Michigan educator is helping students with special needs get certified
This feature first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
It is a typical morning at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Mich. As one period ends, 1,100 students begin moving to their next class. Most go at a comfortable pace, shuffling along to lockers and stopping to speak with friends along the way.
A few, however, hustle through the halls determined to beat the bell. The reason: Martin Ballard, Avondale’s information technology (IT) instructor is standing outside his classroom counting down the seconds. There is only so much time for classroom instruction and Ballard is determined to fill every second with it.
There is no lollygagging on the way to his class. It’s not because students fear a tardy slip — Ballard doesn’t play that game — but rather, their understanding that being late means they have failed to meet Ballard’s standards for punctuality and professionalism and, by extension, are cheating themselves in their education.
Late students get a brief heart-to-heart with Ballard, who gently and firmly reminds them of his expectations. These personal chats rarely happen more than once as students quickly learn that when it’s time for class, “Mr. Ballard” is all business.
At first glance, his enforcing strict adherence to class start times and standing at the door with one eye on the clock might lead one to believe Ballard to be somewhat draconian. To the contrary, in addition to being highly skilled in IT, he is a caring and committed instructor whose style of instruction goes way beyond lecturing.
Martin Ballard prefers to accompany students on their learning journeys. As he describes it, “It’s all about knowing the kids, being a guide-by-their-side rather than a sage-on-the-stage.”
A background in hard work
Now in his 20th year teaching IT, Ballard has pretty much seen it all. His record of accomplishment is impressive: He has helped develop and hone the IT skills of more than 4,000 students, preparing them for higher education and solid work opportunities.
In 2018, the Oakland County District publicly acknowledged his work by naming him their Outstanding High School Teacher. The award was an honor he never expected. “It shocked me,” he said, “it was something I’d never imagined.”
A genuinely humble individual and no-nonsense teacher, Ballard believes education should prepare students to be employable. While education can be fun and enjoyable, it comes with a healthy dose of responsibility and respect for oneself and others. In addition to IT training, students also learn important softskills like professional dress, effective written and oral communication, and of course, punctuality.
Due to Ballard’s knowledge of IT and decades of hands-on experience working in the industrial sector, classroom instruction is comprehensive, current and effective. At five years old, he joined the family’s printing, packaging and advertising company. “My Dad hired me, at 10 cents an hour, to sweep the floors and clean up. I still remember, my first paycheck was $1.25,” he said.
A quick and responsible learner, Ballard eventually learned to operate the machinery, handle customers, and do whatever needed doing. While mastering the family shop’s operations, he also picked up a few valuable life-lessons, the most important being, “Do it right the first time, because you can’t afford to do it over.”
In addition to other positive characteristics, Ballard is an enjoyably unassuming individual, which makes what he is doing at Avondale even more impressive. “My mission is to build the strongest IT program in the state of Michigan, and then throughout the United States,” he proudly declared.
“I want Avondale School District’s program to be the ‘go-to’ district for IT so that potential employers will immediately recognize an Avondale graduate as IT proficient.”
Making IT education valuable
In his drive to make Avondale America’s premier IT training program, Ballard is constantly on the lookout for anything that can help his students. Over the years, he has implemented a number of successful practices like building a support network of community advisors who can help and assist students.
He has also focused his instruction on five IT domains, called Classification of Instructional Programs (CIPs). The CIPs are addressed in sequential classes, with the progression from one CIP to the next being designed to give students a complete and well-rounded array of skills that they can take directly to the IT workforce upon graduation.
These CIPs also give students many opportunities to complete IT certifications — Ballard is a big fan of certifications. Students who complete all five domains can graduate with more than 20 different and in-demand IT certifications.
“Our philosophy is added value,” said Ballard. “A diploma and stackable certifications that show prospective employers that you have the IT proficiency to do the job. And, you’re only 18 years old! That’s a pretty good start.”
Ballard’s past success, coupled with a sincere belief that anyone can achieve if they are willing to work for it, has enabled him to try out new ideas in the classroom. It’s his most recent classroom tweak, however, that had really raised a few eyebrows. Ballard has been going out of his way to help students with learning disabilities earn IT certifications.
