Longtime Blair teacher retires with hope for the future

Feb. 14, 2020, 4:23 p.m. | By John MacDonald | 1 year, 11 months ago

Retiring after 30 years at Blair primarily as a Health Education teacher

Explain to me how opening a door is an accident? After 30 years at Blair primarily as a Health Education teacher, I am retiring. This semester, my last, I am teaching five study hall classes—all on the second floor. This is not a bad gig, but to be honest, I am not connected with my students in this environment. The majority of them come to class late every day (especially in first or second period) and most of them ask to use the bathroom every class. That’s right, I said most and I’ll stand by that. While I don’t have to grade papers or do a lot of the tedious tasks teachers usually complain about, I have been bored in class because I’m not teaching or answering questions except for “may I use the restroom?” My usefulness and identity had changed.

Photo: John MacDonald is retiring after 30 years at Blair.

So, back to my original question. I was in room 219 for first period last semester. A door adjoined my classroom to room 226. Throughout the semester, a student in 226 would start to open that door around the end of the period. My desk is positioned right next to it, and the door would hit my leg or my chair when opened even a few inches. This happened at the end of November, and when the door hit my chair I slammed it shut. A few students next-door laughed, commented rudely and opened the door again seconds later. This time I scooted my chair back, pulled open the door so I could see them and yelled at them to stop opening the door, to which one student replied defensively, “it was an accident.” I was too upset to laugh, so I said “stop lying to me and leave the door alone.” The student again replied, “why would I lie to you?”  

In hindsight, had I been less irritated and more thoughtful, as an adult in the situation, I should have calmly opened the door and explained with a smile on my face how their actions were causing a problem with the door hitting my leg or my chair. I’m certain that had I taken that course, the students may have understood and not been defensive. My point is that a lot has changed over 30 years of teaching, and when it comes to student behavior, most of the change is for the worse. Not too long ago, had a teacher similarly explained or yelled at a student for doing something they shouldn’t be, that teacher would have received an apology 90 percent of the time. Not a snarky comment, not a ridiculous lie trying to explain why they opened the door, but a “my bad” or “I’m sorry” or at the very least, “we didn’t know that you were sitting there.” All would have been more acceptable. And if you do get an apology nowadays, it’s usually at the behest of another teacher or administrator, so it’s forced and insincere.

Today's students are quick to use freedom of speech or excuses like “I wasn’t talking to you” in an effort to rationalize their use of inappropriate language. I’m not saying that all students behave this way. In fact, I have listened to stories of friends who teach elsewhere and have always felt that Blair students are ahead of the curve when it comes to such things. I am saying that this sort of behavior occurs more frequently than it used to, and that I am losing my tolerance for it in the days leading to my retirement.

Recently, all the rights and considerations are on the side of the students. Many more parents than in the past strongly support and defend their children whenever there is a conflict in school. The teacher has become a scapegoat in almost every confrontation; a babysitter walking on pins and needles, and in some cases, afraid to do or say the wrong thing. Perhaps this sounds like an overreaction. Am I making it up? Remember, I’ve been at this for 30 years.

Students used to have certain dress codes to follow. As a teacher, I supported this. After all, Blair was my place of business for the last three decades, and hats and certain clothes were sometimes seen as too casual or controversial. Now, students wear whatever they want, and the hallways look more like a playground or a shopping mall than a business. In fact, the very notion of enforcing any sort of dress code today is seen as short-sighted and unenlightened. And what about cell phones? Student use of cell phones is out of control. Many students use them in class and as soon as class is over, they are on them in the hallways, reading texts or talking without watching where they are walking—sometimes stopping altogether while people are trying to walk behind or past them.

Of course, students have a strong voice in politics and social issues today. They can say whatever they want about their beliefs, even if it offends those with an alternate viewpoint. They even walk out of school a few times a year if they don’t like something about the world we live in. Language? The longer I have taught, the worse it’s gotten. Students routinely drop the f-bomb, the n-word other offensive terms in the hallways and in class without a second thought. Teachers and students alike should be upset with this, but it is so commonplace that it has become tolerated and ignored by all.

What makes all this possible is a systematic change in policy on the part of MCPS and Blair. Inappropriate language and rude behavior are not punished anymore, mostly because administrators have bigger fish to fry. And since students have figured this out, such behavior has been significantly ramped up.

As a result, teachers have become very hesitant to report issues concerning language and behavior because they know that there will likely be no consequences for the students involved. Teachers also fear that reporting students when other teachers do not will make them appear like they cannot control their teaching environment. Since more and more behavior issues go unreported, administrators, who haven’t taught in an actual classroom in years, are pretty much unaware of how bad it has gotten.

Now if I sound old and out of touch, I will grant you that much. In many ways, I am old and out of touch, but if being in touch means being complacent with enabling student misconduct, I will proudly stay in the dark. I’m not saying everything I say is right and if you take the opposite point of view you are wrong. I’m saying there are things that I don’t enjoy about teaching as much as I used to, and it’s not just me. It’s every teacher in my office—those who have been teaching for 20+ years, those who have been teaching for five or fewer years and many others I have spoken with throughout the building. It’s the difference between being an idealist and a realist.

