Friday March 15, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Rick Lane, the head of the Mathematics Department at Brattleboro Union High School, succeeded Ken McCaffrey, who retired last year. Lane arrived at BUHS after a long teaching and administrative career in Massachusetts; he had retired as the superintendent of the Franklin County Technical School (FCTS).

"It's a stand-alone district," he explained in an interview. "They have 13 vocational programs. Students elect to go there in ninth grade, and at that point they leave their other school and attend FCTS all day for 180 days, so they get both academic and technical education. At the same time they must pass the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests.

Rick Lane
Rick Lane
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Lane said that when he retired from that administrative post, he was not ready to leave teaching. He talked with a friend -- Paul Cohen, head of guidance at BUHS.

"As my retirement date in Massachusetts approached, I was not thinking of retiring completely, and I e-mailed him, asking him to keep an eye out for any openings," Lane recalled. "He e-mailed me back in about 10 minutes."

Lane said his first impression of BUHS was of a warm and welcoming administration and faculty and a vibrant community.

"I was impressed by the diversity of offerings - and the great kids," he commented. "I left a school full of great students, and found a different one here full of great students."

One difference between BUHS and the Technical School is that in Massachusetts math skills are high-stakes for students.

"In Massachusetts, if you do not pass the MCAS, you do not get a diploma, and that's not true here," Lane noted. "If technical students wanted to go on to a four-year college they needed Algebra 2 and pre-calculus, which we offered. It was a challenge, because Tech School students were only in academics for two of their four years there; the other two years they spent learning carpentry or whatever their chosen technical area of study was. But the dropout rate was less than 2 percent -- kids were there because they wanted to be."

He said that math is a challenging subject for students to master because it is so detail-oriented and so skill-based.

"In order to progress, you need to master the skills, and keep building the skills, and at some point that breaks down -- for everyone," he said. "You reach a point where it's difficult. I remember when my first employer hired me to teach, and saw a less than desirable grade on a math course. He looked over his bifocals at me and said, ‘Remember that course when your students are struggling.' I have always remembered that conversation.

"There is a common perception that math can cause trouble," he continued. "It's based on success or lack or success. Kids who have that feeling have experienced a problem somewhere along the way, and they can't get over it -- they need help.

"Teachers can do what they do, which is to provide as many opportunities to master the material as necessary," he concluded. "That said, it does require a partnership, and sometimes kids give up. We try to motivate them, inspire them, by offering them a chance of success."

At BUHS, the position of department head comprises two-thirds teaching and one-third administrative work. Lane noted that his experience in both roles was very helpful in his position. "It requires knowledge and skills in both," he commented. "The underlying skill is to work with people to achieve a common goal -- both with students and teachers."

He enjoys the day-to-day challenges of his job.

"There are always things to do, and sometimes they're not easy, but they're important," he said. "Obviously you have to have a vision of where you want to end up -- whether it's a semester- long course or a year-long course, or a department issue -- and there's a way to get there. That's why I keep doing this.

"I love working with people, and I can't think of a more people-oriented business than the one I'm in," Lane went on. "But if someone had told me when I was a sophomore in high school that this is what I'd be doing, I would have said, ‘Nah.' I wasn't there yet."

Lane's first teaching experience was as a tutor for the National Honor Society.

"One of the requirements was that you had to tutor, and I looked around for what I could help with, and it was math," he remembered. "It took a while for that to sink in."

He finished high school during the Cold War, the space race, and the arms race.

"America needed engineers," he said. "I did a year of engineering, and took some time off, and came back and was a chemistry major. Neither of those struck me as aligning with what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, so I went back to my first love, which was mathematics. If you look at the list of things that people can do with math after they graduate, there was only one thing that attracted me, and that was teaching. I think we're all inspired by the good teachers we meet along the way. I had some good math teachers."

He offered some advice to new teachers.

"Hang in there -- the first year is the hardest, learning how to manage a class, establish a routine and expectations that are challenging but doable," he said. "If kids don't think they can do it, they will make management impossible, just like if it's too easy. You've got to strike that balance -- that means you've got to get to know your kids. You must get to know the players and what motivates them. That's the art of teaching, the creativity; it's not in any textbook."

Maggie Cassidy teaches French at Brattleboro Union High School.