Lessons Learned

By: Adam Holland, Hart District Teachers Association

Many say that teaching is a lifestyle, a hard life but a good life. The life of a true teacher is a distinguished one among so many occupations in this world.

But what happens when life interferes with our teaching lifestyle? In 2014 my life changed forever: I was diagnosed with brain cancer. While my private life was redefining itself in many ways, one area that wasn’t being redefined was teaching.

For me, teaching and the classroom were wonderful diversions to my own personal fight for life, a reminder that the world was continuing on and that despite my cancer I still played a role in this world. I knew there were things in my life that were bigger than me, like my students, my school, my colleagues, and most of all my faith.

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I waited until after my students took their AP European History exam to tell them. They were amazingly supportive. One of the most wonderful things they did was to write letters to me, laminate them and put them in a book.

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In addition to daily encouragement, school staff gave me a bouquet of historical figures containing gift cards for meals, for when I would be too tired or sick to make dinner. Several of them were willing to give me their own sick time in case I needed to take an extended period of time off.

Thankfully, I didn’t need it. But I will always cherish how staff, students and students’ families reached out to help me. I had always been told we were a family at West Ranch, and now I experienced it.

In the summer of 2014 I underwent two brain surgeries, and one of my greatest concerns was healing before school started. I didn’t want to miss it at all. I even considered putting off the second surgery for a year so that it wouldn’t affect my students’ education. A great group of people knocked sense into me, and I had the second surgery three weeks before going back to work in August.

Radiation and chemo were on the docket for the fall, and throughout it all I felt terrible and physically exhausted. I woke up each morning, dressed, went to work and did the best job I could. My colleagues and students inspired me to press on. That year I did not miss a single day because of how I felt, save one day when I suffered some side effects from a spinal tap. Through it all I committed myself to my students and school.

 “I had always been told we were a family at West Ranch High School, and now I experienced it.”

As I recovered in 2015, I realized that my journey and what I had learned were not just for me. There were others on the journey — my parents, my friends, my faith family, my colleagues and my students. I wrote about this in what eventually became a book, Anchored in the Storm, as a way not just to share my story, but to encourage and inspire those who go through any type of suffering in life. It’s been an incredible blessing for me to see and hear how one journey and experience can help others. My journey continues to this day.

One of the lines from the book is: “There are people who have literally poured so much into others, there is nothing left for the history books; they have given themselves away.” Teachers do this on a daily basis, and I am proud to serve among so many wonderful educators. I am now so proud to be among the many cancer warriors out there.


Adam Holland on how surviving cancer changed the way he teaches:

  • I tell students that challenges are not always bad. I teach AP European History. During the year, so many kids wonder why they took such a difficult course, but at the end of the school year or even years later, it all clicks, and they see that the challenging times were worth it. When we’re going through those hard times, I tell them that I had cancer, and it was one of the greatest gifts I ever received. I truly mean that!
  • I want all students to know that I’m on their side and want them to have the best education I can give them. To do well, they need to know they are supported and cared for. I teach students history; I don’t teach history to students. It might be a subtle shift of words, but it’s enormous when it comes to teaching. Students always come first in education.
  • I tell them that life doesn’t always go as expected. They’re looking ahead, and the future looks so bright. They want to take on the world, and I love that passion in them. But I also want them to have realistic expectations. Like climbing a mountain, you don’t jump from valley to peak at once. You take it a step at a time, and eventually with persistence and fortitude you get to the top.
  • I tell students they need to do something they love and they’ll never work a day in their life. That’s a big part of my own story. I wake up tired, but it is a joy to come to work each day, work hard with and for my students and staff, and go home tired. I am much happier than so many who have so much more than I ever will. I love teaching.

Adam Holland teaches social studies at West Ranch High School in Stevenson Ranch. A member of the Hart District Teachers Association, he is a National Board Certified Teacher and author of Anchored in the Storm (2016).

