Being a parent doesn’t make you a better teacher. Being a teacher makes you a better parent.
Those savant students who know as much as you do about the subject you teach sure do keep you sharp.
I found out pretty quickly, even though I tried, that you can’t fix a kid’s learning, behavior, or emotional disorders right there in third period while you’re talking about the Battle of Gettysburg. I got some good advice from Lurlene one time on that one when she said … Fix the behavior; not the kid. You don’t have time to do any real fixing, she said. That’s the job of their therapist. If their parents care enough to get them one.
The five most powerful words you can say to a student, a struggling student or otherwise, are … I am proud of you. When you say this a lot, and always at the right times, students will improve in their academic skills, and sometimes even their emotional and behavioral disorders seem to lighten. At the same time, as a teacher, your silent mantra should be … Don’t give up. I’m proud of me, too.
When nothing happens, just say it all over again, word for word, even louder. Funny, when you hear another teacher yelling at a student you sort of start critiquing how they could yell things better. You critique the words they choose and their dramatic pause timing and even how they wag their finger or if they’re honestly trying to let some spit fly out of their sandwich hole, which you might consider. But when you’re giving a student some life-saving skills suggestions, critiquing yourself is the last thing on your mind.
The moment when their eyes light up and they say this is great stuff and they mean it … that’s it. That’s why you teach.
So you want to become a teacher? I’ll bet you’re good at telling stories; you like to inform; you’re probably real organized and real well read; and you’re probably pretty decisive and confident in yourself. I’ll bet there are a few topics you know a whole lot about. But how will you handle yourself when a kid is rude and disrespectful to you? Every day? Sometimes six or seven … at the same time? How about when a parent is rude and disrespectful to you when you’ve done nothing to deserve it?
So you still want to become a teacher? I’ll bet you’re the kind of person who would make up your own mind about becoming a teacher. Good. You’ll make a great teacher.
And one other notion: heroism. You like the heroic feeling teaching and guiding and encouraging and tough loving gives you from time to time. Feels good, doesn't it? Feeling heroic. Overcoming huge odds. It's okay for you to feel proud of yourself.
And you’re willing to spend your own money, too. You love to go to The School Box, even online. You love the way the place looks and smells. It’s like a toy store for teachers. You feel creative and engaging and dedicated the moment you walk in. The teacher’s section at Dollar Tree ain’t bad, either. I learned early that kids will kill for stickers. Not other kids. You. They will rush your desk like the Pamplona running of the bulls for a sticker that says they did a good job.
When defiance or laziness or apocalyptic disinterest clogged everything up, all I asked was to give it a try. Do one little thing. Ask one question. Offer up one discussion item. Write one sentence, and see if you survive. And when none of those things worked, we’d just try again the next day. I told them I’d be right back in here tomorrow … that I would never give up on them or learning or just sitting here talking. They’d usually breath … Thank you.
The class periods and full days and weeks and months and semesters when their eyes don’t light up and they never say this is great stuff makes you wonder why you teach. Lurlene gave me some good advice on that, too. She said … Don’t take it personally.
The very best teacher advice I ever heard from Lurlene was advice she freely handed out to needy parents and students, too. Lurlene would listen very carefully to their drama, without interrupting, and then she’d say … Get over yourself. To a mom, dad, and student, after they got over themselves, they always ended up thanking Lurlene for the good advice and tough love.
There are very few teachers and parents who are confident enough in themselves to give out tough love. The ones who are confident enough give it to themselves, too. That’s how they back it up.
If you want to have the same mental and physical energy at the end of the day that you started out with you have to eat a big breakfast and then a small, non-fatty snack once an hour and drink a lot of water all day. Once you get in the routine it’s easy. In other words, if you’re never hungry or dying of thirst starting in homeroom until you leave, you’re doing it right.
Manners! One day, right in the heat of a parent-teacher conference, it finally happened: a mother answered her cell phone and started talking as if she was the only person in the room. We all looked at each other, dumbly. I finally said to the mother as sarcastically as I possibly could, and with a sarcastic wave of my hand … Oh, please. Take your time. She did.
One time I had a mother say to me about her son … Well, good luck with him, she said, because he’s one straaaaange little guy. He really was one strange little guy, so I wasn’t shocked at all when she muttered those words to me. But, mom, right in front of him?
In my time teaching, I discovered three students who had been cutting their upper arms. Two were girls and one was a boy. One girl’s cuts were clean, gaping-open, long cuts, as if they were performed by a surgeon. I noticed the lowest cut on her upper arm one morning, and when I lifted the sleeve of her short-sleeve shirt to reveal the rest of the cuts, I gasped. Then she screamed that she wanted to go to a goddamn mental hospital! Right now! She even knew the name of the hospital and what street it was on. I said in an odd voice … Okay, you got it. I knew about the mental hospital. I had a college roommate who spent some time there. Later, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy … and later he became a monk. I swear. A monk in a monastery.
Listen to the advice of veteran teachers and administrators about teaching kids. I’ve learned that nearly every bit of it is valuable … usually just a few minutes later.
Then learn how to lip read. There are always a few inquisitive students who watch you while you’re chit-chatting with other teachers at lunch or while you’re watching them play four square. Sometimes these information seekers are still in the building after school’s out, working with other teachers on various things, and they’ll walk in on you in your classroom while you’re talking with another teacher and you can tell they know they’ve bopped in on something intense. One time, a girl finally came up to me and asked me what are ya’ll always talking about! I told her we were always talking about you guys … the students. That’s all teachers really like to talk about … is you. I asked her what did she think was the second biggest thing teachers talk about. She had no idea. I said … Food.
Everywhere I’ve ever taught the students finally figured out that I would toss them a piece of candy when they said something nice about my hair. When you fling rubber chickens at kids while you sport a nice hairdo ... well … that’s like something out of David Lynch movie. Candy, however, has a grand paw feel to it. The cash register ladies at the Publix near where I live, as they’d tally up big bags of candy every other week or so, finally asked me what I did for a living. I told them, proudly. One of them asked me what makes me give out the candy. I said when they say something nice about my hair … I throw a piece of candy at them. The cash register lady looked at my hair. She said you sure must have a lot of patience.
Patience for what? The patience thing really mesmerized me. Every time you told someone who didn’t know you that you were a teacher they’d tilt their head to the left like a dog looking at a piece of abstract art, and a glazed expression would wash over their face, and then they’d mutter … You sure must have a lot of pay-tience. I finally figured it out. Most people think that all kids are maniacs and constantly give you trouble. A lot of kids are maniacs. A lot of kids are not maniacs. I’ve had classes of kids who were so engaged and respectful and mannerly that my heart would flutter when I was teaching them. I’d get revved up in the very best way. Sometimes I told them that if they wanted to cut up a little bit it was okay with me. They never would. One day I demanded that Honoria make a funny noise—that she had to make a funny noise or else she’d be in trouble. I thought she was going to faint. One day she did faint, of course, but because of something else. Her brain turned off because it really did get full.
One of my proudest teaching moments came when I gave a little professor-type kid the perfect nickname. His existence on Earth begged for a nickname and I believed I was placed on Earth with the one mission of coming up with his nickname. I was profoundly moved by this revelation. I was shocked that it wasn’t his real name already. Anyway, I’d been noodling over my final selections for some time … weeks … and the day came when I officially bestowed my decision upon him in class in front of his classmates. Everybody freaked out with its dead-on accuracy. The victim was pleased with it, too. He thought it was perfect. Later that day at lunch I was sitting at the teacher table and I told my teacher buddy, Gary the math teacher, to look over at the kid and while he was looking at him that I was going to utter the perfect nickname I came up with for him. Gary started looking at him and then he said … Okay, say it. I said … Winkelberg. Gary said … Good Lord that’s perfect. He really is a total Winkelberg! I breathed again into Gary’s left ear … Winkelberg. I was so proud.
Just because you tell school stories to your best friend, who begs you for them, doesn’t mean you’re making fun of your students, their parents, or what you do. It just means you enjoy telling your best friend interesting things he’d never know on his own. That’s what teachers do. We educate people about things they’d never willingly learn on their own. Raise you hand if you’ve ever, on your own, read the Constitution of the United States of America. It’s not that long. Raise your hand if you think you might last ten minutes with Lester without either one of you ending up injured or dead.
