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Murray Meszaros: "IQ = IQ, but EQ ≠ EQ"
Murray Meszaros has been with the Utah State Office of Education for more than 18 years and has served as Utah’s state administrator of GED Testing for 12 years. He prizes his state office and other states’ counterparts as some of his greatest mentors and friends. In 2007 he was honored with the Distinguished Service Award from the GED Testing Service.
In presenting the award, Executive Director of the GED Testing Service Sylvia Robinson praised Meszaros by saying that since assuming the state GED administrator post in 1997, Meszaros has "led the state’s testing centers to a new level of excellence." Meszaros established testing centers in rural areas of Utah to ensure that testing is available throughout the state. He also led the development of an innovative multimedia campaign to promote the GED test in Utah and oversees a GED website that has received high praise.
We spoke with Meszaros late on a Friday afternoon when most everyone else had already slipped into the weekend. Meszaros was still on the job. He was wearing his civil rights hat that day, he said, trying to ensure all high school and post-secondary students have equal access to programs and equal opportunities to succeed regardless of their race, color, national origin, sex (gender), disability, or age. It is one of four could-be-full-time jobs Meszaros has as state administrator in the Utah State Office of Education.
Before Meszaros was responsible for so many students, however, he was a student himself. And before that, he was born into a family who gave Meszaros a rich educational heritage although they could give him very little materially.
That ladder was education, and Meszaros loved nothing better than climbing it.
"I took to school well," Meszaros recalled. "I was not a master of any particular subject, but I did well at most things. In high school, I was on the football, track, and ice hockey teams. I played trombone in four bands. I was a Master Warrant Officer in the Junior Air Cadet Corps. I also started the high school newspaper and had a staff of 22 people working with me. And somewhere in there, I did my homework."
Back at home, Meszaros said education trumped chores.
"If we had to choose between chores or homework, my parents always wanted us to do our homework first," he said, "but we didn’t use that as an excuse. In my arms as a youth, I probably hauled 30 tons of wood and six tons of water to help take care of household needs."
Meszaros, whose parents emigrated from Hungary to Canada in the late ’20s, grew up on a farm with no running water, no central heating and poor, silty soil. His parents had only third- and sixth-grade educations. But they had incredible common sense, according to Meszaros, who remembers that his dad could walk into any store and get credit because of his work ethic and integrity.
"I grew up in what would be classified today as poverty," he said. "I remember getting my first pair of new shoes at about age eight and my first new pair of pants at eight or nine. Not realizing otherwise and not comparing myself to others, I never thought of it as poverty. We were happy. Was that not enough? I have since learned that what the eye cannot see, the heart cannot lust after.
"In today’s society I would not have had an iPod or a Nintendo. But even if we had had the money, I wouldn’t have had the time and I wouldn’t have wanted the toys. I found more joy in learning new things and serving people. I have never wanted my brightest appendage to be my thumb."
Although they were poor, the Meszaros family still helped those who were poorer still.
"We grew a garden twice as big as we needed," Meszaros recalled. "Every year without fail, my parents invited neighbors who were poorer than we were to come and get all they needed. We didn’t have much else to offer, but what we had, my parents readily shared with others. I felt an incredible joy, fulfillment and ‘completeness’ in being part of a giving family."
"As I observe the world, that’s a joy that many people don’t know today unless they (we) are consistently reaching beyond ourselves," Meszaros observed.
"I worry about our almost careless attitude of ‘needing’ — really ‘wanting’ — so many ‘things.’ Though a market economy is better than whatever currently is in second place, our national obsession with getting rich leads people to make poor decisions — imprisoning themselves in debt," he said. "This artificial perception of wealth also lures people into a dangerous entitlement mentality (‘I deserve better than this.’), particularly among the young people who have, in many cases, poor role models and never experienced really tough times. For many, their lives are too easy, too distracted, and often they are not ‘willing to pay the price to have the prize’ in our heavily marketed ‘instant gratification society.’ Furthermore, the bedrock of society — the family — is being jackhammered to pieces by nearly all forces. If this continues, as a society and economy, we will pay a severe price for its destruction. No society has ever succeeded when families are not THE foundation."
"Eventually, with all these issues, when expectations are not met, disappointments and frustrations set in. This leads to one of three personal responses: fight, flight, or freeze.
With students, in about the 9th grade — often sooner, if something is perceived to be too hard, many kids just freeze or flee. If willing hands and hearts are not there to help rescue them, they leave the educational system looking for something on the other side of the fence that many perceive to be better than what they now have."
Back at the Meszaros home, hard work was the norm and spirituality was an important part. The Meszaros home was eclectic in terms of religion. Murray’s father was Catholic, his mother Calvinist. The family attended neither church, opting instead for the United Church of Canada.
Meszaros, attempting to sort out God-related questions, took to religious studies as he had taken to school, at one point attending four churches simultaneously through regular services and study-at-home courses. He studied with Billy Graham for six months and devoured a "fat old book on world religions."