In 2016, former students of Holland created a short video about his story and book:

Pride and Respect

When Pedro Martinez gives students their marching orders, the boys and girls fall into formation and march across the campus of Hawthorne High School. Their uniforms are impeccably clean and pressed, their expressions are solemn. When they skillfully toss and twirl their wooden rifles in the air, they catch them — in most cases without missing a beat. Martinez stands at the sidelines barking orders, wearing a Navy uniform and a proud expression.

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Martinez tells his students, “You must have pride in your country, state, community, school, and yourself.”

Martinez, 62, has been teaching Navy Junior ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) classes for 14 years. He earned a special subject credential to teach ROTC from CSU Long Beach. The former Navy man and UFW organizer is also active with his own union. He’s vice president of the Centinela Valley Secondary Teachers Association and serves on CTA’s State Council.

His students learn much more than military skills. They make underwater robots that can move objects through an obstacle course and enter them in competitions. They learn map, compass and shipbuilding skills. They built a miniature replica of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and entered it in a Memorial Day parade.

Their extracurricular activites include everything from entering ROTC competitions to studying cyber security, engaging in pellet gun target practice, and performing at memorial services and veterans’ events.

Sophomore Kevin Villalobos says some students enroll in ROTC because they think it will be an easy elective, but then find out it’s anything but.

“This program is not easy. We work hard, and we have a strong work ethic. But like many things in life, it’s worth it.”

Javier Moreno, a junior, says the course helped him overcome shyness and develop confidence. “I speak out in my other classes and raise my hand now,” he says.

The Navy pays for course materials and computers, and 50 percent of Martinez’s salary.

“I want to instill pride in my students,” says Martinez. “It’s definitely part of my curriculum to explain that you must have pride in your country, state, community, school and yourself.”

He is aware that some people object to ROTC classes and that critics believe their purpose is to recruit students into the military, which could result in death or injuries. But the military, he points out, can be a way out of poverty and offers money for college and training in specific areas such as electronics, engineering and cyber intelligence, which may lead to successful careers.

“Our ROTC classes are not there to recruit students,” he says. “We are only there to train them in Navy curriculum. Very few of my students actually join the military.”

Few may enlist, but most learn discipline that keeps them in line. To stay in his class, they must keep their grades up, stay out of trouble and be respectful.

“My approach is that if you want respect, you have to learn how to give respect. And my students know that if they want to be in my class, they have to perform well in all their classes.”

The teacher they call “Chief” has clearly earned their admiration.

“I’m learning respect,” says Izaak Lopez, a sophomore. “I’ve learned that I have to be presentable. I’ve learned maturity. I’ve learned commitment. I’ve become responsible.”

Jessie Vales, a sophomore, says the ROTC class helps him do better in his other classes. “I’ve straightened up a lot,” he explains.

Briyit Sandoval graduated last year and is considering enlisting in the U.S. Marines. “Because I am interested in the military, I thought ‘why not take a class and see if I enjoy it?’ I found that I did, and I looked forward to this class every day. It taught me honor, courage and commitment.”

Students such as Sandoval make their teacher proud.


A Veteran Organizer

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Pedro Martinez served in the U.S. Navy for more than 20 years, enlisting when he was 25 because he wanted to see the world. He has visited Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Iran, Bahrain, Croatia and Austria. He did not engage in combat, but he had a dangerous job working on his ship’s boilers. At times crew members worried they might be targets — especially after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

Before all that, Martinez was active in the United Farm Workers’ efforts to unionize. He grew up in Delano, the heart of the movement, and picked crops. One day he saw the foreman removing pro-UFW fliers from car windshields and throwing them into the trash. Martinez took them out of the trash and placed them back on the cars, telling the foreman he could do what he wanted on his lunch hour. He was cussed out and fired. So he went to work for Cesar Chevez.

“I used to go to the fields during grape season and deliver union materials,” he says of that era. “I would go to farmworkers’ houses and talk to them about how the union would benefit them and why they needed a contract. I did a lot of campaigning.

“It was a very emotional time and a part of history.”