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Spotlight: Michael Haussler, K12 & Higher Education Teacher

“Educator Spotlight” highlights practitioners and researchers in order to learn student success strategies from them. These strategies can be evidence-based, research-based, and/or promising practices.

Educator Spotlight: Michael Haussler, Lecturer, California State University Charter College of Education

Professor Haussler’s relationship with education in California schools goes back many years. After high school, he traveled, lived, and worked in Europe. Upon returning to California, he received his history degrees and teaching credentials at California State University, Los Angeles. As a high school teacher, he pioneered with George Bachman the Cal State-Marshall Fundamental Partnership Program, bringing junior high students to the university campus for summer classes. After a career as a high school history and English teacher, he is now teaching Single Subject graduate education classes in the Charter College of Education at CSULA and doing field supervision of secondary public-school teachers. Haussler is critically aware of the culture and curriculum of the secondary classroom. He continues to tutor Middle and High School students. Haussler is a distinctive and idiosyncratic talent; even his book about teaching is unusual: a novel about life in a big public high school in Los Angeles, which highlights his own creativity and the deep love he has for the generations of students he has known, and who, he says, have taught him so much.


Tell us about yourself.

Although my job names me ‘teacher,’ of course I did not start out that way, and I think of myself mainly as a learner. As a kid I was exposed to the Civil Rights Movement in Boston by my activist mom. My wife keeps a picture of me as a kid holding a picket sign [See picture above]. In the early civil rights struggles to integrate our cloistered society, Ralph Abernathy came to dinner at our home, my mother was attacked by racists, and I like to think she passed a little of her courage on to me. Later, in California, I participated in elections, worked with a coalition of churches assisting refugees from war-torn Central America, and tutored and counseled immigrants from Southeast Asia while working in the Learning Center at Pasadena City College. To me this is all living history.

I have lived and traveled in many places. Most of the time I lived abroad I was dead broke. I learned to sing on street corners and deal with being homeless and undocumented. One of the countries I lived in was France, where I learned to speak French. When I completed my BA and MA at Cal State, the intimate knowledge of another culture and language helped me pass my exams. I had worked laboring jobs under the radar in France and England because I did not have a green card. After returning to America I was manhandled and strip-searched by Customs simply because I had been away too long. I guess they thought I might have become an international criminal. Besides my time abroad, I also sailed in a small boat through the Mediterranean, was attacked by pirates, lived a summer in Mexico, and another in Alaska.

And then I became a high school teacher. All my adventures pale next to the adventure of teaching, but they allow me to bring to the classroom a more universal perspective, based on the pursuit of knowledge; based on kindness, love, and understanding.

Please describe strategies—inside and/or outside the classroom—that you have seen help college students be successful.

Teaching is not rocket science. All students need reinforcement, reminders, ongoing checks for understanding, and recognition. I hear this idea floating around among professors: a student is in college and suddenly becomes entirely responsible for doing all the work. Sometimes the implication is that the teacher can abdicate responsibility. This should never be the case. Teachers should always set clear objectives, write them down, point them out, provide feedback, and open the class up to conversation. Conversation is the most powerful and most under-rated tool teachers have. Through conversation, teachers can listen and offer recognition and praise. The Socratic Seminar, two circles and a hot seat, will engage and motivate students beyond all expectations. Students love it and can take over the class to the point where the teacher becomes the facilitator and learning goes very deep. All teachers should use cues, ask leading questions, and offer non-linguistic representations like graphic organizers. Note-taking systems are powerful tools. When appropriate, teachers must encourage students to examine similarities and differences, generate and test ideas, and learn the rules of problem solving and critical reasoning. Good teaching is about engagement.

Given your years of services in a K12 and your experience in higher education, what are the major similarities and differences between both environments?

Certain professions call for love and accountability. Teaching, nursing, police work. The responsibility for teachers is serious because, if I may stretch a metaphor to a break point, human domestication begins with children. Think about it: Too often what we call teaching is making children sit still for many hours at a time. We control their impulses with primitive aversion therapies and behavioral modifications and teach them to study by conducting repetitions. We make them get “permission” to do things.