I made a big deal out of the infamous vexillology week every year for an ultimate and sneaky and specific reason that some students understood: the diligent, unrelenting use of a certain word in your life … why. Always go deeper by asking ... why? Why? Why? When they made their “flags of me,” they had to explain what the green on their flag meant, or what the picture of a bug meant to them, personally. Why does it mean that to you? Come to think of it, why would you be rude to so-and-so? Is it so-and-so, or is it just kids with zits you don’t like? Go deeper by asking yourself why. There really is a reason for everything, and it takes some thinking and hard work to learn the reason. When you get down to the real and ultimate why something happens, then you’ll finally understand how everything in the world works, even your own behavior and mind. Just by studying flags.
Got glyphs? Sometimes students are just as fascinated with your handwriting as you are with theirs.
Name calling. It feels good when your friends and family call you “Teach.” And when you commit to extracurricular activities, and some students call you “Coach” … that’s a pretty good feeling, too.
Think of the angriest you’ve ever been in your life. There will be that student and that moment in your career where the student perfects the moment of apocalyptic disrespect, and you, the teacher, think that all of a sudden you’re in a waking nightmare. You cannot fathom how the student thinks it’s okay for them to make you question your existence on Earth … right in front of everybody else in class. But it happens. My apocalyptic moment came one day, and I was so dumfounded by this fellow that I read his student file that afternoon. I really spent some time with it—his file was thick—and wondered how he wasn’t already in prison by killing three particular people in his life who were supposed to love him and take care of him. After that, I was still firm in my class expectations—behavior and academic—but I looked for any and everything I could do that would prompt me to pat him on his back and to make him feel like he mattered. Sometimes in life the people you end up despising the most are people you’ve never even met.
School wasn’t so bad. My best friend and I have known each other since the first days of ninth grade and we’ve been pals ever since. We even live down the street from other now. We both admit that our four years of high school together was the best time of our lives. We loved the bump and shuffle of school. The characters. The mindless pranks. The quirky teachers. I guess I still do.
I taught a workshop one time at a statewide conference of teachers on how to be a successful teacher your rookie year and I told them that you don’t really have to love kids to be a great teacher … you just have to understand them. All the teachers in the room agreed with me. That was a real nice moment. I couldn’t believe I had actually hit on some remarkable, agreed-upon truth in a profession I was real green at. One woman was asleep, so I’ll never really know if she agreed or not.
Being fascinated helps, too. If you’re a teacher and you’re genuinely fascinated with children, teenagers, and young people and what they say and do and how they interact with you and each other, then you’ll always have fun at work, every day. This is why some people teach until they croak and why most policemen police for a long time, too.
The unexpected result of mischief is sometimes just as funny. Just to keep it even more interesting, wear the same clothes to school every day for several days in a row and you’ll finally come to the horrifying conclusion that no one, your fellow teachers and your students, aren’t paying attention one bit to what you wear to school every day.
The time spent driving home from school was long enough to go over the day, every day, and figure what I could have done better … where I truly screwed up … and sometimes where I did a good job. It was also the best time to grieve, and even weep, for what you saw and experienced that day. I never wore sunglasses while driving until I became a teacher.
Sales knows no hours. The people who know the most about a company’s faults and good parts are the salesmen. The people who know the most about a school’s faults and good parts are the teachers. When you’re the person actually providing the product to the customer you will be amazed about how much you come to know about everything and everybody, and you’re usually exactly right.
Dawg gone. I stayed in touch with Lurlene. She really could bring you up to date on anything and everybody pretty much instantly. Nothing ever got by her. After I left she got promoted to dean of academics and now she gets to boss around all of the other principals. One time she told me … Oh, by the way, Pam’s fat nasty little dawg, Bo-deep, finally exploded and is now with Jee-sus. I said to Lurlene I’m sure there was some wailing and teeth gnashing from members of the student body and faculty. Ye gods, Lurlene said, there were conniption fits and freak outs and the questioning of how life on Earth could continue without that dawg in the building. When they heard the news, Lurlene said, a number of the chill-ren had to be taken out of the building on stretchers. Lurlene said that I my-self had to lie down on the carpet while my palpi-tations ceased. Pam and Lurlene are best principal friends. Pam buried Bodeep by the side of her building, and then planted some rose bushes over him.
I really miss that Lurlene. She was something.
