One new Park Middle School seventh-grade teacher says he's a little nervous about his first day on the job.
It's not that Bryan Lawson is a novice -- he's been at the head of a classroom since 2006 after earning a teaching degree from Washington State University Tri-Cities. Kennewick administrators and teachers said they've been nothing but impressed by his dedication and effort as he planned lessons with them during the summer.
"He has a confidence to him," said Park Middle School Principal Kevin Pierce.
But after five years teaching juvenile offenders at Camp Outlook, a rehabilitation program outside Connell, Lawson said it will be an adjustment as a new school year starts Tuesday across much of the Mid-Columbia.
Lawson's classroom in the east Kennewick school is decked out in the school's colors, with curtains made by his mother. It's much bigger than the small windowless room he previously taught in.
He'll have about 25 students, more than twice his last classload, but expects to worry less about whether he can restrain one if necessary.
And while he cared about his students at Camp Outlook, seeing many succeed but some fall victim to old habits, he won't have to work so hard to not wear his heart on his sleeve.
"Here, I get an opportunity to get a little more emotionally attached, to be a little more nurturing," Lawson said.
'Who wants to teach middle school?'
Lawson was born and raised in Portland and did not enjoy school, saying he had poor teachers and hated reading and writing.
But he always gravitated to activities that involved working with students, even after he joined the Army after high school. He eventually became a Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer for a base school while serving in Germany.
"One teacher told me I should be a middle school teacher," he recalled. "I thought, 'That's crazy, who wants to teach middle school?' "
In late 2000, a few years after getting out of the Army, Lawson found himself in Pasco working as youth pastor. He then became a security guard at Southridge High School, where administrators encouraged him to pursue a teaching degree. After graduating from WSU Tri-Cities, he went to work at Basin City Elementary School in the North Franklin School District.
Administrators there began asking Lawson to take the district's teaching position at Camp Outlook, which began in 1997 and is run by a Seattle-based nonprofit and paid for by the state.
He turned the job down three times before he accepted, telling the Herald he was concerned about the stability of the position given the economic climate.
The program is run much like a boot camp with a lot of physical training, but there's also an emphasis on education, developing skills such as anger management and responsibility, and drug and alcohol treatment.
Lessons in empathy
Lawson worked with teenagers who had struggled in schools their entire lives and maybe hadn't regularly seen a classroom in years.
"I had kids with first-grade reading levels, fourth-grade math levels," he said.
The job came with its tense moments; Lawson said he was never attacked, but he recalled some trainees jumping two drill instructors. Another time, a trainee wasn't cooperating and Lawson, at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, was brought in to help get him under control.
"He was moving with five adults on him; we were like twigs," he said. The offender was eventually restrained, placed in a cell and transferred to another prison.
Lawson taught all subjects and was demanding of all his students. If a trainee said he couldn't do something in class, the was sent out to do work with the drill instructors.
"I can't work with, 'I can't,' " Lawson said.
Some students eventually turned themselves around, gaining as much as five grade levels in reading and math during their four months at the camp.
But that wasn't always a sign of success. One trainee who made great progress in the classroom died of a drug overdose weeks after he was released.
Lawson said he cried in an empty office after hearing the news. "I learned a lot of empathy up there," he said.
Camp Outlook's focus on discipline provided Lawson the experience he needs to work with middle school students who are in an awkward transition between childhood and young adulthood, Pierce said.
The principal recently met with a parent whose child struggled in sixth-grade last year. That student will be one of Lawson's this fall.
"I was able to sit there with some confidence and say this child is going to do well this year," Pierce said.
Stephanie Doherty, team leader of Park's seventh-grade teachers, said she's not at all concerned about her new teacher. He was in her classroom before school was out in the spring to observe how she worked with students.
"He's really big on relationships," she said. "He's going to be able to connect with them."
Lawson, who is married with two children and an adopted nephew, said he is afraid that his experiences at Camp Outlook won't translate to his new role.
But he already has had one of the players he's coaching on the football team excitedly note he'll be in his classroom. He briefly met more of his students recently at an open house. Now he just wants to get them all in the classroom and get to work.
"I hope I can utilize what I learned," Lawson said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver