Saturday, July 18, 2009

Odd man out this August

For the last 35 years, I have taught English at Kokomo High School in Kokomo, Indiana. In the last few seasons, I have spent my days primarily with juniors and seniors. For those of you who have been out of school for a while (not teachers...we never really leave school), these are young men and women who are 17 or older. I would tell you that on most days, I love my job.

No, really.

This may surprise those of you who have actual teenagers underfoot at home. More than a few friends have look at me askance when I tell them how I feel about those kids and our times together.

Let me just say that when teenagers are at their best, they are delightful people. Not a day goes by but that one of them teaches me something new. Not a week goes by but one says something cogent and witty and makes me laugh.

It’s that ‘being at their best’ that is a bit tricky. It takes some energy and experience to train a class to behave so they can focus and be wonderful. As a whole, they are happier when the class runs smoothly. That’s why veteran teachers will not miss those first few weeks of school when students and teachers are sizing each other up, making decisions, plotting and/or planning to behave as the teacher expects.

Every class has a personality and it takes several weeks for it to emerge. However, you get a feel on that first day when you read the roll. You come to a name and, especially if its owner is not present, (because WHY come on the first day when making an entrance is less noticed?) the class with giggle, moan, wiggle in seats, some sort of group response. They know this kid and they know his/her presence in class will test the teacher. They can recount the teachers who went crazy and/or retired when they had this kid in class. He’s a legend.

They really can’t wait for him/her to show up and for the games to begin. Whether they know the teacher/like the teacher/don’t like the teacher, students would rather be entertained than learn a lot of content. They anticipate that this kid will be the teacher’s Waterloo, or they would if they understood ALLUSION.

I believe that’s a state standard.

It takes about 3 weeks for each class to run the same play: What does THIS teacher do when THAT happens? What does THIS teacher expect? How does THIS teacher handle ‘late to class,’ ‘go to restroom,’ go to locker,’ ‘forgot my book,’ ‘whoops, I meant to turn it off,’ and…and this makes the job so exciting…etc., an ever changing classroom event to which the teacher must respond.

My personal sanity saver is that I never argue with my students. Never. I also rarely explain myself when it comes to classroom rules. Why? Because as we all know, anyone who asks “Why?” is not so much a seeker of wisdom but a fighter who wants to discount whatever you say in response to “Why?”


Parent to teenager: Go and clean up your room.
Teenager to parent: Why?
Parent to teenager….no wait a minute. What will parent say to get this response?
Teenager: Oh. I see. Of course. I’ll go clean up my room.


Whatever the parent would say, the teenager would say (or think at least) Well, that’s just stupid.

The way to avoid conflict is refuse to engage.

Now, I can tell you that for some students, this enrages them. Arguing with the teacher is their best thing. They have skills. And while they argue, nobody is teaching the lesson; no student is learning the lesson. And, for good students who really want to get to the lesson, the back and forth between teacher and arguer makes THEM mad. They don’t like having their time wasted.

So, yes, when a student looks at me and asks, “Why?” I just look back and say, “Cuz.” It takes a few seconds to sink in and then we move on.

My only trouble with this comes when a child has been encouraged to speak his mind. Whatever is on his mind. Whenever HE deems it appropriate. Those kiddies are a bit trickier. It sometimes takes a walk down the hall to the bad kid room for them to see the light.

The existence of the 'bad kid room' is one reason I can do my job. Also, there are layers of support persons who step in when the kiddies are not wonderful.

It’s also important for students to think that teachers are on to their tricks. If they think that, they will save their tricks for some other teacher or a substitute. Then the teacher’s job gets easier and she can get to teaching.

For example, three alleged scholars slide in late. One has a pass that looks suspicious. Note on attendance sheet to check after class. One has a pass that looks legit. One has no pass but is dripping wet from swimming and the teacher decides to let it slide.

Except, somewhere in the back, “That’s not fair. I was late from swimming and I got a tardy.” That fairness thing is a dagger.

So now: The Lesson.

First there’s the warm up – the idea is that students enter and get busy with something that, hopefully has something to do with the day’s lesson. It’s that initial 5 minutes when the “tone is set” and the teacher can take attendance and manage basic bookkeeping.

Except there are the passes…passes that have arrived before class for students and passes that will arrive in a steady stream on some days. White one, signed and timed for right now. White one timed for 15 minutes from now. Another white one for 45 minutes from now. Green one marked ‘AT ONCE.” Except Person A always marks AT ONCE but doesn’t mean it. Person B marks AT ONCE and does mean it; someone is waiting and the clock is ticking. Person C never marks AT ONCE but always means AT ONCE.

Warm up is done; we discuss it or go over the correct answers. Time for the presentation. Hand outs/PowerPoint/notes-on-overhead/etc. Students settle, mostly, and the show begins. Girl with white pass returns. Without the pass.

“I lost it.”

Multiple Choice: This means A) she lost it or B) she never went where she was supposed to go or C) she left that room quite a while ago as the timed pass would show and has been cruising the halls. Note on attendance sheet by her name “CK pass.” We’ll deal with that during prep. period.
Except…“What? Don’t you believe me?”

Oh, do we have to do this? “I’m just going to check after class.”

Now she’ll pout if she’s innocent and grumble if she’s guilty. But both responses will be loud enough to distract the other students. So on with the show.

Today, I believe, is my edge-of-your-seat presentation on the difference between the Puritans and the Separatists. Somewhere, someone makes a joke that his audience finds funny. I know I find the early church fathers a laugh riot myself. No matter. On with the show.

But then the phone rings, something erupts in the hall, a fire drill happens, someone says, “Ouch, stop it.” Or “Hey he took my book.” Or “Something stinks in here.” Or “But I really DID lose my pass.”

Please be kind to teachers. They have to juggle many balls.

By the end of the term, most students and teachers enjoy each other and will miss this class next semester. Just the other day, at our county fair, two young men came up to me, gave me big hugs and said, “We love you, Mrs. Bolinger.” What’s not to love about such a job?

However, it takes much energy…physical, social, psychological, juggle those balls and let nothing drop to the floor. Right now, in the midst of new challenges, this teacher has targeted her energies to a different direction and will need some time to recoup.

But for you teachers out there, best wishes for a good semester. Anyone want a desk blotter? I’ll tell you where to find one.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think Lynne, the English teacher, would ever say, "Cuz." Literary license I suppose.

    And yes, whenever I post on your blog or send you an email I do think about spelling and punctuation more than usual.