One time, for a while school year, I got a bunch of unmotivated and uninterested and nearly illiterate kids to write stories and essays. To write something every week by Friday. I sure did. I told them I borrowed this one from the working world, especially the newspaper news room. Every Monday the kids got a fun subject to write about, a low word count, the opportunity to be edited by me, and then I would read their work, out loud, in my goofy announcer voices, to everybody else every Friday. My God, did it work. The first couple of Fridays were horrifying to the students, but then they finally got whacked each week by a sense of pride and Fridays became the most looked-forward-to day of the week. Not because it was the last day of the week. It became the proudest day of the week because they learned that hard work and a dedicated routine always has a payoff. When you see emotionally fragile kids pat each other on the back—literally pat each other on the back—because they liked each other’s stories, it’s hard not to get teary-eyed right in front of them. Every Friday.
Brood and ruin your mood. I finally got smart and learned that too-many cigars, brooding, and pondering for way too long every evening at home, was not the way to take the edge off what a teacher experiences. It was not the way to refresh. It’s exercise—open-mouth breathing, sweat-spewing, body-changing exercise. That’s what ultimately does it. I started training for marathons and ran in a bunch of marathons and half-marathons and in those hard-core, military style obstacle course races, hoping not to get burned alive, electrocuted, or drown in creeks, lakes, or pools of mud or ice water. I boxed at the local Police Athletic League and got my ass kicked around, but while I changed my body and teacher’s mind for the better. Some of my students caught on and asked why in the hell would I subject myself to all that. I never told them the real truth. But I did let them punch me in my stomach as hard as they wanted and anytime they wanted. You can know your subject and teach it like an expert, but if you want to impress young scholars, let them punch you in the gut and enjoy the satisfaction of being their teacher-hero in the most unconventional way. This used to drive Lurlene crazy and she told me to stop but I never did. Old Burrell thought it was brilliant. At his old school, six or seven hundred years ago, he said he used to kick kids out of class by dragging them into the hall while they were still in their desks. That was back in the good ol’ days, he said, and parents thanked him for it.
Gut check. I got in trouble with Lurlene for something else, too, among one or two million other things. If a guy got in trouble in class, instead of kicking him out, I had him do twenty push-ups. Some of these kids were pretty good athletes and they would call my bluff. They’d pop off a quick twenty, and then crank their head up and look me right in the eye and ask for twenty more. One of these guys popped me in the gut one day, too. I kept it together for as long as I could, while I think I was lecturing about Abraham Lincoln or somebody, and then excused myself and went to the teacher’s bathroom to see if my liver had come out my navel. Actually, my left kidney came out my right ear, too.
This same fellow started hallucinating in class one day. He said there were black spiders all over the top of his desk. Everybody else in class craned their necks to see … nothing. I told him he was free to trot up to the school nurse’s office. He wouldn’t do it. He said he was going to Marine it out. He did. Classes lasted nearly two hours at this school and he Marined it out. With the thumb and the index finger of his right hand he pinched the heads of about one hundred spiders. Then he was okay.
I’m not hallucinating. When you put in a few years in different grades and in different subjects and with different kids at different schools, you will finally come to the conclusion that you’ve seen and heard it all. But you forget something over and over and over: there’s always the next class period.
Eat your vegetables: get a sharp knife. Spike’s mother always had a certain look on her face on field trip Saturday mornings when she watched Spike fly up the bus steps … before I eased shut the squeaky doors behind him. It was an expression that evoked deep, unspoken gratitude toward a teacher. She was saying to me with her freckled face … Thank you so much for cooking up this Saturday field trip business because, although we love Spike as much as parentally possible, he is the quirkiest and most physically and mentally exhausting child on the face of the earth who has ever popped out of my womb, and speaking for me and my husband, thank you so much for giving us several hours of peace and solitude and sex time and please feel free to take as long as you like today even though I don’t even remember where the hell you all are going. I liked her. I always winked at her before the doors shut. A wink that said back to her … I love him, too. Spike loved the museum gift shops and the Army/Navy stores more than the museums we went to. He always brought along enormous wads of his own money, stuffed in both pockets. I stopped anywhere he wanted because I like those places, too. So did everybody else. He’d pick out a military dagger or a wicked-looking survival knife out of hundreds by tapping the glass case with a fingernail; the wide-eyed shopkeeper would hand the knife to me; and then I’d hand it to Spike and Spike would silently inspect it, up and down. After Spike said he’d take it, he’d ask me for my cell phone and call his mother. Spike would always hunker over to the side somewhere, mumbling, and then he’d screech … Macaroni and cheese! He’d hand me back my phone and pay the shopkeeper. At another Army/Navy, he’d find something else sharp and dangerous, such as a classic United States Marine Corps KA-BAR. I’d automatically hand him my phone. I could hear his mother squawk for a moment and then Spike would screech … A pig rib and some coleslaw! It was a weird and wild retail ritual, one of many from his repertoire that forever fascinated me and his loyal fans. All his mother wanted to know was if he had a good lunch or an early afternoon dinner. After he convinced her he ate something other than Skittles, Spike could buy anything he wanted.
