Tag Archives: being a teacher

I Hope You Dance…

When you walk to the front of the classroom and take up the big pencil in front of a group of young teens and twelve-year-olds, there is a strong pressure to learn how to sing and dance. That, of course, is a metaphor. I was always too arthritic and clunky in my movements to literally dance. But I looked out over a sea of bored and malevolence-filled eyes, slack and sometimes drooling mouths attached to hormone-fueled and creatively evil minds. And I was being paid to put ideas in their heads. Specifically boring and difficult ideas that none of them really wanted in their own personal heads. So I felt the need to learn to dance, to teach in ways that were engaging like good dance tunes, and entertaining in ways that made them want to take action, to metaphorically get up and dance along with me.

I wanted them to enjoy learning the way I did.

But the music of the teacher is not always compatible with the dance style of the individual learner. The secret behind that is, there is absolutely no way to prompt them to dance along with you until you learn about the music already playing in their stupid little heads. (And you can’t, of course ever use the word “stupid” out loud, no matter how funny or true the word is,) You have to get to know a kid before you can teach them anything.

The discordant melodies and bizarre tunes you encounter when you talk to them is like dancing in a minefield blindfolded. Some don’t have enough to eat at home and have to survive off of the nutrition-less food they get in the school cafeteria’s free-and-reduced lunch program. Some of them have never heard a single positive thing from the adults at home, enduring only endless criticism, insults, and sometimes fists. Some of them fall in love you. Some due to hormones. Some due to the fact that you treat them like a real human being. Some because they just stupidly assume that everyone dances to the same tunes they hear in their own personal head.

Some of them automatically hate you because they know that if you hear their own secret music in their own self-loathing heads, you will never accept it. They hate you because you are a teacher and teachers always hate them. Some of them, deep down, are as loathsome as they think they are.

But, if you find the right music, you can get any of them, even all of them, to dance. It might be hard to find. It might be a nearly impossible task to learn to play that music once you find it. But it can be done.

And if you get them to dance to your music, to dance along with you, I can’t think of anything more rewarding, anything more life-fulfilling. Have you ever tried it for yourself? If you are not a teacher, how about with your own children or the children related to you? Everybody should learn to dance this dance I am talking about in metaphors. At least once in your life. It is addictive. You will want to dance more. So the next time the music starts and you get the chance… I hope you’ll dance!

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Being a Teacher at Heart

Being a teacher at heart… I want to recommend that career…even though I know full well it is a super-hard crappy job of glorified baby-sitting that pays in literal peanuts and nobody in their  right minds recommends it to smart young up-and-comers as a glamorous choice… and it is only getting worse under a new anti-education administration.

Being a teacher at heart… I can’t help remembering how it all started for me.  The last thing in the world I imagined myself being when I was in high school was a teacher.  I wanted to be a cartoonist or a comic book artist.  I wanted to write best-selling science fiction novels and maybe direct a movie.  You know, the kind of thing millionaires line up to bestow on college grads with a degree in English  and a transcript filled with mostly A’s in my art classes.

But after my remedial master’s degree gave me a provisional teaching certificate, and my one and only interview for an illustrator’s job resulted in compliments on my portfolio and best wishes for my teaching career, I headed to Texas, one of only two states actually hiring teachers in 1981.  (The other was Florida, which it turns out it was a very lucky thing my family had already moved to Texas to help me make that decision.  Have you seen the education news coming out of Florida?  I now know where Satan gets his mail.)

Turns out the only job available in 1981 was all the way South on Interstate 35 in Cotulla, Texas.  I was there to teach English to 8th graders.  Mostly Spanish-speaking 8th graders.  And the previous year the 7th grade English teacher had run out of the classroom screaming after the little darlings exploded firecrackers under her chair and put scorpions in her coffee cup.  I was given her classroom and the same students that forced her to re-think her career choice.  El Loco Gongie, El Loco Martin, Talan, El Mouse, El Boy, El Goofy (whose one and only talent was to turn his whole head purple at will), La Chula Melinda, and the Lozano Twins  were the nicknames I had to learn because practically everyone was named Jose Garcia… even the girls.  Talan and El Mouse were the first ones to threaten my life.  They picked up a fence post on the way to lunch (we had to walk four blocks to the elementary school to get lunch because the junior high building had no cafeteria).  Talan said something threatening in Spanish that I didn’t understand and added the name “Gringo Loco” menacingly to whatever he said, and El Mouse pantomimed using the metal fence post as a sword to cut me in two.  All this because I was trying to get them to keep up with the rest of the class on our little hike in the 100 degree heat.  (I think I knew then why Satan moved to Florida.)  Fortunately they must’ve decided that murdering me wasn’t worth the hours of detention they would have to spend, and dropped the post.  Class was definitely disrupted when handsome El Boy and La Chula decided to break up, or rather, El Boy decided he like brown-eyed Alexandra better after she got blue-eyed contact lenses that made her eyes look yellow-green.  Girl fights are harder to break up than boy fights because girls fight to the death over matters of the heart, and they really don’t care who dies once the fight is started.

