Tag Archives: lessons learned

Why Do You Think That? (Part One)

I believe myself capable of rational thought.  It is that irrational and over-emotional conclusion that leads me to write a self-reflective post full of over-blown thinking about thinking like this one.

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The little Midwestern town of Rowan, Iowa, the place where I grew up, is probably the center of my soul and biggest reason for why I am who I am.

I was a public school teacher for 31 years.  It really seems more like 131 years for all the kids I got to know and lessons I got to teach.  I have lots and lots of experience on which to draw for the drawing of conclusions about education.  Here is a conclusion I drew (literally);

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All kids are good kids.

I can hear the debate from the teachers’ lounge already.  “What kind of an idiot thinks something as stupid as that?”  “It’s true that there are a lot of good kids, but what about Psycho Melvin or Rebel Maria?”  “Some kids are stupid.  I have test data to prove it.”

But I not only believe all kids are good, I think all people are good, even the bad ones.  I have large numbers of memories filed away of times I got to the bottom of problems with kids acting out in class.  Invariably the reasons for their bad behaviors would either make me laugh, or make me cry.  Edwin rammed the drinking fountain with his head because he was socially inept and starved for attention from the other kids.  El Goofy could make his whole head turn bright purple on command because it made the girls squeal and laugh and he had learned to manipulate facial muscles to make it happen because he liked the result.  Lucy yelled at me in front of the whole class because she was thinking about committing suicide like her mother had before her, and she needed me to stop her.  (I don’t use these kids’ real names for some very good reasons, but rest assured, Lucy made it to adulthood.)  (Sorry, I had to stop at this point and cry for 15 minutes again.) My experiences as a teacher have basically taught me that all people need love, and all people are worthy of love.  Someone even loved Adolf Hitler.

There are really two kinds of teachers.  There is the kind who teaches because they love kids and will literally sacrifice anything to benefit them.  The Sandy Hook incident proved that those teachers exist in every school.  There is also the kind who hate kids with a passion and believe themselves to be experts at classroom discipline.  Don’t get me wrong, teachers like that mold young people into upstanding citizens or championship-winning football or basketball players on a regular basis.  But they do it by polishing out the flaws in kids through punishment and rigorous efforts to remove every flaw because they actually detest the flaws in themselves that they see mirrored in students.  I could never be that kind of teacher myself, but I know they are just as necessary as the other kind. After all, all people are good people, even the bad ones.

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Doctor Doom really doesn’t like to be around me.  Still, he’s a good person too, even though he’s fictional.

After more than 500 words worth of this nonsense, and I realize I still have a lot more to say about this goofy topic, I must draw to a close.  And I know I haven’t convinced anyone of anything yet.  But let me threaten you with the prospect that I will pursue this topic again sooner than you would like.  I just can’t seem to stop thinking about why I think what I think, and why I am always thinking.

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Filed under education, goofy thoughts, high school, humor, insight, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

Why School Should Be Cool

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I was a school teacher for thirty-one years, and in spite of the immense amount of brain damage that builds up over time, especially as a middle-school teacher, I think I know what we’ve been doing wrong.

We need to take a look at an education system where things are working better than they are here.

Now, I know you probably didn’t click on the boring video about school.  Heck, you probably aren’t even reading this sentence.  But I can summarize it and put it in easy-to-understand words.  Finland does not have to educate as many poor and disadvantaged kids as this country does.  The video gives five ways that Finland does it better, but all of them boil down to the basic notion that the country is more homogeneous and uniformly middle-class than ours is.  Still, we can learn things from them.

The first of the five ways that Finland does it better is a difference in government.  While U.S. governmental safety-net programs blame people who need food stamps for being lazy (even though some of them work 40-hour work weeks in minimum-wage jobs), Finland gives a huge package to parents of everything they might need as soon as their child is born.  As long as the child is in school, the government does many things to support the family’s efforts to educate them.  Imagine what we could accomplish here if we invested some of the vast fortune we give to corporations in subsidies into educating poor black and Hispanic children instead.  Children have a hard time learning in school when they come to school hungry.  If we could only feed them better, the way the Fins do, we would revolutionize our classrooms.

