Michigan IT instructor left the business world behind to teach career and computing skills to teens
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Famed 19th Century philosopher and publisher Elbert Hubbard was known for pithy sayings. One of his best is, “Blessed is that man who has found his found his work.” Hubbard believed that those fortunate enough to find and pursue their life’s passion would enjoy health and vigor and never view work as drudgery. Instead of tiring them out, work would leave them feeling replenished in body, mind, and spirt.
Anyone who doubts the wisdom of Hubbard’s aphorism need only spend a few minutes with Martin Ballard to become a believer. For the past two-and-a-half years, Ballard has been the CTE Department Chair and information technology (IT) instructor at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Mich., and for him, work is anything but drudgery.
“When I’m at work, I feel like I’m playing every day, because I enjoy it and I’m energized by it,” Ballard said.
His enthusiasm for, and enjoyment of teaching IT are infectious, and students quickly pick up on his passion. Ballard’s technical knowledge is broad and deep. But the overriding aspect that distinguishes him and his classes is a pervasive emphasis on skills and proficiency over grades.
Ballard feels than an undue emphasis on grades often gets in the way of achieving proficiency. “Too many parents and students are focused on grades and don’t really think about developing proficiency in a skill,” he said.
The idea of a student shelling out $100,000 for a college education, only to graduate and land a job paying a measly $25,000, is anathema to Ballard. If he had his way, schools would adjust their teaching methods to focus on preparing students for a rewarding career and not just for four more years in a college or university.
“We need to train kids to a level of proficiency in areas of skill so that, if they want, they can go out and get a job that provides a good solid living wage.”
A path to proficiency
Although his emphasis is IT, as an example of the importance of proficiency in an in-demand skill that pays well, Ballard often points to the experience of his son, who is training to become a farrier — a specialist in caring for horse’s hooves. Farriers are so rare, and in-demand, that apprentices typically earn between $200 and $500 per week, and professionals between $100,000 and $250,000 annually.
“The future of education must focus on a pathway to a career, not just to college,” said Ballard. “I often say to my students, ‘Aren’t you just sick of being asked where you are going to college?’ Maybe there is a better way to get to your career. Becoming proficient in IT is a swift and inexpensive path to a great career.”
Ballard is always looking for a better way to help students attain IT proficiency, and constantly asking himself, “What does a minimally qualified IT candidate look like — what do they need to be able to do and what certifications do they have to have to perform an IT job?”
Regularly evaluating his own teaching methods has fostered in Ballard a healthy skepticism about grades, as well about taking shortcuts to pass a class. “Too often students can get a passing grade without being proficient in a subject just by bringing in enough boxes of tissues,” he said.
Ballard’s goal is that his students’ IT skills will be a calling card that opens doors to job opportunities. “When companies interview candidates, I want them to see the name Avondale High School on a résumé and instantly know that this is a young person with the right skills for the job.”
To inspire his students, he regularly stresses how IT skills are directly reflected in the salary one can earn: “Seriously, I let them know that with the right skills and certifications, they can make a very good salary when they walk out of high school. And what 18-year-old doesn’t want to earn $35,000 to $65,000 a year?”
Setting (and achieving) clear goals
In less than three years, Ballard has turbocharged the development of Avondale’s CTE program. It is comprehensive and thorough, with instruction focusing on five domains called Classification of Instructional Programs (CIPs). They are:
● Computer Programming/Programmer
● Digital/Multimedia and Information Resources Design
● Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications
● Systems Administrator/Administrator
● Computer and Information Systems Security/Information Assurance
Each CIP domain contains consists of classes designed to provide a student with the training and skills to enter the IT workforce upon graduation.
There are also plenty of opportunities to earn 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 perspective employers that you have the IT proficiency to do the job. And you’re only 18 years old! That’s a pretty good start.”
When it comes to IT instruction, Avondale is on the leading edge. It is the only high school in Michigan that offers all five CIP domains. Ballard plans to add courses in cybersecurity and forensics and white-hat hacking next year.