Now you may think my account of my first horrible year as a teacher must be exaggerated and expanded with lies because you know I am a humorist and that I went on to teach for many more years.  But I swear, only the names have been changed.  The nicknames and the incidents all are real.  (Yes, he really could contort his face in a way that turned his entire head purple.  It was freaky and made the girls scream.)    As I reached the spring of the year that year and had to decide whether or not to sign my contract for the next year, I really was planning to get out of teaching all together.  But I was standing on the playground one day that spring glaring at the vatos locos to prevent fights from breaking out again when Ruben came up to stand beside me and talk to me.  Ruben was one of the brightest and physically smallest of all my kids that year.  But he had such a charm about him that the bullies left him alone (except for the time he got in trouble for forging El Boy’s mother’s signature on a failing report card).  He said to me, “I want you to know, you are my favorite teacher.  I learned a lot from you this year.”  I had to bite my lower lip to keep from crying right there and then.  It was the moment when I decided I had to be a teacher.  They were not going to make me run away in defeat.  I was going to work at it until I knew how to do it right.  For Ruben.  And for all the other boys and girls like Ruben who liked me as a teacher… and laughed at my jokes… even the really corny ones… and needed me.  That made all the hard stuff worth it.

Being a teacher at heart… I recognize now that there was never anything else I was going to be.  It was what God chose me to be.  And my only regret about my choice is that I had to retire and can’t do it any more for health reasons.  I still miss it.

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I Can’t Believe I Did That

I was a teacher, once upon a time.  I learned to do the job correctly.  I think I earned the pay they gave me.  I think I choose to believe at least a few of those kids who told me, “Mr. B, you were the best teacher I ever had.”  I’m not full of myself and conceited or anything.  But the world needs good teachers.  And I think I answered the call.

But I had to give it up.  I am not well enough to even be a substitute teacher.  I can’t breathe very well.  My body is wracked with arthritis pain.  I am subject to bouts of depression brought on by chronic pain.  And I am worried that it is a job which has become so very much harder to do.  Politics and people’s opinions of teachers and the sacrifices you have to make in pay for your work are all making teaching an impossibly hard job.  I fear that more and more it is being populated not by the best and brightest, the ones who love teaching kids, rather it is a place for losers.  A job held by people that were trapped by mistakes they made or lack of real choices.  A job that they don’t take up as “holy mission from God”, but as a way to get by.  Too many people are taking up teaching so they can fake it and pick up a paycheck.  They hate the job.  They hate the kids.  And there is no joy in Mudville.

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So here is the best thing that I can say or do to try to help this problem.  Read this plea and seriously think about doing it.  Become a teacher!  It is the most important thing you could ever do.  And who, exactly am I talking to?  Well, you made the mistake of reading this far, didn’t you?  If you are young and have your life ahead of you, especially if you are brilliant enough to be reading my obscure little posts on my obscure little blog, you have to realize that becoming a teacher is about more than building your own personal career castle.  It is about guiding future generations in the pouring of concrete, the shoring up with strong wooden and stone pillars, and the laying of strong foundations for their own castles.  The castle you build will never be as grand as the castles you will help others to build.

Neuschwanstein castle will look like a sandcastle next to those.  I can testify that there is no more satisfying experience than seeing a child you taught grow and thrive and become a worthy citizen of the world.

And I know some of you are smugly thinking that, “He’s not talking to me.  He’s just talking to those young goobers headed to college or not sure what they want to do with their lives.”  Not at all.  I am talking to you too.  No adult is immune to the needs of the young.  Every act of every day can be used to show the way.  Read to a kid.  Tell them that story about that time your Uncle Everett learned the hard way that raising chinchillas was not the road to riches and easy money, that it came with numerous foul-tempered rodent bites. Spend time with them.  Get to know them.  And if you are like me and have lost your good health and your access to kids other than your own, then write it all down in your blog, all the stuff that you know.  It will help them and heal them and give them wisdom to grow.  If that sounds like Dr. Seuss stuff… well, that’s because it is.  Dr. Seuss was one of the best teachers ever had.

