Why I Can’t Teach Elementary School

I can’t discuss the day I had yesterday…not because I don’t want to…because of confidentiality. I never discuss things that can be pegged to individual students unless they are positive shout outs. It was a Class-A challenging day, filled with the crises I get from time to time teaching high school. It used to rattle me, but now each emergency of scale winds its way to my doorstep. I return each serve, and take the day in stride. In between, I manage to teach, knowing I’ve helped a kid or two in the process. I try to remember to smile.

Teaching high school is easy. I get to be a real person, flaws and all. Kids pick off flaws if I try to hide them, anyway. I wish I were an elementary teacher. Elementary teachers are magical. They don’t have flaws. They never lose their cool. They always smile. They dress really nice, and they have panache. I don’t have panache.

homeworkI leave my school and go home to Elementary Boy Declan. He likes bad words and fart jokes. I imagine his elementary teacher smiling as she tells him this is “inappropriate.” I try to raise him right. I don’t teach him bad words and jokes…but things get away from me. I help him do his homework. He procrastinates.

“Mommy, rub my shoulders.” I do.

“Oh, that feels really good. Way better than when I say ‘crap’ a thousand times in a row.” He tries to hide his bad words. He goes to his room saying, “I need privacy. I want to have a conversation with myself.” I listen in. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, crap, shit.” Should stop this or let him work through this developmental moment privately? What would an elementary teacher say?

“You know, saying bad words isn’t nice. You’ll grow up and have no friends.” That’s what I say. I know it’s untrue. An elementary teacher would never say this. I continue, “You’ll get bad karma.” He bumps his knee on the chair. He cries. “See?” I say, “Bad karma.” He growls. He tells me he’ll turn into a dinosaur and eat me.

“It’s NOT bad KARMA!” I tell him it is. You never know when karma is coming…

For now, I accept his compliment in the interest of finishing homework. Mommy, you make me happier than saying the word “crap.” That’s a big endorsement. I tell him not to say “crap.”

In my high school classroom, “crap” is passé. Even the “f” word gets a quick check for the first offense, “Um, language alert.” For repeat offenders, “I’m sure I can find you a hundred or so nice ‘f’ words to write about…” Hint: I’m about to make your day inconvenient. Knock it off.

My son wants to be “inappropriate.” He thinks it’s fun.  He’s received some positive reinforcement in this department. What I call “fresh,” and “obnoxious,” was relabeled “entrepreneurial,” “visionary,” “renegade.”

“That kid’s going places,” I’m told. Yeah, straight to bed. Or time out. Or the gypsies…

deskI went to open house last night. I sat in his teeny, tiny chair. There, on the desk, was a star chart. One of two star charts in the class. In teaching land, that’s not good. Where I’d give a student “the death stare,” Miss, knock that off. You can’t do the ‘death stare.’ You don’t have it in you. I just laugh…[“Well, I got you to stop, didn’t I?”], elementary teachers give encouragement. A star chart.

This means that Declan needs to behave. Last night, I received appropriate elementary strategies meant to encourage. I can’t smile that much while I encourage, though. Elementary teachers never seem to rattle. They impress me. The charts, graphs, stars, and incentives are amazing. I sat in the tiny desk thinking of what I could steal and repurpose in my classroom to “encourage.”  I’d have to white out all the smileys, frogs, and apples, though, or it would encourage students to laugh me off the planet. My charts can’t smile. Maybe I can design charts with avatars wearing sagging jeans or something. If the jeans on the chart sag, that’s not good. Students get to pull up the jeans on their avatar as they achieve more and more.

I try to encourage. Probably not so well. My elementary educator friends tell students to “make good choices,” in the face of inappropriateness.  Teaching high school, I encourage my students to do listen, or they can encourage themselves to some grave penalty.

“You like to throw paper? Awesome! You can throw paper for three hours after school. I’ll let you aim at the basket. I’ll send your stats to the NBA.”  Nobody usually chooses my offer, probably because I tell them I am a nerd, have no life and can stay till six to help their paper-throwing jump shot if need be. They pause. They decide it might just be true. They cease and desist.

Elementary teachers never lie like that. My friend Amy tells me I can’t design punishments I can’t carry out. “You can’t take away computer or TV from your son forever…” 

Maybe she’s right. I’m not sure…she is far better than me in this department.

I tell my son it’s time to go to bed, no more negotiation, he’s not buying a company or anything. Finally, I get him to bed. He only turns into a dinosaur once to try to eat me before he is fast asleep…without saying one bad word.


The Nightmare before Labor Day

It finally happened. I started dreaming about school. Vicki Davis, “Cool Cat Teacher,”  wrote about this, stating when teachers dream about school, they’re almost always nightmares.

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 5.31.10 PMI’ve had two nightmares this summer about school. Both involved changing institutions, not finding rooms, and getting schedules I’m not qualified to teach. In one dream, former colleagues stopped by to tell me how glad they were I left, because they had always hated me anyway. A PE teacher followed me around with a copy of my grades from last year pestering me because someone didn’t get into college because of me, I couldn’t find any supplies, and kept getting notes that I needed to collect “the data.” It compounded from there.

I’m not Freud or Jung, but I can peg this one without help. I left my room a mess–a victim of the end-of-the-year exhaustion from last year, I didn’t mess up anyone’s grades but a substitute absconded my book list from my emergency folder, requiring some summer emailing, no one ever gets enough supplies, and I’m waiting to see what I’m teaching this coming year.  Pretty straightforward.

The truth of the matter is this: good teaching is chaos. The best way to describe it is by comparing teaching to a game of dodgeball where someone swapped out the stinging red balls for baseballs, and twenty people chuck fast balls simultaneously at your head. I have but one glove to catch them.

As a martial artist, I compare this to a real street altercation where people attack together pummeling the victim, as opposed to a movie altercation where the protagonist is accosted by twenty people, but one at a time–everyone waits politely or lines up so the hero can dispatch them in turn. “After you,” they seem to say, “No, after you.” Chuck Norris always wins.

That’s not what teaching is like. In teaching, it hits all at once. And it’s all urgent.

Teaching is chaos. If it’s not, sign me up for that position, and tell me what you put in your morning coffee, because I want some.

If you’re a new teacher, you’re stressing about the beginning of the school year. If you’re a seasoned teacher, you’re stressing about the start of the school year.  You’re wondering, “Will I do well enough this year? Can I accomplish everything? Can I fight all the battles at once, and live to see the end of the year? How about the test? My evaluation? The curriculum… how about…”

Everyone wants to have fun.

Everyone wants to have fun.

Every year I have a theme to try to improve myself in the classroom–to help me achieve inner peace in a world that gets crazy. Last year–the theme was “windmills.” Don’t fight them. This year, efficiency and fun. Where can I best use my time?  How can I collaborate to make my life easier and have time to enjoy my students and colleagues more? I’m finishing off a reread of Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Workweek in honor of this year’s goal, and I’ve joined up with Dave Burgess’ Teach Like a Pirate crew to steal the best of the best ideas in the nation, because, like the hoaky motivational poster says, TEAM=Together Everyone Achieves More. I fully expect to be smacked for the cliché.

I want to do more fun things with my teaching team as part of the Year of Efficiency and Fun. Trouble is, we don’t get to see each other when the school year starts. “Should I go to the bathroom today, or stop in to say hi to my colleague?” Bathroom always wins for me. It’s not a healthy question, because by the end of second quarter, many of us start to forget each other’s names.

So, yes, the nightmares have officially begun, but so’s the planning of strategy for the Year of Efficiency and Fun.  If you work more than two doors down from me–outside of the geographic “Good morning” zone, I’ll try especially hard to say hello, and I’ll bring you a cup of coffee this year. Then maybe you can join the Year of Fun too.

[images: http://i-sparks.net  and chabad.org]


You Can’t Handle The Truth: Asking Students What THEY Want

Sometimes I’m searching for something obscure. I go to Google. I put in the first letter– something nobody thinks about, like aardvarks.

Google knows as soon as I type “a.”

I check to see if the webcam turned on–if someone’s spying on me and UStreaming me all over the world. Nope. It’s just Google. It knows.

I want Google to sponsor my classroom. Every time a student thinks a thought, I want it on the smartboard helping me with student engagement. Students are a little strung out and bored with life lately. It’s “the Junes.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 6.19.22 AMOne day, I was talking to my seniors. A great group with keen insight. You can’t really bullshit these guys. One can write a several-page analysis on any topic–but never does, because he says, “This is stupid.” If pressed, he’ll tell you why. And if you can’t validate his concerns and make it real for him, he’ll be right. Another can do a Rubic’s cube in 15 seconds but is entirely disengaged with school; it’s “boring.”  The others are just as deep, in their own quiet way.

One day, we were talking. Paper Writing Kid rejected my assignment. We were discussing the effect of advertising on psychology and the economy.

“It’s stupid. It’s all consumer-based mind control. Have you seen this video?” He provided a V-sauce video on the flow of money throughout the economy. Fascinating.

“School is stupid,” he vented. “That’s why I never do anything. All we do is testing and packets. And my class always seems to be the experiment for all the new stuff–testing counting for graduation, projects, teacher goals–it’s always my class.”

“I never give you packets.” I was getting a bit defensive. I want my students to love each of my classes.

“No. But look at THIS…” He whipped out packets. And packets. A grove of trees somewhere in the universe is no more.

“What would you do if you were me, given that I am required to teach this?” I explained the standardized curriculum for one course I am teaching. I used to be able to teach what I wanted, provided it was on topic, but curriculum’s getting more standardized because “every student should have the same experience.” I don’t think each student should, because they all have different gifts and interests, but nevertheless…

“So, I’m required to teach this, but I want to accomplish this as well.” I pointed to the sign on my board, “WHAT’S YOUR BIG IDEA?” I talk about “money skills.” Entrepreneurial skills. Advanced skills–the things that really helped me in life–interpretation, communication, writing, presentation, pitching, debating, researching and speaking skills. When students leave, I want them to think “I have these skills. I can be great. I can write my book, start my business, be determined, think outside the box, have an impact.” I want my students to be better than me.


“Well,” he said, “First, get rid of all these ridiculous tests. Everyone’s always testing.” True. I’d just finished up a megavolley of tests collecting data on goals I had to write for the new teacher evaluation system. It took me six days total just at the end of the year with two groups. That’s not counting pretests, correcting, and check tests–all told, I’ve spent well over a week per student on tests. In that time, I could have taught a unit. Or more. All this to prove I’m competent. Teachers must do this in every class.

“These tests are pointless, and they make me not want to come to school.” I’m not going argue. I agree. I find myself apologizing to students.  “Sorry, I have to give this test.”  I can assess students fairly easily through other–fun–means, yet testing has become this mammoth process of data collection I really don’t understand all too well myself–I accidentally designed goals that are mathematically impossible for me to meet. Maybe that’s appropriate karma for overtesting. I fail, too. High five!

“So,” I asked, “What would you do?”

“Well,” he said, “I think the problem with education today is that teachers design things, students design things, but nobody sits at the table and designs it together. You write a lot of curriculum, but do you ever write it with students? Students should be at that table.”

Ding, ding, ding… we have a winner. I am such a moron. That IS the answer.

“What would you write?” I asked.  He told me. Good stuff.

Students should be at that table. Indeed.

I’ve spent the greater part of this year working with people connecting educators and entrepreneurs to provide classroom solutions. I’ve learned from some of the best and brightest people in the nation. Solutions only occur when the parties sit down at the table together. This must happen everywhere. Student engagement requires student input.

Why aren’t students at the table for policy, design, reform, and curriculum? They’re my customers. They’re the people I serve. I ask for their thoughts and opinions every day in class–why aren’t they part of the instructional design process? It’s simple. We ask: What do you want to learn? How can you show what you’ve learned, and that you can do great things?

