10 Questions With…
...Einstein Assistant Principal Michael Holt
Michael Holt is a former SCUSD “Teacher of the Year” and Urban Scholar at Harvard University, which he attended on a full tuition scholarship. He now serves as Assistant Principal at Albert Einstein Middle School. His answers below kick off a new occasional feature “10 Questions With…”
Name: Michael Holt
Hometown: Oakland, CA
Education: BA, History, UC Davis, 1994; Cred., UC Davis, 1995; Ed. M., School Leadership, Harvard, 2010
Previously: Taught for 14 years at California Middle School in Land Park.
Favorite Quote: “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” –Anais Nin
10 Questions for Michael Holt:
1. Some would argue that choosing to work at a middle school is the most challenging choice for educators. What do you say to that?
Here’s the thing. Middle school kids are formal operational; they can think like adults. They are going through puberty and starting to have grown-up concerns, and the transition is swift. No one leaves eighth grade the way they were at the beginning of seventh. Yet in this transition, they still have the enthusiasm of children. They are rewarding to teach precisely because they are going through a huge transition.
It is a privilege to be able to shepherd children through this vulnerable transition. When the teaching and activities are done right, middle school becomes a rite of passage, a mythic exploration of encroaching adulthood like something out of an old Joseph Campbell book.
2. You have a passion for speech and debate. What’s so great about debate?
Debating is an enormous incentive to learn about the world. For all good debaters, the news becomes essential, as does understanding the Constitution, the legal and financial systems, and the history of their development. It becomes important to really understand the difference between a million and a billion, and all debaters learn these things by rubbing up against teams that understand these systems and numbers better. And losing. That’s an important part of debate. It builds character and the desire to do better. And that’s what leads to the deep learning.
There’s also the teamwork. Debaters have to work with each other, rely on each other, and have arguments with each other. Then they have to go out and be a team. That matters. They also build ties all over as they debate with schools around the district. It creates community.
3. You are also a big Shakespeare fan. How can reading 500-year-old plays help students become career and college-ready in the 21st century?
The big thing I keep hearing is that the modern world is supposed to be so complex, that students need to be capable of working through frustration to solve complex problems. I hear that students should develop their emotional intelligence. My experience with teaching and directing Shakespeare with middle school students is they do have to struggle with making meaning of the text. Once they’ve done that, they have to reach into the emotional lives of the characters they are playing or writing about to give performances that resonate and essays that make sense. To make it really simple, figuring out something that is complex and making it shareable and accessible is the essence of 21st Century Skills, even if what is being shared is 500 years old.
Another benefit is cultural currency. I had a student that was periodically homeless that my wife and I helped get into a private boarding school on scholarship. On his first day of school he instantly bonded with his Oxford-educated teacher by quoting from “The Winter’s Tale.” I hear stories like that from many of my former students.
4. You have helped stage a lot of school plays. What’s the funniest thing that ever happened during one?
So, I directed “Waiting for Godot” with middle school kids in 2001. There’s this scene where all the characters have fallen and cannot get up. They’re rolling about, crying for help. The kid who’s playing Pozzo actually rolls off the stage in the middle of a performance. There’s this resounding thud that echoes through the auditorium, and we’re all horrified. Then there’s this voice. The kid says — without breaking character — “Helllllllp!” The audience died; I was glad the kid was still alive.
5. Is it true that you spent a year living in Nepal? What did you do there?
It wasn’t a year; it wound up being six months. Even so, it was a transformative experience. My wife Ellen, my sons William and Peter and I lived between five Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Ellen meditated a lot, I meditated a little and learned to speak Nepali and read Sanskrit. It reminded me that learning to read in first grade is no joke and of what all students who come from abroad are experiencing. I also got to ride my entire family around on a 125cc Yamaha motorcycle.
6. Were you one of those kids who always wanted to be a teacher and gave lectures to stuffed animals?
No. When I was young, I wanted to be a minister. I did deliver sermons to the stairs, though. I’m still a little preachy.
7. What’s the hardest part of your job now as an Assistant Principal?
Working with students who need behavior intervention. Part of growing up is making mistakes, but part of running a school is making sure it is safe and orderly. Balancing those two realities is difficult.
8. What’s the easiest part?
Is there an easy part? The easiest part is coming up with ways to support teachers and students. It takes a lot of work to get readers from UC Davis and Sacramento State to grade essays for the school, or to get math tutors from UCD and Sac State to do pull-out and after-school tutoring, but it’s not hard. It’s easy because there’s no moral or emotional conflict; it is an unmitigated good for all involved. The same goes for getting Sacramento Theatre Company to work with teachers to direct plays like “A Christmas Carol” and “The Comedy of Errors.” It’s fun to get resources for a faculty and see teachers do more with the support they get. That’s what makes it easy. It’s also easy to have a great staff like the one we have at Einstein.
9. If you could spend five minutes with Governor Brown advocating for education, what would you tell him?
I’d tell him that the key to successful educational reform is supporting teachers and that supporting teachers is the cheapest path toward educational improvement. You can hire tons of tutors to assist teachers in individualizing instruction for the price of a single teacher. You can hire graders for all the essays and win the support of the teachers in discussing and norming papers, as well as assigning more writing, for a pittance relative to the budget of an entire school. I think educational reformers should start with one question: How can we make teachers doing a better job more realistically possible?
10. Einstein or Cal?
I can’t call that one, but I’ll say this. Cal was where I learned; it was where I grew up. I will always love the people that I worked with there and the students I taught. Einstein is my present. It is where I am learning how to support adults in developing and students in learning. I love being here at Einstein. The staff here is amazing. On top of that, working with our leadership team of Kenna Montoya (Office Manager), John Avila (Plant Manager), and Garrett Kirkland (Principal) is simply a privilege. I am a fortunate man to have such good people around me.