s motivation to do.

Another example of “a like” would have to be the relationships with students where both the student and I have built a mutual respect, trust and fondness for each other. I have always striven to achieve it with all students each year in each class. It is wonderful. I can see and feel it happening and hold its value as sacred.

What makes a good/effective teacher?

A good/effective teacher is one who wants to be good/effective and is dedicated to teaching. That teacher pursues the goal continually through awareness and reason. Two of the greatest teachers of all time were Socrates and Aristotle. Their pedagogy or methods were as pertinent and relevant then as they are now to any discipline or classroom.

What makes a bad/ineffective teacher?

A bad or ineffective teacher would be a sophist, someone who is a charlatan, lacks commitment, information, dedication or appreciation for students and the power of education as the great equalizer. If such teachers exist, I imagine they know they fall short of the mark; however, they can always choose to become a better teacher, and in the process, they may well become one of the best if they accept the personal challenge to do so.

What was the hardest part of the job? How did you handle that?

The hardest part of the job was being the producer for six classes a day and roughly 150 students. I have sometimes thought of it as being like a television producer. One has to produce the program for the time slot and it must be done with integrity and relevance. To not do so is to begin to lapse into the sophistry of bad faith and practice.

What was the best part of the job?

The best part of the job was actually the varied whole of the job each day with all the students, staff, and situations in our school “family.” To finish the day by having exchanged my best efforts with the engendered best efforts of others was “best.”

What is something people outside education don’t realize about being a teacher?

People have said to me: “You could not pay me enough to do what you do. Today’s young people are terrible. I do not know how you can do it.” What people do not realize is that students are like most people: “You get what you give.”

How did your approach as a teacher change over time?

I became better at the methodology of teaching through a commitment to my own life-long learning. I spent more time teaching, correcting and responding to student work. Instead of leaving the school at 3 p.m., I would usually leave around 5 p.m. tired, relaxed, but with a contented smile on my face.

How do you get students to excel?

You get students to excel by treating them well and showing/telling them what their strengths are both academically and as a person. You continually build on those areas and usually even the most reluctant students will respond.

How did you reach problem students?

Problem students engage in acting out behaviors. There is always a reason for the behavior. As a teacher, the key is to figure out why the student behaves that way, what the student needs and what you as a teacher can provide in reasonable negotiation to reach “the person.”

How has dealing with students changed over time? (Since you started.)

Dealing with students probably does not change much over time as relationships, responses, interactions are fairly constant. We have pursued and legislatively enacted needed approaches to bullying and harassment, Due Process is now better served and the rights of the individual are paramount. There is more of a sense of “entitlement” now than ever before. Usually, entitlement is good but sometimes it appears to be abused.

What characterizes good classroom management and how do you establish it?

Good classroom management is characterized by students being actively engaged and learning. That can take various forms from loud, organized chaos to serene, contemplative writing with a Chopin nocturne softly playing in the background. It is established by respect and consideration for self and others as an evolving expectation set by the teacher and the class from day one.

Why did you choose to teach at Grays Harbor?

We chose Grays Harbor for its proximity to the beaches, Seattle, the climate, an evolving enjoyment of our Aberdeen jobs and the people of the area. God is everywhere but she/he lives in Washington state, visits Aberdeen, but vacations at the beaches.

Many teachers today say they have to be social workers, counselors and even sometimes the police everyday before they can even start being a teacher, can you explain this and do you agree?

That is an exaggeration designed to garner appreciation for difficult situations or days. It is certainly a feeling each of us has periodically. All a teacher needs is three or four “situations” a day and you feel the job of teaching is secondary but it really is not. You have still likely served the other 146 students. Part of being a teacher is being a chameleon. One must change and adapt to circumstance. You knew that going in to teaching or at least should have perceived it.

What is the biggest problem in our schools today?

The biggest problem is timeless and has always been there. Too many students do not graduate or are not successful. There does not seem to be an ultimate pedagogy. I would like to think we can and should do better in our nation’s schools. Teachers, administrators, and communities continually address the problem and have made great strides; however, the answers are sometimes elusive.

What is the best thing?

Students are the best when they learn and practice the idea that there is nothing of any importance in life except how well we do our work. Nothing. Only that. Whatever else we are will come from that. It is the only measure of our value. Our work makes all our other virtues of morality, excellence, righteousness, goodness, conformity, standards, mores, and power, possible. To quote an Asian proverb, “As you know the work, so too do you know the worker.” I like that!

What are the education problems specific to the Harbor?

Demographics or the statistical study of human populations tends to categorize people by advantage or disadvantage to justify perceptions of success or failure. Are our demographics responsible for our educational problems or are we? I am not always sure where to place the blame.

What do you feel about standards-based testing?

Standards-based testing seems necessary as an accountability factor to evaluate public schools and student success when supported by taxpayer money. We need to remember that she/he who has the gold rules. Usually, SBT’s are designed to measure minimal competencies. The idea is good, but the results are sometimes embarrassing for all concerned.

How do we raise test scores?

Perhaps one could go back and read the above statements/questions/answers again?

Any words for a new teacher?

Actively commit yourself to becoming a life-long learner in every reasonable way and avenue. Always continue to learn about your discipline, attend workshops within and without your discipline. Join committees, learn, know and develop the pedagogy that you can best use to teach your students. Realize that your high school of 900-plus students with all the support staff, teachers, and administration are really a microcosm of planet Earth and you are the “creator” directly responsible for the learning of your students. Make it your business to know what is going on and be a part of it all.

Remember that students may not forget what you taught them or they may but they will never forget how you treated them. Metaphorically, students are like pebbles on the beach that you pick up for a time in the palm of your hand. You study them, you note their differences, you appreciate their complexity and you release them in kind. Some day, on a distant shore, they will bear your mark.