because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Why Teachers Need to Laugh by Leanne Shirtliffe

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I’ve only known Leanne for about 9 months, but it feels like I have known her forever. And I mean that in a good way. Not the way you would say that about some weird cousin or something, you know when you roll your eyes. She’s like one of my blogging besties. For reals.

I like to imagine that — one day — we will stop Skyping and sit side by side. I could listen to her Canadian accent for hours. That thought makes me feel funny inside. But in a good touch way. Because that’s the way we roll like thunder under our cyber-blankets. I have no idea what that means. Follow Leanne’s blog HERE or stalk her on Twitter at @Lshirtliffe, eh?

• • •

Like Renée, I love good wordplay. If it crosses the line of appropriateness, I love it all the more. I am constantly saying what I shouldn’t.

This started in high school. I remember sitting in twelfth grade chemistry class; I had handcuffed my lab partner to me because he wouldn’t sit still and do his share of the work.

Shane and Leanne, handcuffed

My teacher was my volleyball coach, a man who had a good sense of humor and knew me well. I sat at the desk with my Texas Instruments calculator and my partner, desperately trying to write up the lab before going out-of-town for a weekend tournament. Our Friday afternoon class, meanwhile, went sideways and launched into a spirited, circular discussion on the pronunciation of certain words.

Different students bandied options about. Even our teacher, whose first name was Richard, participated eagerly.

“Is it to-MAY-to or to-MAH-to?”

“How about of-FEN or of-TEN?”

“What about po-TAY-to or po-TAH-to?”

“Is it HER-bal or ER-bal?”

A loud debate ensued. I sat there, rubbing my wrist, trying to finish the lab. Shane, my partner, sat there too. He had little choice.

Frustrated, I decided to have the last word. I raised my hand and looked directly at my teacher.

“Is it Rick… or Dick?”

The class shifted in silence.

My teacher stood wide-eyed, staring back at one of his top students. He paused and said, “Get to work. Everyone.”

I had crossed the line.

• • •

Now that I teach eighth and ninth grade English, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of students who cross the line. I also know that I still cross the line, unwittingly in the classroom. My capacity to embarrass myself as a teacher is limitless.

Every class, I write an agenda on the board. Most days I do this hurriedly as students rush in and take their seats; in the interest of haste, I take shortcuts, scrawling abbreviations of the day’s tasks on the whiteboard.

On more than one occasion, I’ve written agendas like the following:

This agenda appears to belong to an edgy sexual education class, rather than to one doing literary analysis and oral assessments. Try explaining this to fourteen year olds who are in various hilarious stages of hyperventilation and full-out laughter.

Lately, I’ve found myself in as semi-serious discussion, explaining the terms wet-nurse, weaning, and “ho”.

Thank you, Shakespeare, for helping us to giggle through Romeo and Juliet.

My biggest bonehead move occurred a few years ago. I was trying to explain what a static character was to my ninth graders. I knew they had all studied S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders two years ago. Keep in mind that when I’m teaching, I tend to scoot across the room like Mary Poppins, enthusiastic, gesticulating, and full of self-importance caffeine.

Do you remember Dally from The Outsiders? Let’s examine him. He was a hard character. He remained hard throughout the whole novel. In every aspect, he was hard. He never changed. His hardness was evident from the first page to the end of the novel.

Indeed.

Evidently I too am a static character.

Thank God for laughter.

And thank God for the continual reminders that it is healthy to laugh at ourselves.

What do you remember laughing about in the classroom?

Substitute Preacher by Zach Sparer #twits

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Zach Sparer. Isn

Today’s guest blogger is Zach Sparer. I first met Zach in 1999 as a student in my 11th grade English class. He was in 5th period. I remember this because I was pregnant, and I usually hurled right before 5th period.

Zach always came to class. And he quickly stood out as an outstanding thinker and writer. His papers were flawless. His thought-process was sophisticated. I started to wonder what he would be when he grew up.

Zach watched me gain 65 pounds, and we have stayed in touch since 1999 — which some people might think is weird. Maybe it is. But whether he likes it or not, he’s pretty much stuck with me.

You can read Zach’s blog Faux Outrage HERE. Here’s his teacher memory.

• • •

Substitute Preacher

Nobody asked for my opinion, but I eventually decided that she deserved some time off.

Ms. Jacobson was pregnant after all, and pregnant women should not be required to teach fifth period English. In fact, I came to realize, pregnant women should not be required to teach any period of English. Or anything else for that matter. For a brief time, pregnant women should be entirely devoid of periods.

They should also say goodbye to: colons, ampersands, and Oxford commas. They should take a semester off — or a trimester, at the very least.

Nobody asked for my opinion, but it was settled: She should leave.

And so she did leave, in the same unremarkable way that every important person in your life leaves: quietly, the syncopation of careful footsteps echoing like a heartbeat muffled by the floorboards.

Twenty-four hours later, there was a stranger standing in front of the classroom.

• • •

The man before us wore a red scarf and was enveloped in a dark brown tweed jacket devoid, amazingly, of professorial patches on each elbow. I immediately begin to wonder whether he was disappointed that New York state law prevented him from smoking a pipe in a high school classroom. I learned that he was there to teach us F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby, among other lessons, but realized rather quickly that his outfit and demeanor were not the result of an elaborate plan to introduce and discuss the social cultures of East Egg vs. West Egg.

We paused, mouths agape.

Who was this guy?

Suddenly, it became clear what was (or wasn’t) going to happen. The students in the classroom, looking bored as usual in their tiny metal chairs, came to an immediate, telepathic understanding: This was not going to work. No one discussed the plan — there was nothing to be discussed — and nobody winked, smirked, nodded, or passed a note.

We just knew.

Looking back, our banding together so quickly was actually a beautiful moment. Pushed together between those off-beige, pockmarked concrete walls sat the girls who never picked up a pencil off the ground in their lives and the Jocks who bought them wine coolers, the Nerds and Geeks who argued about which group encompassed the other, the kids struggling with learning disabilities and the Goths who struggled with most everything else, the Motorheads, the Motor-mouths, and Chameleons — like myself — who happily blended into the background.

We quickly recognized our substitute teacher as a bitter, spiteful man. He monopolized classroom time with personal tales of woe, of his past rejections — in love and in life and in publishing — uncomfortable stories not normally shared with still-developing high school students. He sprinkled in what were to be understood an episodes of personal triumph, but we could tell that he didn’t believe his own hype. More importantly, we could tell that what he did believe was that he was superior to the substitute teacher responsibilities that he was expected to carry out, and that he felt he had been dealt a bad hand, in life and every fifth period Monday through Friday.

Throughout his tenure (a word, thankfully, I am using to mean “period during which something is held” as opposed to “status of holding one’s position on a permanent basis”), he had an unnerving habit where he would make a negative example of certain students in the classroom. He denied those deemed unworthy the right to speak up or to ask questions. He broke up groups of friends and allowed others to remain. He didn’t play favorites; rather, he played Whack-A-Mole with the young adults he felt were not worthy of dignity or confidence.

He thought that he was too good for us.

One day, he sent two of my peers to the principal’s office. They had been tossed aside because they did not show appropriate reverence to our substitute preacher. They had spoken out of turn. They were non-believers, heretics.

A few minutes after they were sent out, our “leader” began to speculate about the quality of their home lives. The students tossed from the classroom were hardly my friends, but at that moment, they were my brother and sister. I sat there shaking my head slowly, and then faster, and then not at all.

I was listening to a grown man — someone hired to inspire — ridicule his students behind their backs, in front of their peers.

I was done blending in.

My hand was raised, high in the air.

Floating.

What was it doing there, I wondered?

He was wondering, too.

“I don’t understand why you’re talking about those people. They’re not even here.”

“Why should I stop?”

“Because that’s the way I was brought up.”

He froze.

The chameleon, no longer camouflaged, seemed to have startled him.

There was a long, sweet pause.

The tension that day in the classroom eventually subsided and, a few weeks later, the congregants of fifth period English were reintroduced to a less barfy, more maternal version of Ms. Jacobson.

Time has a way of passing.

• • •

While I am uneasy with the tidy conclusion that this short-lived experience in the classroom changed my life in a truly fundamental way, I do believe that publicly speaking out that day, against a person in a position of authority, helped shape my perspective of what it means to be engaged in a functioning, polite society.

Though I am loathe to overstate the importance of this singular event, this substitute teacher — a “negative experience” by all accounts — did help me realize that the social hierarchies and classes we are crammed into (e.g., “teacher,” “student”) are not by themselves sufficiently descriptive. We are so much more — or less, as they case may be — than mere titles suggest.

I guess I learned a little bit about The Great Gatsby after all.

Got any substitute teacher stories to share?

• • •

If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a piece of writing for #TWITS: Teachers Who I Think Scored / Teachers Who I Think Sucked, write a specific memory about one teacher you had and explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction. Essays should be around 700-800 words.

Interested but have questions? Email me!

My information is under the Contact Me tab.

L'il Miss Attitude

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Every year, I study my new class rosters and practice saying the names aloud so I don’t sound like a total dork on the first day.

One year, I was feeling pretty good until I came to one particular name.

T-a.

I didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. I tried a lot of different combinations.

Tee-ah? Tee-ay? Tah? Tay?

I had no idea. I figured the best thing to do would be to just admit defeat and ask the student to pronounce his or her name in class.

The first day of class came.

New students filed in and gravitated to the seats they liked the best. Some near the front, others farther back.

I introduced myself and began taking attendance, reading down the list, changing “James” to “Jim” and “Richard” to “Rick.” I even had the foresight to ask the student whose last name was Montague what he liked to be called. A good-looking chap in a baseball cap smiled at me and said, “Adam.” His name had appeared as “Bartholomew” on the roster. I didn’t want to embarrass him because his parents had made a bad choice 19 years earlier. Turns out, he went by his middle name.

Finally, I hit the dreaded name.

“Okay,” I said, “I am not sure how to properly pronounce this name, so I’m wondering if there is a person with the last name of Dinkens here today.”

The room was silent.

“Nobody here with the last name of Dinkens?” I repeated.

Someone clucked her tongue. “That’s me,” said a girl with her chin tilted up at a hard angle.

“I wasn’t sure how to pronounce your name, so I thought you could help me out,” I said.

“Why don’tchu try it?” L’il Miss Attitude asked, crossing her arms across her black and white striped tee shirt.

“Okay,” I said, “Is it Tee-ah?”

The girl made a sound like she had been annoyed with me since the moment I was born.

“Lord,” she said, “Don’t you know the dash ain’t silent? It’s TaDASHa.”

Silence swirled around me noisily. It was the first day of class. I had to set the tone, properly. I wasn’t mad at this girl, but I could not allow her to disrespect me, not right out of the gate. Seventeen billion thoughts on how to handle the situation occurred to me simultaneously ranging in severity.

While I was leaning toward a good old-fashioned paddling, I chose a stern voice.

“Are you a first year student here, Tadasha?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Tadasha said, chewing on her thumbnail.

“And is this your very first class on campus today?”

“Yeah.”

“And do you have a full-time schedule?”

“Yeah.”

“And how many other classes do you have today?”

“Three,” Tadasha snipped.

“And you are telling me no one has ever mispronounced or struggled with the pronunciation of your name in your entire life?”

“Bitch, where I live people know me.”

I thought my head was going to blow off my shoulders. Did I hear wrong or did a student in my classroom just call me a bitch? I felt like I was on some kind of bad reality TV show, you know the type where someone eventually jumps out as things escalate and tells the unsuspecting victim that he’s been punked? Except the clock kept ticking and no one seemed to be coming to my rescue, and I didn’t see any cameras. I had to do something.

Everyone was staring at me.

“Okay Tadasha,” I started, while moving to sit on top of my large iron desk. “Here are a few things for you to consider as you move through the rest of your day. First, I predict that this exact interaction is going to happen to you three more times today. And when you address the person who mispronounces your name — because it will be mispronounced — it would be wise for you to not address that person with profanity.” I looked my student in the eye: “Calling someone a ‘bitch’ is rarely the appropriate way to address another person whether in a classroom on a college campus or in life.”

Tadasha was silent.

Everyone turned to look at her.

Suddenly I realized I was playing a weird verbal tennis match, and I had obviously smacked the ball over to her side of the net.

Everyone was waiting to see if she was going to make a mad dash to return it.

She didn’t, so I kept going.

Full. Court. Press.

“Also, just so you know, you have an unusual name. The hyphen — or dash — as you called it, is generally silent. We don’t usually pronounce it. People may know you in the part of the world where you have lived for the last 18 or so years, but no one knows you on this campus, so if you want to have positive interactions today I recommend that you be kind. Try to have a sense of humor. No one wants to hurt you. On the first day, your teachers are just trying to figure out who is who. That’s all I was trying to do.”

Tadasha was glaring at me.

“Last, we have not started off well today, so I would suggest that you head down to the Registrar right now and get yourself enrolled in another section of Comp-101.”

Tadasha gathered her purse and her books and walked out of the class with her head held high.

She never came back, and I never saw her again.

I often wonder if Tadasha made it through the day. The week. The semester. If she graduated at all. I wonder about her hard edges. About how she had made it so far yet knew so little about how to interact with other people. Was she just scared? Did I blow it? Did I do her a favor? Or did I ruin her?

Who do you wonder about from your past? What do you imagine that person is doing now?

