Tuesday, September 6, 2016

From the Mixed Up Files of Professor Thug

School is back in session, and that can mean only one thing: teaching related posts from Professor Thug! Rejoice.

Teaching is awesome. Mostly. Any teacher worth their paycheck is also a student, constantly striving to improve. Whether it's taking classes, reading the latest research about teaching techniques, or simply learning from your own mistakes and successes. it's important to never become stagnant. Teachers need to adapt to the times and adapt to students' learning styles.

There are moments when I've reflected on a lesson or a response to a student and realized I could've done better. There are also times I've thought that I handled something really well. I learn from both situations. Everything can be a teachable moment.

I try to apply these teachable moments to my own practices. I've had many over the years, some more influential than others. A few happened before I was even a teacher.

The earliest was as a sophomore in high school. It's an example of how the best intentions can have the worst outcomes when they are not fully thought out.

I've had many bad teachers/coaches throughout my career as a student. Fortunately, I had many great teachers, too, but I believe you can learn as much from a bad teacher as a good teacher. With a bad teacher, you might not learn what they want you to learn, and you might be learning strictly out of spite, but you can always learn something.

I was playing organized football for the first time in my life. I was stuck on offensive line, a position I hated, but I wasn't yet confident enough to talk to my coaches and ask them to let me play literally anywhere else. So I stuck it out as Tackle for the full year. I practiced hard, I played hard, and I even cheered hard when I was on the sidelines, which was the vast majority of the time.

Near the end of the season, after our first loss, our coaches gathered us around for a pep talk. Some of the "stars" of the team had been complaining about playing time or something like that. The coaches saw fit to lecture us on good sportsmanship and persistence and sacrifice and blah blah blah. One coach got into a long rant about how the best players work hard without complaining. The playing time and the kudos come naturally because of effort and perseverance. If our "stars" really wanted it, they would go out there, work their asses off and not complain.

Then he turned and pointed to me: "Like Geoff here."

Oh for fuck's sake.

It didn't stop there. "He goes out there and practices every day and busts his ass. He cheers for his teammates. He doesn't sit there and whine about not playing!"

I don't know how many of the players were actually paying attention to any of this, but I do know that I was trying to hide my face and crawl into the corner. He just used me as an example of what an athlete should aspire to be, yet this asshole never fucking puts me in the fucking game. I didn't play one second that night. Maybe I should have been complaining. Or maybe, I don't know, he could have put me in the game? Does hard work and perseverance only pay off for everybody but me? Maybe the coach was just mocking me, like, "This guy works his ass off and he still gets no playing time hahaha!"

I finished out the year and never played football again. When I quit, the head coach (different guy) said, "You can't quit. You're our starting tackle!" To which I replied, "Coach, I didn't start one game. I barely played more than 5 minutes in any game." His reply, "Oh." I could tell right then that he barely knew who I was. That didn't exactly encourage me to stay, either.

Anyways, the entire experience was important for me because it taught me how not to treat students. Firstly, it's important to actually get to know your students. Secondly, if you're going to make an example of them, make sure you don't completely contradict your point with your own actions. Maybe if I played more than 4 minutes a game his point about working hard and being rewarded would have stood up. It was a punch in the face because it seemed that he knew enough about me to use me as an example of hard work, but not enough to let me play. So either I sucked or...I sucked? What was I supposed to think?

Oh, and not to mention, his stupid-ass point had no effect on the people he was trying to reach, so it was a double fail.

I didn't think I'd be a teacher at that point, but I knew I'd never use somebody like that. In general, I never use a student as an example of anything, good or bad. I've found that with writing, and with inexperienced writers in particular, exposure or attention can actually discourage them from doing their best work. People have told me directly that they changed their writing because they thought they might have to read it out loud or even simply share it with classmates in a peer review session. I certainly encourage them to share their writing, and peer reviews are mandatory, but I don't ever put the spotlight on someone if they don't want it. I might use a student's essay as an example of good writing, but most of the time I don't use the student's name. If I do, I ask them beforehand. It's just not worth possibly making a student uncomfortable. Any point I'm trying to make can be made another way.

Like this.

I acknowledge when someone does something well, of course, but I would never point someone out and tell everyone else to be like that person. That doesn't encourage anyone involved.

When I started working with kids, I didn't have a lot of instruction or guidance, so I tried to use my experiences as a student to guide me. To this day, most of what I do is try to emulate my best teachers and avoid what the worst ones did.

