The Motivator: Ian Martin

Ian Martin encourages his students to get radical

It’s four o’clock on a Tuesday, and as the sun prepares to begin its slow descent over the Pacific, Ian Martin and a group of his graduate students convene in a mid-sized classroom on the first floor of Mother Rosalie Hill Hall.

Martin, an assistant professor in the School of Leadership and Education Studies, is dressed casually in a pair of khakis and a button-down shirt. Seated seminar-style at tables that ring the room, Martin and his students look more like friends or colleagues than professor and class. But this is, in fact, “Applied Theories and Techniques in School Counseling.” And Martin — himself a former school counselor with a doctorate in education — is here to teach, support, advise and humbly share his wisdom with the group, which on this day numbers 15.

His low-key style combines practical experience with an array of evidence-based research. ”I think they know that I’m pretty dedicated to what I do, and that I really enjoy them,” he says. “They’re future colleagues, and I really try to treat them that way.” He also wants to inspire them in original ways, because this class comes at the end of a very long day. All of the students have been doing fieldwork at a variety of schools — some since early this morning — and he doesn’t want them to burn out.

“This is my sixth year teaching the class and I still do all the planning,” he says. “I need quiet time before I get a fun idea.” For this session, Martin has toted down from his office a pad of giant drawing paper and a box brimming with markers and colored pencils. He’s also got plenty of sticky notes, though he’s forgotten to bring tape. This is important, because as part of today’s exercise, students will hang their work on the walls.

But first things first. Each student is asked to share the results of a project conducted at his or her school site. Martin had instructed them to design needs assessments by surveying either teachers or students to learn what kind of support or interventions they require, and then craft special programs based on the results. One by one the students share their surveys and responses. Issues are discussed. Problems are raised. Several reveal that they had trouble convincing teachers to participate. “That’s ok,” Martin assures them. “We can work on strategies to get them to buy in.”

“The whole idea is to have them work on things they can try the next day,” he explains. “I think that’s where I get most motivated. I get feedback from them about what may or may not have worked in the schools.” He also draws inspiration from other sources, showing them a compelling TED talk by English creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson, a relentless promoter of radical education reform who happens to be one of Martin’s heroes. And then, as he often does, Martin divides the students into groups. He hands out markers, pencils and the giant drawing paper, and asks them to design their “dream school,” based on Robinson’s theories and their own discussions, observations and priorities. “Think about everything,” he tells them. “Do you want walls, or no walls? A kitchen for cooking? A garden for vegetables? Do you even want classrooms?”

The students get to work. One group draws a tree, with the counseling department at its center, and each floating leaf a classroom. Another group designs a traveling school that can actually fly to other countries — hardly surprising, since Martin has concentrated his academic research on international school-based counseling models. In fact, he leads students on an eye-opening course abroad every summer. Seeing how things are done elsewhere and mixing with people from other places are key components of his educational approach.

“It’s becoming more and more relevant here,” he says. “The large immigrant populations are able to empathize with new arrivals. School counselors are increasingly dealing with families in new situations.”

Martin credits his own high school counselor with helping him find focus when he was adrift. And when these students leave USD, Martin wants them to be focused as well: eager and primed to promote change and make meaningful contributions. But he’s a realist. He knows they should be prepared for an imperfect education system where idealism can often collide with reality. Dream schools might only be partially realized.

“It’s about recognizing your allies, the path of least resistance, the fights you really need to dig in on and the ones you can let go,” Martin says. “I think we have amazing students. They don’t have to drink my Kool-Aid, but I know they’re going to go out there and do good work.” — Karen Gross