Teachers can be vicious, petty, catty and mean. We had out department meeting yesterday and one teacher who will remain nameless (Debbie!) starting hurling accusations around the room: “Some teachers,” she said. “Teach nothing, do nothing, let their kids run wild. We need to hold them accountable!” A lot of the teachers were looking over at me for support, probably because they felt intimidated. I said, “As many of you know I am the senior-most English teacher at this school and I am more than willing to provide guidance and encouragement to struggling teachers. My door is always open. Don’t be shy. Just come in and ask for help. I won’t think less of you. Debbie, I don’t think we need an inquisition here. We need to support our colleagues as they muddle through.” Then the room got incredibly quiet. Teresa ran out of the room covering her mouth with tears in her eyes. When she got outside we heard her wail with crippling laughter. Relief, I’m sure, that she didn’t have to face the monstrous Debbie alone.
We were reading Beowulf and the kids were slumping in their seats. I bellowed and spat the epic poetry with all of the Viking force I could muster, but the lines formed a lot of saliva due to the strong alliteration and the kids scooted their desks to the back of the class and covered their faces with hands and notebooks. I took this as a sign that we needed a break and said: “Instead of reading Beowulf, lets PLAY Beowulf!”
“Beowulf” the game is wildly popular in my class. It’s a version of reverse tag where a single “Grendel” gets a 20-second head-start out the door before the rest of us–“Beowulf’s Army”–hunt him down. Sometimes the hunt for Grendel takes us through several classrooms and restroom stalls and administrative offices (and often on-campus security has become inadvertently caught up in the game), but it is a great way to invigorate a boring lesson. I try not to have other rules, but last week our Grendel ran home, made herself lunch and took a nap for the rest of the day. So now we have a rule about that.
The kids elected me to be “Grendel” so I took off, scaled a gutter pipe and laid down on top of the roof off my own classroom. Then I waited for ten minutes, but weirdly, nobody left the classroom to come search for me. I crawled to the edge of the roof and peered through my own windows. All of my students were just chilling and playing on their phones–they had forgotten about the game!
I whispered to myself: “I am a pointless, ridiculous monster, crouched in the shadows, stinking of men, murdered children, martyred cows….” That is what Grendel would have said.
Then I asked myself: “What would Grendel do if Beowulf’s Army never left the great meeting hall?” Answer: He would wait for darkness and then attack! But since I had no darkness I settled for the element of surprise. The passing bell rang and just as the kids were exiting the classroom I leapt from the rooftop to land in front of them, intending to yell: “I will destroy you Hrothgar!” But sadly I landed awkwardly, rolled an ankle and couldn’t yell–just a whimper: “Pity the miserable wretch, Grendel!” I said, as the kids stepped over me.
I am so excited about my “Pen and Pencil” initiative which aims to bring back the lost art of cursive handwriting to schools! As a people we have become so caught up in the newest thing–the newest gadget, the newest app, the newest theory of how the brain works…And I have a theory that all of this newishness is actually making us old. We no longer memorize facts because we can look them up on Google, and so now–surprise!–we have lost our memories. What did you have for breakfast three days ago?…See! Your brain is melting! You have Digital Alzheimer’s!…
We ignore the classic traditions such as cursive handwriting, navigating with stars, milling wood into paper–all essential skills. And if one day the lights go out–and one day they will, rest assured!–how will you survive?
Since forcing my students to submit all of their work in longhand cursive I’ve noticed that they spend more time working on projects. Essays that would have taken them 30 minutes to write now take two hours–a net increase of 1.5 hours of thinking about their subject! I do allow students with illegible handwriting to submit work using an MS Word handwriting font but make them type with one pinky finger on their left hand. So much has changed! Yesterday it was so quiet that I started sneaking up on students and screaming in their ears to watch them jump! Just like the old days!
Pens and Pencils
Yesterday I got into an argument with a Science teacher during one of our professional development sessions. I don’t like to get into arguments with colleagues but sometimes I get so fired up about trivial academic questions that I can’t stop myself. Criticisms become feuds, feuds become wars–and now I have many people at school who won’t talk to me. But that is the price you pay for being a truth teller.
Yesterday, Mr. Science asked for feedback on a lesson where he had kids debate the safety of GMOs using research that he had gathered from both sides of the argument. I interrupted: “Since the days of Prometheus mankind has meddled and tinkered with Nature and no good has ever come of it! We now stand on the brink of apocalypse because we have lost control of Technology and the machines are enslaving us. It’s all Sciences fault!”
He countered that the students were merely learning how to formulate and present arguments from a set of facts and that incidentally he could point to numerous scientific developments that improved life on the planet. I challenged him to name one. He said synthetic fertilizers developed in the 1940s allow us to feed billions of people. I said sure, but thanks to synthetic fertilizers we have overrun the earth, destroyed the ecology, polluted the atmosphere. “Science is like the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that we should never have eaten!” I said.
He asked if we could simply focus on his lesson, but I told him that his lesson was poisoning kids with false knowledge. Then he asked if I would leave the room so that he could continue his demo. I refused.
Being an Educator means sticking up for kids twenty-four hours a day at any cost. Sometimes we risk our professional relationships but as I mentioned before that is the price we pay for keeping our school’s safe from bad ideas.
Agree to Disagree
So once word got out that Trivia Crack was not my thing, the entire class challenged me to a game because everybody wanted an opportunity to beat the great teacher. I did not let this occur. Instead I wrote every single student a detention for using their phone without permission. Vice Principle L came down to tell me that that there was a rumor circulating in the office that I had invited the students to use their phones and that I wrote the detentions only after they started beating me in Trivia Crack. I said that this was true, but that I was embarrassed about losing to children and that I am a very competitive person who does not handle failure well. He said that I couldn’t assign detentions merely because I felt fragile and wanted to change my policy and that I should think hard about having an open cellphone policy because many other teachers have been complaining that their kids were texting me during their classes.