My first foray into working with kids was at New Britain Parks and Rec. I worked at the after school program at Chamberlain elementary school, helping kids with their homework and coordinating various fun activities for a few hours every weekday. One day, a young girl was upset about another girl making fun of her. I tried to calm her down and assured her that whatever the other girl said wasn't true. It was something about her glasses or braces or something, and according to the crying girl, it was accurate and she wouldn't accept otherwise. So I said something like, "When you get older, you realize it doesn't matter what people think. You'll look back and laugh at it."

She replied, "But I'm still a kid. It hurts now. You already were a kid so it's no big deal to you, but we have to go through it still."


I vowed to never use the "you're just a kid/it won't matter in the future" reasoning ever again. It minimizes their feelings. Adults have the privilege of experiencing childhood and growing out of it, so we see how things evolve. They don't have that perspective. Their present is all they have, and their feelings are no less real than adults.

A few years later I was a pre-school assistant teacher. It was great, although physically exhausting. The age range was 3-and-a-half to 5-and-a-half. It wasn't exactly mentally stimulating, but it could be if you put mental energy into it. Besides proving my long-held belief that the best kids are someone else's, it taught me a lot about teaching and interacting kids. One thing I noticed was that young kids don't hold a grudge. They might start crying if you tell them no, but 5 minutes later they'll forget why they are crying and will ask you to play dinosaurs with you. You have to keep them stimulated; hence, physically exhausting.

One of the best teachable moments occurred while finger-painting. The best experiences always occur while finger-painting. Needless to say I was a master at it, and I wasn't afraid to show off my skills. Of course, working with pre-schoolers, it's more important to show them how to do something rather than show them how good you are at doing something, but I was new. And I had some finger painting skills to show off.

A girl next to me at the easels looked at my painting and said, "That's awesome!" (She was a smart kid.) Then she looked at her painting and started to cry. "I want to make mine look like yours," she said, with a full pout now plastered on her face. "I'm no good." The tears poured down her face.

I was silent. It was another Parks and Rec situation all over again, but this time, I was the direct cause of it. She was crying because of me, and crying girls have always been my Kryptonite.

The young girl next to her, who was a damn good artist herself for a 5 year old, noticed her classmate's distress. I'm sure she also noticed my utter inability to handle the distress.

She stopped painting and looked at the girl's work. Then she said to her, "It's okay Jasmine. Everybody has their own way of making art. That's what makes it beautiful. Your drawing doesn't look like anybody else's."

Jasmine wiped her eyes with her forearm and said, "Okay." Then she went back to slapping paint onto the canvas.

Ok, well...give that girl my check for the week.

That moment taught me more about teaching than most seminars or classes. Not only dd she have a factually correct response, but her tone and poise and her delivery was the perfect way to handle a tense situation. More than what she said, it was how she said it, and even more importantly, that she said it at all. She expressed concern in a way that avoided any melodramatic scene.

Meanwhile, I'm covering my face with my red and green and blue hands so nobody notices the terror and the tears forming in my eyes.

You have to reach students on their level. Oftentimes what may feel like a catastrophe can be handled with a simple, straightforward solution. "Avoid panicking" should be the number 1 rule for all teachers.

I've had many great experiences as a teacher, too many to mention. One of the best aspects of teaching is seeing students grow and become successful.

Recently I was at the bank and I saw a former student from Tunxis. He was working as a bank teller, and he told me he was studying Accounting at Central. He got his Associate's from Tunxis and was going after his Bachelor's at Central. He told me how much he liked my class and how he appreciated my help and encouragement.

Around the same time, I received an email from a former Tunxis student. She explained in detail how I helped her envision her own future...a future that did not involve school. She was working as a personal trainer or something and she was happier than ever. She thanked me for being honest with her about her performance in school. I always tell students that they need to truly examine whether or not they are ready for the commitment, in terms of time, money, and effort. Some people are just not willing or able to make the commitment, yet they sign up for classes because they think it is the "right" thing to do. It's only the "right" thing to do if it works for you personally. She realized she needed to take a different path to happiness and success, and she wanted to thank me for helping her see that.

That may not be what every educator wants to hear, but I always appreciate making a positive impact on someone's life, no matter how big or small. Students may not ever be great at a particular subject, but teachers can still educate them and make a positive, lasting impact. College isn't the right path for everybody, and trying to force everyone down that path is counter-productive. I'm very clear about the commitment it takes to be successful in my class and in college. If someone decides to continue down the path, I certainly do my best to help them succeed, no question. But if a student is taking Comp for the third time and he can barely put a coherent sentence together, school might not be for him. And that's OK.

Finally, there are some moments that make you question your profession as a teacher and sometimes even your existence as a human.

