In this ongoing series, OnMilwaukee.com identifies talented teachers in the Milwaukee Public School system. In this latest segment, we talk to John Kish who instructs at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Lifelong Learning (WCLL), 3120 W. Green Ave., on Milwaukee’s South Side.
Wisconsin Conservatory of Lifelong Learning is the first year-round school in Milwaukee serving students in K4-12. Kish has taught at WCLL for four years and he loves the schedule that offers three-week breaks throughout the year rather than one, long summer vacation.
“We have the same number of days in the school year, but a shorter summer break keeps the kids more ‘fresh’ and the intercession in October, December, and March / April does the same,” says Kish.
Recently, OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Kish to find out more about his teaching experiences and philosophies.
OnMilwaukee.com: Where did you go to college and did you teach anywhere before WCLL?
John Kish: I taught for six years at Oak Park High School in Oak Park, Mich., prior to my four years here at WLCC.
I graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit with a degree in biology and immediately enrolled in a post-bachelor certification program. I wanted to get a degree in biology before certification because it was something that I was extremely interested in and wanted the depth of knowledge.
I started off in school to be an engineer but learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me. I was more interested in the life sciences than the death sciences … a little biology joke there. But anyway, I started to take engineering classes and it just wasn’t interesting to me. I took a biology class with a professor that was exciting and kinetic; I was sold and changed my major to biology.
OMC: Did early school experiences lead you to a teaching career?
JK: Initially, I was pre-med, but taking more and more classes within my major taught me that I was let down when I was in high school. I had a biology teacher that had so many animals in the classroom, which was interesting, but learning took a back seat to taking care of the animals and cleaning up the classroom. Had my high school biology teacher been more exciting, I wouldn’t have ended up in an engineering program, so I decided that my future was to be that person that is exciting and gives the students a more positive experience than I had.
It’s hard for me to think about how my teachers were in high school. I remember one or two good ones, but nothing special about HOW they taught. I remember the characteristics that made me think they were great and inspired in the desire to perform well … I try to exemplify those things and adapt to how life has changed since I was in high school. Adapt … evolve … that’s how teaching has changed. There are so many things happening now that if teachers don’t adapt to the “new youth” then we’re doing them more of a disservice than we are a service.
OMC: What’s the most rewarding aspect of the job?
JK: There are so many things about the job that are rewarding. It’s hard to say what one aspect is. Of course, seeing the light bulb pop on over someone’s head. The opportunity to be a positive role model in the life of a teenager. The daily chance to spread excitement about learning. It’s hard to say one thing. There are just as many challenges and downsides. But it’s those positive things that keep me going.
OMC: What, if anything, about the district would you like to change?
JK: In my classroom, I have had little to no experiences that would put changes in my mind about the district. I make sure that I keep the ability of my students to learn before anything else, and my administration is very supportive of my want to do so.
However, in my opinion, the spot where the system needs the most repair is at the learning level. I wish I could remember the numbers, but only one out of 10 students in Finland are accepted into teacher education programs … in our universities, most of the teachers are in the bottom 40 percent of their graduating class.
Couple that with only a fraction of the teaching program focusing on actual planning and learning strategies, and you get teachers in the classroom that don’t know how to plan a unit, differentiate the teaching and manage the classroom. Instead, you get messy rooms, poor planning, bad management and rote teaching. Not to mention the fact that their content knowledge is sub-standard due to many of our teachers being in the bottom 40 percent of their classes.
OMC: What do you do during your breaks?
JK: I spent most of my summer immersed in the World Cup and still think that Ghana should have been penalized for their time-wasting at the end of their game with the U.S. I have a 1 1/2-year-old and this was my first summer with him, so it was fun to hit the water parks, go for bike rides and spend plenty of time reading.
OMC: What is your response to some people thinking teachers have insurance that is “too good” or they “only work nine months out of the year?”
JK: I really have to put this question into perspective. Luckily, I haven’t heard this too much, but I know that it really does get to some people. While I was in school, I always worked 30-40 hours to pay for housing, books, food, etc. I was a barista and trainer for a coffee chain, a manager of a pizza chain and a call-center worker in the automotive facility industry.
Every job has its benefits and its detriments. Teaching is one of those jobs that has great benefits, but it also has a low starting pay. Yes, we get vacations, that’s a benefit of the job. I work quite a bit over my breaks. This summer I spent a week at a seminar (and) four days meeting up with Advanced Placement (AP) students to work on summer homework. The previous summers I’d spent weeks at AP seminars. Do I spend days not working? Yes. Do all teachers do what I do? No. The schedule is a perk of the job, but it’s not why I do the job.
OMC: Can you share a moving story or two about how you impacted a student’s life?
JK: There are two sides to this story. First, I have the success stories: the student from Nigeria who won a full-ride to University of Michigan or the former students of mine that are at Harvard and MIT. Those are awesome.
The other side to this story are the students that come back and say, “Thanks for giving me shot, I wish I would have listened.” That might seem like I’m saying “I told you so,” but it’s not. To me, that’s seeing someone develop, and if they came back to me to say that, it means that I was a part of that development, and that feels great. Of course, it hurts along the way having to try and get people on track all the time, but it’s not about me. As long as they see how things could have been, that’s the important part.