INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN H. KING, TEACHER AND EDUCATOR
Stephen H. King is a professor, educator, tutor, and writer (both creative and educational). He loves making a difference in students’ lives, and it is an honor to get to sit down and talk with him.
Greetings Stephen. Would you care to share your background with us? What are your educational strengths and areas of expertise?
I’m kind of wide spread in that area. When I left the Army, I had few marketable skills outside of typical infantry things – a little leadership plus the ability to dig big holes and shoot accurately. I took a job pulling cables and servicing point of sale systems and before long I was teaching IT. I had no real teaching training, but somehow I managed to figure it out, and that experience led to a doctorate in education, so now most of the teaching I do is in education programs, teaching tomorrow’s teachers.
Would you be willing to share with us a little about your personal educational journey? What led you to seek the education and vocation you chose? What advice would you like to offer to those students who wish to go into the same field as you?
Believe it or not, my parents threatened to disinherit me if I ever became a teacher. This was after my junior year band director asked me what I wanted to do for a living and I answered “music teacher,” which seemed smarter than my real dream of being a jazz trumpeter. But my mother overheard that, dragged me out of the building by my ear, and told me in fairly heated words of my mother’s and father’s experiences as full time music teachers in Mississippi in the 60s, their combined income not quite raising them out of poverty level.
I promised her that instead, I would major in electrical engineering, an area that, at the time, all commerce predictions said could literally write their own salary checks. I did, and found that I could also major in physics with my interest in quantum mechanics. Then I entered the Army, got “out” during a recession, and found that I couldn’t buy a EE job. That’s why I went into pulling cables and eventually network infrastructure.
I started teaching for the benefits, honestly, but found that I loved watching people grow. The tech college I worked for was willing to sponsor my advanced certifications as long as I continued to pass them, so I soon found myself the highest certified Cisco instructor in the state of Alaska, in addition to a Microsoft Certified Trainer and other things. I loved the everyday puzzle of breaking down highly complicated topics for new learners to understand.
Advice? I don’t have a ton of that. There’s some money to be made in network infrastructure these days, and much less money to be made in teaching. If you have a dream of being a teacher, though – first, read “The Courage to Teach.” He describes the three things a teacher needs much more eloquently than I can.
You provide tutoring services as well as teach in a classroom setting. What are some of the more unique challenges for classroom teaching as opposed to one on one tutoring? How does the current COVID/at-home learning situation impact these areas?
I figured the COVID situation would enhance my tutoring business, but it’s done the opposite, as so many parents have just given up. It’s tough, but understandable, that so many people are just treading water, educationally.
I get it, though. I’ll never forget, during my physics masters degree efforts, when one professor (a theoretical physicist) helped me through a quantum mechanics problem, and my advisor, an experimental physicist, had me throw that work away due to the notation the other professor had helped me use. These were two guys with doctorates. Imagine being a parent with no major math or education training trying to figure out why your kid’s math class uses notation you’re not familiar with.
A couple of days ago I met the boyfriend, and his son, of a high school friend. The son complained about his math and English teacher. Later I asked if the son was on spring break (because he was going hunting the next day) and he said no, he’s home schooled. That…explained the look on his dad’s face when he complained about his teachers.
In general, though, I’ve seen three types of students request my tutoring services. One, probably the most frequent, are those who are perfectly capable of doing the work themselves but don’t. I had one student who was so far behind in math that he wasn’t likely to graduate that year, so he and I literally just sat there and did problems for two hours at a time. He could do it, but he needed direction. These are probably the most seriously challenged students in the new remote learning situations, honestly.
The second type of student really does need the help. I’ve had several students like that, some of whom I wasn’t sure would actually graduate. Most of them, though, are the most gratifying customers I have. When I see light bulbs go off, when I work myself out of a job, I get a great big grin on my face.
The third type? For some, having a private tutor is a status thing. I’ve always enjoyed, personally, reading up on the history of the math and science concepts we teach, and with one student in particular, that was all that saved me. His mother actually commented once how much he loved our sessions, because I would tell him the stories of where things like the derivative came from.
You work in computer and IT education, and yet you are also a novelist well versed in literature and nonfiction reading. Do you see any overlap between the two fields, and is there merit in engaging in both the creative/literary side as well as the technical, math-based side?
Well, yes. I write fantasy and science fiction, and I’m not sure I’d ever advise someone to go into writing those if they don’t already know a bit about math and science. Right now I’m reading The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol 1, and it’s incredible noting how many of the stories in that compilation are so well-founded in actual science.
To me, the teaching experience should always be based in telling stories. I even devised a professional development session, once, for my faculty, called The Teacher as a Storyteller. I told stories the entire time. It seemed a success, but I got confirmation when students came up to me in the hall telling me of their teacher’s efforts to copy me.
Last question: What is one thing you want to change about the educational system?
Give me God powers for a day, and I would disconnect the educational system from the political system. You can’t go a national or state election cycle without hearing candidates’ plans to “reform” education. Some political parties have as a primary sport a “let’s talk about how education is failing us” effort. To do so they cherry-pick data, and sometimes they even make stuff up. Make me a deity for the day and I would just thunder “stop it!”
I’ve lived through several major reforms. Problem is, none of those have had time to actually see results. Make changes in 3rd and 6th grade assessments, and guess how long it takes to see whether those work? More than one political cycle, to be certain.
Not saying all educators are perfect, though I will say that every educator I’ve ever met has tried to at least be great, for the students. We need to stop “reforming” and just let what we’re doing trickle through to see the results. If it needs changing after that, educators will change it. But let’s stop the regularly scheduled knee-jerking by people who’ve never graced the business side of a teacher’s desk.
Thank you for talking with us today Stephen. If you would like to leave the readers with contact information please leave it here.
Stephen H. King