Doing it together–that is the answer–I may not need Google at all.

[image: http://www.lahsconqueror.com]


A Micron in the Universe Can Change the World

Image by A.J. Leon from "The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit"

Image by A.J. Leon from “The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit”

It’s 4AM. The middle of the night for some, and I have just been presented with a question about the vastness of the universe for further consideration. These are the moments when dialogue sparks up in the stillness of the night when no five-year old intuitively knows that I’m about to have a deep thought so he should interrupt, destroying it before it gets off the ground. And other times, like today, it’s more of a “tag–you’re it game” a chain of comments that when glued together equal most of a conversation.  I remember when such a conversation would’ve taken months, each page going into an envelope to be hand-delivered to friends by the mailman so I could wait a week for their reply.

The size of the universe, I was reminded, is limitless. This has made me wonder, how, at just the right time, in the right moment, the right people, events, and things always find me. I was teaching this in class yesterday, having stolen a bit of a manifesto called “The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit” by A.J. Leon. A.J. and his wife are currently traveling the world attempting to see–everything–changing it for the better. The manifesto was so beautifully written that I felt compelled to use it. I hijacked a graphic for the blog I dedicate to school thoughts, and typed out some thoughts designating it Motivational Monday.

It was a success, underscoring one of the themes of my teaching career: You can do anything. The difference between those who do and those who do not is in–doing. When the world conspires to shut down your ideas, find a new world. These truths aren’t just for for students, I warned, they are necessary for every one of us throughout life. The engagement in this lesson was complete; they paused for thought, because they know I mean every single word. I showed them the truths in my own life.

Sadly, the world of education often contributes to shutting down these ideas. We don’t get time to stop and present these essential lessons–the ones successful people maintain have carried them through to the finish line. I, in fact, came up 10 minutes short of finishing my scheduled plan having reallocated this time. If I come up 10 minutes short every day, I will consider it time well spent.  Life isn’t found in a ten-year old textbook or a standardized test. Life is found in the energy of a 17-year-old waiting to conquer the universe or in someone nearly a generation older old doing the same.

I look around me–back to this morning’s conversation about the universe–and I am amazed. The universe is so big that I remain only a micron by comparison–even smaller than a micron if I could truly comprehend the scale.  Even though this is true, it always seems that when I am pressing forward with the right intention, the right people, events, and resources come to me at the moment they should, like the best of entrances on stage. Never too early so I can feel unjustifiably lucky, and never too late so that I’ve jumped without a safety net and tested the seriousness of the pavement below.

If there is one lesson I could leave every one of my students it would be this–your ideas are amazing. Never cave to the resistance in your world. Find a new world. Or change the one you are in. Sometimes, just sometimes, everyone around you is wrong and your vision is as clear as you think it is. Go act on it. 

The Reason for Low Test Scores is Teacher Clothes

Screen Shot 2012-12-05 at 6.09.31 AM

If you have followed my writings, you know that I struggle with fashion. I hate it, as a matter of fact, though with proper guidance I clean up well.  But I think I’m in a better place now than I was in September when I prayed for Carson Kressley to come and take me to 5th Avenue even if it meant that someone on reality TV got to laugh at my transformation.

I’m grateful, in part, to the lady at Banana Republic who took my coupons and came back with clothes. I’m not saying this was easy—I refused to let her put me in the size that she said fit, if only because it gave me an atomic wedgie of the proportion reserved for 80’s movies where the nerd got skewered on the flagpole. We don’t allow atomic wedgies these days—zero tolerance for bullying. As such, I refuse to be bullied by my own clothes—I’ll wear them slightly oversized.

I have improved in my ability to look at fashion. I’m in a place where I can now look in the mirror and determine if an outfit works or not even though I really don’t match colors well. I can’t, on a good day, place salmon in the color wheel and when called upon to choose colors for my bathroom, I redecorated using the colors of nature—yellow and green. It looked nothing like nature—it looked like it was a hangover job done by the marketing guy from Sprite.