The world opened up to him in other ways as well. Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Meszaros has lived in three countries and speaks several languages. Through these experiences, he found that each culture is not only different in terms of food and traditions, but the people learn in different ways as well.
"The culture in Canada is much more a salad bowl whereas the United States is a melting pot," he observed. "In the U.S., we ask people to morph their cultures into the U.S.-based culture. In Canada, a country not without its own challenges, they truly celebrate the differences of each culture, and that has helped its citizens and media to be more international and global in understanding."
The U.S. culture by contrast is more U.S. centric, Meszaros said.
"As an example, in addition to learning Canadian history, I knew the 50 states by the sixth grade," Meszaros said. "I suspect most Americans don’t have a clue where Saskatchewan is."
When Meszaros lived as an adult in Austria in the late ’70s, he found the traditional European education model there. At that time, career paths were chosen for each person early in life, determined by how well he or she performed in the lower grades of public school. There was a blue-collar track and a white-collar track, and it was "very hard to jump tracks."
Today, Meszaros finds the U.S. culture very supportive of education.
"Most people want the best for their kids so many push their kids toward the high-end university career path," he said. "That is interesting when one considers that labor market statistics suggest that only about 20 percent of jobs require a bachelor's degree or more. On the flip side, if a person stops with a GED or high school diploma, that stopping is a ticket to poverty. If a person wants to have a self-sustaining career, some post-high school training is required whether it is applied technology, company-specific training, or a university degree."
In his own high school experiences, one teacher would have an enormous effect on Meszaros, eventually changing his life’s work.
Ms. Lorna M. Wilson walked into Meszaros’ 10th-grade geography class and announced that she was the teacher but she was not teaching the class.
"YOU are teaching the class," Wilson informed Meszaros and his fellow students. "This is our curriculum. We must cover all of this material. Each of you needs to pick a topic, research it on your own, and become an expert in that area.
"Although, in truth, she did a lot, we became keenly aware of our co-responsibility for our own education. We became responsible for learning how to learn and learning how to teach effectively. I became the ‘expert’ on earthquakes and volcanoes. I later discovered that I knew more and taught my class deeper things than what I learned in my third-year university geology class. Further, motivated by that experience, I have an added love for learning. I also knew the thrill of being the ‘expert,’ at least for a moment. All of the students' self esteem got a huge boost as a result of being respected for good reasons by our peers. It was a much more inclusive model than the lecture format."
As high school concluded, Meszaros was unsure about his career path. He went to a military academy for one year, but disliked that. He wasn’t emotionally ready for such a huge change in "family culture." He decided instead to try the university route and become a physical education teacher.
"The idea just appealed to me," Meszaros said. "I loved the concept of working together as a team. There is so much to be learned by working in teams. And I wanted to be a coach."
Then he found what would become the cornerstone of his life—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, often called the Mormons. As a teenager, Meszaros had become an agnostic, finding it difficult to reconcile the suffering he saw with the idea of a loving God. He also saw massive confusion and discrepancies in the religious world.
As an adult, Meszaros found God in service to others in the very kind of difficult circumstances that troubled him so as a teen. And he found that education was the key to helping people out of those circumstances permanently.
This powerful combination of education and spirituality changed Meszaros.
"I felt and still feel a great passion, an urgency to make a difference," he said. "This gave me the motivation to switch careers." Meszaros decided to become an educator. He earned a bachelor of science degree and a master of arts degree from Brigham Young University, where he also was a Mott Fellow in 1981-1982 (part of the C.S. Mott Foundation).
Today, one of the creeds Meszaros lives by is the story of the man and the fish, which says if you give a man a fish, he will eat for one day, but if you teach him how to fish, he can eat for the rest of his life. He believes that "education is the chief key that will make a difference."
Views on Literacy
As Methods Of Administration (MOA) coordinator, the proper title for his civil rights hat, Meszaros said he can look into any school and find problems within 10 minutes.
Many involve unintended discriminations. For example, Meszaros went into a computer class expecting a diverse group of students based on enrollment from the previous year’s data. Instead, he found all white males. Looking at the marketing materials, he found they featured only white males.
"I told them they got what they advertised for," he said. "It turned out that the marketing materials had been done as a class project. What a wonderful opportunity for the class to redo the brochures and for the instructor to teach the class about the importance of diversity and inclusivity!!"
His own marketing work was one of the reasons Meszaros was recognized with the Distinguished Service Award from the GED Testing Service. Meszaros uses radio, television, and print to market GED testing in Utah.
Perhaps more importantly, other agencies are also involved in most aspects of Utah Adult Education.
"We have a very fluid and good working relationship with other departments in the state such as the Department of Workforce Services (DWS)," Meszaros said. "At the customer level, we share data back and forth legally and are able to work collaboratively. In the process, most people move among systems painlessly. If someone needs housing, a job, or other forms of social service, we assist them to connect to the right resources. They do the same for us. Members from the agencies also get together at least once a year to talk about where the challenges are and how we can get roadblocks out of the way for people."