I told the VP that teachers have always and will always fear change, but that cellphones are The Future and kids are The Future and I wasn’t going to be stuck in The Past by silencing them. Then VP L said that maybe if I spent a little more time in The Past I might be better at Trivia Crack. I acknowledged that this was true, but that poor Trivia Crack performance was a price I was willing to pay for living in The Now. Then he said that he was confused about what my policy actually was and I said that the cellphone policy, like Education itself, was a Work in Progress. He said that he didn’t know what that means and that I needed a consistent policy that everyone could follow. I said that since he was putting me in a tight corner I had no choice but to allow for cellphone use in every situation except challenging me to Trivia Crack.
VP L stood there a long time without speaking, shook his head and walked away.
And that, rookie teachers out there, is how you handle micro-managing administrators.
Yesterday we entertained numerous friends of K–none of whom are educators– for New Years, and found that we had nothing in common to talk about. Michael S. told several stories about fighting in Vietnam during the late 60’s, how he lost his leg, how he coped with losing said leg and overcame severe depression and other stuff I can’t remember because I tuned out; Stewart R. had just returned from a humanitarian mission in Brazil where he was negotiating the release of child hostages from guerrillas in the jungle and we were all supposed to be riveted by that, but I took the opportunity to retreat to the bathroom with my Iphone and set a new Critter Crunch record. Peter G. told a long boring story about riding a bus with Merry Pranksters and his involvement with Tim O’Leary and Bucky Fuller—whoever they are. I could not contribute anything to these conversations because my life is consumed with solving actual educational problems in the here and now. I tried to interject stories from the school trenches–you know, the fight over homework, the funny spellings on their essays, the theory behind my progressive tardy policy that really has changed the culture in my classes, but people just kind of nodded, took a swig of beer and continued chittering about their own lives. Finally I got drunk, finished off the pie in the fridge (K got angry about that) and pretended to fall asleep in the recliner until they left. Can’t wait to get away from these boobs and back to class!
This year I resolve to be a better teacher than I was the year before. This is the fourth year in a row that I have made this resolution and I must admit that it is getting difficult to continuously improve myself. When somebody with my level of experience and raw talent commits to bettering himself in the classroom he is modeling a formula for excellence that students can emulate. For example, last year I gave zero detentions, suspended zero students and eliminated all disciplinary action. This year I resolve to pass 100% of my students by giving special extra credit to unmotivated or severely untalented kids. This will of course improve our school’s graduation rate, which in turn raises our school’s academic performance. I used to think that I needed to fail a few random stragglers to let the class know that I meant business, but I have since realized that a failing student is a returning student and that is not good for anyone. No need to beat a dead horse!
Hard-working teachers need access to their classrooms and all of the resources that we use to create 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Sometimes inspiration for a lesson will strike at 3am and I will leap out of bed, drive to school and rearrange my desk configuration or spritz clean my whiteboard or even run the copy machine. This access is vitally important because teaching is vitally important and teachers don’t stop collecting and creating just because they are on vacation or asleep. Now this morning I was awoken by an email from a colleague who did not have access to the copy-room because she had not been granted access. Of course I immediately drove to school and let her into the building so that she could work during the holiday on her classroom. Then I went to the corner locksmith and duplicated my key and gave her one. She was very grateful, though she acted concerned that I had no authority to remake the key or distribute them. After all, she argued, she was just a twenty-three year-old student teacher with no credential and had not even been hired or vetted by the district. But I told her that her desire to come to work on the Friday after Christmas was qualification enough. I tapped her shoulder and dubbed her a “real teacher” and then bestowed her very own copyroom key. Praise youth!
It’s Christmas Eve, 2014. Today I’m not going to think about school. Instead I want to reflect on my year–the ups and downs, the magnificent achievements and dismal failures. On the magnificent achievement side I would have to count every day. Maybe I didn’t bring my A game every day, but I did bring heart and intention and compassion and high expectations! Every day I said to students: Currently you are down here, but in order for you to be successful you will need to be up here (standing on my tiptoes, raising my arms). Now jump! Jump over this bar!… And often times they would fail and perhaps if indeed I am honest with myself I should call these moments my failure. But I never dropped the bar. I just held it out of reach and barked: “Jump!…Jump!, you cur!” because sometimes you need to call children out on their failing behaviors. Looking back I can’t say that I had many kids jump over the bar–and that is probably because that when they got close to achieving their goal I would move it higher, away from them. But even if they never accomplished the ever-changing standard that I set for them, I know that my students experienced growth. They know what it feels like to fight through frustration and hopelessness to pursue an elusive, delusional dream. Merry Christmas, everyone!
I’m often asked: should great teachers receive bonuses? Answer: Yes! Great teachers should be rewarded for their greatness!
If I am able to inspire my students to greatness then I should be compensated for that. Just like those teachers who got stuck teaching poor kids or low achievers should be docked for not raising them up. Remember: you are teaching in a great place because you are great and you are teaching in a bad place because, well, you are probably a bad teacher. Or you have self-esteem issues.
I think we could all agree that if a policeman can single handledly lower the murder rate–he or she deserves a raise, but if the murder rate goes up on his watch or her watch he or she should be held accountable. If a doctor lowers the death rate of his or her patients he or she should be rewarded for his or her success, but of course we wouldn’t praise that doctor for killing people. So it is simple. Great teachers should be praised because they have great kids who achieve great things. And bad teachers who teach bad kids need to get better. And I guess that is where I come in because I can advise those bad teachers about how to move to a better school.