*names have been changed for obvious reasons

School Is Not the Time To Make Friends

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When I was a student at Genesee Hills Elementary School in the 1970s, we had quite a bit of free time during which we actually interacted with our peers: during lunch, recess, specials, sure. But also during class. In 3rd grade with Mrs. Marmillo and Mr. Barnello, we enjoyed an amazing invention called “Boy, Girl and Group of the Week.” A concept that would never fly now, I feel fortunate to have been part of this fabulous, classroom environment, and I know dozens of people who likely feel the same way.

Before I tell you about Boy, Girl & Group of the Week, keep in mind, this classroom phenomenon happened in 1976 — more than 30 years ago — so I could be wrong on some of the basics (so for those who may remember, feel free to chime in).

I want to say that on Friday afternoons, students from our two 3rd grade classrooms gathered together to nominate students as Boy and Girl of the Week. Students who went out of their way to do something nice for their peers were considered, so we said things like:

I want to nominate Jeff F. as Boy of the Week because he lent me a pencil when I didn’t have one.

or

I want to nominate Siobhan E. because she got me a tissue when I had a bloody nose, and then she helped me to the nurse’s office.

Meanwhile, our teachers sat quietly and made hash marks (or something) on a clipboard. Unless, we gave too many nominations to the same kid — in which case they would encourage us to look around the room and notice people who had possibly never been nominated, they were pretty silent.

When we finished, our teachers determined and announced the Boy, Girl and Group of the Week. (Maybe it was predetermined. It probably was.) The prize? Winners got the privilege of walking from our elementary school to Burger King, a little less than a mile away, sometime the following week along with our teachers. To get to BK, we walked on roads – not sidewalks. Yes, there were a few cars, but we walked – single-file in sun and in slush – to get to a hamburger, small fries and a soft-drink. It was heaven.

Imagine teachers pulling off this weekly field trip in 2010. It’s practically impossible.

First off, I have a feeling 90% of today’s parents would say they don’t like the idea because Burger King is fattening, and (in case you hadn’t heard), we have an obesity epidemic in our country. Okay, this may be the case when you are eating BK every day. But we weren’t back then. And we used our lunch and recess periods (both of which were longer than they are now) to walk to and from Burger King. The trek was just under 1.5 miles, but we walked briskly, so it was a good healthy walk.

We used our best manners while waiting in line. I remember standing in the BK queue, preparing to place my order — using my own voice to speak to an adult, “One hamburger, please,” I would say, careful to add, “Thank you.” Eating with my teachers and friends was a most amazing reward! We learned so much about each other during our walks to and from school and while sitting in the big booths together. We learned about our teachers’ families, their children. We learned if our classmates had siblings, what color our classmates’ rooms were painted, and if we liked to play the same games. We learned whose parents were divorced. Hell, we learned what the word divorce meant! We learned to speak, and we learned to listen.

I imagine, these days, most parents wouldn’t like the idea of children walking on main roads with traffic. Because people worry about things like that these days. Because someone could get hit by a car! Or get abducted! Or fall into a ditch and twist an ankle! (The last scenario was probably the most likely.)

As far as I know, my parents signed one skinny permission slip to allow me to go on the aforementioned trip off campus to BK and provided me with the requisite dollar or so to purchase my meal. These days, I imagine there would be a 12-page document that would have to be signed by parents, promising to waive their rights to this, that and the other thing. Back then, nobody worried that we were going to get hit by cars or fall in gulches or get kidnapped. Everyone just kind of assumed giving children additional privileges came with giving us additional responsibilities. People sought to broaden our world experience rather than limit our boundaries.

We had so many opportunities to practice civility in elementary school. It was okay to have a little idle chatter time built into our day. The classroom was the place where we learned our academics, but we also practiced our social skills. Today, I would imagine that most administrators would tell parents that there is simply not time for idle chitter-chatter. A few years ago a school administrator told me that “school is not the place for children to make friends.” She argued that kids needed to get involved in extra-curricular activities if they were interested in making friendships. She explained teachers needed to make the most of classroom time to prepare students for standardized tests, that teachers have more to teach than ever.

In 2010, I would argue “the civility piece” has fallen out of the curriculum — along with the belief that there are benefits to idle time. In 1976, it seemed like there was an emphasis on these things, as well as the other things we learned as by-products: patience (eventually everyone got to be Boy or Girl of the Week), paying attention to the little things, actually making an effort to help out a fellow student in need, being a good citizen (not just because it could get you a trip to Burger King but because it felt good). And a million other things, too.

And in this age of technology, a little more emphasis on these seemingly insignificant niceties could go far to help kids plug into each other and their behaviors. I mean, a student might not bully the kid upon whose vote he depends to get some kind of special reward.

And I would argue that sometimes the greatest life-lessons occur when it doesn’t appear that one is learning at all.

But that’s probably a hard sell these days.