We put them on clocks governed by bells. We teach them to accept being docile. We develop punishments for the children who cannot remain docile, who become ‘trouble-makers.’
We measure children: first by height, then by gender, then by their personal displays of cultural artifacts like clothing. Then by their ability to solve paper metrics called tests. The children grow up and become adolescents; young adults. The tests spill into colleges and universities where the young adults may be measured by adherence to an ideology or a political construct.

Over a very short time span, creativity can be trained out of us if we breed children like we breed dogs, like we breed athletes who must weigh 300 pounds and take a cocktail of steroids and pharmaceuticals to play football, like we breed meat by doping it up with GMOs steroids antibiotics growth hormones and then feed that meat to our…children. This is stupid, and it is cruel. Oscar Wilde called ordinary cruelty simply stupidity. I call it a want of imagination.

But human creativity and progress can also begin with children. Let them learn and they will do amazing things and make the world a better place. Show them love and understanding and allow them to make up for mistakes and learn from each other, and they will fix the things in the world that are broken.

Maybe the most important similarities and differences between P12 and higher education are recognizing these dichotomies and addressing or failing to address them. Unfortunately, too often public education at nearly all levels often resembles assembly line production: sending students down a conveyor belt in batches by age, sorting them according to ruthless and weaponized metrics based on class and the ability to command resources, and insisting they specialize in certain areas before they are ready to do so. The term liberal arts, which used to equate with renaissance thinking, has instead come too often to mean something small and political.

Colleges claim to address these dichotomies by creating “inclusive” or “less restrictive” curricula, but if exclusion and restriction are embedded in the society, what can get created is a judgmental kind of correctness that can infect academia like a virus. Fortunately, this is not always the case. In a good school such provincialism is broken open as students are exposed to new ways of thinking. It is this simple epiphany which makes learning exciting and worthwhile, especially as it turns into engagement and conversation.

Open, aware, kind listeners can teach each other more than any program. If professors lose sight of what they are doing by becoming so wrapped up in theory, we have the source of the Ivory Tower stereotype. When common sense becomes a “theory,” we are in trouble. 

Remediation has become a significant issue at many colleges. Entire programs are being created or shut down in order to accommodate unprepared high school students. The transition from middle school to high school to college is hemmed in by quotas and test scores and a preference for those who are domesticated. Of course, money plays a role. In California we are near the bottom of our fifty states in funding our schools. This just played out rather dramatically in the LAUSD teachers strike, and the topics fought over have yet to be resolved even after the strike has been settled. Once upon a time we made a promise to send all children on a path to school and to college and to pay for it, but that promise has been erased by politics and that path has become merely another rat race. How can we offer an affordable or free education? There are other countries which do so, and they are worth looking at.

My in-the-trenches experience has proved to be invaluable, and semester after semester my graduate students tell me about the difference I have made in their thinking about teaching, their approach to pedagogy, and especially their morale in the classroom. This is what connects to love and accountability. This is why, despite horrendous obstacles, teaching can be so rewarding. As a high school teacher turned college professor, I try to show my students that teaching, and learning itself, is about learning curves, and that these are rather steep at the front end and involve things that do not necessarily connect to their subject area. I teach that what is needed is a set of concrete skills to get them up and over to where things level out a bit, when they can delve deeply into their subject area. I offer time lines and strategies that work in the real world. In every position I have held in education, I have been motivated and energized to go above and beyond the requirements to make each student's universe bigger.

A few years ago I published my first novel, Results May Vary: a novel about life in a Los Angeles high school. Writing this book was among the most difficult challenges I have ever faced. I was surprised at how much harder it was to write fiction than exposition or analysis. I slid helplessly into a cauldron of clichés. Hackneyed expressions harried me. But I persisted, and after several difficult rewrites, I succeeded in producing something I believe is very good. I figure it was payback for all the rewriting I have forced my students to do over the years, and it made my universe bigger.


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