We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Stephen Wolf a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Alright, Stephen thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. Let’s start with education – we’d love to hear your thoughts about how we can better prepare students for a more fulfilling life and career.
As an educator, I see all types of students pass my way, from the overachievers to those who have so much going on at home, they can barely function in a classroom setting. We have a strong emphasis on content knowledge and I believe that is important. However, few students will make it as doctors and lawyers or as sports professionals. We need other options for students to find their passions. We need plumbers and electricians, mechanics and restaurant workers. We need opportunities for students to shine in areas they never thought to experience before.
We need students to be able to stand on their own feet, to make a budget they can stick to, to value the dollar without relying so heavily on what they may receive from home. For those students with difficult home lives, we need interventions that can help: schooling at different hours, babysitting, even small jobs where they can learn a trade while earning for their families.
Our educational system isn’t broken. It needs adjustment.
In times past, teachers were respected for their knowledge, but that respect has dwindled in many places. I have a PhD in Science Education, yet I’m questioned by parents as to why their child received a zero on an assignment they never completed, looking for a way erase the earned mark. When explaining the situation in detail, many times a call is then made to a supervisor to step in to challenge me for the grade. This is not acceptable practice, but I face it through the year and have during my two decades in this position.
With more teacher respect, class instruction can change. Teachers could branch out and explore other areas of interest with the students. In many places, the students and teachers would build knowledge together, experiencing newness around them and realizing it’s not all about grades.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers?
When I was a child, I often found myself explaining things to those around me. Teachers acknowledged this and paired me with other classmates who had been absent so I could tutor them. It was always exciting helping someone understand what they hadn’t before. It was what I always wanted to do.
When I was in college, however, I focused on chemistry, thinking I would go into the field. Ultimately, I remembered my passion and shifted myself around, earning a teaching degree, then a masters, then a PhD. I started my career as a middle school science teacher, covering chemistry and physics. It was pure delight. Every class with the students was a fresh experience. The curriculum never grew stale as I adapted it each year while meeting the state requirements. Two decades later, I now teach high school chemistry, and diving back into the deeper material was a pleasant challenge.
In terms of writing, it all started when I was in middle school myself. My 8th grade teacher tasked us with a three paragraph assignment. First, we had to describe an object we pulled from a box. I pulled a teardrop-shaped crystal. In the moment, I gave it magic powers. We then had to describe a place. I chose a dilapidated house down the block from me, the aftereffects of magic gone awry. Our third challenge was to describe a person, and I wrote of an old man who knew about the magic of the teardrop crystal. Without having intended to, I had linked together all three stories and was mighty proud of myself for it.
The following year, I received a major concussion which pulled me out of school for nearly the entire year. Isolated and in constant pain, I needed companionship. I fired up the Commodore 64 and typed out 169 pages of pure fantasy chaos. It was amazing. I loved every word. As high school progressed, I rewrote the original story into a trilogy. It went through several rewrites over the years and I finally published it in 2020. Now everyone can experience the Legend of the Starsword.
That wasn’t my first publication, however. In 2015-2016, I released a four volume fantasy series, Red Jade. It follows a team of adventurers as they travel across two kingdoms seeking the shards of a mystical artifact, intending to use the power to end the war that had raged for centuries.
As a kid, I also enjoyed choose-the-fate books, where you had to choose the path for the character to take, sometimes leading to dire consequences. I wrote my own, Garinor’s Adventure, then followed it up with four shorter works.
Can you share a story from your journey that illustrates your resilience?
When I was in 9th grade, I was badly injured during physical education class. We were playing flag football and an overzealous classmate smashed me to the ground. I was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a severe concussion. It was my third.
The damage from the concussion was terrible. The headaches were paralyzing. I couldn’t tolerate light. I was so dizzy, I could barely walk, never mind climb stairs to my room. For eight months, my living situation changed drastically. I slept on the living room floor until my parents realized this might be permanent and they brought down a mattress. They hung heavy curtains in the room to keep the sun out at all times. I wore scopolamine patches to try to mitigate the dizziness and nausea, but they were of little help. I often crawled to the bathroom in the beginning.
Through it all, MRIs said there was nothing physically wrong with me and there were no answers to the rampant headaches or the spiraling vertigo. I started having mini seizures, which I called “short circuits.” Even those showed up nowhere on any medical test.