There’s great sport in lying to kids, too, but you really have to know when and where and how. It’s actually pretty easy to get good at it. On a Saturday Series field trip, we were eating our lunch on the grass outside of a BBQ joint in a real rough patch of town. After a few Saturday trips, and even on weekday field trips, we discovered that the best BBQ joints are always in the rough patches. While we were eating, a fellow shambled up to our group. He’s what you’d immediately recognize, on a field trip to any small town in America, as a local character. This fellow made some kids nervous. Some kids were fascinated. The fellow was at least seven feet tall. He started to preach some Jesus to us. I angled him off to the side and preached a little of my own Jesus to him, with all eyes on me, and then I reached into my pocket and gave him five bucks. He went on down the sidewalk and preached some Jesus to some other people eating BBQ sandwiches. Back in the bus, as everyone was fighting over their sleeping spots and while I was getting the bus cranked up, Spike slinked up to me and asked me why I gave that man some money. I told Spike the man was the mayor of Columbus and that, God bless, he had recently fallen on hard times. Spike munched on that for a moment, and then he turned around and screeched to everybody in his leprechaun voice … Hey, y’all! That man was the president of the United States and he had recently fallen on hard times! Spike patted me on the back and said … God bless you, too, Todd. You’re an awesome role model for all of us!
I miss Spike so much.
For good health, get your sleep. Ever since going to school started thousands of years ago in Greece or Rome or China or wherever, the funniest thing you’ll ever see in class, and always has been, is watching an attentive scholar keep from falling asleep. In my experience, I discovered there are about one hundred and forty-eight ways that students attempt this, and they’re all hilarious. I think it’s perfectly okay to stop class and get everybody to help watch the agony. It’s about the only agony of another person you can witness that makes you feel so unguiltily gleeful.
For attention, scream like a caged animal. One day I thought a kid named Merle needed a bit more attention from me, so I wrote him a note that said, no matter what we’re doing at the time, make a real funny noise at 1:40, and then I folded up the note and handed it to him in the middle of class. Merle read it, and the most satisfied expression washed over his face. I winked at him, and then comically looked over at the clock on the wall and did some goofy-looking things with my eyebrows. I winked at him again, and then went back to pontificating about the horrors of the Civil War. The other kids in class were visibly jealous that Merle got handed a note by the teacher and that Merle seemed pleased about the contents. Merle was a perpetually angry little fellow and all his schoolmates hated his guts right back. At 1:40, Merle made a lecture-shattering noise that was not from this earth. I had forgotten about our special agreement. I thought I was going to fall out of my chair.
Only three questions tonight! The homework dilemma was never a dilemma for me. Why create more fuss and disappointment. I just tried to get as much work done as possible in the time I had them in a classroom with me.
I never had a parent complain that their child wasn’t getting enough homework.
The parents who complained about homework were the parents doing the homework.
Sometimes I gave out homework just to see the sneaky ways parents who did the homework would try to make it look like their child did the homework. Other teachers did the same thing and it gave us even more fun things to laugh and cry about.
Sometimes your personality brings out the worst in some students … and then in other classes, if you haven’t changed a thing, it brings out the very best in some students. It’s not the subject matter, but that can help or hurt, too. If a student just doesn’t like you, who also hates learning about the Civil War, then you’ll have a civil war to fight every day. It’s pretty nice when both combatants finally reach a lasting truce, especially when the battle begins on the first day of class.
Popping pills. The medication dilemma, if it becomes a dilemma, is ultimately the parent’s … but in collaboration with their child. If medication can make a kid a better student and human being, once all the side effects are tamed and if the medication can actually be afforded within the family budget, then why not? I’ve never worked with a teacher who thought parents or their child were failures, or weak, because they gave their child medications to help them become a better student and human being.
You inherit craziness from your teachers. That business about kids with Asperger’s and low-to-mid spectrum autism taking everything you say literally is half right. When somebody would cut up a little bit I’d say that thing you just did I invented in third grade. I’d say you can’t pull anything on me because I invented it all, with the help of some of my other school pals, and passed it down to all school kids in America. Some kids knew I was kidding, but the more mischievous kids believed me, and I therefore became their hero. By the oddest default.
That’s exactly right. Teachers get a couple of weeks off around Christmas and a week off for spring break, usually during April, and two months off in the summer. Sometimes a whole week off at Thanksgiving. And your point is?
Teachers are underpaid. We are. We are horribly underpaid. And your point is?
Talk therapy. The best principals know what you deal with every day. Without interrupting, the best principals will listen to you for as long as you need them to.
Sneaky seeking of knowledge. I’m always amused when a student asks me while they take a quiz or a test if spelling counts. Of course, that’s the reason many of them are here. They have dyslexia. I say it counts … sure … spelling always counts in school and in life, but here’s how we handle it on quiz day. Hop up from your desk and whisper the answer to me. I’ll write down your answer on your quiz. Most of the time, I found out, whispered answers were correct. Most of the time, though, the kids didn’t whisper the answer and if the other kids were paying attention they got a dang freebie.
They may not drop from the tree at all. On the Saturday Series trips, I had an uncle come along one time and an adult family friend of a student on another trip. Parents were always invited. Word got around about our awesome excursions. On every trip, Smucker’s dad would come along, too. Smucker Senior really was an exact, but older copy, of Smucker Junior. Pudgy, with a quick smile, freckles, a ready-for-anything attitude, and an intense interest in history and museums and BBQ joints. Smucker Senior would follow my instructions and announcements and was always imbedded in the group, just a foot taller or so than the others, rather than hanging off to the side like the other adults who’d come along. On the rumbling, coma-inducing bus, Smucker Senior would fall asleep like everybody else. One time I looked into the huge rear-view mirror above my head and saw that Smucker Junior was sprawled out on a seat with his legs hanging out into the aisle, and then there was Smucker Senior sprawled out in the seat on the opposite side of the aisle from his son with his legs hanging out in the aisle. I remember giggling to myself … Man, this is too fun. Smucker Senior was an insurance salesman.
Really? Yes, really. After a few weeks of school, Lurlene would ask the teachers to call the parents of all their students new to the school. I liked that. Not an e-mail, but a call on the phone. Just to check in after a few weeks and let them hear our voices. So I learn pretty quickly that you need to say everything’s okay real early in the conversation because one time a mother said to me … When I see the school’s number my heart leaps out of my throat! That day I said everything’s fine. I understand. I said your son’s doing fine and it’s a pleasure having him in class. He’s been polite and respectful. She said I appreciate that. And then I heard her let out a huge breath. And then she said … Really?
The sella mortis. Of the millions of curriculum nights there’s one that I’ll remember forever and they were all pretty dang memorable. In the third period session for a class where I had six kids, six parents came in, and without prompting, sat in exactly the seat where their child sits. There were twelve desks in The Cozy Room of Learning. I stood there, dumfounded. I finally told them what just happened. I had to. They were as amazed at me. A couple of the parents, however, were visibly unnerved by it. They looked at the desk they were sitting in, and then lifted their hands up off of the desktop, as if it was covered with germs.
Loook intooo my eye! In all my years, the maddest I ever saw a kid get was after another kid looked at him. All Spike did was look at Merle. A perfectly normal thing you’d do during the day. Folks look at each other from time to time. Merle achieved a level of bonkers never before seen in the history of kids going to school, which I believe goes back thousands of years. Spike had that kind of power. It was palpable and undeniable and maybe somebody some day will harness it to pull sunken battleships to the ocean surface or to zap asteroids apart way out in space.
Of all the principals and assistant principals I worked with, even a headmaster or two, the best ones had a sense of humor.
Meetings can be productive. Old Burrell used to fall asleep in faculty meetings. Chin on his chest. Face contorted in a late afternoon nap nightmare. Bushy eyebrows twitching like bacon frying. Each week, watching Old Burrell dream about old times was an enormous source of entertainment for me outside the classroom. I thought about asking Lurlene if we could have a faculty meeting every day but the other teachers would have killed me.
