“Teaching is about relationships. Students need to know you care before they will care about what you know.” – Jason Messer, USA
Leading a large school district always comes with challenges, especially in regions plagued by poverty and the social problems that tend to come with it. But for Jason Messer, the challenging circumstances of students and their families in California’s Central Valley are not going to stand in the way of progress.
Messer has helped to make Manteca Unified School District one of the first in California to give all students – fourth grade and above — tablet-style laptops that can be used both in the classroom and at home. According to Messer, “Public education cannot catch up with the digital world if we do not leap past today and into tomorrow.” And that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Prior to taking on his current role, Messer spent many years honing his education credentials, teaching all levels from pre-school through university. And since 2008, Messer has led his district through budget cuts, increased class sizes and reduced staffing levels. He sees technology as the best way to overcome these challenges, applied by committed teachers and reinforced by families at home.
“We have highly skilled, passionate, well-trained teachers who can nurture our students as they prepare for their global future,” Messer tells us. “Our families can provide access to the Internet, EveryoneOn, to extend learning opportunities beyond the school day. We can prepare students for their global future while residing here in the Central Valley, we just need to choose to do so.” Messer’s efforts have received media attention – see this story from the Modesto Bee – but more important, his work is helping to make a difference for students who might otherwise have limited opportunities. For that, we salute him. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Jason Messer.
What inspired you to become an educator?
I decided early in high school that I wanted to be an educator, but it was not until I was a senior in high school that I decided to become a teacher. I considered being a minister, an agricultural advisor and finally a teacher.
Reflecting back now I can see how my early decision to be an educator provided me a lens through which I found strong traits from several educators and incorporated them into my style and philosophy. I had a dynamic honors English teacher who pushed me intellectually and made me earn every decent mark I received. I had a patient woodworking teacher who fostered my creative spirit for four full years through high school. And finally, I had a professor at my university who pushed me outside of my comfort level in working with students creatively and with passion that instilled in me the true value of making a difference in students’ lives.
What was a defining moment in your career when you felt proudest to be an educator?
One afternoon I ran into a young man holding a child as I was heading into a local big box store. He called out “Hey, Mr. Messer” and I got a knot in my stomach caused by my failure to recognize who was saying hello to me. The young man followed up with “DO you remember me, I’m Peter T., and this is my daughter.”
My brain went into hyper-think. I did remember Peter T. I remembered that he had been one of about six gang-associated students with whom I had worked as a dean of a high school. I remembered how academically strong he had been in middle school. I remembered how he began to fail academically and socially when he started high school. I remembered how hard it was for me to call CPS (Child Protective Services) on his mother. I remembered how I had to drive to south Stockton in the middle of the night to pick him up because he had ended up in the wrong part of town. I remembered how hard it was to get him away from the gang, and I remembered having lost track of Peter T. when I was promoted to principal at an elementary school.
And now he was holding a daughter. What had transpired between the last time I had seen Peter T. and that day? He quickly caught me up. “Hey, Mr. Messer I graduated from high school and went to a junior college and now I work for the Department of Corrections for the State of California. I am married, this is my daughter and I am taking care of my mother. It is great to see you. Thanks.” And he was out the door. I have a couple more memories like this but they are all tied to individual successes of students. They are the stories of real students, real lives, and to me they represent having made a real difference. No matter how small or infrequent those successes and stories may be, each one is a personal treasure. Teaching is about relationships. Students need to know you care before they will care about what you know.
Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom?
It has been many years since I have taught in the classroom, but I am still very active in providing staff development. Most recently I have been working with our administrators, digital support technicians, and our technology champions — classroom teachers who will collaborate with other teachers in how to transition traditional classrooms into blended learning environments.
It was important to me that I not only verbally described what a blended learning environment looks like but that I also provide a real example that our teachers could feel, touch and experience. So, with our tablets in hand, white boards which posted “Did you know” facts and “Brainstorm,” we explored, studied, and collaborated on building AVATARS. As a group of learners we discovered what AVATAR stands for with a Bing search. We posted what we learned on our white board under the “Did you Know?” section. We then built a physical representation of the AVATAR with foam shapes, LED lights, batteries and pipe cleaners. We attached our AVATARS to pencils and we discussed why AVATARS are so popular and important to our students.
Then… our teachers, our administrators, our digital support technicians started posting their AVATARS on our Facebook page. They left our blended learning environment abuzz with what a great lesson and time they had and many have already created a digital AVATAR and have shared their AVATARS with their students. One teacher reported back that when she returned to her class the students gave her some critical feedback. It appears in her class she has a Disney theme, focused on Mickey and Minnie, and her AVATAR did not have the requisite mouse ears. She quickly fixed that with a couple pipe cleaners and asked that I send another LED so she could light both ears up. In Manteca Unified, this work is about our changing the relationship between teaching and learning to prepare our students for their future. I feel that the AVATAR lesson demonstrated this well and is already translating into others embracing the same vision.
AVATAR from Colby Clark, MUSD Director of IT
Whether it’s a day-to-day challenge or larger problem, what’s the biggest obstacle you or your country or region has had to overcome, or will have to overcome, to ensure a quality education for students?
Residing in the Central Valley of California, we are surrounded by communities that often make it on the top 10 lists published by major media outlets. Lists like: “The cities with the highest foreclosure rate,” or “The least literate cities,” or “Cities with the highest teen pregnancy rates,” etc.
And yet, our mission and my passion is to prepare our students for their global future while residing in this Central Valley. That being said, our biggest obstacle is to ensure that we do not allow our location, our environment, to define our expectations of our students and therefore prevent them from preparing for their future.
In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future? What is your biggest hope for today’s students?
This work is about changing the relationship between teaching and learning. For more than a decade public education has been focused on high stakes testing and standards that promote teaching and learning to mediocrity. With the adoption and implementation of Common Core and with our increasing student and teacher access to the digital world in support of a blended learning environment, we are not only preparing students for their future but we are also teaching and expecting brilliance — not mediocrity. That is why I entered the education field and that is why I am so passionate about the work we are doing in Manteca Unified.
Jason Messer, Superintendent, Manteca Unified School District
Ojai, California, USA
* Birthplace: Ojai, California
* Educational background: Masters of Education in School Administration
* Website I check every day: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, various local and national news affiliates.
* Favorite childhood memory: Making forts out of anything and everything. My favorite forts were built on wheels and we would drag them all over the neighborhood until they fell apart.
* Favorite book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
* Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: PowerPoint Mix
* What is the best advice you have ever received? Students need to know you care before they will care what you know.