Through it all, I was isolated from the world. My mom and sister, who was also injured from a different incident, were my only companions, but I needed other activity. I turned to writing.
I could barely handwrite, so I typed everything I could on our Commodore 64. It was hard to see the screen, but it was all I had. I had to make it work. I typed out a novella, losing myself in the world I created and finding an escape from my pain.
The headaches lessened and the vertigo improved. I still had bangers most of the time and I often needed to clutch the walls for support, but I was starting to function again. I returned to school the next fall.
Only in recent days have I had relief from the headaches and dizziness. That’s a lifetime ago when it all started. As I look back, I can barely fathom how I survived it all.
Can you tell us about a time you’ve had to pivot?
In 2017, everything was perfect. I had been teaching 7th grade for 17 years, firmly established in what I was doing. I had released a tetralogy of fantasy novels by then. I was writing all the time. I designed a coding class for my students. And I married my husband, Kevin.
About a month later, I became ill. It was May, but I was diagnosed with the flu, even though it was far out of season. The doctor took two samples and both came back positive. I never get the flu. Yet here it was and it lasted for over two weeks.
It was after that that my body went into decline. I was sluggish all the time, barely functioning. I saw a psychiatrist and he determined it was depression. He put me on some meds and things improved a little, but not by much. We went back and forth for months, adapting medications and sleeping patterns. The diagnosis changed. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. That altered the battery of treatments.
I didn’t make it through the entire school year before I had to take a leave of absence, which extended through the next school year. I couldn’t make it through my days. I couldn’t be active for any length of time. I went to a horde of doctors. Thirteen in total, all trying to find if there was anything else wrong. But it all came back to the CFS.
When I returned to school in 2019, everything changed. I was pulled from teaching 7th grade, which I had done all my career. I was given a science course I had no certification to teach. The rest of my schedule was loaded with lab and research classes I had never taught before either. Two weeks into the start of the year, I was given a one-on-one student to work with as well. All told, this was four new preps for classes I had never taught before. It was unreal.
I was accustomed to certain things, but I had to change the way I approached these classes. The host of labs I had for my 7th graders were useless, because these students would have done them all the prior year. There was no one to help me. I was all on my own.
The pivot point was forced upon me. I had to back away from my standards so I could keep afloat. I had never been in so over my head. I was used to creating all my curriculum, designed the way I wanted it, as my training had taught me. I used the skills I had earned through my PhD to swing the classes around. I shifted away from the norm. I opened up some exploratory lab situations with a vague notion of what the students should do. Instead, I challenged them with a question, such as “How does temperature affect volume?” I gave them some materials, like balloons, thermometers, balances, paper, rubber bands, whatever I could find, and then I released them to design their own experiments.
The inquiry process is difficult to convey at that age, but they did explore. They did their best to record procedures and observations, never quite knowing what to write down. I encouraged them to share ideas with others to round out their experiments.
In short, I handed the class over to them. I facilitated discussions, but it wasn’t what I had ever been able to do before. Always, there was a curriculum to be followed. With these courses, there was none.
Open-ended inquiry still needs to be structured. It’s impossible to hand a random set of supplies and say, “Design something.” The inquiry has to be guided. There have to be goals. Students at that age benefit from structure, so balancing the two was a challenge of its own.
After that year, I had to pivot again. I was pulled from that assignment and given a high-stakes chemistry course in the midst of COVID. I started my career with looser restrictions of curriculum, to the year with essentially no curriculum, now to a highly-packed curriculum.
COVID brought its own challenges, as we taught in a hybrid schedule with half the students at home dialing in to a video call, then swapping mid-week. We had plastic barriers around every student and they were spaced as far apart as possible, all while wearing masks and having the windows open through the dead of winter. Meanwhile, I was in a new form of prep mode, making sure I covered all the necessary content.
With all these changes going on, I still struggle with Chronic Fatigue. It’s a terrible name for what it truly entails. Everyone just thinks I need more sleep, but it’s not that at all. No, it’s a total shutdown of physical ability. It’s hard to talk, to think, to walk, to write. Words and letters get mangled or dropped in conversations. I’m lucky the batch of medicines I’m on helps me function. But I’m a different person than I used to be. I don’t have the pep or the thrill I once had. It affects every aspect of my life, from home to career. I hope one day they find a cure so I can pivot back to where I once was.
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