So, I plagiarize a lot.  I’m not above looking at someone’s well put together purple sweater, realizing that I have a purple sweater sitting in a bin that could well see the light of day.  In fact, that’s how I chose my outfit today. And I seem to be getting by.

But there’s a larger disruption going on in the field of education today, something very wrong indeed. It’s lowering test scores and distracting students…It might be too late to save us, in which case we should just pack it up and declare Finland the winner in all things education. The problem, in my mind, isn’t the achievement gap. It’s…

Teacher clothes.

They’re horrible. If I think teacher clothes are an issue–zero fashion me–then there must be a disturbance in the force. When fashion is so…unique…that even I am distracted, I can say with data correlation that it most definitely affects student achievement. I couldn’t do a math paper if I had the opportunity to stare at my instructor’s Rudolph Christmas tie with the LED blinking nose.

I went to a conference recently. My favorite thing to do at teacher conferences is to look at teacher clothes.  It makes it tough to learn about, say, vocabulary or classroom management when there are so many bright and shiny things to capture my attention.

Teacher clothes have been the subject of jokes for 50 years.  The schoolmarm in the a-line skirt brandishing a ruler over the cowering students image that won’t go away. Every time I look around a room full of teachers, I see the following:

  • Power suits.  These are cool.  I suspect teachers with power suits came over from Corporate America seeking to change the world or work fewer hours. Since teaching is actually a 24/7 job, they probably suspect they made a mistake, but still believe in world-changing, so they hang on. That is, until their first second-grader sneaks his second chocolate milk and barfs all over the power suit. That’s $800 down the drain.
  • Cardigans.  These can be done well, but more often than not, they represent the repeat syndrome.  Most teachers have one or two sweaters that they drape over the back of their chairs for the three coldest months of the year when the heating system malfunctions.  It’s like hiking Everest. You have to have layers.
  • Vintage clothes.  I respect teachers with experience, and I, too, have been guilty of wearing vintage clothes. I tried to rebrand it as Zen. I don’t need to be materialistic and buy hundreds of dollars worth of new clothing just because the runway season changed. But there’s something to be said for ditching the powder blue leisure suit, too. “Vintage,” only goes so far.
  • Holiday-themed sweaters.  Yes, the dreaded embroidered Christmas sweater. The only excuse EVER for wearing such an item is for making fun of someone who wears such items. In the case of humor, satire, and practical jokes, a holiday sweater can be worn if the wearer can keep a straight face. Holiday socks are okay, however.
  • Clothes that don’t match with the decade in which the wearer was born. This one is tough. I’m 41. There is no reason on earth that I should be stuffing myself in things from the Junior section. Even though it would fit, it would be wrong. Not allowed.
  • Bangles.  This is a personal issue—I don’t own or wear a lot of jewelry. Some people wear it in style.  But in any case, it shouldn’t be worn all at once like a Mr. T revival.  At many teacher conventions, I see so many layers of beads, bangles, and bracelets, I wonder if I’m in the wind chime aisle at my local garden superstore.
  •  The scarves—oh, the scarves!!  Teachers love scarves. They wear them indoors. I wear scarves, too, but usually just when my heat doesn’t work or when I go hiking.  I can’t figure out scarves. Too close to macrame or hojojitsu (the samurai art of knot tying).  For the brief time I lived in Russia, I associated scarves with old ladies. The word for scarf in Russian is, in fact, babushka, which also means “grandmother.” I don’t want to be an old lady. No scarf for me.

As I get older and confront my own mortality, I have to address the subject of teacher clothes in my own life. In 20 years if I’m still in the classroom, I think I’ll be the hippie crunchy teacher—the one with the silver braid, hiking boots, and Irish cable knit sweater playing music from two decades ago.  But that’s a long way off. In the mean time, I’ll keep bringing my coupon to the girl at the store that tells me what to wear. And I won’t wear teacher clothes.


[image: nothingbutdollsonstrings.com]