I can’t believe I did that.  I can’t believe I just told you all to be teachers.  I am alone during the school day, feeling ill and feeling depressed.  I strut and fret my hour upon the stage (of the front of the classroom) no more.  But what can I do about it?  I just did it.  And I feel better!

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Teacher-Wise

So, does this title have more than one meaning?  Of course it does.  This post is about being a teacher and having wisdom.  And I know you will immediately think, “You dumb guy!  I know teachers who aren’t wise at all!  Some teachers are stupid!”

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You are especially saying that if you are a student.

You are not wrong, either.  Some teachers have no business being teachers.  It is especially difficult to find good science and math teachers.  After all, those who are good at math and science can make so much more money in the private sector, that they would have to be born to be a teacher… and realize it, to go into teaching.  There are very good science and math teachers out there, but many of them are wilting under the weight of a difficult job being made constantly harder by social pressures like truly dumb people who say things like, “You can’t solve our education problem by throwing money at it!”  I guarantee no one has ever thrown money at the problem.  If teachers were paid what they were worth so that we could retain good, competent teachers, you would see education make an amazing amount of progress in a very short time.  What Wall Street firm fails to pay their star players what they are worth?  Do bankers and lawyers get punished for doing a good job by asking them to produce more with fewer resources for less pay?  Those folks in finance and law always pay the price for the best because that always produces the best result.  If you want schools to routinely produce critical thinkers and problem-solvers, why would you complain that we are spending too much money per kid?  Of course, there are those with the money and the power (especially in Texas) who really don’t want more students coming out of schools with the ability to think and decide for themselves.   Smart people are harder to control and make a profit from. (Out of Control is a book they don’t want you to read.)

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So now I have totally proved the point that smart people who are looking out for their own interests should never go into teaching.  Still, among the unwashed, unloved, and incompetent that do make the mistake of going into teaching, there is still a great deal of learning and gaining of wisdom going on.  After all, if a fool like me can become a good teacher, anybody can do it.  You just have to learn a few bits of wisdom the hard way that have very little to do with what we call “common sense”.

As Dr. Tsabary points out in the book I plastered on the front of this post, discipline is not what you think.  We all remember that teacher we had that nobody listened to.  She was always yelling at us.  She made threats.  She punished us.  And even the good kids in class would shoot spitwads at the back of her head.  Why did we not respect and learn from this teacher?  Because she never learned these profound truths.

1.  Kids are people.  They want to be treated with respect and even love.  Their ideas matter as much, if not more than the teacher’s ideas.  Good teachers will;

a. Get to know every kid in their class as a human being, knowing what they believe in, what they care about, where they come from, and who they think they are.

b. Ask them questions.  They will never have an original idea if you do not make them think.  They have insights and creativity and strengths as well as weaknesses, bad behavior, and wrong ideas.  You have to emphasize the former and minimize the latter.

c.  Laughing and talking in the classroom is evidence of learning.  Quietly filling out worksheets is evidence of ignorance, and most likely the ignorance of the teacher.

2.  Tests don’t matter.  This is always true for these reasons;

a.  Tests are a comparison, and nothing is gained by comparing kids.  Comparing the scores of my bilingual kids in South Texas with upper class rich kids in Chicago and college-bound kids in Tokyo has no value.  Their lives are completely different and so are their needs.  If we don’t score as well on the tests as the kids in Tokyo, what difference will that make to what time the train arrives in the station in Paris?  (Especially if Pierre has chosen the bullet train that goes south at a rate of 200 miles per hour.  No trains in Texas go that fast without crashing and blowing up.)

b.  If I spend time in class teaching students how to read and making them practice reading critically, they will do just as well as the kids who drilled extensively from specially made State materials preparing for the test on the reading and vocabulary portions.  The only way that outcome changes is by cheating and giving them the actual test questions before the test.  (I should point out that teachers caught doing this last thing are shot in Texas and buried in a box full of rattlesnakes.  Dang old teachers, anyhow!)

I know I started this little post by convincing you that I am not wise, and very probably mentally unbalanced.  And now that I have made my arguments, you know for sure.  But over time, there is wisdom to be learned from being a teacher.  You don’t have to believe me, but it’s true.  (I don’t know how many times I used that phrase out loud in a classroom over 31 years, but I am guessing you couldn’t count them on fingers even if you used the hands of every kid I ever had as a student.)

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