Chalk talk. When I was a student in high school and in college, instead of paying attention to what they were teaching, I paid more attention to how the teachers taught and managed their schedule and their students and how they decorated their class rooms. How they dressed and the awful cars and trucks they drove were a source of great hilarity, too. Most of them were of the old school way: teacher … piece of white or yellow chalk … green chalkboard … and a textbook. I don’t believe that classroom technology has made us smarter. Old school teachers—supremely engaging and caring and knowledgeable teachers with chalk-coated fingers—make us smarter. Sometimes you don’t even need the textbook or a chalkboard.
The power of nice. Students who are exceptional athletes are treated better, especially if they put up good grades and have good manners. Students who do some great work in extracurricular activities are subtly treated better, or differently. The special treatment is subtle and it happens. I’m guilty of it, I admit.
Technology keeps the peace. I guess you could say a DVD player hooked up to a TV screen in the corner of the classroom is technology. It didn’t make any of us smarter, but it made me feel like a teaching revolutionary. One day I figured if they came into the classroom with a movie already playing that they would scoot to their desks and start the class period off without bickering at each other, dropping their books on the floor because they love the loud noise that makes, or trying to sneak candy out of The Globe of Happiness. My idea sort of worked. They typically did only one of those. Anyway, I played Civil War documentaries, Nacho Libre, The Outlaw Josey Wales, School of Rock, Dorf on Golf, and The Right Stuff, among a number of other mesmerizing, teacherly selections. They loved it. Every single student loved the idea. Of course, the time came when we had to turn the movie off and get to work and chicken chucking. But the dramatic exhibition of hard work and good behavior was always rewarded by giving them the last few minutes of class off so they could repeat Nacho’s infamous fart scene or watch Josey gut Captain Terrill, who sure did deserve it, with a sharp saber.
I don’t recognize her anymore. The best description of a student’s positive progress I ever heard in my teaching years was when a teacher would say to another teacher about someone … She’s a completely different human being … He’s a completely different human being. This pronouncement usually came after some time, and a whole lot of work from all parties, but it’s exactly what you see a lot of times, months and semesters and years later: a different and better human being. Grades are hardly never mentioned.
So real you can see it change the color and texture and temperature of the air in the room. Every once in a while I’ll read or hear people saying that ADD or ADHD or hyperactivity ain’t real! That the dang kid can’t control herself and she just needs her a good whippin’ is all! ADD and ADHD and hyperactivity are real, all right, and they’re some of the most powerful forces in human civilization. Just like ignorance in adults.
I think the classroom is a sacred place. It is a good and wonderful and otherworldly place to me, and it should be respected and honored and used and enjoyed by everyone. Every morning before the first student walked across the threshold, I imagined what might go on in my classroom and those thoughts always inspired me and made me feel lighter and happier. Every day before I turned off the lights and walked out to go home I looked around the room for a few moments and remembered what went on that day, right there, and right over there. Every where I taught I did that. Every time I left my classroom for the day.
Just say the words. Mom, you can moan and whine in my face because you’re mad your son has only an A-minus in my class … you can scorch me with hideous e-mails packed with misspelled words glued together by idiotic grammar … but if you end every conversation and every e-mail by thanking me for all I do … then I’m okay.
The one thing parents can teach their kids is manners. Teachers are there for the undeniable academic pleasures of advanced placement trigonometry, and we teach manners, too, when we can work it in, and we do work it the hell in, but manners are the ultimate domain of parents, and even grandparents. So when a kid has bad manners, I deal with the kid’s bad manners right then and there, but silently blame the parents for wasting my time, the time of the other kids in class, and their own kid’s time.
You sure can go back home. During the years I was a substitute teacher, I went away and took a job as a director of development of a school for kids mid-to-high on the autism spectrum. My salary, I found out later, was more than any principal I had ever worked for, by a good bit. But after sitting in the highly air-conditioned administrative wing with a coffee maker and a kitchen and office machines that worked, and after a lot of high-class entertaining of donors and prospective donors which always involved gourmet food and a lot of good wine, I found myself more and more sneaking away and spending time watching teachers in their classrooms. I found myself, more and more, talking to the kids and the teachers instead of board members and moneyed constituents. After five months, I fled. I fled right back to the sub list. I quit on a Friday and was back on my old campus in a classroom the next Thursday. The satisfaction of teaching easily makes up for being poor again.