The guy holding the big pencil used to be me. I know you are thinking, “But, Mickey, you are not a rabbit!” Well, that’s true, but it is also true that the whole thing is a metaphor, and metaphorically I was always Reluctant Rabbit, pedagogue… teacher… the holder of the big pencil. It is a writing teacher thing. The best way to teach kids to write is to have them write. And the best way to show them what you mean when you tell them to write is to write yourself. You learn to read better by reading a lot. You learn to write better by writing a lot, reading what you wrote, and reading what other people wrote, especially if those other people were holding the big pencil in front of the class.
I was recently reminded by people who know me that once I held the big pencil in the front of the class. They both asked me, “Really? You were a teacher?”
I suppose it is hard to believe when once you’ve gotten to know me, at least a little bit. I don’t strike people as the sour-faced, anal-retentive English-teacher type. I smile and laugh too much for that. They can’t believe that someone like me could ever teach.
But over the years, I got rather good at holding the big pencil. I learned, first of all, that anyone can be a good teacher. You only have to be competent in the subject area you are trying to teach, and open to learning something new about teaching every single day for the rest of your life.
Here’s something you have to learn about teaching to be any good at it; Discipline is not about making kids behave. You can shout, stamp your feet, and hit them with a ruler and you will never get them to do what you want to them do. It has to be about limiting the choices they have for what they will do. Yes, one of those choices is to be removed from the classroom to go have fun sitting in the uncomfortable chair next to the assistant principal in charge of discipline’s desk, but the good teacher knows you should emphasize that they can either sit like a lump and imitate a rock, or they can participate in the activities presented. And in my classroom, activities led to jokes and laughing and trying new stuff… some of it hard, but most of it easy. Kids don’t end up having a hard time making the right choice.
Here’s something else you absolutely have to learn to be any good at it; You have to like kids. Not just the well-behaved teacher-pleasers, but also the class clown who’s too smart to sit still for stuff he already knows, the shrinking violet who is a wonderfully complex well of deep thoughts who is only a little bit too scared to actually speak in class and share her thoughts, and the dark snarky demon who is quietly plotting the next outburst that will make your life a living hell so he or she can spend time with their old and dear friend, the chair in the assistant principal’s office. If you don’t like them, you can’t teach them, and driving dynamite trucks in war zones is an easier job. It pays better too.
I often try to picture Donald Trump teaching English to seventh graders. What a slapstick comedy that would be. The man doesn’t know anything. He is always angry. And he hates everybody except his daughter Ivanka. My fourth period class wouldn’t merely eat him alive, they would skeletonize him faster than a school of piranhas could ever hope to match. And it might be entertaining to watch (assuming it was metaphorical, not literal).
And I sincerely wish I could hold the big pencil in front of class again. It was the act that defined who I was and what purpose I had in life. But it isn’t gone since I was forced by ill health to retire. I held the big pencil for over two thousand students in the course of thirty-one years. And I will always hold the big pencil in their memories of it. It is a sort of immortality for teachers.