Ep 8: Teachers Just Want to Teach with Stanton Skerjanec

July 11, 2017

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, EdChoice VP of Communications Jennifer Wagner is joined by Stanton Skerjanec, a teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado, who shared some of his views on educational choice, the challenges he has faced as a supporter in a family of public school educators and more. Listen now!

Wagner: Tell us a little bit about what inspired you to become a teacher and how long you’ve been teaching.

Skerjanec: I’ve only been teaching for about a year. What got me into teaching … there’s a long-term and a short-term answer to that. Long-term is: My mother is a teacher. My father is a teacher; well, he’s a principal now. My grandfather was a teacher. So I guess you could say it’s in the blood almost.

Really, when I graduated college, I was looking for a job, and I graduated political science saying, “Hey, it’s December 2016; they’re going to need campaigns and elections up there, but then, X, Y and Z happened. Politics just did not seem like a good idea for 2016 at the time, so I put out a couple applications. I subscribed to the Heritage Foundation’s job bank list, and I saw this position for an Economics, Government Instructor in Fort Collins, and I said, “Hey, I can try that. We’ll go try that out.”

So I got an interview, came back to Colorado (I grew up in Colorado.) and after an hour and a half of grueling questions on economics from seven different panelists, I finally got the job. And here I am, a teacher at Liberty Common High School.

Wagner: Outstanding. And that is a charter school, correct?

Skerjanec: It’s a public charter school, that’s right.

Wagner: Awesome. So tell us a little bit more about the school and your students. What’s it like to spend the day in your classroom?

Skerjanec: So Liberty Common High School is a public charter school. It’s divided into two parts: an elementary and a high school. High school started a little bit later around 2010-ish. It is a core knowledge school, so it’s not Common Core. It’s core knowledge, which I guess has its philosophical roots in a book called The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

It’s all about this concept that in order to have a strong democratic society, in which people truly have an equality among them, people have to have a common set of knowledge, almost a common culture, right? So our motto is common knowledge, common virtue and common sense. Everyone is expected to know the same things at a certain point in time at all times, and so we teach this concept to them so that—in the hopes that—they’re able to live a strong, civic life in America. So that’s where the “common” comes from.

The liberty is that: We love liberty. We love everything about freedom. I teach economics. We don’t teach Keynesian. We teach a strong Austrian curriculum, so think Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics; think Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law; Henry Hazlittt’s Economics in One Lesson. Those are the kinds of books we teach.

You wanted to talk about what a typical classroom will look like in just about any classroom. Some teachers utilize a Socratic seminar style. I prefer a lecture. But the philosophy underlying all teachers (in our school) is “sage on the stage” not a “guide on the side.” It’s not that we don’t believe in hands-on stuff. We have a very strong engineering program, a STEM program here. But we truly believe that if students want to maximize their ability to explore and learn new things on their own. They have to be given a strong foundational set of facts, this common knowledge that we talked about.

Wagner: That makes sense. That sounds a lot like my law school experience actually. You got socratic method in there. You’re taking me back to high school economics. It’s all positive though, I promise. So, you’re obviously a fairly new educator, but you’re a supporter of educational choice. I want to probe a little bit about what that means to you. What does school choice mean, and then how do you see it evolving over the next 10 or 20 years?

Skerjanec: School choice looks like, to me, a variety of choices for parents. It doesn’t look like one or two very limited options in which some governing authority says, “You must choose these two.” It looks like students are diverse; they’re varied and they have different styles. And parents understand that. So there should be a very large list of options for parents to do.

What school choice looks like to me is maximizing individual students’ learning experience. Some students do very very well in a traditional setting. Some students do very very poorly in a traditional setting. And so school choice means being able to choose that which is best for you.

What does it look like, to me, in the next five or 10 years? Honestly, I think the school choice movement is part of the broader liberty movement. The liberty movement has been gaining, but what I see is liberty, to people, is paradoxically unknown to them. They don’t understand it. And so what we have to do is to teach them the ability to choose—the freedom to choose—is a good thing, and let us show you why. It’s not just practical for you. It’s not just that your student will get better scores. It’s not just that they will have a better experience.

It is a better moral choice, that you have a control over yourself and not someone else having control over you. And so, I think the school choice movement in the next five to 10 years looks like people truly beginning to realize there is something better out there, better both in practical outcomes and better in terms of a civic ethic.

Wagner: And it’s ironic that in every other walk of life, we expect choice. We embrace that liberty. But in K–12 education, we often find that there are some arguments used against educational choice that definitely favored the system and the grownups in it, not necessarily the families and students, that are seeking to get in where they fit in. We like to use that expression. How do you overcome that divide, as a teacher especially? I’m interested in hearing your take.

Skerjanec: Sure. People fear what they don’t know, and the current system we have, we’ve had it for so long that it’s familiar. It may not be great, but it’s at least comfortable, right? So, the question we have ask…what we have to say is that this newness, this new liberty that we want to give. It’s not bad. At least when it comes to teachers especially, I think by and large, we have to realize that teachers aren’t the enemy of school choice, at least not on the whole.

I think most teachers (and I don’t want to sound naive about this), but I think most teachers want to just teach. They want to do their job. Of course, there are individuals and groups that are the more unionist type that just want to maintain a sort of status quo, but by and large, they want to do their job. That said, they may think that they can’t do their job, or that they’ll be hindered in their job, if we go to a new, more free choice system.

