The Experience Russell Wilson and I Share
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson just signed his first “real” contract with the team, having served a three year apprenticeship at low wages (it’s all relative), during which he took his team to the Superbowl twice and won 1.7 or so times.
His new contract offers staggering amounts of money that are hard to put into any meaningful context, with a $31 million dollar signing “bonus” and $60 million guaranteed over a four year span that will earn him over $80 million dollars all told. In interviews, he refers to being pleased with the “end of the noise” surrounding the contract negotiations, and his eagerness to get on the field and play the game he is paid to play. Good for him.
I can relate, as I had a very similar experience. Only the numbers are different.
In 1969 I applied to be a junior high English teacher with the Lake Washington School District. This was a bit more difficult than for most, as I was attending the University of Minnesota. My contract “negotiations” took almost a full year.
I first visited LWSD in the summer of 1968, as part of my first long distance motorcycle trip. I wanted to visit a couple of local districts and talk to some people, and LWSD was the only one who had someone willing to spend time with me. This makes some sense, as I had not even done my student teaching yet. I was an undrafted rookie, in a sense. My father could not countenance my going to a job interview, even a pre-interview, in the jeans and boots of my motorcycle wardrobe, so he took me out to Sears and purchased for me a simple suit, a shirt, a tie, and some dress shoes. I drove his lovely Mercury Cougar to the interview.
I spent more than an hour with Dick Webber (if memory serves), who at that time did all the teacher hiring, and we hit if off well. Everyone in the office was amazed that I’d ridden a motorcycle all the way from Minnesota to apply for a teaching job (a bit of a stretch there) as in those days very few people rode motorcycles across half the country and back, and even fewer used a Yamaha 250cc two stroke motorcycle for the task. We agreed to stay in touch during my student teaching, and I would check in with him in December when I flew back to spend Christmas with my Dad.
My first student teaching experience was an utter disaster. A UW counselor had lured me into a new experimental program which he thought would be ideal for me. In this one, student teachers would be encouraged to experiment with their own teaching techniques, rather than slavishly aping everything the “master” teacher did. At the U of M you did student teaching in two parts. For the first semester, you taught two or three classes in the morning and then returned to the U for classes in the afternoon. For the second semester you repeated this, but at a different school working with a different teacher.
The first semester of actual student teaching went well. Or so I thought. I taught everything from an advanced honors class of seniors to a last-gasp just before you drop out of school class made up of students who were older in terms of life experiences than I was. By a lot. All of them had jobs; some had children, and most had backgrounds stories that would stand your hair on end.
Just two of a million anecdotes: One of my hoodlums whipped out a switch blade in class one day and said “Hey, teach, whaddya think of this?”
I replied “Cool. Now that you’ve displayed your manhood maybe you can put it away and we could move on with class.” His friends roared with laughter and the day was saved – and maybe a lot more. After that all the tough guys liked me. I could play hockey, too, and that helped.
One of the Honors Class assignments was to study the play “The House of Atreus.” The students hated it, and most of them blew it off and ignored my lame attempts to teach it. It was obvious the final exam was going to be a joke. I told them the final would be an open book test. Smirks all around. How tough could it be?
The test had only one task. “Explain the development of our modern justice system as shown in this play.” Now, this can be done, IF you have studied the play and listened to the kid up front explain it. As they read the test paper in front of them, the room got so silent it was eerie. I kept myself from snickering. Then they got to work feverishly paging through the play to attempt to put together a response that sounded like they had a clue. It was great! We got along just fine after that.
My “master” teacher was OK, but not all that brilliant to my shallow mind. I copied some of his lesson plans and took some of his advice, but not all of them and not all of it. I also lectured the entire senior class on the history and construction of the Globe Theater, and that got me rave reviews from other teachers. No student teacher had ever lectured the entire class before.
Of course I made some errors as well. On one occasion I was so eager to be part of the group that I rode my motorcycle back to school after dismissal so I could be present for a faculty meeting I was not required to attend. I walked in with my Bell helmet under my arm and felt that sense you have when you’ve just made a serious social error and do not know what you’ve done. Turns out the ex-Marine Principal HATED motorcycles. He called my advisor at the U of M and told him he wanted that “dirty long-haired hippy” out of his school at once. His only contact with me was seeing me walk in with a helmet under my arm.
That did not happen, and for the record, I was not dirty. My hair came down to just over my ears, which in the fall of 1968 was actually pretty short. And I was far too afraid of both women and drugs to ever be a hippy, as I had little experience with women and none with drugs. Actually, that is still true…
Good thing the principal was not present later when some of my honors students did a choral reading of a poem by Alan Ginsberg. They took it seriously and did a great job, but if the principal had heard them reading out the first line, which contains the words “Fuck You America,” read with great conviction, I would have been done. Should I have thought of that? For sure. The master teacher was there and thought it was terrific, however.
My evaluation was a disaster. Evidently my master teacher, the department chair, and the principal had all decided that I must be stopped, and so it was explained that since this was a new and experimental program, they were also going to redo the grading system. Since I had done about as well as others, (this was a lie), they would be giving me a C for the first half of my student teaching.
In education, a C in student teaching means – you are done. Nobody is going to hire you, and they knew it. My U of M advisor knew it as well, and called for a meeting. He was furious. After a lot of heated discussion, it was decided I would be given an “incomplete” for student teaching, and that the grade given by my 2nd master teacher would be applied to both semesters.
I was about as low as I could get. What would I tell the LWSD guy at Christmas?
Back in Kirkland, I went to see my man at LWSD, not sure what to do. I decided to just let it all out, and told him the entire story in even longer form than this, leaving out nothing. He listened, and asked a few questions, and at the end merely said “OK, let’s see what happens in the 2nd round, and we can talk again in the spring.” I was still alive!
For my 2nd student teaching experience I did everything differently. Haircut? Yes. Tie? Every day. Bulletin board? Yes, and almost identical in style and content to what the master teacher had done. Lesson plans – whatever she did. For her part, I think she was happy to have an extra hour or two in her day, as teachers never have enough time – ever. She rarely spent any time with me. In her defense, this is not a bad way to deal with student teachers. The only way to learn how to teach is to – teach, and your own internal corrections are usually more valuable than an outsider’s. Later, I did not interfere with my own student teachers very much, and they both got hired immediately. On the other hand, I only had three student teachers in 31 years, and they were all excellent.
I only allowed myself one small burst of creativity in my second stint. To introduce a resource study unit I invented a trivia game (well before “Trivial Pursuit” existed) that had the students going all over the library and using all of the resources to find answers and score points. The little old ladies who ran the library were almost in tears, as they had never had students excited to be in the library.
The department chair from the first school came and observed me exactly once, for one period. From this he inferred that I’d made a miraculous improvement, quite unprecedented, and so they would recommend I receive a B for all of student teaching. My U of M advisor had now spent some time with these clowns, and he was beyond irate and ready for war. He wanted me to protest their actions and ask for a hearing, but I declined. I thought I could get a job with a B, and I wanted to get as far away from these people as possible.
I wrote an essay for my U of M advisor, at his request, that was pretty specific and not politically correct. He agreed with all of it and ran off a bunch of copies which were given to every master teacher in the Minneapolis school system. I wish I still had a copy. A friend at another school reported that he was walking down the hall after school when he heard a loud argument from the staff lounge. When he entered he found several teachers yelling at each other. The issue was my essay, and he said an actual fist fight almost broke out. Good.
Back to Kirkland for spring break and round three. This time I was sent to two interviews, one with Walt Ferguson, the principal of Kirkland Junior High at that time. I looked out his window and saw sea gulls on the lawn and thought “I really want to teach where there are sea gulls on the lawn.” The next day I met with Howie Carlson, who was to be the principal of a brand new junior high called Rose Hill Junior High. The school was half-constructed, and we walked around as he pointed out where things that did not exist would be in the very near future.
I’d assumed that I would get hired to teach at Kirkland Junior High, as wouldn’t all teachers want to be in a new building? Actually no, as a new building brings with it an enormous amount of extra work, all of it unpaid. New buildings are perfect for first year teachers who are single, and that was almost half of the eventual Rose Hill staff for the 1969-70 year. Howie asked about sports, and I mentioned that I liked to play tennis.
“Good,” he said. “We need a boy’s tennis coach.”
I spluttered that I had never played on a team and never coached anything, and he replied “Do you know which end of the racket to hold?”
That was my application to be the Head Boys Tennis Coach at Rose Hill Junior High. Three years later was I teaching adult tennis lessons for the Redmond Parks Department, because – I was the Head Boys Tennis Coach at Rose Hill Junior High!
In the parking lot, Howie offered me a job. I accepted eagerly. The contract would come along later, but a handshake was good enough for me. As I turned to leave I said, trying to be casual, “Did my student teaching records get here from the University of Minnesota?” “Don’t know. Never looked at them.”
How excited was I? The next day I went to show my Dad my new school – and I could not find it.
Here’s another connection to Russell Wilson. He seems to have eternal faith that things will work out for him. I was also confident beyond reason, and only applied seriously to one school district. I can’t imagine that today, or even latch on to what I was thinking at the time.
Back in Minnesota, my negotiations were concluded, and the noise was over. Just like Russell Wilson, I was so relieved that I could get on with my life and start my job. I was fortunate to share an apartment with two business majors, and all three of us had been hired over spring break. Spring quarter was both relaxing and exciting.
I took a one day break to ride my motorcycle to Elk River, Minnesota after the high school principal asked me to interview. It was a one year old school, and he needed an English teacher – and an assistant hockey coach. In reviewing all of the upcoming UM graduates in English education, he could only find one that could play hockey. Me. The interview took about 30 minutes and he offered me the job! However, I had pretty much set my mind on moving west by then, based on a handshake, so I turned down the position.
I sold some of my meager possessions, rented a dual axle U-Haul trailer for my Yamaha and what was left of my stuff, and drove west in my Mercury to begin my career.
It wasn’t quite over. The contract came to my Dad’s house after I arrived. I knew the first year salary for a teacher was $6,600. Not much, but a brand new Camaro Z-28 cost $3,500, so I could probably get a loan for one – yellow with black strikes and of course, a four speed. Especially with some sort of summer job, as I would be staying with my Dad rent free for a month or two.
But when the contract came, it was for $7,332! I’d forgotten the stipend for being a tennis coach! Like Russell Wilson, I was now faced with more money than I had imagined, and really more money than I knew what to do with. I rented an apartment with a floor to ceiling glass wall and a deck facing Lake Washington – for $140 a month. I made plans to get right out there and sign on the dotted line for that new Camaro.
Instead, I threw my Yamaha into a ditch at 60 mph and broke my shoulder and destroyed a motorcycle that deserved a better fate. No motorcycle. No summer job. No Camaro, as it turned out.
Do I begrudge Russell Wilson the money? Not at all. Money is money and it goes where it wants to go. Doesn’t always make sense, and does not always seem fair. That’s the way it is. He has chosen a profession where the odds of success are extremely steep, and permanent injury of one sort of several is almost guaranteed.
I knew what teachers made, and I signed the contract with glee.
Could I have made more doing something else? Maybe. Maybe not, but what I wanted to do was teach junior high English, and coach. Doing what I want to do has always been a high priority, and I’ve been fortunate to attain that for my entire life. He wants to play professional football. It’s so much easier with the “noise” out of the way.
Copyright 2015 David Preston