Steven Bickmore, an associate professor in the teaching and learning department, says one of the biggest challenges facing educators is persevering in a time when much of what people read and hear in the media about education is overwhelmingly negative.
What are some of your job duties?
In addition to being an associate professor, I am also the newly appointed director of the Gayle A. Zeiter Literacy Development Center. I look forward to helping expand the reach of literacy efforts of the center throughout the community and specifically within the schools of the Clark County School District.
What are some of the challenges of promoting literacy among children and young adults?
One of the challenges of promoting literacy is ignoring the negative press of the last 14 years. Since the push of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, news media, political pundits, and legislators have focused on the negative elements of education. In reality, there are many great schools, great educators, and great students.
Too many policymakers, unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of day-to-day schooling, wasted time creating new assessments and forced an increased amount of time preparing for tests and testing students without consulting educators in the trenches. Rather than enculturating a love for reading and learning, they created scripted curriculum that is frequently boring and unimaginative.
I have a simple rule for legislators and policy makers: No one should be able to make rules and policies for schools that would create an environment they wouldn’t have their own children attend. For example, who wants to send their students to a school with silent lunch, no art, no free reading, and no physical education?
Where did you work previously?
I worked for 25 years as an English teacher in the greater Salt Lake City area. I often joke that if it was an English course taught in a ninth through 12th grade, I taught it. I earned a B.A. from Brigham Young University, an M.A. from the University of Utah, and, finally, a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia at Athens. (I was) as an assistant professor of English education at Louisiana State University. I developed a conference on young adult literature that I plan to bring to UNLV as part of the activities of the Zeiter Literacy Development Center.
What drew you to your field?
I was always a reader. I loved books and the draw of the story. I initially was an English major on the advice of a family friend, the local federal judge Lloyd George. He explained to me that if I wanted to be a successful lawyer (a path I was considering at the time) I needed to read and write well.
What is a misconception people have about your field?
That education is failing. America is a large democracy that educates most of its population. Can we do better? Of course we can, but we do a great job — in rural settings, in the suburbs, and in the cities. Most teachers work very hard, they spend extra time, they spend their own money, and they increasingly work in an era of negative national rhetoric about education.
One tip for success:
Keep at it. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, (someone I learned about from reading a book): No matter what the task is, if we keep working at mastering the material, it gets easier. Not that the task gets easier, but your ability to accomplish the task gets easier.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Las Vegas, but my father moved around with the J.C. Penney Company. I was the student body president of Western High School during the 1972-73 school year.
I learned how to work hard in Las Vegas. I was a paperboy for both the Sun and the Review-Journal. When I was 16, my dad was made the manager of the old downtown JCP store, and I was then able to learn how to sell shoes at the Boulevard Mall store. This came in useful in the future as I, like many teachers, held a part-time job. For many years I sold shoes at a JCP store in the Salt Lake City area.
What has been the proudest moment of your life?
I have been very blessed. All of my children and grandchildren are healthy and doing well. I am thrilled every day by the way they are managing their way through life.
I was thrilled to win a Milken Educator Award and to actually finish a Ph.D. a few weeks before turning 50.
The most humbling professional moment was when I was waiting to be announced as the winner of the Utah Sterling Scholar Most Inspirational Award. The person in charge asked me if I knew why I was the winner. This person (then) explained that one of my students reported that before the winter holiday break I had placed my phone number on the board and explained that I wasn’t interested in hearing about any more deaths from drunk driving. I went on a rant about underage drinking, but (said) if they found themselves in an unsafe situation and couldn’t or wouldn’t call their parents or another trusted adult, they could call me, and I would come and get them. I said that I couldn’t promise that it wouldn’t come with a lecture, but I was not interested in attending any funerals.
I tell this story not to lift myself up, but to say something about the relationship between students and teachers. I am not the first to say it, but (students) don’t care what you know until they know you care.
Tell us something people would be surprised to learn about you.
I think most people would be surprised to find out that I still own a 1967 Volkswagen Bug. I have had it for about 35 years, and I got from my father. It will soon turn 50, it still runs, but I don’t use it much and can’t quite commit to letting it go. It has no airbags, no air conditioning, lousy seatbelts, needs a new paint job, but it is extremely cool.
Who is your hero and why?
Other people are indeed inspirational examples, but I don’t need to look very far for an everyday remarkable hero. My wife, Dana (Bickmore of the School of Environmental and Public Affairs in the Greenspun College), was and has been an educational inspiration from the first time I was aware of her as a (gymnastics) coach. We taught in the same school as early career teachers long before a colleague convinced me to ask her out. She was amazing and set a bar of success that few teachers or coaches ever achieve. She still approaches everything she does with the same sense of hard work and commitment.
What are your hobbies?
I read loads of young adult fiction. For relaxation I read detective fiction — old stuff and new —Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosely, Ed McBain and Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard and Sue Grafton. I also dabble with model trains just enough that I dust a few off every Christmas holiday and set up some track around the tree. If I didn’t do it, my wife and children would think there was something wrong.
One new, unique hobby is that my wife and I are becoming root beer float aficionados. We bought a lovely house with a wonderful bar area, but we don’t drink. So we have collected a wide array of gourmet root beers and are inviting people over for root beer floats. Any takers?