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CalSTAT (California Services for Technical Assistance and Training) is a special project of the California Department of Education, Special Education Division, located at Napa County Office of Education. It is funded through the Special Education Division and the California State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG). The SPDG, a federal grant, supports and develops partnerships with schools and families by providing training, technical assistance and resources to both special education and general education.
By Greg Mizel, Principal, Mesa Verde Middle School
He was a Deadhead through and through--a throwback to the sixties and Haight-Ashbury. A balding hippie with long frizzy hair and a Jerry Garcia-like beard, Mickey Herman had been fighting a terminal form of melanoma cancer for the better part of a decade when I first met him. He was a teacher at Mesa Verde Middle School; I was a new principal.
Though he was sick and often in pursuit of experimental treatments, Mickey loved being in his classroom and spending time with his students. Even on those days when his energy was low, teaching math was clearly Mickey's passion, his life's focus, and his gift to the world. If anything, facing his own mortality increased his desire to teach. Interactions with the kids became more and more precious, and they strengthened his resolve to continue to struggle against a disease that rarely loses.
I'll never forget the first day I walked into Mickey's classroom. Math classes are often arranged around an overhead projector, with chairs in rows or clusters. Bulletin boards are typically sparse. Mickey's classroom was an exception. Artwork hung everywhere--on the walls, on the shelves, and even from the ceiling. Mick's students regularly applied their newly acquired math skills to creating enlargement projects, tessellations, and geometric string art. His classroom was a museum of their best efforts. A huge tube of toothpaste hung next to an equally impressive toothbrush at the front of the room. A perfect two-foot-long replica of a Hershey's candy bar sat on a shelf near the back, and all along the walls were various other student projects: a sailing ship, a paper maché license plate, sand-blasted mirrors with math messages, and wood cutouts of mathematical theorems and postulates.
Even more impressive than the artwork, though, was the spirit of the place. You could just feel Mick's connection with his students. Perhaps it was because he was so unconventional--wearing tie-dyed T-shirts and playing the likes of Janis Joplin while students worked together in small groups. Perhaps it was his openness and honesty. Mickey freely shared his humanity with his students, even going so far as to disclose the details of his struggle with cancer. Perhaps it was his gentle and patient intelligence. Mickey understood math, and more; he had a gift for explaining it to his students without them ever feeling disrespected or foolish or burdensome. Or maybe it was the simple note he wrote to his students on a small corner of a white board that best captured the spirit of his classroom: "If you're my student, you're my student for life."
October 20, 2005, was Mickey Herman's last day teaching. He died December 30 that same year. In January, our middle school hosted his memorial service. It was as unconventional as the man himself: no pastor or reverend or rabbi. No formal prayer. Lots of loud music, though. Guitar rifts from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" spilled out of the jam-packed gymnasium that day as hundreds of students--past and present--came to pay their respects to a man who had touched their lives.
Many waited 30 minutes or more, standing in long lines to give
a testimonial. Uncomfortable, nervous, some visibly trembling, yet somehow
compelled, each one of these young people told a very personal story about
how Mickey Herman had taught them math and so much more. "I thought of
Mr. Herman as my friend--not a teacher," said one. "He cared," shared
another, "and not
just for me. He opened up his classroom and helped anyone who needed it." Many
of the students who spoke that day openly acknowledged that they had not been
very good students in middle school. With a smile and a respectful nod to the
teachers present for the service, each one reiterated the same sentiment: Mickey
Herman had made a difference.
We struggled as a staff after that memorial service. It was hard moving on. We mounted a custom-made street sign, Herman's Way, on a lamppost out on the school fire lane. We purchased rubber wristbands--like the popular livestrong bands--only in tie-dyed colors. We even had a "hippie dress-up day" at school. The sadness and sense of loss lingered, though. While each of these gestures was well intentioned, none seemed to create in a meaningful way the right tribute to the inspiration that was Mick.
It wasn't until several months
later--mid-summer--that an idea first emerged. By early August, the idea had
grown and the Herman's Way Project (HWP) was born. It was a simple idea really.
In honor of Mickey, each staff member would commit to adopting a student at
Before it was rolled out to the staff, the counselors and the administrative team assembled a list of possible student candidates. This list of our most needy students emerged out of a variety of criteria: grades, discipline records, home life, social skills, socio-economic status. We ended up with a list of about 100 students who represented all sectors of our student population: special day class students, gifted and talented students, English-as-a-second-language students, and just students. Looking over the list of assembled names in my office that day in August, I could still hear the chorus of student voices, fresh in my mind from Mickey's memorial service. I knew we were on the right track.
During a September staff meeting, we launched the project, and in October we held a schoolwide draft. The list of student names was posted along a main wall of the library. On draft day, every teacher wrote his or her name beside a student's name on that list. That simple act was symbolic of a commitment to make a connection with a student at risk. Staff members were free to adopt whomever they felt most comfortable with, and they were free to define the parameters of the relationships. The desire, of course, was that teachers would invest time and effort in establishing a rapport. Through these relationships, we hoped to expand our individual and collective influence on students, while personalizing our school environment.
As a means of providing for accountability
and opportunities for greater collaboration, teachers, counselors, and the
administrative team committed to meeting once each trimester to discuss HWP
kids. At these meetings, information and insights are shared, strategies are
discussed, and partnerships are solidified.
It was a little bit rough in the beginning, as there was some confusion about expectations, and some teachers were simply slow to make meaningful connections with their adopted kids--after all, for many on my staff, this was new work. By the second trimester, though, the conversations had changed. They were rich in detail and much more substantive. There was ample evidence the staff was on board and actively working to make connections with our most needy students. The individual stories shared were heartening, and I knew Mick would be proud.
Several staff members met with these students during their lunches and before and after school. Some sent notes and birthday cards. Some shared hobbies: working out in the Fitness Lab, hiking local mountain trails, biking, and cross-stitching. Others on staff who were less comfortable with this work found simple ways to express their care and concern: greeting their HWP kids at the classroom door with a smile, taking a personal interest in their well-being, and making an extra effort to encourage and support their academic success.
In all, over
150 students were adopted this past year--150 kids individually embraced by
a staff of caring people who were inspired by the life and death of an amazing
teacher and colleague. While Mickey Herman is no longer physically with us,
he continues to teach and inspire my staff. The song "Free Bird" asks:
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now,
'Cause there's too many places
I've got to see.
Ironically, only a few years before the social unrest of the sixties, a staunchly
conservative man who never would have understood the hippie movement had this
to say about good teaching:
". . . I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. . . . Tell me, how can good teaching ever die? Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal."--Jesse Stuart, from The Thread That Runs So True
Mick's tie-dye, his taste in music, and his courageous battle with cancer made him memorable, but it was his connections with kids--especially those disengaged and unmotivated--that make him unforgettable.