Now that I have ranted about some of the reasons that I am looking forward to my retirement, let me explain some of the things that I love about Blair HS. I was a student here. I graduated in 1980 from the Wayne Avenue location. I played varsity baseball and in my senior year, I was the Sports Editor of Silver Chips Print. We were awarded the Best Sports Page in the state that year. I began coaching JV baseball here in 1983 when I was just 21 years old and still in college. 

I worked security for a semester here in the 80s and took over the varsity baseball program the day that I became a teacher in February of 1991. I served as the Assistant Athletic Director to Dale Miller from 1994-2011, when I resigned from both that position and the baseball job. I use the word “served” because athletic administration is a thankless endeavor. I worked three or four nights a week covering games in the fall and the winter, usually without ever being thanked by anyone for staying late and running the show. Rita Boule and her staff certainly know what I am talking about. I did it in service to the school that I love and for Dale—not for the stipend that came with it. I loved coaching, but I got out at the right time because things have changed in athletics since then. I went from being a coach of a great program and an athletic administrator who knew all the athletes to a teacher who quickly lost touch with Blair sports, its coaches and the athletes.

Photo: MacDonald played on the boys' varsity baseball team while at Blair and once coached JV baseball.

Around 2013, my baseball jersey was retired by the school. I am very disappointed that there is nothing to commemorate this, even though I requested a framing and placement of the jersey a couple of years ago and volunteered to pay for it myself. However, I am still extremely proud that I am the only Blair athlete or coach ever to be honored in that way, even though I know that there are others more deserving.

My most lasting friendships today were formed when I was a student at Blair and I look back upon my high school years fondly. My loyalty to Blair began even before I was a student here. I remember walking to the field on Wayne Avenue as a junior high student, watching the 1975 and 1977 Basketball State Champions play throughout those years. Ex-Blair security guard Cedric Boatman played on the ’75 team and current security guard Jeff Seals played on the ’77 team.

As stated, my teaching experience was mostly great. I began as a physical education teacher, but was asked by my first RT, Joe Marosy, to be trained to teach health when it was just starting in Montgomery County sometime in the mid 90s. Switching from gym to health was difficult at first because there was no set curriculum. I had to invent lessons, grade a lot of papers, develop quizzes and learn the subject matter, but over the years, I came to love teaching health and found it a relevant and important class for students. I think I was a good teacher who taught real-life lessons and who was validated over the years by cards, emails and many nice sentiments from my students. Teaching health and the feedback that I received was just as uplifting and important to me as my coaching experience here.

I love most things about Blair HS. I loved it as a student and as a teacher. Circumstances made it difficult to love being a teacher at times, but some of that may have happened at any MCPS school with the permissive environment today. MCPS loves to pat itself on the back and talk about how progressive and enlightened we are, and I will admit to that much, but challenges are mounting with an increasing ESOL population, truancy and behavioral change. As a result, schools are under pressure to keep their discipline rates low and their graduation numbers high. Administrators are almost begging teachers throughout the county to pass students, ignore their attendance issues and give them work so that they can graduate. This is not isolated to me or Blair HS. I know many teachers who say the same, but we are in no position to refuse such requests and are complicit in playing this dangerous game at the expense of students who leave high school unprepared for the real world. Am I straying from the things I love here in my last segment? Make no mistake about it, I loved teaching and coaching and everything else that I did at Blair over the past 30+ years, but there has to be something said about why a person who has a great job like mine also wants to retire. An honest perspective with reference to the good and the bad and to change is what I am offering here.

So, here’s to the students who come to school and class on time. And to those who do the right thing even when no one is watching. And to the ones who use their cell phones responsibly. And to the ones who refrain from using offensive language in places where others they do not know can hear them. And to the ones who practice hallway etiquette and are mindful of where they are walking. And to those who practice common courtesy and say please and thank you when it’s appropriate. I celebrate this dying breed because there’s nothing in place anymore to hold students accountable, so those who do right by choice should be commended. It appears that we have become so progressive that we have forgotten how to treat each other.

Photo: Macdonald is leaving Blair after 30 years.

I will leave you with this: I still cry when they play the Blair Alma Mater at graduation and I bleed Blair red and white. I wish we would get back to the values that led to the pride that I feel to have graduated from MBHS, but this will not happen until there is a fundamental change in policy and until student behavior is held to higher standards and expectations. We have to return to consequences, accountability and common courtesy and not use these terms as bad words. This is my parting wish and it’s not impossible because it was done in the past. Cell phone use, inappropriate language and offensive behavior cannot be tolerated at its present level and as soon as this is agreed upon and realized by the people who have the power to change it, policy can be instituted. I can guarantee that teacher morale and student pride would improve as a result. Insisting on these values in our students won’t fix everything, but at least it would be an effort in the right direction.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all the staff who I have worked with over the years along with the roughly 9,500 students who I have taught and coached. The people are what I will miss the most and all have played a role in making my long stay at Blair memorable and wonderful.

Last updated: Feb. 14, 2020, 4:23 p.m.

Tags: MCPS Blair education Teacher's Corner
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