Thursday, March 31, 2011

Scenes from Miss O’s Real Teaching Life

Paper Work

Scene 1

[Lights up. MISS O’ enters in modern dress, carrying a large tote bag full of rolls of papers to be graded; books; a gradebook. In another bag is a laptop, in her arm is a teacher’s edition of her literature book.  She is in a hurry, all business, slings her stuff on the big desk. Bell rings.]

MARINA: [enters as the bell rings, crying out in heavy Spanish accent, carrying a paper, a schedule] Miss! Miss! My name is Marina! My name is Marina!

MISS O’:  Hi, hon. Where is your name? [MARINA points, here] Oh, Lesbia...oh! Is your name really Lesbia...

MARINA: It is Marina! Marina!

MISS O’: Oh, sweetie, has this been happening all day? [MARINA nods] Got it. It’s fixed, see? Marina. Honey, what were your parents thinking?

[Class noises subside, Marina smiles, Miss O' points out her assigned seat.]

MISS O’: Hello, class. I’m Miss O’, your English teacher for this year. Let’s take roll and see who’s here. [pronounces with ease:] César Aguilar. Jorge Alcocer. Fia Faivai. Sharlyn Fireoved. Farhad Gholizadeh. [stuggles:] Jock...Hahr-ees? Sorry. Jack. Harris. Jack Harris. Thanks. Su-ZAN Honas. Sorry? Jones. Susan Jones. Got it...Kapo Leung. Shunsuke Yasuda.

Scene 2

[JAZZ, an angry student, enters with members of the class, holding a paper, her report card. Really she only speaks in italics and boldface...and all caps.]

JAZZ: Ms., um, O’HAH!

MISS O’: My name is not Miss Um, Jazz.

JAZZ:   “Ms O’HAH!”

MISS O’: Yes, Jazz?


MISS O’: “Why come,” Jazz?

JAZZ: Why di’ you gi’ me a D?

MISS O’: I didn’t give you a D, Jazz.

JAZZ: [her face contorted in pain, as if she might cry] I KNOW.

MISS O’: Let’s look at the book...the whole world does not have to know about your D, Jazz.

JAZZ: [walking] No, for ruhl, for RUHL, Ms. O’HAH...

MISS O’: Angel, look at these zeros. These are on work we did IN class. I saw you working on it. You never turned it in. Why is that? And this test...

JAZZ: Ms. O’HAH! Oh my GOD. For ruhl! What can I do? WHAT CAN I DO?

MISS O’: [begins to frame a response, as the answers are basically the same (do your work, study for the tests, see me for extra help)....when suddenly]

JAZZ: [who has spied her friend Angie who had just walked into class, and their eyes meet and they double over in laughter, loud and uncontrollable, with the clapping of hands as punctuation. Jazz, her face full of smiles looks at a serious MISS O'] Ms. O’HAH! Did you ever see FRIDAYS? You ain’t neveh see that movie? Oh, my GAW, Ms. O’HAH, you gotta see that! That junk is messed UP! [looks to Angie, they collapse] It is messed UP! For ruhl, you have to see it... [JAZZ disappears over to Angie’s desk]

MISS O’: [to audience] And that is why come Jazz got a D.

[Lights change.]

JAZZ: [looks]

Scene 3

[Perhaps Miss O' diapers a baby in class, makes lunches, dispenses drugs, does an OB-GYN exam, or performs brain surgery; then FARHAD enters, holding papers.]

FARHAD: Miss O’, I am so sorry to bother you. [He proffers papers, torn envelopes; he begins giggling, embarrassed.] Can you, uh, can you read these?

MISS O’: What do you mean? What are they?

FARHAD: They are my bills, my family’s bills. My father doesn’t speak English, only Farsi, and he doesn’t understand how they can be so much.

MISS O’: Yeah, sure. Why not? Let me see…

FARHAD: He’s really mad about the cable.  [MISS O’ reads this.]

MISS O’: Farhad, you guys are getting, like, every channel and service known to cable. Do your parents know that?

FARHAD: What do you mean?

MISS O’: Well, I don’t even own a TV, but I know that cable has packages, like, they group certain channels together, and you pay for only those channels.

FARHAD: Do you have a pen? Wait, I do. I have to write this down. And write it in Farsi so my father will believe me.

MISS O’: You guys are getting Showtime, HBO on Demand…do you watch all these?

FARHAD: Only ESPN and CNN and BBC World News.

MISS O’: Um, look, can you get something from your cable company, bring that in, and we’ll pick a package together. How’s that?

FARHAD: Great! Okay…now tell me how to read the gas bill. I am so sorry! I have to explain this to him or he will have a stroke.

[bell rings]

Until next time, when we hear Kelli with an i say, "Um, oh my god, wait! It's 'between you and me,' right? Oh my god I totally get this now!" 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Is She a Sport, Eh? A Sport?

 She likes sport, yes…but that’s not what you mean, is it?


            Back in my college education days, I was in a language arts games, er, “curriculum” class and one day the professor said this: “You should never ask students to read aloud in class. It’s embarrassing. Some students have lisps, or dyslexia, or other impairments. It’s cruel.” The professor smiled.

            Students nodded. I stared and furrowed my brow.

            I’m an actress before I’m anything else (if I’m honest with myself, and why that admission embarrasses me, I don’t know), and I know that public performance is vital for personal growth. And to read aloud is humiliating? Really? But being a Taurus I tend to believe anything people tell me, so I took that in. And yet.

            Would you not ask the kids auditioning for the school play to audition in front of others for fear of embarrassing them? Would a sports coach have all the prospective players try out solo, so as not to humiliate them if they lack talent? It’s insane.

COMMENT: Lisa, prospective participants in a show or a sport WANT to be there.  It’s a choice. Lisa, English class is not a CHOICE. They are not volunteering to read aloud.

RESPONSE: So you are saying that I, Teacher, have no right to ask students to do anything in class that might draw attention to their ignorance or lack of proficiency in a skill.

COMMENT: Exactly.

RESPONSE: You are saying that I should lecture and give out worksheets and grade them quietly and never call on a student to do anything out loud.

COMMENT: Exact…uh. Well, you know what I mean.

RESPONSE: No, frankly, I don’t. Enlighten me.

COMMENT: Now you’re just being an asshole.

RESPONSE: Am I an asshole?

COMMENT: Oh, GOD, shut UP!

RESPONSE: [Hums, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”]


            When a high school teacher, ANY teacher, has 150 students, she has to find out as quickly as possible whether or not they are LITERATE. (And NOT JUST the English teacher, though you wouldn’t know that to hear the pressure people put on the English Department.) Props for today's lesson go out to a student I had my first year, whom I’ll call Lamont. Lamont was 17 years old in my freshman class. He never brought a pen to class, never had paper. Never brought a book. But he behaved. He was charming. He slapped hands with kids, made the rounds, complimented my hair; as I say, he behaved. He just never did any work. This was because Lamont was illiterate.

He stealthily copied homework on occasion; he faked tests by doing the objective portion and never answering the discussion or essay. He’d laugh and cop attitude if you tried to enlist him to read. In other words, he was a brilliant actor.

            And a drug dealer, but that’s another story.

            I was flailing in this 6th period class of 20 kids: about half were 17 years old, all had failed school for years, and were sent to the high school because they were, you know, 17. They were waiting until they could legally quit. A few exemplars: Latrice was a smoker, liar, cheat, and future murderer of America, and if I didn’t let her go out to “fix her bra strap” (“smoke”), she would stand there and scream, “OH MY GOD I CAN’T B’LIEVE THIS WOMAN WILL NOT LET ME PUT MY BOOBY BACK IN PLACE, OH MY GOD.” (The administration told me I had to be patient, learn to work with her. So I let her stuff booby/light up in the girl’s bathroom, to which she insisted on taking 14-year-old Janet to “help” her and if I didn’t let Janet go, well…”OH MY GOD…”). Shawn just couldn’t stop laughing, fighting, singing. (The administration told me I had to be patient, learn to work with him. Did you know that no one in our school did drugs? Nope. “We don’t have that problem here.” Uh huh.) One very old-looking kid, T.J., was 6’6” and couldn’t play sports because he was failing every single class. He had a farm to run and school was just something he had to do “to keep the law from coming down” on him. T.J. watched this loony bin with detached enjoyment, roaring with laughter most of the period.

            So by comparison, Lamont was easy. I ignored him. But Lamont, seeing me in near total emotional ruin and on the verge of quitting by year’s end, took pity on me. One day he stayed after school and set me straight: He did not want to be in school. He had deals to make; he had finally turned 18, and he was OUT. “Miss O’Hah, you a nice lady. But you stupid. Ain’t no one in this class gon’ amount to shit. You tryin’ to save people. Ain’t no point.” He paused, considered. “I can’t read, Miss.”
            I couldn’t take that in. I looked at him. “But you take spelling quizzes…”

            “No, Miss, I COPY spelling quizzes. I can’t read.” He laughed. “Ain’t no one know that. You all so stupid. You mean well, but you know.” He left the room. And I had no idea why I had become a teacher.

            So after that first year, I changed. The first week of every school year for the rest of my career, I did a “read around.” The day I gave out the textbooks, I had the students open to a story and everybody, but EVERYBODY, had to read a paragraph. If they refused, I didn’t make a big deal out of it. But I took them out in the hallway and made them read to me one on one. Most all could read, but were shy about the quality. No problem.

            But here’s one example: I’ll call him Randall. I’m doing the read-around, he rolls his eyes, grins, shakes his head. I pass over him. I give a response assignment when we finish (so I can see if they all can WRITE) and take him out in the hall. He literally cannot read. He is shaking.

            “This is a lot of stress for you,” I say, gently.

            He tears up. He nods. But he is a . . . wait for it . . . STAR FOOTBALL PLAYER.

            I refer him to Guidance, to the Reading Specialist, but there is a waiting list. In the meantime, I contact his coach, who is a social studies teacher. He writes a note back, “Let’s meet with Randall!” And then, silence.

            You know why? The coach couldn’t risk exposure during football season. And after that, who cares?

            Not all sports coaches feel this way, not by a long shot. Some of the finest human beings I have known were sports coaches, and those coaches cared about the whole child, not just the athlete. But I want to talk about the implications of sports in the school culture, for good and for ill.

            I really take a long time to set up my points, don’t I? And that’s because school is just fucking complicated. How I came to understand its workings is all interconnected, if you see what I mean. So I pull you in the same way that I came to learn about it.

            To begin, I want to talk about the Arts, and more specifically, Theater.
SCOREBOARD: Sports: $$$  Humanities: [sad face]

A Justification for Teaching Theater in Public Schools
Right Alongside Math and Geography and Lab Science and PE, Dammit

            I’ll say it in this first sentence: The performing arts are the great civilizers. What I am going to say about Theater Production in later blog posts I could just as easily say about Chorus, Band, and Orchestra. And this is not to dis the visual arts, the fine arts, or the homemaking arts, to say nothing of sports. Here’s the thing about the performing arts: Kids have to work with other kids as well as with an adult in charge who is an artist before he or she is a teacher, and then get out there, at some point, ready or not, in different clothes from their everyday wear and sing or play a trumpet or dance to unusual choreography or act Brecht in front of a real live audience that usually includes people who know them as NOT that kid. This is huge. It cannot be stressed too much. There is nothing like being better than yourself and in public; and for the teacher, nothing like figuratively kicking a young person in the patoot, turning the lights up full, and saying, “Well, here you are. Now what are you going to do? Kid, this is life, only without legal consequences.”

            I will talk more about this throughout the blog, with specific examples of how I saw kids transform. But suffice to say, to the principals, school boards, and superintendents out there, if you want kids to behave better in every way, then expand your performing arts programs and open them wide. Don’t make them mandatory: No arts class should become a dumping ground, no more than you would force a kid to play football. And while both sports and theater embody skillful teamwork and public performance, the arts demand another level of work, something that draws on deeper ideas, broader skill sets, and a rich social and cultural awareness that a team sport doesn't demand. Like sports, the arts should be about participation and encouragement, and you can’t encourage when there’s nothing there at your school to encourage kids into. 

            A teacher who is an artist first--just as with a social studies teacher who is a historian first, or a science teacher who is a biologist first, or a shop teacher who is a craftsman first--is one of the best things a kid can have, provided the artist is ALSO a real teacher and loves teaching. The trick to being a successful teacher is to be passionate about what you teach, engaging actively with what you teach. And knowing how to write a hall pass at a strategic time.


            And sometimes a teacher is teaching because he can COACH. (I realize I am gendering it with he, but my experience was that most coaches of the big team sports were men. Most teachers in my experience were women, so I often say she when I refer to teachers. Cope.)

            Not to be a dick, but sometimes teachers are only “teachers” because they can bring in a winning season. I noticed that many of them were in social studies (though I knew brilliant social studies teachers), and I think this is because it’s a standards curriculum that mostly focuses on factual knowledge rather than on experiments, writing, or critical thinking. If you read the standards documents, you don’t see standards for writing, argument, speaking, and listening as you do in Language Arts, for example. It’s idiotic. (ASIDE: Colleges often complain that their students don’t read enough nonfiction. I spit. ALL of their classes—science, social studies, math, even the early years of foreign language—are exclusively nonfiction. English is the exception, and yet apparently English has to “do it all” at the expense of reading more fiction and poetry, the most important reading of all. If the nonfiction subjects’ teachers choose not to read a variety of articles and texts critically, looking at facts and opinions, problems and solutions, and keeping an eye on the author’s purpose, why is that always MY fault? Sorry to be pissed off, but it just really pisses me off.)

            So is a “pure” teacher better? That's not what I mean. Most of us do the best we can, no doubt, whether we have extracurricular assignments or not. As I have noted, I am not arrogant enough or stupid enough to think that I did not have some negative effects on, or indifferent responses from, some students, that I have done it "right"--you know that. I am getting at the way good teachers are hired, maintained, and evaluated: It just really pisses me off when the main evaluation for many teachers is a winning season in sports.

            The kids can't read? Look at the nice, shiny trophy. 

            As I mentioned in my last blog, I learned just as much from teachers I disliked as from the ones I loved. I can point to teachers who were, I realize in retrospect, deeply depressed and just couldn’t get up from behind what educator Nancie Atwell calls “the big desk.” Sometimes the teacher was the basketball coach; he sat and read what was in the book, the book you were also looking at, and just couldn’t really say much beyond that. I often struggled in those classes. While I learned what kind of teacher, what kind of person, I did not want to be, what about the kids who just gave up in that situation?

I also had a few teachers, several of whom were sports coaches, who were wildly popular with my classmates, and whom I found to be (whether I had the vocabulary or not) misogynistic, racist, or bullying; I would keep silent, but those teachers didn’t like me much, I’ll tell you that. That was okay, because--now hold onto your muffins--the actual world is full of misogynistic, racist, and bullying people. I’ve had to deal with them every day of my life, whether in the Virginia countryside or the New York subway system or just watching them on the FOX network. And guess what? I can. (Blown away by the depth of my psychoanalysis? I know. Me too.) It's a sports network world. But shouldn't schools try to do better?

Finally, the best teachers I had—whatever the subject, coach or not—were genuinely glad to be there, or at least put on that show. They had a sense of humor, they talked to me as if I were a real person, they had expectations, they expressed exasperation, joy, disgust, and interest. They were present. They had flaws, bailiwicks, prejudices, passions, but mostly they wanted to be teaching. 

Some teachers see themselves as coaches first. And that can be a problem.

"Where are all the great teachers?" Some of them couldn’t get jobs because they weren’t basketball coaches. Some of them only got the job at all because they agreed to coach cheerleading or assist with soccer. Coaching is time-consuming: between the practices, the games, the traveling, the health concerns, the liabilities—to say nothing of the competitive parents and fanatical fans—you wonder why anyone would do it. And when do they grade papers?

Or do they even assign much work? Because that’s a real question, too.

And some people coach for the stipend. My first job came with a $1,000 stipend for coaching drama, taking my salary from around $17,000 a year to $18,000, which made a difference, no kidding, since it was a few months’ rent. To get that stipend, I had to direct a fall play, a competition one act play, a Christmas play, and the Senior Class Musical, and host the district and regional one-act play festivals on two weekends (procuring the judges, sending out the information, designing the lighting, arranging for trophies)—on top of teaching my three preps, and this was all my first year. For a thousand bucks extra. And in order to get the job.

Arts stipends, compared to sports stipends, are shit.

As my principal said to me when I asked about the crumby stipend for coaching drama at Luxe High ($1200 which 6 of us divided: two directors, a set builder, a scenic artist, a box office/house person, and a choreographer—all teachers; we did two big shows a year, 10 weeks of rehearsal each show, plus a competition one-act, involving some 200+ kids year round; by contrast, an assistant volleyball coach got $3,000 for coaching 9 girls for a 6-week season): “Lisa, if the drama club ended tomorrow, about 6 parents would complain for about 6 minutes. If my volleyball team loses even one game, my phone rings off the hook. That’s life.” He smiled.

So why is this “life”?

Ain’t that America?

The only equalizer, at least in Virginia, was that all outside school organizations—whether drama club, literary magazine, girl’s softball, the newspaper or varsity football—had to be self-supporting. You made your money from gate receipts, or ticket sales, or by selling copies of the literary magazine or newspaper. Fair enough.

But I was stunned to learn that in many states, sports are TAX SUPPORTED, whereas the arts are not. By supporting sports with tax money—and I'm not sure which sports and how that’s allotted—not only are we saying sports matter more than the arts (this is Republican America, so I’m not surprised), but we are saying, unintentionally or not, that it’s more important to hire the best COACHES than to hire the best TEACHERS.

Ain’t that America?

Listen: Sometimes the only reason kids come to school is for the extracurricular activities: band, orchestra, baseball, drama, what have you. It’s air to them. I would have DIED in school without the drama club. I know that. I went to every home football game for all four years of high school and loved it. I had friends who lived to run cross country. I’m all for it. But, come on, sports fans, what is going on here? What is going on with America's schools?

Schools have to step back and answer this question: WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?

Are you really so AFRAID of the parents? Because that’s what it sounds like to me. Look at our American culture of fear, once again. “If we lose the game, my phone rings off the hook.” Stand up. Where are the leaders who fearlessly articulate the mission of public schools? We are attempting a HUGE task: to comprehensively educate every child in this country in language arts, math, science, social studies, civics, culture, health, art, fair play, and decency. You're afraid to say that? So you pick a winning baseball season over education for all? 

And it doesn't stop there. I’ve had coach friends who were under constant threat of being sued by a disgruntled parent. I’ve known of times when parents called in and demanded that a coach be fired for a losing season, and indeed the coach would be let go, and then fired from the teaching post, so another coach could be hired. Yes, this happens, even if the coach is an outstanding teacher, only to be replaced by a coach who couldn’t give a shit if his star player is illiterate.

The humanities are always under fire when sports almost never are, and it makes me mad. So I tossed off this post today rather than go into the city and play. It’s time for spring training on this March day. But baby, it’s cold outside.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Humanities Rock, and Roll, and PAY

The arts and humanities are the great civilizers, and everyone wants to eliminate them. NPR! NEA! And universities will blithely say that these programs don't generate revenue. And money is our national god. My youngest brother's classics professor posted this article, which demonstrates that not only are these classes valuable to civilization, they are also cost-effective for the universities that house them.

Keep the arts and humanities alive, my friends.

More Tools of the Trade: Reasonable Expectations


            When a kid gets really mad at you, and this happens especially when an unpleasant report card comes out, or a failed test is returned, he or she may spew into your gut and face, with all the power he or she can muster: “I HATE YOU.” I told a kid on a poetry project once—he’d included only Pink Floyd lyrics---“Your research for this project was too sparse.” He read the critique aloud and shot back, “Your teaching is sparse. You suck.”

            What do you do? I used to freeze.

Here’s what I learned to do. I would look into his or her eyes and say evenly, sincerely, “That’s okay. I have friends.”

            A gasp from another part of the room: “OH MY GOD, NO YOU DI-N’T!”

            “I have friends. I need you to LEARN. I’m here to help you grow academically. Doing the work I assign, to the very best of your ability, is part of that. Let me know if you need help.”

            I was, as you might imagine, not called, “easy,” or “nice.”

            But most kids liked me okay. And that’s still not the reason you are in teaching. You are in teaching to teach kids stuff. Out of that enterprise, real and wonderful friendships and collegial relationships can happen, and when it does, it’s just fan-fucking-tastic. But this cannot be the GOAL.

            You must set reasonable expectations for yourself in your classes: The most reasonable expectations in the world for you are, 1) to teach your curriculum to the very best of your ability; and 2) to get to know your students and try to meet their learning needs to the best of your ability.

            That’s it.

            Who were your favorite teachers? Who were your least favorite? You can learn from both of sets, and here’s some stuff I learned, and used when I taught. This isn’t really an ode to the best or a take-down of the worst, but rather a reassessment of teachers who made me better, some by being sort of mean and some by being what my friend Gary calls, a person.


            Mrs. “I’ll call her” Pills was my second grade teacher, and was easily the meanest teacher I had as a student in public school.  She was turning 65 that year and by law had to retire. She told us this through the tiniest lips I’d ever seen, which sat on the palest, powdered face under the darkest red dye job surrounding beady eyes that peered out of cat-eye-iest glasses one could imagine. She wore Chanel-style suits. Perfume. High heels. She made us say “The Lord’s Prayer” every morning. This was 1971, and that was not legal. As I wasn’t of any religion, and only vaguely knew the name “Jesus,” and found him really scary because of those Children’s Bible Stories at my dentist’s office, the implications of this act weren’t clear. “We have said the Lord’s Prayer every morning of my teaching life and we aren’t stopping now!” she decreed. I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I just mumbled along. I remember the glares she gave me, and a Japanese girl named Kimiko because we had no idea what to do.

            Mrs. Pills once had us recite “The Purple Cow,” the last two lines of which were, “But I can tell you anyhow/ I’d rather see than be one.” I was good at memorizing rhymes and had an innate sense of rhythm. But I watched as child after child before me recited, “I’d rather see one than be one.” The “see one” was wrong—the rhythm was ruined by it. She smiled. She said, “Very good.” She never corrected them. Not wanting to stand out, I said what they said, though I agonized over it because it was wrong. She pursed her thin, heavily reddened lips. She adjusted her cat-eye glasses. “Next,” she said.

            One day we were making mirror-art, stenciling butterflies by folding the paper over and tracing the ditto of the half butterfly, while holding it against the window. I folded it wrong and traced it on the wrong side. The whole exercise was stupid to me. She saw what I’d done, and my eye-roll, and grabbed my wrist, smashed my hand against a window pane, and dug her long, painted nails into my hand, forcing me to trace the butterfly half correctly.

            She made us grade each other’s papers. We were seven years old. During the unit on greater than and less than, I was a loser. No idea what the hell those little sideways triangles had to do with anything. While “grading” Ingrid Schaeffer’s math work, Mrs. Pills reached over my shoulder, threw down red X’s and hissed, “You are marking it all wrong,” and I became my mother: I turned to meet her powdery, scented, wrinkled face and spat, “I KNOW that seven is greater than three. Which way does the carrot [sic] point?”

            She had me tracked with the slow kids for years afterward. The other key event (to what I’m fairly certain is what happened to me) occurred when she asked us, after “head down on the desk” naptime, to tell us what we dreamed. I couldn’t believe she seriously thought we dreamed in that time, so I shot up my hand and went to the front of the room to tell them a story. I said, “I dreamed we all went to Egypt and were in Tutankhamen’s tomb! Juanita was there,” and I pointed, pausing for effect, “and Carl was a Pharaoh…”

            “You’re lying,” Mrs. Pills snapped. “Sit down.”

            Well, DUH. What on earth was she expecting after a 5-minute nap? I was mortified, in every sense of that word.

            Mrs. Pills was important in teaching me who and what I did NOT want to become as a teacher. And so sure was I that she was mean and wrong, I stiffened my spine, I rallied, I grew. I was able to do this because of my upbringing, as I mentioned—learning about the morality of the world on TV, my parents’ talking to me, all that. Mrs. Pills did not understand me or how I learned or how my tiny brain worked. Move on.


Speaking of not understanding me, I came to learn that there were plenty of people I didn’t understand. And that’s the way it is. You can’t expect everyone to understand you, or that you will understand everybody. Boy howdy.

  My first college theater professor was a drama theorist and teacher of creative dramatics, or using drama with children as an expressive learning tool. I perplexed him, he me. When he lectured, he threw in the phrase “vis à vis” a lot. I never had any idea what he was talking about. I got a C in my first college theater class (which he taught) and thought maybe I should switch to English. (When I spoke to him about it, he suggested that that might not be a bad idea, except that I obviously wasn’t very good at understanding dramatic literature. Fortunately, another theater class (taught by the department head) was more successful for me, so I stayed, and that was the right thing to do.)

Later, because I was interested in teaching drama, I also had to take this professor’s Creative Dramatics class, and I got a C in that, too. Of my first lesson plans, he wrote memorably and utterly unhelpfully, “These lessons have no soul.” That said, he worked hard for community involvement in drama, which I believed in, and to this end I volunteered to teach a few of his Saturday workshops so I could have practice working with young kids. But--and this is an unfortunate theme in my life--I wasn’t really given any guidance. People “trust” me, for whatever reason (I just sound so sure--just a tone of voice, no intention behind it, really, but it scared old Mrs. Pills back there), and when I fail to live up to “expectations,” they shake their heads in disappointment.

