Retiring superintendent Al Moyer reflects on education changes

It started innocently enough as a “hostage” situation in an unfinished basement on a family farm outside Gettysburg.

Growing up, Al Moyer used a chalkboard to teach a captive audience of younger siblings all kinds of lessons in a makeshift classroom.

This fond memory came up in a conversation Moyer had with his kid brother Mike during a recent family outing.

“As long as he can remember, there was no doubt I wanted to be an educator,” said Moyer, who steps down Aug. 18 as superintendent of the South Middleton School District.

Moyer will leave behind almost 36 years in public education that included stints as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and the chief executive of two school districts, Hanover and South Middleton.

He is trading in the heavy time demands of a district office administrator for the greater flexibility of a job as a lecturer and the coordinator of the education leadership program at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.

Moyer, 57, will be going full circle by taking charge of the same graduate program that ushered in his own career as a school administrator.

Part of his motivation is to free up time to spend with family, including his four grandchildren, ages six and under, who live near his home in Straban Township, Adams County. He starts the new job Aug. 21.

There have been profound changes in education since Moyer first grew out of his shy, awkward kid stage in middle school to graduate from New Oxford High School in 1977. A high school teacher inspired him to pursue a degree in business education. It seemed a sensible choice.

“Being Mr. Practicality growing up on a farm, I figured if teaching didn’t work out, I would have the accounting and marketing background to get involved in business in some way,” Moyer said.

He attended York College on a partial basketball scholarship, graduating in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree. He landed first job in public education with the Fairfield Area School District as a high school business education teacher.

More rookie support 

Back then, there were no programs to help rookie teachers. Moyer taught five courses by toting his supplies around in a cart from room to room. He worked exclusively from a textbook, staying only a day or two ahead of his students in terms of content.

There’s a lot more support today for teachers entering the field, Moyer said. New hires are routinely assigned a mentor teacher for the first year or two. There are induction programs that offer training and advice on instructional strategies, parent-teacher conferences, grading and testing.

“We now have a really strong written curriculum,” said Moyer, adding there is a lot more scrutiny and emphasis on accountability. This can be a problem if the mindset develops into teaching for the test.

“From the board on down, we’ve kept that in perspective at South Middleton,” Moyer said. Meeting the assessment standards are important, but not the most important thing.

“At South Middleton, we get the idea of teaching the whole child,” Moyer said. “It’s not just the academic subjects but the fine and practical arts. The heart of education is the core subjects, but the soul of education is the music, the arts, physical education and co- and extracurricular activities which are, in my opinion, just as important if not more important at times.” Moyer should know; sports brought him out of his shell and gave him confidence.

Supporting the curriculum are instructional frameworks backed up by advanced research on how children learn and develop as they mature and progress through the grade levels, Moyer said. “Education has become just as much a science as it was an art. We know more about teaching and learning than we ever did before.”

While many teachers are naturally gifted for the work, there are also frameworks that improve the efficiency of the instruction, creating a better balance and delivery.

Tech changes 

In his first job as an educator, Moyer used manual typewriters to teach students keyboarding and Radio Shack TRS-80 computers to teach them the programming languages of Fortran and COBOL. A lot has changed technology-wise from the 1980s.

Though Moyer is a believer in the value of face-to-face interactions between students and teachers, he also sees the merit in offering students a blended approach that combines online courses with traditional instruction.

He is not an advocate for students going 100 percent online. He feels this approach would deprive them of important interpersonal skills that would be detrimental to society down the road.

Two trends have emerged in recent years that are bound to carry over into his new role as coordinator of a graduate program that trains midlevel school administrators.

The first involves the challenge of educating students today for job titles and descriptions that do not yet exist. With so much change on the horizon, how can educators prepare youths for life beyond graduation? There are studies that suggest students today can expect to change careers several times during their life.

“As a result, we have to teach them to be problem solvers, to work collaboratively as a team, to be innovative and creative,” Moyer said. “We got to get them to think deeper about issues … to get much more into critical thinking.” The hope is this approach would make students more adaptable to rapid change.

“We are on the cusp of some major changes in education as a result of what is going to be happening with artificial intelligence,” Moyer said. There is research that suggests that many of the jobs that pay $20 an hour or less within the next 10-plus years are going to become obsolete as a result of robotics and automation.

A welder working on an assembly line or a trucker hauling goods will be in trouble if they are not flexible enough to learn a different skill set, Moyer said.

Societal changes 

The last 35 years have seen changes in the structure and economic health of American families. Moyer has seen an increase in poverty and domestic issues manifesting themselves in schools. He recently attended a workshop for teachers and administrators that focused on the effects of childhood trauma on learning. Such problems have touched all socio-economic levels.

These changes have put more pressure on teachers, administrators and counselors to recognize the issues and to try to provide assistance, Moyer said. At the same time, school districts are in financial distress over rising health care and pension costs, he said.

“We are doing a lot more with a lot less over the past several years,” Moyer said. For example, South Middleton has to make do with only one guidance counselor to monitor 500 students in three grade levels at Yellow Breeches Middle School.

“We have been trying to hang on to as many positions as we can and not lose positions through attrition,” Moyer said.

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