"Paying attention to diverse needs is particularly important in adult education," Meszaros said. It comes into play in three of his other roles: state administrator for GED testing, head of a scholarship program for students seeking associate degree or less, and his direct work with adult education.
"Considering the research suggests that 40 - 80 percent of individuals enrolled in adult education have some form of disability — emotional, learning, etc. — one must be careful not to approach adult education as one size fits all," Meszaros said.
In Utah, one of the more unusual ways they accomplish this goal is by offering a scholarship program for high school students working toward an associate degree. "There are millions of scholarship dollars available for students seeking a bachelor's degree," he noted. "But when you look at the statistics, a bachelor’s degree is not where the bulk of the job market is. Eighty percent of jobs require less than a bachelor’s degree. We worked out an agreement with public universities and colleges to block out monies for associate degree students. I am not advocating turning the system upside down, but we do need to properly address the needs of these students as well."
Adult education students are not forgotten either Meszaros said. Right now, some 27,000 adults enroll in adult education programs each year in Utah, programs that Meszaros said are as rigorous as the regular K-12 pathway.
Just after he was hired as state administrator for Utah, Meszaros was researching trends in adult education and uncovered another important factor in successful programs.
"There are at least two different factors that influence how people do in formal education," Meszaros said. "There is the intellectual quotient and the emotional quotient. When comparing regular high school graduates to many adult education students, I’ve found that IQ equals IQ, but EQ does not equal EQ."
In other words, the intellectual abilities of students who stay in high school and those who don't are virtually equal. However, the emotional intelligences differ.
"There is a tendency or history among many adult education students to quit things quicker than their regular K-12 counterparts," he said. "Most are as intellectually gifted, but for whatever reasons (substance abuse, challenging socioeconomic backgrounds, poor parenting, etc.) many seem to be less emotionally mature. The K-12 arena is very similar for most people. It’s a cookie cutter experience, but not everyone is the same shape of cookie. Those who are shaped differently struggle. You see the same thing with lots of inventors and entrepreneurs. They just don’t think the same way."
To overcome this, Meszaros said adult education students need strong connections with counselors and mentors.
Meszaros said that in a 1998-2000 Utah experimental project that colleagues and he created, they looked at factors that would enhance the quality of adult education. Several factors profoundly stood out. In addition to more counseling and mentoring, he said adult students also benefited from connectivity between classroom work and the real world and a curriculum that is more customized to their specific needs.
"In many ways, adult students appear to be teenage spirits surrounded by adult bodies," he said. "They need as much support and guidance as many teenagers. It is an issue of caring. It goes back to the saying that ‘no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.’ This really holds true in adult education."
"It comes down to setting inviting school and classroom cultures," Meszaros said. "Is it stale or inviting? Are there pictures that invite students to be in the classroom, to be emotionally invested? Does the teacher use a tone of voice that is exciting, one that says I value you and your opinion? Is the environment one that allows experimentation with concepts freely? Is the environment one that suggests the teacher knows it all or can the teacher also be learning? Are relationships important?
"I have a friend who is a multi-millionaire. Each time we talk he wants to know how I am before we conduct any business. It is not just a platitude with him. He really wants to know and will not move on to business until he is satisfied that I am in good shape. It should be the same with teachers. Do students truly feel that they are valued? Does the teacher go the extra yard to connect with students? If someone is missing, does the teacher make a call and say we missed you? These small things DO make a big difference."
Meszaros said he learned much while serving as a community education coordinator for a school in Alberta, Canada. Among others, he took away two key concepts: 1- Everyone is a teacher; everyone is a learner. 2- People need to feel emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually connected to foster learning.
Behind these concepts was a man named Dr. Brian Staples, whom Meszaros calls one of the people who most enhanced his view of the world, as both a human being and an educator.
"When the Alberta community education model (ERIC - ED245315) was at its height in 1983, his elementary school became the epicenter of goodness in the community, notwithstanding the good work of churches and other wonderful leaders. We burned out a lot of light bulbs (suggesting heavy involvement by the community in the school). The elementary school had a full-sized, 6-station, adult gym and shared that facility with the community. We put art on the walls and made the school into a community art gallery — selling pictures right off of the walls. People brought pictures and slides of their travels and let others become ‘armchair tourists.’ The library was accessible to the public. The school buzzed. The entire school was fully handicapped-accessible for people of all ages, sizes and disabilities, and this predated the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) by 10 years.
"The whole concept was inviting. The result was a greater emphasis on community than if the school at not been there. When province-level politicians decided to eliminate funding for the community school movement, hundreds upon hundreds of letters arrived at the Ministry of Education inside of two weeks. People were saying that taking away the funding for THEIR schools was like stealing things out of their own homes."
For adult educators, Meszaros believes there are three primary goals:
Boiled down to one sentence, Meszaros said his approach is to seek first to understand the needs and situations of others and then to help people achieve their own aspirations. "I am always looking for a way to make a difference in people’s lives and to help people to help themselves," he said.
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