I'll only share one of those moments, and in all honesty, they don't occur that frequently. When they do, though, it is really devastating.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that there are no stupid questions. If a student has a question about something, there's a good chance other students have the same question and are just unwilling to ask it. Sometimes, students ask questions that can be frustrating because we have gone over them a few times. I've heard"what's a thesis statement?" too many times to count. I've heard "when is the first essay due" right after I just read the schedule enough times to give me an aneurysm. But I can deal with those. They are stu--strange questions given the context, but enough students ask to make me understand that it's a common issue.

However, there is one instance of a student asking a question that still sends shivers of rage and shame up my spine when I think of it. It was a stunning combination of bad timing and a complete lack of basic knowledge. If the question was asked at the beginning of the semester, I would have completely forgotten about it. In fact, it's a common, appropriate question at the beginning of the semester.

But it's also question I answer throughout the entire semester. I make the answer readily available on literally every essay's assignment sheet. It's one of the first things I tell students and I remind them every time a paper is due. After week 4, I've never had anyone ask me this question.

Until last semester. It was the last day of class. We had completed every assignment. Basically, the class session was designed as a writing workshop for students to put final touches on their portfolios. I was answering any last minute questions about revisions. A student at the front of class raised his hand. He wasn't the best student but he did all the assignments, attended almost every class, and participated regularly.

As I called on him, I was in no way prepared for his question. I thought it was a joke at first, but when I saw the look on his face, I knew that something somewhere in the space/time continuum had been completely disrupted.

The young man looked me in the eye and in all seriousness asked, "What font should we use for our essays?"


Again, if it was the first or second or even fifth week, this would be a reasonable question. If he had missed half of the classes, it might have been a reasonable question. If I required a different font for every assignment, this might have been a reasonable question. If he had some kind of traumatic brain injury, this might have been a reasonable question.

It was none of those things, and it was not a reasonable question and I think I might have frightened his ancestors with the way I stared directly into his soul with the fires of Hades ablaze in my eyes.

I could not believe it. I could not accept it. After this entire semeseter, after trying to teach these students so many things about English Composition, about critical reading and writing, about effectively expressing ideas to better engage with the world, this clowndick didn't know the most basic information? Information that had been given on the very first day and almost every day since?

Do you understand how that affects a teacher? If a student doesn't know what font to use on the last day of the semester, a fundamental requirement that had been covered over and over again, how could that student have possibly gained anything from this class? Was it all for naught? Did I just waste 3 and a half months of my time, his time, and 23 other students' time? Had my whole teaching career been a failure?

I stared at him in a silent rage for a few seconds then replied, "I'm not telling you."

He looked confused and a little sad. "What do you mean?"

"For every assignment throughout the semester I've told you what font to use. It's the same font every time. It's on the assignment sheets I hand out for every essay."

More silence and confusion. His eyes begged, "Please?"

"I can't do it. I can't tell you."

The other students looked on in embarrassment and pity. A student in the back spoke out, "Can we tell him?"

I replied, "I'm not going to stop anybody from helping out a classmate, but I personally can not tell him. I just can't do it."

Six or seven students immediately yelled out, "Times New Roman!"

He gave one of those, "Ohhhhh, right," looks and nodded his head.

"TIMES NEW ROMAN YOU DUMB BASTARD!" I yelled, lunging for his throat and stabbing him with a dry-erase marker in the left eyeball, turning his blue eye into a mess of bright maroon.

That's what I did in my mind anyway. I would've felt a lot better if I could've at least thrown something at him though. Instead I just nodded and said, "thank you everybody." And I meant it. The pity they all had and their immediate desire to help him made me feel a little better. They seemed just as shocked as me. So maybe it was just him. But holy shit, talk about a moment that makes you question everything. If I can't successfully instill one of the most fundamental rules of my class, how good could I possibly be?

Again, I think it was mostly just him, but it does speak to one of my beliefs about teaching. The teacher is only as good as the student. There are certainly great teachers out there and there are ways of teaching that are more successful than others, but a majority of people will fail or succeed no matter who teaches them. I know many teachers don't share that view, but I firmly believe it. My three hours a night for 15 weeks isn't going to overcome the 165 other hours of the week in which you are doing anything but learning. I simply do what I can for those three hours and it's up to each student to do the hard work inside and outside of class that truly helps them learn.

That's not a condemnation of teaching. At all. Teachers are some of the most important people in any society. But as I learned with that little girl in pre-school, encouragement and making a positive connection generally has more of a long-lasting impact on students than whatever specific subject you are teaching. My favorite teachers are my favorite teachers because of how they taught, not what they taught, and that is a lesson I take with me to class every day.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed. 

No comments: