“One of the most dedicated participants in the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, was an elderly Negro whom we affectionately called Mother Pollard.  Although poverty-stricken and uneducated, she was amazingly intelligent and possessed a deep understanding of the meaning of the movement.  After having walked for several weeks, she was asked if she were tired.  With ungrammatical profundity, she answered, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.'” — Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love.

I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to do on MLK Day since I started teaching.  It’s supposed to be a day to do (ideally) or think (at least) social justice.  The trouble is, my feets is usually tired on this day.  I think that my teaching adds a drip slop of mortar to the very clumsy and gorgeous wall of social justice.  It does wear me out, though.

I’m tired, but with rest, I can keep going.  Me not burning out, thus far, has something to do with my own choices, and a hell of a lot to do with people around me, some of whom don’t get the relief and happiness of seeing students sprint grow, as they occasionally do, or the glory of having people at parties affirm your virtuous career choice over hummus.  (Which is very kind of them, don’t get me wrong.)

My first year teaching, an anonymous benefactor bought and delivered chairs, rugs, bookcases, and blinds to my public school classroom.  What began as the set for a cut-rate Soviet public service announcement began to look more like a pleasant learning environment.  Books by the dozens also appeared, the most popular of which is definitely Parenthood by Bill Cosby (it reads well in 30-minute bursts), and then Do Fish Drink Water? , which I haven’t read, so I don’t know if they do.

Teachers who mentored me found no question too ridiculous, made me feel safe enough to divulge the stupid things I had done and the stories of days I could not control my students, and, even more amazingly, transitioned me gently from treading-water novice to expected leader.  They set a good example by maintaining a personal life, and managing stress with massages, laughter, and happy hours.  Last but not least, I continue to use the gorgeous Crayola markers and gigantor roll of poster paper bequeathed to me.

Many people have bought me nice dinners, wonderful wine.  People have taken me to the opera.  Taken me on vacations and given me time and space to play and relax.  Bought me presents that I needed and couldn’t afford to buy myself.  My students were directly affected by those kindnesses.  I have a richer life, and feel more generous, when other people are generous with me.

Other teachers (especially at my school) have shared my optimism, loss, frustration, and accomplishments.  They have helped me laugh things off when I wanted to scream.  We have sat in a room together silently, shocked by grief.  I have been gently taken to task when I was asking for it, and patted on the back for being brave when I needed to be.  I have been praised, and offered opportunities, wisdom, celebrations, and forgiveness.

Someone has volunteered to assemble an anthology of my students’ writing and artwork, with professional editing that makes them (and me) look good.  Those books have become the texts for our poetry readings, and an important cultural touchstone for a school often lacking a yearbook or regular newspaper.

We lose too many of the people who know how to do the work of social justice and have the experience and wisdom to do it well because they lack support.  Burnout for teachers and social workers is especially shocking.  Resting your feet to regain your strength, or buying someone else a foot massage, is a good way to make sure more souls stay in fighting shape.  So, thank you again.

The Hours

If you are no longer in high school (lucky you), hear some harp arpeggios and send yourself back there…. The hour of the day that you had a class makes all the difference.  You got your most hated class right after lunch?  Great time for a nap.  Your best class first?  Bummer: you’re still half asleep.  Here’s how I would break down my teacher persona, hour by hour.

1st hour: No matter how memorable you are, it will take me at least twice as long to figure out who you are.  Especially if you look similar to someone else in class, or you have a similar name.  This year, it took me a whole quarter to quickly distinguish my three broad-shouldered, five-foot-ten guys.  Every day, I’ll be slightly spaced out, and the lesson will be the shakiest of the day.  The examples will be hit or miss.  The agenda will sometimes expand or contract awkwardly, as I realize that there are too many examples or I have set a goal that is unrealistic.  Don’t even think about showing up without your dress down money.  Kiss of death.  Bottom line: it doesn’t matter how much coffee I drink.  And it’s not personal.

2: I’m going now.  Things are swinging along.  Waking up.  Coming up with some better examples.  Explanations less rusty.  I know who you are.  I may even be a little bit funny.  Caffeine hitting the system.  Patience kicking in along with caffeine.  The bottom line: this isn’t a bad group.  You could do worse.

3: This is often the best lesson of the day.  Kinks worked out.  I’m pretty much awake, but not tired yet.  I will attempt to be funny, although you may not find me funny.  I can even have personal conversations with you that are carefully planned and deftly executed.  It’s almost time for lunch!  Generally, I like you, and you like me.  Bottom line: optimal time period.  Thank your lucky stars.

6: I wasn’t exactly psyched about ending my lunch/planning/break time to come back to class.  This is elective hour, though, so I get to mix it up, and you get to mix it up.  I’m getting a little worn out.  I’m unlikely to lose it on you, though.  It’s just an elective.  I only have to live with you for a semester.  Let’s relax a little.  Bottom line: go with the flow, and you’ll be fine.

7: We’re almost done.  On the other hand, this is the best hour to take a nap.  Afternoon sun.  Brain almost full anyway.  If I have settled into the day, I’ll be all loose, knowing what I’m doing.  If it’s a rough day, there’s no patience for your shenanigans, young lady.  Out.  Out.  Bottom line: if we can get our second wind, we’re golden.  Otherwise, it’s a tough haul.

8: The last hour of the day!  There’s no reason to work now!  Way too tired, pent up.  Brain overstuffed.  Sick of the whole thing.  We all feel that way.  I will find my serious, angry voice about 80% faster than any other hour.  You will complete half as much as everyone else, and learn it half as well.  I will try to squeeze every last drop of energy out of us both.  If we get the whole lesson done in a way that is halfway reasonable, I’ll be thrilled.  Bottom line: it isn’t pretty.  No matter how smart or well-behaved your fellow students are, they are now at their worst.  If we find our groove, it’s a miracle.

50 Things Servers Should Never Do

Based on “100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do” by Bruce Buschel on the New York Times website (see link below), I have compiled the “50 Things Teachers Should Never Do,” from his Part I, which perhaps shows that service is service, or perhaps shows that I am an annoying stick-in-the-mud, just like Mr. Buschel.

I can’t say I follow any of these perfectly, but I think they’re all good goals.  I also fudged and made some of them “should”s rather than “should never”s.


1. Do not let anyone enter the classroom without a warm greeting.

2. Do not make a kid without a partner or group feel bad. Do not say, “Anyone want to work with _____?” Sometimes let the loner kids work alone. Other times, give them support and structure in finding people to work with.

3. Never refuse to help someone because you are annoyed with past behavior.  If they are respectful and reasonable in that moment, help them.

4. If the lesson is not ready or something goes wrong, have a backup plan for something productive to do.

5. The classroom should be as neat and clean as possible, so students are comfortable.  That said, make them participate in keeping it clean.

6. Do not lead the witness with, “So, you didn’t do your homework again?” or “You’re in trouble again?”  Remain neutral.

7. No flirting, no favoritism, no slyness.  If in doubt, just tell the kids you are kidding or being sarcastic.  It’s not a show.  You are not a character on “Seinfeld.”

8. Listen for a second before you interrupt a conversation. Sometimes the kids are working something out, or they are just about to return to their work or correct their own behavior, and you don’t need to step in.  Wait for the right moment.

9. Do not present information too fast or robotically or dramatically. It is not a soliloquy. This is not an audition.  Repeat yourself.  Clarity is king.

10. Inject your personal favorites, but don’t ever make the class about you.

11. Hustle them constantly.  Push, push, push.  You may fall asleep, but you won’t sleep well.

12. Touching of arms or hands or shoulder is acceptable for greeting, expression of sympathy, and waking up a sleeper.  You probably don’t need to do any other touching.

13. Clean the doorknobs, desks, keyboards, stapler, pencil sharpener, and mice (mouses, whatever) like crazy.  With bleach.

14. When you ask, “Does that make sense?” or “Do you understand?” listen to the answer and fix whatever is not right.  Ask another, more open-ended question, if it is obvious they don’t understand.

15. Never say “I don’t know” to any reasonable question without following with, “I’ll find out.”

16. If someone requests a book or a supply, always suggest that they help themselves.

17. Do not offer up the answer just because you’re getting bored with the lesson or the kids. Wait, wait, wait.  They don’t learn anything by you announcing answers like a trained parrot.

18. Know before approaching a kid what their basic mood and approach to school is.

19. Offer students fun supplies to get them going: sticky notes, highlighters, art supplies.

20. Never refuse a reasonable request from a kid.  If you have time, go ahead and think it through: is it going to hurt anything?

21. Never try to teach a lesson that you don’t understand.

22. If someone is unsure about choosing a topic, help him. That might mean offering different examples or talking through his interests.

23. If someone likes a book, make sure he gets the author and suggest he get it from the library, or let him borrow it.

24. Never use the same example if it didn’t work the first time.  At the very least: ask the kids for a better example.  Sometimes they have one.

25. Make sure the handouts make sense.  The clearer they are, the fewer annoying questions for you and the less time spent repeating yourself.

26. Never assume a student’s question or area of confusion. Inquire.

27. Whenever possible, offer students choices and let them choose

28. Do not be up in a student’s face when you discipline.  Your power does not come from physical intimidation.  This also lets the student save face.

29. Do not make noise while students are working quietly.  Protect them from intercom and hallway interruptions whenever possible.

30. Never let students touch each other inappropriately.  Say something.  Observe and explain.

31. Never move on from a pile of failed tests or assignments without spending some time asking: was it them, or was it me?  And: what would I do differently?

32. Never touch a student when you are angry or disciplining, except to stand in front of them to encourage them not to leave the room.

33. Do not bang on things or make loud noises to get attention.  One loud “Hey!” is the limit.   If they don’t listen to that, you have to try something else that doesn’t require noise.

34. Do not have a personal conversation with another teacher within earshot of students.

35. Do not eat or drink during class.  Except water, coffee, or tea.  You are, after all, the teacher, and you need to preserve your voice and to stay alert.  Your job is harder than the students’ (and their job is very hard).

36. Never reek from perfume or cigarettes. You are in the personal space of a lot of people.

37. Do not discuss your own views on alcohol, religion, or politics on the job, even if invited by the students. “I don’t discuss that with students, but we can talk about it after you graduate, if you want.”

38.  Exaggerate your manners.  Be more polite than necessary.  Use “sir” and “ma’am.”  Sometimes call your students “Ms” and Mister.”

39. And be relentlessly polite.  Especially when they are in a bad mood, or when you are disciplining.  It’s very hard for students (or parents or administrators) to get any leverage against you if your tone of voice and your language is courteous.

40.  Describe their work as “effective” or “ineffective,” “working” or “not working,” “clear” or “confusing,” not “good” or “bad.”  The quality of their work is not an ethical issue.

41. When you need to get really harsh, go there.  Then pull it back and get really nice to balance out the energy.  Always try to end class on a positive, or at least neutral, note.

42. Rarely compliment a guest’s attire or hairdo or makeup. Kids spend a lot of time thinking of themselves as their physical appearance, and they don’t need their teachers reinforcing that.

43. Always mention your favorite fields of study, favorite books.  Model academic enthusiasm.

44. Do not discuss your own opinions without acknowledging and explaining the logic of the other side.

45. Do not curse, no matter how young or hip the students.  Model a full vocabulary and a respect for your audience.

46. Never acknowledge any one student over and above any other. All students are equal. You can easily spend half the class dealing with one kid’s behavior or questions.  Discipline yourself to evenly distribute your time.

47. Do not gossip about parents or other students within earshot of students.

48. Ask the kids for help with as many physical and housekeeping tasks as possible.  Say “please” and “thank you.”  They like to help, and it builds community.

49. Never mention how many As, Bs, Cs there are.  Let kids compete with themselves and work with their own abilities.

50. Do not be merciful in passing kids with a 50%.  That’s not mercy.  It’s pity or guilt.  Do a better job of teaching next time, but also let the kids own their mistakes.

Playing God

I’m fond of the concept of “playing God”  as presented in The Cider House Rules.  It’s a novel with a good old-fashioned modernist directive: someone is going to play God, someone is going to wield terrifying power like a gun or a doctor’s kit, and maybe, since you’re a reasonable person, that person ought to be you.  (Thank you, John Irving.)

I joke about “playing God” as a teacher, which is one way of dealing with the knowledge that mutters in the background every day… I will say something that someone will remember forever, but what will it be?  Will it be some stupid off-the-cuff sarcastic remark?  Will it be, “You’re a good writer”?  Will it be, “I don’t have time for you to get your act together”?  Or something nastier?  There’s no way to know.  You talk almost all day, almost every day.  And you’re only a dumb human being, distracted and annoyed sometimes like anyone else.

You have to have confidence in your decisions and your instincts, although there is often no one to offer you confirmation, or even serve as a witness.  I feel lucky to work at a school where my colleagues frequently collaborate and commiserate, rather than competing or backbiting over test scores.  I probably have a lot more support from my fellow teacher than most educators enjoy.  You say, “Oh, that kid is driving me crazy,” or ask how the kid acts in another class or if the kid can read or do math or if the kid has something crazy going on at home.  And then you should have a better grasp on what is the kid’s craziness and what is your own craziness.  Maybe you’re just having a bad day.

I have a student teacher this semester, which is teaching me mostly about myself, and how I have a hard time holding any gray area of control.  Either I can use the iron fist to regain control for her, delivering the Royal Bitch speech about how the class was unfocused, or I can walk out of the room and read a novel across the hall and let her fend for herself.  The gray area is where I need to be sometimes: listening, encouraging, insisting.  I hate that area.  I’m nothing like God at all in that area.  In accordance with a popular story of human origin, I am eager to resemble God. 

I came in to work this morning with an unusual degree of self-doubt.  I’ve been watching my student teacher building her confidence, and it reminds me how deliberately constructed my own confidence is.  Today the student teacher is gone, and I’m back to doing things myself.  Can I still do it?  Can I do what I’ve been telling her to do all these weeks? 

When I began teaching here four years ago, I thought I could do a good job.  I thought, I’m an educated person, and a smart person, and passionate about the kids.  I can do this.  These were reasons to try, but hardly guarantees of success.  

I don’t even know how to define success here.  Grades are artificial, attention can be faked, knowledge can be short-term and meaningless.  They suck at tests– ask them half the questions right afterward, and they’ll show more understanding.  And when the kids learn and grow, it doesn’t mean it’s because of something I’ve done anything right.  Abraham Lincoln learned real good, and he didn’t have a teacher in his log cabin.  And children mature naturally, whether or not anyone pushed them to.

I am most encouraged by moments when my students treat me with respect.  That is something I trust.  It means we have an environment where people can learn, might want to learn, and might want to change and grow, regardless of the quality of my lessons, or the stupid things I might occasionally say. 

The day turned out well.  We had some strange moments of comfort when the kids realized their “real” teacher was back, if only for a day.  There were fewer arguments than usual.  My quick, vehement yanks on the discipline leash were generally acquiesced to.  (The highest level of this is requesting apologies for misbehavior.  I requested a couple, and I received them.)  Maybe, God or human, they missed me after all.