            Here’s what I tried to learn from this and did not always succeed at holding: We are where we are. (I know: ANOTHER deep, insightful analysis in only two paragraphs!!) Being Disappointed in a young person who is really trying is not helpful. I experienced that unhelpfulness from the aforementioned professor time and again. Yet I have been known to project that very disappointment onto young people because I would not believe they were limited or not quite there yet, when they were just that: in progress. I would have flashbacks to that professor’s face, and I realized I needed to quit doing that. It took a while to learn.

            Here’s an aside, as we keep in mind that I was never much more than a disappointment to this professor. I tell about it because we as teachers really cannot know what people’s lives are like; we walk around with the assumption that everyone is “fine” and are shocked, shocked when we later learn the truth, that we don’t know “everything”. I tell the next story because sometimes you just can’t explain. (Remember that Seinfeld episode that opens in the diner with Jerry’s date shaking her head about the apple pie he offers her? and later he does the same thing at her Papi’s pizza place, and it’s funny because we know why he’s shaking his head and ALSO why he can’t tell her? It’s like that.)

My senior year I was chosen to be a sort of Theatre Arts student liaison to the faculty, and it meant once again that I had to work with him, this professor, who was in charge of this program. We had a meeting one afternoon at 4:00 PM, and I was en route and nearly at the stairs of the Performing Arts Building when a woman from one of my education classes, whom I’ll call Doreen, called to me from another quad. As I walked over to her, she seemed to be searching my face, and then she burst into tears. A few years older than I, Doreen came from a poor background, had been married a few years, and now felt stable enough to begin changing her life by going back to college; it was her dream to be an elementary school teacher. (We didn’t have much in common; I think they should be canonized, those folks of the elementary trenches, but I’d rather have my skin removed from my body with tweezers, to paraphrase a friend of mine, than to teach tiny people.) That afternoon Doreen had been to a follow-up OB-GYN appointment and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She would have to have a complete hysterectomy. I was the first person she had seen whom she knew since that appointment, and I also have one of those faces people tell things to. (I’m asked for directions by New York tourists an average three times a week.) We walked over to an open field, to a bench, where she talked to me about her hopes, dreams of children, plans, fears of telling her husband, who would never consider adoption. She was imagining the end of her marriage if not the end of her life. I comforted her as best I could, given that I really hadn’t had much life experience up to that point. Around 5 or 5:30, she was calm enough for me to leave her. She hugged me and thanked me, and I really hoped I helped. (I don’t think I even saw her again.) I found myself standing there, looking out over campus trees and lawn, and trying to remember what I had been doing. I couldn’t. Did I have any plans? No, I could go home and do homework.

            The next morning in the hall of the Performing Arts Building, the professor said something cryptic to me about the importance of keeping appointments . . . and I remembered. What could I say? He didn’t ask what happened. He instead accused me in this sort of back-handed way. I apologized. “Something came up,” I said lamely. I’d realized in a New York second how ludicrous it would sound, “I ran into my friend Doreen who was just diagnosed with cancer...” and with my history of disappointing him, frankly I’d given up caring what he thought.

            Here’s the point: I remember all this. It’s all part of the lessons. I didn’t like him much. He didn’t think much of me. And yet we each had our successes and mattered to other people, and that’s the way it is.


            What is it you want your kids to learn? You’ve taken the classes, for what they were worth, you have a job assignment, and now you need to reflect: What exactly is it you expect of your students? To reinforce: I mean this in two ways: 1) academically, and 2) personally. What do you expect of yourself? I mean this in two ways: 1) instructionally, and 2) personally. The month before you embark on the job is as good a place as any to reflect on this. Whatever my failings and whatever college did not prepare me for, I did have an idea of those expectations.

            I want to take a moment here to thank two teachers whom I loved, and both of whom had a particular moment in which they shone golden for me in terms of student expectations.


            Mrs. Sarver was a home economics (still called that then) teacher at Luxe Middle School. To set the scene of this anecdote: I was in eighth grade, struggling with Algebra I and tired a lot because I was always in a play, learning lines and rehearsing after school. Home Ec was first period (back then we rotated from Fine Arts to Industrial Arts to Home Ec throughout the year.) In Mrs. Sarver’s class one day, we were supposed to be doing embroidery, but I was sneaking in my algebra homework under the table because, as usual, I had fallen asleep before I’d finished, and Adam called me out: “Lisa, are you doing algebra when you are supposed to be doing your project?”

I shot embroidery needle points out of my eyes at him, and blushed as Mrs. Sarver—wait, I mean Mrs. Vowell--walked over. (My eighth grade year Mrs. Sarver turned into Mrs. Vowell, by which change students are always thrown; I also learned about divorce and remarriage through this, and it then began to dawn on me that teachers had, uh, LIVES outside the building, so thanks again, Mrs. V.) She leaned down to me and I waited for the public humiliation. Very quietly and sincerely, as if I were a real person, she asked, “Do you need to finish your homework?” I nodded. “Go ahead and finish. I’ll let you take the embroidery hoop home tonight and you can finish the project for homework. But this shouldn’t become a habit,” she said simply. Well let me tell you, I made the most gorgeously embroidered 3” Lucy Van Pelt you’ve ever seen (and my friend Jean has her framed and sitting on a shelf to this day). I also never again took advantage of Mrs. Vowell or any other teacher . . . if I could help it. Her kindness was not condescending, but rather, it was generous: and stunning in its effectiveness.


            Good Example Two is Felice, my costume design professor in college. (She even looked a little like Mrs. Vowell--both had angular olive faces but soft (not heavy) forms; and looked chic in slacks.) I was ill one morning, slept in, and realized I’d missed a test. Panicked, I found my directory and called Felice’s office. Now, keep in mind the previous prof I’d had during my first year, and you may then imagine the response I was expecting. I waited for a condescending sneer, the sigh into the receiver, an exasperated rustle of a calendar. Felice said, “I’m sorry you’re sick. Just come by when you feel better and you can take the test then.”

            That was it.

            This is a lesson in positive expectations. Not that my other prof had negative expectations, necessarily; rather, I’m sure he thought of himself as challenging his students, pushing them to be real university thinkers, thereby proving that Theatre Arts is not for sissies. I don’t know. I only know that I remember nothing or next to nothing from his actual classes, whereas I studied embroidery and costume design (subjects in which I could not imagine being much interested) with zeal and real commitment.              

This is also about trust. When a student does not feel trusted--to study, to know when she’s too ill to go in, to do his or her best--the student will not succeed. (I’m not talking about foolishly misplaced trust: Trusting a callow student teacher to perform like a pro is like trusting someone who likes planes to be a pilot the first time up in the air. That’s the worst feeling I’ve known--teaching solo, not piloting.) When I taught, I tried very hard to take for granted (there’s a paradox) that all my students would be as interested as I was in my subject, would do their best, and would be honest with me. I had varying degrees of success.


            One year stands out: I was thrown, at the last academic minute, an 11th grade English class to teach. The kids in that class--you just couldn’t pay them to do any work. American literature, which was the focus, was never my bag, and I was staying just a step ahead of the kids. I tried to do creative stuff--a nature journal à la Thoreau, listening to the Rolling Stones and the Chieftains perform “The Long Black Veil” after we’d read Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” (to reinforce the manifestation of sin theme), that sort of thing. Most of these kids were barely passing, no matter what I did. I wasn’t being a good teacher. I wasn’t connecting. Even the read-around free-for-all I allowed them when we did The Catcher in the Rye seemed to fall flat, though they enjoyed hearing me read “fuck.” So, a bust, I surmised. Was I just too negative? I shook each failure off, one day at a time, tried to move forward. Sigh.

            And yet. Toward the end of the course, one girl came up to me as I was filing the day’s classwork and the kids were waiting for the bell. Shawna was very pretty, with chestnut hair, a sort of blank expression, nice smile. At this moment, she looked disturbed. I said, “Yes, hon, what did you need?”

She said, so earnestly it startled me, “I love learning now.” I didn’t know what she meant, and my face must have betrayed that. “I mean, I love learning now. This class...I mean, I have never loved school. And I can’t wait to get here. And, I mean, I’ve wasted 17 years of my life. I’m getting married...he’s in the Army...and I’ll be moving to California....” She looked at me as for an answer to a mystery.

            I laughed. “That’s wonderful! I mean, isn’t that great? Listen, my dad dropped out of high school at 16 and joined the Air Force. He’s been a meatcutter for 35 years, and he has just started really getting into reading. He loves it. I just gave him A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’’s a kid’s book...and he was just crazy about it. What I mean,” I managed to clarify, “is that learning never stops. You are just starting.” She smiled, not quite believing me, but maybe. (NOTE: I don’t know the end of that story. I don’t know the ends of most of my stories, as in, “And years later...” and you will just have to get used to it. I have.) (P.S. My dad, now in his 70s, only recently read Jane Eyre. I asked what he thought. “What a book,” he said, astonished, and with such tenderness. Isn’t that wonderful?)

            Years later, I was waiting for a friend in a restaurant, and one of the kids from that same class was a manager there. He obviously recognized me, and I could only stare. Years had gone by, as I say, and I blanked when trying to place how I knew him. How to convey how miserable I had been the whole time I was teaching that American Lit class, and how I knew, despite The Girl Who Learned, that I had failed? It was a class that made me sweat every morning, and for the sake of my mental health, I had managed, as we do, to block out the whole experience. Well this manager, Tommy, grabbed me and hugged me, and introduced me to the hostess, to a waitress, to a waiter. He rattled on about some class he’d had me in: his junior year...Thoreau...and it finally came back. He exclaimed, “You were the best teacher I ever had! I always tell people, if you don’t love learning when you start Miss O’Hara’s class, you will love it after that, or there is something wrong with you.” I could only cringe even as I thanked him. Now I am just plain grateful.


            My friends in the theater know this: Actors never know how they do. I’ve done performances that left me empty, and people would come back stage in tears. I’ve felt brilliant other times, and my cast mates would sort of look at me at intermission and say, “Are you feeling okay?” All actors are like this. Teachers are like this, too, because teaching is also a performance. Five shows a day, you book the room, remember? Feeling lousy from a sleepless night? The kids still need you to be excited and coherent about misplaced modifiers. A friend passed away and you only just heard? You still have to finish Act III of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s showtime, folks. I’ll say it till I’m hoarse: “Putting on a show” is not insincere: It’s discipline.

            And sometimes, it’s dumb luck.

            Lest you think I have only celebratory things to say about my teaching, I do not. One kid wrote an essay for his final exam about how I was the worst teacher he had ever had, that I was trying to brainwash him. Sure it was emotionally devastating, but my real trouble with that essay was that he didn’t answer the essay question (which involved using literary examples from the semester to talk about a theme), and if I gave him half credit, he’d get a B- on the exam; if I gave him no credit he’d get a C. Did I really want his parents questioning why their A-student son had gotten a C on his final exam? No, I did not. Half credit it is! That settled, I tried to consider his criticisms objectively. Maybe I pushed my agenda of celebrating multicultural literature a little too zealously, maybe I lectured too much, maybe I didn’t have as high an IQ has he did. I’m sure I didn’t. And consider this: He knew that he could write such an essay/letter to me, and that I could take it. Food for thought, even if it was a cowardly jerk who was trying to feed me.
[FUN MOMENT: At the beginning of the next school year, I saw this student in the hallway. “Good morning, Brad,” I said. He FROZE. I kept walking, smiling. I love being a grown up.]

            I’ve had many students who had higher IQs than I have. Many. My only rejoinder is that I know more than they do about at least some things. And I also know that some people (especially professors in Education Departments at Universities) think that no kid is a jerk, that there are no bad kids, you only have to find a way to reach them, it’s your fault. Ahem. Those people have never really taught school.

            You learn how to spot one of the Future Murderers of America, as one of my colleagues did. This kid was menacing, glowering, subtly yet consistently disruptive (with a parade of strategically placed coughs, gas explosions, pen-clickings, mumblings), but nothing you could write him up for. He did just enough work to eke out a diploma. And sure enough, the September after graduation, my colleague came into the English Department office holding the local paper’s front page over her head. “Didn’t I tell you that he would kill somebody? Double homicide.”

            It’s not usually that dramatic, but when it is--as with the young man, Cho, who gunned down 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech in 2006 and then took his own life--I have no doubt that more than one teacher at his former high school nodded. And I have no doubt that they had tried. And tried. I’ve had kids--and this is a small but ugly minority of kids--for whom no amount of cajoling, helping, yelling, tutoring, guidance conferencing, phone calls home, or transferring was going to head him or her off at the pass, away from the path to self-destruction. You can only hope they don’t take anyone else with them. It’s not a question of giving up; it’s a question of choosing your battles and not squandering your limited resources.

            You must remember, Young Teacher, in your Expectations List: There are other kids, nice kids, kids in need, right there, too, being quiet. As a young teacher I would stretch out to reach the squeaky wheels, the lost causes, when one very lovely child pointed out to me, “You spend all your time helping Kenny and I don’t get any help just because I behave.”

            There’s a sick kind of ego trip in the idea of “saving” someone. I don’t like it. It’s not that I shirk the responsibility, but what I learned is this: Extend the branch to every kid. Make them meet you part way. Don’t be afraid of their failing. (I feel as if I’m channeling Bette Davis in Now, Voyager: “I’m not afraid of you anymore. I’m not afraid!”) Fear of failure--any fear--isn’t ultimately useful in teaching. It’s good to want to succeed, but better to do it out of love, or desire to express something, rather than out of fear. Their lives are not your entire responsibility.            
And by the way, to say it is “not our fault” is not to say we don’t care or try. Let’s be realistic: When I get a kid in 10th grade, he or she has been on Earth for 15 years. Fifteen. Years. He or she has a history, ten past years of schooling, about which I know nothing and couldn’t change if I did. Let’s do one of those hideous “mindfulness” cult clichés: “It is what it is. Kids are where they are.” This is where I come in: Enter, Miss O’Hara. I’ll do the best I can. (You want to fire me because they fail a standardized test that year? And I just met them? Are you JOKING?) New teachers think, “I hope they like me!” Experienced teachers know, “I have friends; I’m here to teach.” NOTE to the Love-starved Educator, here’s an irony: Kids invariably actually like the latter kind of teacher. NK. But they’ll be happy to play you for a sucker when it suits them. Kisses.

It's a Materials World, and I Am a Materials Girl

Sorry--I know that by now you'd think I could talk about the sexy life I had as an educator in America's public schools, rather than rattling ON and ON about how to help teachers survive and thrive. Let's face it, I was like the Elizabeth Taylor of Education! I know you want juice. Still, allow me one last little item of import.

This is for the teacher who didn’t get any helpful training to prepare for the Teaching Job. During the course of this blog, I will use Language Arts and Theater Production to help model what I mean when I talk about teaching. (Sounds like Raymond Carver in an academic mode.) Below, I want to show you a way of starting out or starting over, and this is something I would hand out if I were teaching a class called Instructional Delivery II.

NOTE: I didn’t invent anything I’m writing here. This was handed down over all my many years of teaching from loads of wonderful, experienced teachers. I am only sharing.

MATERIALS: Setting Up Your First Theater Production (or any other) Class, because it's all about tools. And if you think about it, how many meals haven't you made, or broken items haven't you mended, because you lacked the proper spices/tape/pans/thread/needles/fresh parsley?

Let’s just get to it, shall we? But first...


1. You have a classroom with your name on it. However, you may “float,” as I did for all but one of my first 6 years of teaching, going from room to room for each class you teach. This is standard procedure. I carried my entire life in a giant L.L. Bean tote bag; some people push a cart. If you float, stake out file drawers wherever possible. The plus side of having no room of your own is you do not have to decorate a room. The down side is you don’t get to decorate a room. And you have to lug all your files all over the place. And no one can find you during the day. On the other hand, no one can find you!

2. You have some sort of common office or planning area for your department. There really wasn’t a good space for teachers in my first school. I would try to use the library, but it was often crowded with classes. Go figure. If you have a common office, you can file all your stuff there. You may need to buy crates if there aren’t enough cabinets available, and find a generous teacher who will let you store the crates in his or her classroom until you get your own. If ever.

3. You are teaching something in Language Arts in addition to Theater Production, say one theater class and four English classes, or two and three. (For all but one year of my 15 years, I had three preps, including English 9, 10, 11, or 12, Humanities 10, Theater Production, and Speech and Drama I and II. It’s inhuman, but I did it. I say “inhuman” because there are teachers with one “prep,” as we call it, and we are all paid the same. (Hold onto that when I someday get to the discussion of so-called “merit pay.”) Okay, fine. I really wanted to teach theater. But let it be said: One prep means one curriculum notebook, one set of state standards, ONE set of lessons plans, one copy of a test, one times two semester exams, one final exam to write. Three preps means three sets of curriculum notebooks, three sets of lesson plans, three sets of state Standards of Learning to meet, three times two semester exams, and three final exams to write, three, three, three. Not that I’m counting.)