The second point the video makes is the biggest suds-maker every time I get on my teacher’s soap box.  They don’t give kids homework and they only give them one standardized test when they leave high school.  I have recently covered this topic more thoroughly in a post in which I was able to ridicule Florida governor Rick “Skeletor” Scott.  (Boy, did I enjoy doing that.)  But I won’t go into all of that again here.

The third thing is respecting teachers.  In Finland they treat teachers with the kind of respect that they give to doctors and lawyers.  How cool is that?  In Texas, calling someone a teacher is an epithet.  If a teacher is liked or even loved by their students, administrators are encouraged to keep a closer eye on them to figure out what’s wrong.  Students are supposed to hate their teachers and sit all day filling out mind-numbing test-preparation worksheets.  Imagine what it could be like if teachers weren’t the scum of the earth.  They might actually have students convinced that learning goes on in their classrooms.

The fourth point is that Finland does not try to cram more and more memorized details into young brains so they can spit it all back out on a test.  They take students thoroughly into the subject of study, and at a slower, easier pace.  They dive deep into the river of learning instead of wade through the wide and shallow parts.  All questions get answered.  And by that, I mean, student questions, not teacher questions.  The learning is student-centered.

Finally, the video states that Finland simply has fewer social ills in their country to get in the way of good quality education.  But even though the work is harder in this country, the potential is really there to go far beyond what Finland is capable of.  We have a natural resource that is totally untapped in this nation.  We don’t develop the minds of a majority of our children in any meaningful way.  And I can tell you from having done it, you can teach a poor or disadvantaged child to think.  You can give them the tools for academic, economic, and personal success.  You can make them into valuable human beings.  But you should never forget, they are already precious beyond measure.  We just ignore and trash that inherent value.  So, the information is out there about how to do a better job of educating our children.  We need to follow through.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

 

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Mother Mendocino

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I am about to lay on you a story full of humor, lies, and distortion… but I wanted to warn you first.  This is real-life story about someone near and dear to my heart.  You can laugh all you want… but please don’t think ill of Mother Mendocino.

She was a Science Teacher.  Appropriately enough she taught seventh grade Life Science.  And she taught students about life and love in ways that no other teacher was ever able to do.

I met Endira Mendocino the very first year I taught in the little South Texas town of Cotulla.  They hired me to teach eighth grade English.  And from the first time I saw her until the very last time twenty years later, she always looked exactly the same, like a plump little Wish-nik Troll Doll with frizzy hair.  The picture I drew from memory clearly looks more like Al Franken, the Senator from Minnesota than it really looks like her  To draw her accurately from a photo would be more like an insult than a portrait.  20160213_110859

Her great beauty was entirely on the inside.  And I, of course, am not the only person who was ever made privy to this wonderful secret.  She was a teacher who cared passionately about kids.  She had been a Catholic nun before she became a teacher.  And she brought the Bible teaching of the rod of discipline to her students.  But not the rod of whacking.  She was not one of those Catholic school nuns who whacked your knuckles with a wooden ruler for every perceived sin.  Rather, she used the rod of discipline as it was meant to be used by the Bible writers who wrote about it.  The rod was used to sight along straight lines for laying brick building foundations.  It was used as a line of sight for making paths straight, not for whacking feet at every misstep.  And this is how she taught students.  She modeled good behaviors for them, how to speak respectfully to your elders, how to meet anger with calm and reason, how to think through a problem and sort out solutions to find the best one.  She did as a matter of course on a daily basis things it took me years of trial and error to figure out how to do in a classroom.

Kids would do anything she ever asked of them.  And they didn’t do it out of fear. Oh, she did embarrass them frequently.  If a boy in her class became extra-wiggly and acted out at all, she would make him hold her hand for a few a minutes, and she would refer to him as her “boyfriend” when she reminded the class how you properly go about listening and learning.  But those few minutes of red-faced humiliation imprinted on the wiggler’s young psyche that problems are best confronted not with anger and punishment, but with love.

She never married.  She never had a romantic relationship that any of us ever knew about.  But she definitely had family.  We were all her family.  Her students and fellow teachers all loved her and treated her like a loving mother, hence the nickname “Mother Mendocino”.  And when her diabetes and kidney problems proved too much for the miracles of modern medicine and dialysis, she took an early retirement and quietly passed away.   The whole town mourned her.  But she is not gone.  She lives in all of us.  The lessons she taught were paid forward by all of us who knew her.  And so I offer that little bit of her here and now to you.

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Filed under autobiography, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

Diabetes…Me?

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It began with the day back in 2000 when Deke Moreno was credited with saving my life.  I was in the classroom, in the middle of a vocabulary lesson.  I hadn’t felt particularly well that morning. In fact, I felt like I must be coming down with another virus.  It reached a point where my temples were pounding, my chest hurt, and I couldn’t move.  I sat in my chair in the front, completely motionless, something I rarely did before that day.  Eighteen seventh graders were suddenly looking at me with large, round eyes.  I was the favorite teacher of a few, hated by many, and the object of some indifference to the rest.  Still, they were suddenly silent and unified in their concern.
    “Is something wrong?” asked Deke.
    “Come here…” I waggled my hand at him.
    Deke came up to me.  “Push the intercom button… call for help.”  That was, of course, his moment of heroism, his life-saving act.
    The assistant principal, whose son was in my GT Class, came in and checked me out.  The head principal and the secretary who really ran the school were close behind him.  The AP didn’t waste a moment.  They got the wheel chair from the nurse’s office and wheeled me to his car.  He drove me himself to the local clinic.  My blood pressure was through the roof.  I would’ve died easily had my heart not received some medicine to reduce the strain.  It was a mystery ailment then.  Before the year was out, I found out that I had diabetes.  My diet would change.  My lifestyle would change.  I missed work more often.  I began to get in trouble with the administration for not being able to find the perfect balance between order and chaos (where good lessons lie) any longer.  The work got harder and harder.  I developed a disorder that led to frequently passing out.  I began to collect things like stamps and action figures as a way to put the universe back into some kind of sensible order.  I had a young family.  My two youngest children both came along during the time I was first learning to cope with the disease.  When we moved to the Dallas Metroplex to be nearer to my wife’s family, I managed to get stressed out at my new job, and the one-year probationary period I got with the Lewisville School District undid all the years of building skills and community confidence.  I lost my teaching position.  It took two long years of substitute teaching to get it back.  Sometime in the future I will have to write the ultimate horror story of being a “good sub”.  
    Now, I know you are going to find me a total fool for saying this, but Type Two Diabetes is the best thing that could’ve happened to me.  Yes, I know how crazy that sounds in view of what the disease did to my life, but I have gained benefits that I would not have otherwise gained.  Dealing with the disease and having to make a comeback has made me an infinitely better teacher.  I see students with fresh eyes and a renewed sense of urgency.
    The most important thing is that now I have to live each day for the value it has, rather than for what the future may bring.  When Wordsworth spoke of those “spots of time” where the eyes are suddenly opened and everything is seen in a new way, he was talking about what was destined to happen to me on a daily basis.  There are things that you put off for the sake of a career like teaching.  All of us are a Mr. Holland in some way.  We all have our Opus that we must somehow get around to completing.  I have been working on mine steadily for thirty years, but I never really put it into words before as I have done since I lost my teaching job.  My Opus comes from some of those two thousand children whose lives I touched, whose lives touched, grabbed, jerked, mangled, caressed, or twitched mine.  The story I have to tell is a story about the loves and longings of teens like poor Deke, who played football, fought with his mother over grades, got into trouble with the law, had many high school sweethearts, and saved my life one fateful day.  Some of my former students are now dead.  Some are in prison.  But some are successful business men and successful parents.  Some thanked me for being their teacher.  And, though most of them rarely actually listened and heard me say it, or read my comments in their class journals, I constantly thanked them for being my students, too.   Each and every one of them.
    I have a good chance to live for many years yet.  With more attention from doctors and more careful planning and good conduct I have a good chance to finish my teaching career on a strong note.  I have thirty-one years of service in the books.  But I must write now, too, because the dark wind of mortality is blowing out of the near future and signaling approaching storms.

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