“People with certifications in these areas will have no problem getting jobs,” he said. “The last time I did a job search online for these certifications, there were thousands of job openings nationwide. Just in Michigan alone, there are more than 90,000 unfilled IT jobs right now.”
Raised in the family business
Ballard’s road to IT started when he joined his family’s printing, packaging, and advertising business. “I was five years old when my Dad hired me, at 10 cents an hour, to sweep the floor and clean up. I still remember, my first paycheck was $1.25,” he said.
Like a Horatio Alger protagonist, Ballard grew in knowledge and responsibility, learning to operate machinery and deal with customers along the way to gradually mastering every aspect of the business. Under his father’s guidance, he honed his work skills, developed character, and learned life lessons, the most important being, “Do it right the first time. Because you can’t afford to do it over.”
Ballard illustrates this principle with a powerful example. The business was hired by fast-food giant Wendy’s to print 3 million coupons. Halfway through the printing, a Wendy’s official realized that there was a problem with the language in the coupon’s disclaimer. The 1.5 million coupons already printed had to be shredded, and 3 million new ones printed — a costly error.
“Fortunately, it was Wendy’s mistake and not ours,” said Ballard. “I realized then that someone always pays for a mistake. Wendy’s had to eat the cost of their own carelessness.”
Ballard continued working in the family business throughout high school and into college, where he majored in marketing and earned a minor in economics. He also took computer programming classes and began applying what he learned in class to help the business function more efficiently.
“My computer classes had relevance to our daily operations and I realized the value that computers could offer in helping our business grow,” he said.
Transitioning out of business
From that point on, Ballard was hooked on computers and their possible applications. “I began purchasing computer systems and writing database programs to track production and accounting,” he said. “I started working on my own Unix System, learned FORTRAN, Basic, and COBOL, and taught myself the C+ programming language. It was trial and error and I loved it.”
Helped along by the power of IT, the family printing business boomed — before long, their customer base stretched from coast to coast and included many well-known commercial brands. The future looked bright and it appeared that Ballard’s path was set. But, as in all interesting tales, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. So too for Ballard.
Globalization was changing the packaging industry and the company soon found itself confronting increasingly complicated challenges. They would need to adapt in order to continue growing, a demand that would have involved Ballard spending even more time with the business. Instead, he began to consider other options.
“I would lay awake at night talking to my wife and saying, ‘I’m not sure I want to stay in a business environment for my rest of my life,’” he said.
Eventually, feeling he had nothing to lose, he decided to pursue a career teaching business and technology to young people. “I felt the Lord was leading me in this direction and it’s been the right way to go, because I’ve never had a stressful day of life pursuing my teaching career,” he said.
While earning his teaching certificate, Ballard continued to help with the family business and upon completion of his program, he accepted a teaching position in an inner-city school district in Pontiac, Mich.
Laying the groundwork
Ballard went on to spend 15 years teaching in Pontiac, and he credits his time there with preparing him for what he is doing today. As an inner-city teacher, he had to be creative to reach the students. One day, a co-teacher asked him how he was going to teach a concept and a light went on for Ballard.
“I realized that my students were coming to school with all sorts of challenges and that as a teacher, I had to deal with those challenges,” he said.
“Based on the sort of challenges my students faced, I really began thinking through how I could teach each concept of my class to help them overcome those challenges while becoming proficient in the subject matter.” During his time teaching in Pontiac, Ballard built an effective and valuable technology program for grades 6 through 12.
Word of his program’s success spread and, in 2016, Avondale came knocking and asked him to join their team. Their goal was to build a CTE program that would be the best in the state, and they turned Ballard loose on it. He embraced the challenge and he isn’t shy about sharing his objective:
“My mission is to build the strongest IT program in the state of Michigan, and then throughout the United States,” he said. “I want the Avondale School District to be the ‘go-to’ district for IT so that potential employers immediately recognize Avondale graduates as IT proficient.”
Ballard is focused and puts in some long hours — his car is often the first one in the lot in the morning and the last to leave at night. Fortunately, he isn’t fighting solo. Far from it, he is backed up by a committed group of administrators who support his efforts.
“Our administration is great,” he said. “The board, the superintendent, the principals, and the staff have always supported us more than 100 percent in what we are doing.”
An IT program for everyone
Administration does indeed recognize Ballard’s contribution and effort. IT is a fast-moving industry and keeping up with the advances and new certifications is a full-time job in and of itself. “It’s a daunting and challenging task but one, I believe, that Martin relishes,” said Avondale Superintendent, James Schwartz.
Ballard also has the backing of a strong and vibrant advisory committee that helps guide the program. The committee is made up of distinguished local business and education leaders, and they like what Ballard is accomplishing.
“Martin is one of the most dedicated, professional, caring, funny, dedicated educators I have ever met. He puts everything he has into that program and the kids benefit for it,” said committee member and Jump Fuel CEO Thomas Kaleta. “Think back to the one teacher, during your education, who made a big impact on your own life. For the kids in his program, that’s Martin Ballard.”
It also helps that Michigan’s legislature supports CTE with some hefty financing. Ballard has an impressive budget for educational materials and equipment — $100,000 per year — and his classroom would make any IT instructor envious. It contains an ample supply of computers, along with quality cameras, drones, robots and even a 3-D printer.
Ballard also builds trust with others by generously sharing his largesse. “There is a perception that CTE departments are territorial and keep to themselves. Not me. I gladly open our labs for others to use,” he said. “Letting other teachers use our equipment in their classes fosters support for us and the program. Let people play in your sandbox and guess what, others want to come play too.”
He is also quick to point out that the equipment belongs to the school district. “I don’t own this stuff, it’s just in my classroom, so come one and all and use it,” he said. “The batteries are going to go dead whether they are used or not.”
Recognition and admonition
Ballard’s teaching style and passion recently resulted in a big surprise last month when he was named Oakland County’s Outstanding High School Teacher of the Year. “I was shocked,” he said. “Never even imagined that I would be teacher of the year.”
Ballard issued a formal statement expressing his gratitude and appreciation for school and district officials. He stressed that school officials have always been strongly supportive and given him the freedom to experiment: “(T)hey support me 100 percent. So, am I the Teacher of the Year because I’m great and talented? No. It’s because people support me.”
Ballard is also known for building sincere and long-lasting relationships with his students. “How can I help them attain proficiency if I don’t have a relationship with them?” he said.
An essential aspect of his instruction is teaching soft skills, training kids in effective communication, appropriate business attire, the importance of working with others, body language, and even things as simple as how to give a handshake. “The goal is to build character in the kids,” he said.
Character is so important that he requires students to accomplish small tasks to help develop character. Each Friday, the students personally self-record how well they have done their homework, practiced exercises, worked with their parents and so forth. Points are awarded for each proper activity accomplished during the week.
“Some do occasionally try to cheat,” said Ballard. “They may have marked off that their parents watched them doing their homework or some other thing, when they really didn’t.”
In Mr. Ballard’s class getting caught cheating doesn’t automatically mean failure. The student does lose points, but more importantly, they get a oneon-one conversation with Ballard.
“It’s a life lesson and it’s really important,” he said. “I ask them, ‘What if this was your job and your boss caught you lying?’ The students learn real fast the importance of having character and being honest to others and to themselves.”
Teaching — No greater call
Positive and impactful relationships with his students is at the core of Ballard’s teaching and program. “It’s all about knowing the kids and being a guide-by-their-side rather than a sage-on-the-stage,” he said.
As a staunch Baptist, Ballard takes seriously the obligation to live as a Christian. He credits his success with students and others to his relationship with Jesus Christ. “I have a relationship with Christ. Everything I do is based on that relationship. It impacts my relationships with other people.
“Because I have a relationship with Him, I’m able to have more meaningful and helpful relationships with others.”
For Martin Ballard, teaching and learning are about a lot more than IT. They’re about life and developing the character and knowledge to succeed. Ballard is indeed blessed to have found his life’s work, and because of that, he is blessing the lives of others.