4. You will have around 150 students, as I used to have. (NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) says 125 should be the max in high school Language Arts, or 25 per class. I had a friend in a western state who had 220 kids one year, and half of them didn’t speak English. At all. In high school. She’s been teaching overseas ever since, because if she has to teach English from scratch, she’d like to see the world to do it. Teacher friends in another state I won’t name but the initials are “New Jersey” have complained when they’ve had more than 95 kids, and I not-so-quietly hated them even as I knew the kids were getting exactly what was right. Grading 300–450 papers and projects a week is WAY different from grading, say 190–285, to say nothing of the attendance and other record-keeping. (One thought about so-called “merit pay,” while I’m here: I really do think, in a high school “all things being equal” situation, English teachers should be paid the most, just in terms of the grading, followed by laboratory science teachers. Either that or have lower numbers. I said this to one of my principals once, when we were complaining of overcrowding, and he said, “Well, you chose to teach English.” I also “chose” to assign all that writing. What a dumbass I was. He sure told me! (Hey, Principal, I know a suit and a CEO you could have a drink with at a bar I go to.)

5. You are brand new to teaching. For those of you who are veteran or recovering teachers, this is a blog to dip into. For those of you with fewer than 5 years of experience, or in need of a refill, or feeling less than successful though you still want to keep at it, or new to teaching a theater class, or want to start up a theater class at your school, this post is still for you. Read on!

6. You may or may not have a laptop computer available to you. You probably will have a computer in your classroom, and one at home; I am also assuming your students will not have a computer in the classroom, nor any at home, either (many of my kids were too poor for that and still would be), and will have to rely on the use of old-fashioned “paper” or the library’s computer lab, if one exists.


            You’ve signed the contract, bought that car, found an apartment, opened a checking account, pressed your school clothes (all five outfits!), and are ready for the big adventure.

Discoveries You Will Have, Have Had (but please don’t get discouraged)

            I repeat this several times in this blog: Teachers are often terrible teachers of other teachers. They may be okay with their own students but they don’t recognize that even adults need mentoring when they are new. (Actually, in any business my family and friends work in, the sad truth is that few in management know how to teach their own new hires.) This may be the whole “sink or swim” mentality that has sent people who were tossed into lakes at aged three, flying into analysts’ offices at age thirty. But whatever the reason, don’t expect anyone to help you. Teachers just usually don’t do that. And principals are notorious for not. And...

1.     No one will give you any supplies. Make friends with office supply stores and their sales fliers. (Actually, in one department I was in, the chair was usually able to get us tape and self-stick notes and a few red pens each year, but our budgets just didn’t stretch to the big stuff, or to refills.)

2.     Until you have a mortgage, you will never spend enough money to be able to itemize your tax returns, so you can forget about writing off the $500 you will spend out of pocket each year as a “business expense.” (Candidate Al Gore, that commie, wanted to give all teachers an automatic tax credit for this very reality.) Know this. Decide to continue anyway.

SO you must buy the following supplies (well, not must, obviously; this is a suggestion for a way to begin).

            1. You, young teacher, are of a computer generation, where you manage and store all your stuff on a laptop, without messy paper. I hear you. The organizational strategy I am outlining is a dinosaur, at first glance, but really it’s the same thing you’d do on a laptop. My way involves actual “notebooks” and “supplies,” so obviously “adjust” the suggestions and involve as little paper as you please. Computer costs: $2,000, probably. I'm sorry, too.

            2. I, old teacher: The Paper Way

                        a. Four (4) three-ringed binders, if you are on a 9-weeks schedule; six (6) if you are on a 6-weeks schedule, PER SUBJECT YOU ARE TEACHING. So if you are teaching, say, English 9 and Theater Production on a 9-weeks schedule, you will need (do the math), eight notebooks; and twelve if you are on a 6-weeks schedule (and goddess bless you, because I hated 6-weeks reporting periods--I felt all I ever did was give out interims and report cards). I prefer 1 1/2” or 1” soft plastic notebooks (cheap, and flexible for tote bags), but other people like the white 3” ones with the clear-pocket fronts and sides for easy and creative labeling. Go crazy.

                        b. Tab divider sheets, including a dozen or so with pockets

                        c. Self-stick notes, several shades and sizes

                        d. Clear plastic sleeves, about 200...well, 400, if you like them (I                                                didn’t, but I said that: they were plastic, made the binders heavy to carry, and I toted from room to room for years, as I said, and it was also quicker for me to just snap a page in and out for photocopying than to slide the pages in and out from the sleeves. Personal preference.)

                        e. Ink for your printer

                        f. You do have a printer, right?

Ha, ha! (I actually started out--this would be 1987--by using the IBM Selectric typewriter at the Attendance Secretary’s desk after school hours, because I couldn’t afford to buy a typewriter. (I so wish I were kidding.) The shift key on the right never worked, and after three years of typing all my tests on that machine, to this day I forget there is a right shift key. Isn’t that interesting?)

                        g. Loads of white printer paper (plus at least two other colors, for yourself, just to mix it up) and a dozen of whatever kind of pad or notebook you like to write on. I’m a yellow legal pad gal, myself. HINT: USE THE BACKS of discarded, printed pages: You can always print on the blank side of once-used stock, and people forget that. Just load it correctly.

                        h. File folders, box of 100; another 200 if you are expecting the kids to keep portfolios of their writing or projects (NOTE: I used to buy supplies for lots of kids. All teachers do. I also used to check with the custodians who collected items left in lockers each year, just to have a stash. A lot of kids just cannot afford notebooks and paper and pens. There are discreet ways of finding out who needs what. I tell them, “I will do this ONCE. Glad to. You lose it, you are on your own.”)

                        i. Paper folders with pockets, five colors (one color for each class, assuming you have 5 classes), two of each color (plastic if you wish, but I find those things just slip and slide all over the place) for use in collecting work--more on that later
                        j. Highlight markers in those same five colors, plus several good black permanent markers in medium and wide thicknesses

                        k. Self-stick notes in those same five colors (do you sense a color-coding theme yet?)

                        l. Clear packing tape or duct tape, a good brand, in order to, among other things, hang posters and reinforce the binding edges of those cheap paper folders

                        m. Pens and pencils you like to use, including red and purple and green for different kinds of grading--red for final essays and tests; purple for projects; green for first drafts, for example. Kids read into color. You can use colors for grading if you insist that kids write their work in blue or black. (On writing by hand vs. typing: Anyone might have typed something. Think about that for a minute. Part of your job is to determine literacy.)

                        n. Plastic shoe boxes, three or four, which you will fill with #2 pencils, crayons, markers, colored pencils, 12” rulers, measuring tapes, and other indispensible items for Theater Production that you will, once again, purchase yourself.

                        o. Powerful triple-hole punch--really, don’t be cheap on this one
                        p. Staplers (2, and staples), tape dispensers (2, and refills), scissors (3 pairs: classroom, office, and one extra for when a colleague steals your office pair; unlike your colleagues, kids are really oddly respectful of your scissors).

                        q. File labels, on many of which you will write your name, first of all, and tape, madly tape, this name to each and every one of your big money items; and label every single, blessed notebook for what it is.
                        r. packages of red Twizzlers, gold stars, Murray beads, or other "rewards" (okay, George? xo)

I actually think I got into teaching for the school supplies. I always liked those school boxes. They were like cigar boxes with a school bus on them. They just made me feel so hopeful, and they still do. Who’s still with me?


            First we are going to organize your curriculum notebooks-to-be. Label each notebook on the side and front, by subject, for each of the nine or six weeks terms. (I actually had a blue/black/purple/red sort of system for each quarter, but this is an eccentricity. The rest is science. Yes it is. And I am blinding you with it.) Fill each notebook with 30–50 plastic sleeves (if you like those, which I didn’t), and place tab divisions every 6 –10 or so pages, and include at least three tab sheets with pockets for odd items, such as a ruler or fabric swatches (this is Theater Production). You will be filling these notebooks all year the first year you teach; rearranging, tossing, and adding to it in subsequent years. Buying more sleeves, triple-hole punching separate sheets, or finding a new system all your own. These notebooks will demonstrate a huge investment of your time, creativity, and learning process. They are living things. They are not monuments to what you will always do. Enjoy them.

            Now you are going to label those 2 sets of 5 kinds of colored notebooks. For example, First Period (green), Third Period (blue), Fourth Period (yellow), Fifth Period (purple), Sixth Period (red). One notebook you will use for GRADED PAPERS to return; the other for PAPERS TO BE GRADED.

Example: [First Period (green) “To Grade”] [First Period (also green) “To Return”]
The great thing about this system: If you float, you can make a habit of looking in the TO RETURN folder before each class, you can return work to kids; have a repository for kids who were absent the last class and place extra handouts, with absentee names written on them, for work they missed.

If you have a classroom, you can mount these folders to you classroom wall and make kids responsible for looking in them for missed work.

Okay. Now then. Ahem. Okay...OMG.