Now, one of the common things I hear with non-charter teachers is: The poor get left behind. The demographically underprivileged get left behind in this system, that we have no guarantees with it. And there are always risks of failure. That, we need to acknowledge. There’s always risk of failure. But I always ask them, “Do you want to risk a better future, or do you want to maintain a status quo that has almost no future in sight?”

That’s where you have to bridge the common ground saying that we want to enable teachers to teach. We don’t want to burden them with some either a bureaucratic state or some status quo that isn’t going anywhere. It’s staying stagnant, and that’s good for no one. So I think what we really have to do different is acknowledge that teachers aren’t the enemy. They’re not this group of people out to stop all progress. They’re people who want to teach. We just have to show them that you can teach and you can do this well in a better way.

Wagner: So I have to ask, though, coming from a family of educators, have you had any pushback for your stance on choice and choosing from the educators in your family?

Skerjanec: Yes and no. My dad taught public high school for quite a while, and then he actually became a Catholic school principal. Now, he’s back in the public sector. But not really.

Take my mother, who has always been a public educator. She knows all the problems that come with the current status quo. Charter schools, she doesn’t challenge the results of a lot of charter schools. She has problems with the fact that a lot of charters seem at least to have too great a risk of failure or that charter schools seem to get the same funding or similar funding that traditional public schools are without having to follow the rules. To her, that seems unjust.

And maybe it does sound like that, but my response is always, “Well, why don’t we free up you? Why don’t we free up the traditional schools as well? We don’t have to make them charter schools, but let’s reform what you are as well. But in order to do that, we have to provide options and people with the idea that there’s something better out there.”

It really just comes down to a matter of…Let me put it this way. Teachers want to see results, and we have to show them the results of what being free to choose can do. And I think an organization like EdChoice does that very very well. They gather all this data, and they say look at this. Look at how successful this is becoming. All of the questions that you have, we can answer them. That is really where you bridge the gap because public teachers, including my mom, they want to teach, and they want to help kids. I think we just have to show them that the resources can be used in a better way.

Wagner: We always love to hear that we are the bridge in that gap, that our research and our resources can be useful there, so thank you for the compliment. Obviously, you’re fairly new in the classroom. We see in our national polling sometimes that this issue does break down where, as you were saying earlier, you’ve got a younger generation that has choice in every other aspect of their lives that is maybe coming into this concept of liberty as this very empowering thing. Do you think educational choice is a generational issue, and that we will have less trouble explaining it to maybe even Millennials who don’t have kids yet in the system? That they will come to expect it when their kids are school age?

Skerjanec: That’s a good question. I think it is partially generational. I mean, the generation right above me, the half generation or generation and a half above me, they come from the good old stock of traditional public school, right? I think what you are going to see is that as we realize how diverse our options are in so many other aspects, we are eventually going to realize: Why is this not here?

Take Silicon Valley for example. Silicon Valley has been funding tremendous amounts of schools that are involved in computer science, technology, engineering, mathematics. These businesses are beginning to realize we can do better in different ways, and I think as other people see that, as these organizations that have a lot of capital to invest in, we’re going to realize and ask, “Why are they the only ones investing capital? Why don’t we as taxpayers also put our capital where it should go best?”

I think that is eventually going to happen just by the sheer weight of a system that’s starting to fail. That sounds like a doomsday kind of thing, and it kind of is. But the more a system fails, the more people realize that we have to do something different. Hopefully, we can change things up a bit before system failure, but who knows? I think you’re right. I think it is a generational thing if only because of the sheer weight of how bad the system is now.

Wagner: It definitely feels like there’s a tidal wave coming. I guess I want to end on a positive question. As an educator—and my parents are both educators as well—it’s an amazing job, and it’s an amazing thing you’re doing. What is the most rewarding part of your job as you stand up there in front of those students and talk to them about economics and policy. What do you take away from your first year in the classroom as the most rewarding experience?

Skerjanec: The most rewarding experience I get is just seeing when a student who has been struggling to understand a concept finally gets it. It just clicks. That a-ha moment is so rewarding because you put a lot of time lesson planning, a lot of time trying to develop a good lecture that this one student who just cannot get it finally just {snaps} boom, she gets it. She understands. That really, to me, is pretty rewarding.

The other moments … I got a letter from one of my students in my Government class. He wasn’t really involved in government at all. He didn’t really like civics all that much. About semester-way in, a semester and a half, he wrote me a little card, and he said how much he enjoyed the class and now he was thinking, “I would love to do politics someday, too.” Those moments as well, that you’ve made some difference, even if just one student’s experience. Those experiences are worth it, and those are the moments that keep you going forward. As a first-year teacher, I didn’t train to be a teacher; I trained in political science. As a first-year teacher, those are the kinds of things that keep you fueled and keep you going, at least for now.

Wagner: That’s fantastic. I think you are echoing the sentiment of so many educators, and I think you’re absolutely right when you say teachers just want to teach. So, I want to thank you for your time, and let you add anything if there’s anything we didn’t get to cover that you want to talk about.

Skerjanec: Not really. The only thing I have to add on is freedom and liberty and choice is difficult. It can be really tricky. It’s not easy. We as advocates of choice, advocates of liberty, we have to recognize that, and we have to help people along. We have to give them their own support, their own scaffolding to be able to say, “I choose liberty.” I think that’s an important role that we have to play.

Wagner: And I think that’s an amazing sentiment to end on. So thank you, Stanton, for your time today and for everything you’re doing to educate young minds and help give back.

Skerjanec: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it!