IT education for all
Over the 2017-2018 school year, an estimated 7 million U.S. children between the ages of three and 21 were classified as having one or more learning disabilities. These children, teens, and young adults received special education services as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. If that number sounds large, you’re right: That block of 7 students account for 14 percent of all public school students.
There is a wide range of physical and mental learning disabilities. The causes of these various afflictions often become a subject of debate, a tendency that overlooks the sad truth that many children struggle in ways that, if left untreated, put them at risk for a lifetime of challenges and disappointments. These setbacks can range from mere inconvenience to underachievement in school and discrimination in the workforce.
Fortunately, medical professionals have gotten better at identifying such children at earlier ages and training special education teachers to help them deal with their learning disabilities. Every day these dedicated and caring teachers face a host of problems such as lack of support from parents and school administrators, budget problems, professional isolation, and challenging non-instructional responsibilities.
While they do a great job, they can still use help. That is where Ballard comes in. Anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent of students in Ballard’s classes are classified as having a learning disability. “That is a lot of kids,” he said. “We need to prepare them to be successful in the workforce too. IT certifications are a great way to do that.”
The start of every school year typically finds teachers bombarded with new programs and initiatives. So, it’s understandable if they are sometimes dubious about a “new better way” of teaching. It was the same with Ballard’s idea. Special-ed teachers expressed concern that pushing students to complete certifications would create an environment where the students were guaranteed to fail.
In a meeting between Ballard and the teachers, they asked what they do when a student fails to earn a cert. His response, “What if they do earn a certification?”
Certifications, not letter grades
While some began to consider Ballard’s proposal seriously, doubts rose again when he explained that a significant aspect of his plan would be to not issue letter grades.
Eliminating grades was too much for special-ed teachers. Constant support and positive feedback are crucial to children with learning disabilities, something for which letter grades are perfect. The consensus was that Ballard was making a big mistake.
A coworker commented to him, “Everyone thinks you’re nuts.” Ballard laughed it off and said, “I know I’m crazy.” Looking back on it, he acknowledges that the idea was a far-out concept and that he would not have dared to do it if he’d been a new teacher. “I’d have been more concerned with keeping my job.”
Even apart from him special education brainstorm, Ballard isn’t a big fan of using grades to help students learn. He refers to grades as being “a relic of a bygone era.” He also points out the many ways that students can contrive to receive high grades that have nothing to do with learning the subject matter.
One common method is giving extra credit for reading or watching something outside of class or, due to budgetary constraints, allowing students to donate classroom supplies. Ballard has never awarded extra credit in his classes. “Students should master the subject,” he said. “You are not getting an ‘A’ because you brought in a box of tissues.”
He also correctly points out that not all grades are equal. “An ‘A’ from one school can mean something entirely different in another school,” he said. “A better way is an industry measurement (certification) of a minimum level of performance that all employers agree upon is reliable and makes much more sense.”
An added benefit of not focusing on grades is that students never ask, “Are we getting graded on this?” and “How many points is this worth?” or “Can I do some extra credit to improve my grade?” For his part, Ballard, instead of worrying about grading each assignment, can focus on teaching and helping students learn the skills they will need to find employment in the IT field.
In Ballard’s experience, focusing on a student’s progress over time, and not grading individual assignments on a daily basis, frees him to spend more time instructing and reflecting on teaching practices and student performance. It lets students focus on improving skills rather than throwing something together to satisfy a “graded assignment” just because they need the points.
Certification can be a high bar to clear for high school students, of course. If a student does not earn a certification, Ballard will award a grade — but he will also allow the student to return and take the certification exam until they pass.
Ready to uplift those with special needs
Confident that even special education students could succeed without being graded, Ballard doubled down by explaining the benefits of IT certification, as well as pointing out the number of IT jobs available and the starting salaries for those jobs. It was a gamble, but one he was confident would work for students.
Fortunately, before approaching the special ed teachers, Ballard had built support among the administration. He had previously explained the plan to the principal and assistant principal and received their backing. “They knew what I was going to propose and were behind me 100 percent. We believed it was worth a try to get the students employable.”
The administration trusts Ballard’s ideas on teaching and appreciates his commitment to teaching students. “Ballard has a passion for kids and has been a blessing to Avondale because of his reflectiveness, his desire to change the way education looks and feels, and his never-ending push for ALL kids to succeed,” said assistant principal Doug Wilson.