            Just to feel a little better, sit down at the computer and write an introductory letter to each class you will teach. Outline your expectations, including the list of materials you expect students to have each day, how you conduct class, your policy on hall passes, your grading system, and basic units of study for the year. Writing this will help you realize all of the things you desperately need to find out from your department chairman, colleagues, and yourself. Everyone starts somewhere. This is where you start. And you really will feel better, because all that abstract fear and dread now has a name: Woefully Unprepared. You are about to change that feeling.

            I have samples letters and course overviews for my Theater Production class included to use as models. Delicious models. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

You, Student Teacher; Me, Jane, and Tom, and Cesar, and Ana...

You, Student Teacher

Before you “go out into the field,” to experience “splendor in the grass,” or really just a face full of turf and a mouth full of child-trodden mud…


            Q1: Why start with Standards?
            Q2: Why not leap into Classroom Management?
            Q3: If Childhood Development is so important, why not start there?
            Q4: Why not leap into Lesson Planning?
            Q5: Why not teach Assessment at the same time as Standards?

            A1) Standards are TANGIBLE. Student teachers are reading, defining, analyzing, interpreting, and finding out what they don’t know on a subject-area level. They will pay more attention in their subject-area classes because they will be thinking about the standards attached to the subject.
            A2) You can’t manage a classroom when you haven’t learned anything about lesson planning or instruction or childhood development.
            A3) Childhood Development is so much theory when you have no idea what you are going to do with that information, like plan a lesson.
            A4) You can’t plan lessons when you have no idea what standards you have to meet.
            A5) You can’t think about creating assessments unless you understand standards and lesson planning, so you revise the lesson plans in light of assessment, and learn to work that way in the first place.
            A6) Are you still with me? I’ve spent two decades living with and thinking about this shit.

            And now . . . the student teachers have learned it all. It’s time to APPLY it.

STUDENT TEACHING: The Agony, the Ecstasy, the Debrief

            To the Novices: You’re a college senior. You’ve taken education courses for two or three years, in addition to core classes (and classes for your subject-area major--such as English or History or Math or French or Phys Ed or Art--if you are a high school teacher-in-training). Your professors will now find you a Mentor Teacher, and for 9 weeks or so you will teach a couple of that Mentor’s classes, planning lessons, giving assignments, assessing students. It’s hardly realistic, this “fake” time, but what the hell? (See my memoir posts later for stories of my own student-teaching time.)

            To the Rest of You: You now know a lot about why it is that teachers founder and quit at this point, just by seeing how much young teachers OUGHT to know and are usually never taught. So, inadequately prepared, back in 1987 I and my fellow student teachers ran off to our host schools, were thrown into lessons (often preplanned by the Mentor Teacher), and dove in (I told you about the course load I had vs. the course loads of the other student teachers back in my first long post). By way of therapy, our educational instructors held these once-a-week debriefing seminars back at the college during the quarter-long student-teaching among various schools, grade levels, and subject areas. When we would meet, we were supposed to share stories and learn from each other.

            I’ve got to be honest. (Surprised, I know. How do I really feel?) I have only one flash of a memory of this seminar, and it’s when a student-teacher announced she was probably not going to be a teacher after all. We all said, “Oh, no!” or whatever. But I don’t remember a professor addressing it. I’m sure there was a private session--but a real opportunity to LEARN was dropped. All that training wasted--for both the novices and professor. So what can an instructor say at this juncture to reassure/instruct the other novitiates? How do you know they are ready to get out there and teach?

            Here’s a little story, in the present tense.

            As I am revising this chapter, er, post, a friend (whom I’ll call Pam) asks me, “Do you know the secret of cooking brown rice? Mine is never done--it’s always hard in the middle.”

            A good teacher-cook should have her suspicions aroused. It’s always hard in the middle means, “It has not been allowed to finish cooking and does not have enough water to begin with.” Pam does not understand this concept. Ergo, forget, Pam cannot cook rice: The truth is, Pam cannot cook.

            In order to teach Pam how to cook rice, I kind of need to teach her how to cook. Okay.

            Alarmed by my eagerness to help, she quickly adds, “I always cook white rice, and it’s fine.” Oh. So she knows how to cook. But she can’t know how to cook if she doesn’t get the part about “done” and how you get it there: add water, add ten to twenty minutes of heating, etc. She needs basic cooking instruction. So I explain water-rice ratios, low heat, a lid, 45-minutes.

            But she doesn’t want that. Pam just wants to have brown rice for dinner. So even as I guide her to read the package directions, have her measure the water (after she’d filled a pot with a random amount even as I ignored her use of hot water from the tap rather than cold--one thing at a time), and measure the rice (showing her the difference between liquid and dry cups), she sighs. And sighs. This is stupid. It’s just rice.

            So she sets it to boil and goes downstairs. Soon I smell burning. The water has boiled away on the lidless pot, the rice is dry and smoking, and the gas is up full. I call down to her, she comes up. I try to explain about covering, and just at the boil, reducing to simmer, keeping it covered.

            “I never have these problems with white rice. I leave the lid off, and it takes five minutes.”

            Ah ha! In other words, Pam has never in her life cooked actual, real, non-processed rice. But she is sure she has cooked rice, and successfully. And while her argument would have been very convincing to a less experienced cook, I knew right off that Pam couldn’t cook at all, though I didn’t quite know how this could be so.

            If I may now drop the anvil: Good teacher mentors have to listen, watch, probe, if they are to be effective in guiding eager, arrogant, well-intentioned, wildly ignorant student teachers.

            One lesson will not make a bad cook into a good one.  But Pam now knows more than she did, as much because she knows what she DID NOT know.

            This anecdote is by way of helping to illustrate why we need yet another kind of Class Offering. She said verbosely.

            Professors and Mentor Teachers: New teachers just want to be “great.” You know this. They don’t want to learn how to do it. Once they are out there in a classroom, they want to be ready, and an unnerving number are SURE they are ready (but that's really about self-preservation). So when those novices, the student teachers (who have so passionately thrown themselves into the Role of Teacher) gather together, feeling like brow-beaten failures after their first days at their host schools, or--and this is more alarming--recounting glorious successes--a good Instructor needs to keep alert.

            Sure, they’ve taken your classes for the past two or three years. You’ve shown them everything they could ever need to know. But we both know that the real teacher of anything is experience. Cruel, unforgiving, kink-filled experience.

            You don’t want to get sucked into believing everything a novice tells you, good or bad; your role is not finished: You have to keep explaining, keep modeling, keep guiding, even as you keep listening, listening, listening. So what is the forum for this?
             You know how I feel about Methods and Theory. And I think my subject area courses in Language Arts should have been structured as I’ve already outlined in Standards, Lesson Planning, Assessment, and Classroom Management. And instead of any of the rest of the courses I took in education, including Educational Psychology and the rest of the “specialized” courses to do with kids’ heads or cultural constructs, I have an idea for a catch-all replacement to be done alongside the student-teaching term.     

THE ANECDOTES CLASS: But Call it “Senior Seminar” or “The Psychology of Education” If It Pleases You

            An Introduction: Because I was late in my college career before deciding to take education classes, during the summer after my junior year I stayed in town and took two courses (and also acted in the summer theater festival, just to show you how wild I was to learn my craft): The Psychology of Education, I and II.  My instructor in Course I was a Ph.D. who had taught elementary school and had been a reading specialist in the state of West Virginia for 35 years. Her husband was at the university for the summer, so she was asked to teach the class. The instructor for Course II was a Ph.D. from Harvard’s Psychology Department, whose husband was also spending the summer at the university, and would she like to teach? She was delighted.

            THANK GOD FOR THEM.

            Almost everything I remember from education courses came from these two women.

            I will call the Course I instructor Dr. Lettuce. Average height, hard looking, with glasses, wrinkles, and grey roots, she was the real deal, a lifer, a woman with a thousand war stories and she told us all of them. Well, some. “A course like this is just a complete waste of time until you’ve taught school and need answers to questions,” she said. So instead she told us stories, backed up things with theory, and I guess we wrote papers or something. Mostly she modeled how to get to know your students, and the importance of storytelling to teach concepts.

            For example, when you encounter a problem, it is, as often as not, a simple thing that is causing it: One day Dr. Lettuce was called in as a specialist for a boy around age 9 who could name and sound out every letter but couldn’t read a word. When they met, the boy started in trying to read aloud a simple story, sounding out letters, word fragments, all confused. He wasn’t dyslexic. He could write letters fine, identify any letter Dr. Lettuce pointed to. He started, he stopped. This went on a while. Then it hit her: “Billy, do you see how there is extra space here?” She pointed to the space between two words. He looked. “Do you see how there is more space between these two letters than between these other ones?” He’d never noticed that before. She continued, “Did anyone ever tell you that when you get to the big space, you stop making sound?” No one ever had. And with that, Billy was reading on level in about ten weeks. Simple. I wept.

            She also taught us how to adjust to a new culture:

            During then-Miss Lettuce’s first week of teaching--this was first grade--she was reading “The Story of the Three Little Pigs” aloud to the children. When she got to the part where the wolf “huffed, and he puffed, and he blew the house down,” one little boy said, seriously, “That son of a bitch.” Miss Lettuce looked up, in shock. But to her surprise, all of the other children were nodding somberly.

            “What should I have done?” she asked us. Everyone chimed in about the importance of stopping the language, teaching etiquette, all the stuff you might expect. She considered us. She said, “You see, if the child said that, and the other children felt fine hearing it, then all the parents of all these children talk that way, and it’s acceptable. I’m new here, new to the mountains. Who am I to say they are wrong?” Her first response was to walk out to the hallway, and try to stop laughing. In that break, she made the decision to do nothing, came in, and continued reading the story of the pigs. And life went on.

            This story changed my teaching life. When I found myself teaching in a community totally unlike the one I had grown up in, I had everything I’d believed about education--going to college, living a literate life, speaking “well”--completely upended. I returned over and over again to that story, and I adjusted MYSELF. Without that story, I know I would have left that place after a year. That story kept me in many jobs longer than I might have stayed, and that was good. It’s been nearly 25 years and I’m still telling that story, and using it, and on a New York subway it’s invaluable to recall.

            The other instructor I’ll call Dr. Lovage. She looked like the daughter Gertrude Stein and Julia Child might have had. She was very tall. Her eyes smiled through her dark-rimmed glasses in calm wonder at people. She introduced the course by saying, “A course like this is just a waste of time until you’ve been in the classroom and have questions to ask.” So she, too, told us stories instead. She told us about the power of the name. “The name is the most powerful tool a teacher can have.” She demonstrated mnemonic devices to help us memorize our students’ names on the first day. “Don’t take longer than a week,” she said, “or you will lose them.” She told us of prison studies that showed how behavior altered when prisoners felt “known.” To model the concept, she learned our names. She called me by name. I have no doubt she forgot all of us after the three-week intensive, but she knew all forty-odd names during that time. I remember that.

            It took me a couple of years to understand fully how right Dr. Lovage was about the name. I was terrible at names, and kids can do anything when you don’t know how to write them up because you don’t know the right name (and don’t know how many options you have besides “writing them up” when you know them). I used the kinds of tricks she gave me, following an alphabetical seating chart, “Daniel-blondiel; Tasha-titties; Sam-somber; Melinda--mole-inda,” to nail the names by the end of the second day. Yes, I said second DAY. I would give writing assignments, and as they wrote I would stand at the lectern and study my chart and the students. Finally I’d quiz myself aloud in the last minutes of the period, by pointing and saying each kid’s name, first and last, telling them not to help me. It forever enhanced my confidence in my class ownership, and it gave the kids some respect for me, if only for that, by the second day.

            On basic human psychology, the woman was a font. For example, Dr. Lovage told us about why job applications always ask, Have you ever stolen from an employer?  It seems like a really stupid question, right? It’s not. “Thieves live in a world of thieves,” she explained. “Everybody steals, you see--everyone steals. That’s what they believe. So if they say ‘no,’ they’d have to be lying. Right? So they always say ‘yes.’” Dr. Lovage looked at us. She could see we didn’t quite believe her. “But they don’t want to get in big trouble, they want to get the job, so where it says ‘If yes, explain,’ they’ll say, ‘but it was only five dollars.’ Of course they don’t get the job. And they really don’t understand why.”  (I checked this with my mom, a bookstore manager, and she said it was true. “What’s the matter with them?” she asked. I told her. “Well, for heaven’s sake,” she said.)

            That story also helped me understand an important psychology point, by extension: Just as thieves live in a world of thieves, teenagers live in a world of teenagers. They think adults share their low self-esteem, are as judgmental, as neurotic, as crazy, as unforgiving, as arrogant as they are, if they think about adults at all. It’s so easy for those teen bastards to make an adult feel stupid and untalented, if you buy into their world view, think of them as “teen bastards” and forget that they are children and that you know a little more than they do. You have to live in your world, as a teacher, as an adult, and see their world for what it is. You have to counter it without dismissing its validity to them. And help guide them out of it, too.

            There are loads more stories. So here is the point, Professor: Call in the troops! Bring in teachers to tell stories to your student teachers. Do it by theme, if you wish, but use the power of the story to teach.

            Call it Psychology of Education for the credits. And have the students, then, write essays on how they might apply these stories in the future. As important, have them write down their own “war stories” and how they learned from them. Guide them to become metacognative, growing teachers.

            Some of the best learning cannot be effectively measured, as the real meaning so often comes at a later time, and that is something to know, too. Don’t “expect” a lot. Just trust the process on this one. Okay? Oh, and by the way:

SHOW THEM HOW TO APPLY FOR A JOB: Please teach student-teachers how to make an up-to-date résumé using whatever software is current, how to fill out job applications, do interviews, get recommendations, and all that. So basic. So neglected. Provide every job posting you find, show them how to search out jobs, and create some online resource to offer tips for how to find a place to live, settle in, and learn about a new place. Talk landscape, the need to learn about local history, how things are done, to be prepared for the unexpected. Do this with humor.

            Finally, if you haven’t already, create a website or a Facebook page where the student teachers can stay connected to each other if they need to. And let them go. But give them support to the very last second they are on your campus.

            I also think it should be MANDATORY for Colleges to Education to FOLLOW UP and TRACK the experiences of their young teachers for at least 3 years after graduation. I think Colleges should have to report their track records to their universities (not the state, not right away) and hold real conversations about how to IMPROVE if they are losing the national average of 50% in the first or second year. This Internet thing makes is easy to use email addresses and send out an anecdotal survey to complete mid-year, and another one in June. Find out how they are doing. And mean it. AND HOST THEM FOR A WEEKEND, all expenses paid, after the first year and find out: What did you NOT get here? What can we do better? And MEAN IT.

. . . and last, though not least in love, one more suggestion:


            All teachers-to-be should be required, as part of their undergraduate curriculum, to take an Introduction to Acting Class for Non-Theater Majors in the university’s theater department.

            This is so obvious to me, I cannot believe it isn’t already mandatory.

            Professors should take it first. Twice.

            As a teacher I knew liked to say, “This is my show, five performances a day, I booked the room.”

            This is not a line about ego. This is an insight into how much work it is to begin teaching each Monday morning, five classes each day, for five days in a row. You have to be “on,” no excuses, all the time. Kids are needy. Kids are ruthless. Kids are hilarious. You cannot have a mood. You cannot show weakness. You cannot be tired. You have to be energized and excited. ALL THE TIME.

            And this is impossible.

            There are days when you, Teacher, do not want to be there. So how do you fake it?

Listen to Marlon Brando (talking with Dick Cavett) on acting (wait for the ad to finish):

            Acting Class is not about learning to be insincere. It’s about learning a discipline.

            It’s also about overcoming fears of public speaking, of getting up in front of large groups, of facing tough audiences who will never behave as you expect, and often behave in ways that appall. I’ve known at least two teachers who quit early on because of nausea every Sunday night. I’ve known more than a few who couldn’t “fake it” in their classes when they were depressed over break-ups, nervous about being evaluated, or bored by teaching the same lesson for the fifth time that day.

            Acting classes are useful in ways I talk about more in my memoir portion, but I submit to the College of Education departments that they need to make such a course a requirement for all student teachers NOW. Work with the Theater Department to find a way to create a class for your teachers.

            Scheduling Suggestion: Do it the semester they are studying Standards, or during Lesson Planning--in other words, before they get really deep into the education thing. If they can’t bear getting up in front of a group and really cannot get past that, best to find it out ASAP.

LAST THOUGHTS on Colleges of Education (at least for a while)

            Finally, the best teachers, like the truly great stars, are magic. As my friend Howard said, “They are the people you want to knock yourself out for.”

            Do they exude sex, power, dynamism? Nah. They exude Love. Curiosity. Real interest. They are engaged, they are present, they are alive. They want you to be your best. I wanted to be that kind of teacher. I tried. And the country needs more people who want to try that hard, and who feel prepared to do it.

            To Colleges of Education, I say, “Explain it, model it, demand it, assess it. Train! Train like the wind!”

Trailer for BLOG 14

AND NOW . . . it’s time to tell you the little story of my teaching life. And other stuff about teaching. And life.  I started with college because wanted you to have a sense of what I did and didn’t have/know/understand going in, to get the academic stuff out there, so even the charming anecdotes might resonate with a little more desperation, anxiety, and exhaustion than would otherwise seem warranted. Pity and fear, fear and pity. It makes the world go ’round.