“He is never satisfied with the success that he has shown and constantly is looking to innovate, challenge, and meet our kids where they are, but push them beyond where they think they can reach.”
Ballard has seen over and over again that, with the right instruction and support, any student can earn a certification that has the potential to unlock wonderful career opportunities. An example close to home is his son Noah, who is highly intelligent, but who has always learned differently than others. Noah prefers hands-on learning to just sitting and listening to a lecturer.
“He tried college, but it just wasn’t his path,” explained Ballard. Following his father’s advice to do something he was interested in, Noah followed his love of horses and is successfully pursuing a certification as a farrier — a specialist caring for horse’s hooves. “He loves it,” said Ballard, “and a professional farrier earns between $100,000 and $250,000 annually.”
Realizing potential in difficult circumstances Though skepticism of Ballard’s plan was high in the beginning, everyone got behind the idea, and the results have been impressive:
100 percent of his cybersecurity students completed a certification.
100 percent of networking students earned one or more networking certifications.
100 percent of Java students completed a Java certification.
In hardware-related classes, 85 percent of special ed students achieved certification. In software-based classes, 38 percent of special ed students achieved certification. Twenty-five percent of all students earning one or more certifications were classified as having learning disabilities.
“Raising the bar to something radical bore much fruit in my opinion,” said Ballard. “Making certification a ‘no other option’ at the start of each class set the field for some great things to happen.”
Passionately supportive of special- ed students, Ballard is always encouraging his charges and pointing out their potential to succeed. “When kids feel they have potential, they will perform,” he said.
At times, the road has not been without difficulties. Some students struggled tremendously to achieve a certification. One young lady got a score of “5” on her Python practice exam — a passing score is 72. Devastated and in tears, she kept saying she could never pass the exam.
Ballard was right there continuing to lift and encourage. “I said I couldn’t stop her from giving up on herself, but I never would (give up on her).”
As a teacher, he knows how hard to push a student to achieve and isn’t afraid to do so. At one point, the girl learning Python (a popular program ming language) complained that he was pushing so hard that she was going to have a nervous breakdown. Ballard’s response was, “That’s ok, I’ll have one with you, but I know you can do this.”
Ballard stuck to his guns and the student stuck to hers. She continued studying and retook the exam multiple times, eventually succeeding and earning a passing score. “She was thrilled and said, ‘You gotta frame this! Ballard, make sure you print that cert right now for me.’ ”
One young man did his best to avoid engaging in the classroom. “He just refused to smile,” said Ballard, “so, I just kept telling him that I saw potential in him, and that with a bit of effort he could build a computer.”
By the end of the class, he had assembled a working computer. “It was so great to see a smile come across his face,” said Ballard. “Success breeds success and it might take him two years to complete a certification, but we can’t give up on him.”
Let us oft speak kind words
A crucial step to helping special ed students achieve success is touting their accomplishments. Students who achieve any IT proficiency know that Ballard will announce it via e-mail to that student’s core teacher, the principal, and the vice-principal, who in turn make sure to commend the student. He also proudly displays each certification earned by his students in the hall outside his classroom.
A student’s good day in class results in a text from Ballard to their parent or guardian, informing them of their student’s performance. “Parents need encouragement too,” he said. “They long for a good report about their child.” One grandmother received a text that her student had had a great day in class. She called to tell Ballard that he was the first person to ever let her know her grandchild had a great day in school.
Ballard’s love for people is evident. He is a staunch Baptist who takes seriously the Biblical admonition from Jesus to Peter to, “Feed my sheep.” He does acknowledge that, at times, children and students can push teachers and parents to the edge. That never deters him from his belief that every person is precious.
“God created them with special skills and special needs,” Ballard said, “and we all should be mindful of that fact.”
One of his favorite Bible verses is Psalm 139:14, which reads: “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well.” Ballard knows all children are wonderfully made, and that he has the great opportunity to help them along their path.
While understanding that it may not be possible to reach every student, Ballard continues giving it his all. Moreover, he does not count the cost. “If during my career I only get to impact one person in a way that changes their life,” he said, “it will have all been worth it.”