Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Teaching the Invisibles

Teaching the Invisibles by Jack Seeker

Chapter 7 excerpt
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The meetings of August, or let’s make fun of the teachers

Mr. Seeker or Ms. Karlowitz, Mr. Garcia, Ms. Jackson…teachers love being called Mr. or Ms. It makes it seem we’re automatically running the place. Actually we need to be called that otherwise the kids would never listen to us, but that’s not to say we still haven’t been bestowed with a status promotion in society. Teachers are probably right below doctors, lawyers and college professors, and even with policemen and firemen. Other jobs, even though they pay five to ten times more, don’t confer that professional halo. Sales manager, Chief Finance Officer, etc. just reek of boredom and not doing a damn thing to help mankind. So yeah, it’s kind of nice to be kicked up a station when you get your first job. And if it’s party chatter you want, mention you teach, and the people whose mothers were teachers, or thought about becoming one, or are wondering what it is like in the bad neighborhoods, stay and talk to you for a few minutes more.

During the summer I go to job fairs and see that they’re absolutely useless. I apply for substitute teaching jobs on the theory that after being in a school for a year they’ll hire you. Student teachers have the best crack at a job at the school they taught at, except in my case, I lost that opportunity as soon as I met my illustrious supervising teachers.

Then two days before teachers are to report I get called in for an interview. The next day, I’m told I have the job teaching freshman and sophomore English, and I’m to come in on Monday. It’s not as disorganized as it sounds. The school doesn’t know exactly how many students it will have until then. Inner city schools have a lot of families on the move between apartments, parents just getting around to signing their kids up, and kids just arriving back from staying in Mexico. During the interview the Assistant Principal  asks me what my philosophy of teaching is. My answer rattles on like a military procurement order stuffed with all the jargon I can throw in. He glances down at the table with a look that says, “Oh yeah, a new teacher, he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about it.” I get the feeling I’m hanging onto a branch over a set of rapids and I’m about to slip off.

I mention my added maturity and wisdom versus a fresh out of school type. I bring up my skill set as a professional writer and my high GPA. Nothing sways him. On the way out, for small talk, I ask him if he has any children. He finally gets a little energy. He has two young ones under ten. He asks me if I have kids, and I say I have one in high school and one in his mid-twenties. This seems of interest to him, but I still leave with an oh-well attitude.
So when he called saying I got the job I was surprised. I asked why I got chosen from the other candidates. My winning attribute is having raised two teenagers. I know how to handle them. They’re not looking for thorough knowledge of the subject. They’re looking for someone, anyone, who can control these kids. I gird my loins, but I’m still relieved I have a job. I can start paying back my student loans.

To share my good news, I call friends from my education classes but stop after the first few calls. I’m the only one who has gotten a job and that’s because I can also teach English. People certified in history aren’t getting hired. (I later learn teachers are perpetually in night or summer school getting earning raises by getting higher degrees, mostly in education.)

While it’s a relief to get a job, I also know this school is way too similar to the one I student taught at. Teaching here was going to be a challenge.

It’s been said an inner city teacher walks a narrow beam between hope and despair, and that it’s far too easy to fall off into despair. So imagine what it’s like to be in a classroom where you’re losing heart only to have your bosses lay into you after that. Gee, 50% of teachers leave within five years. Guess they weren’t cut out for it.
One thoughtful teacher says he has to work hard to know if what he’s doing is sinking in. He’s constantly reevaluating his lessons to see if there are better ways to reach his students, and he feels any good instructor has this doubt all the time because students change over the years. But don’t, whatever you do, bring this up anywhere near a school zone. It’ll mean you’re not self-confident and at most probably incompetent. What do you mean you don’t know if you’re reaching your students? You damn well better know or our ACT scores are going to be shit.
So if you have a real talent for the vocation, are used to being the only motivated person in your half of the building, and don’t mind being called a motherfucker by 8:30 am, you might just have what it takes.

I worked with one such teacher, Renee, who had career switched from insurance and could devise lesson plans that were as wonderful and poetic as the literature she taught. I stole her stuff whenever I could.

Once, while I was photocopying pages of Vocabulary Roots,  because once you know a Latin or Greek root you can divine the meanings of the fifty words that spring from it like the little Greek gods that popped out of Zeus’s head, she came up and told me how she was teaching vocabulary.

“I’ve got a great new word game I’m playing with my kids, and they can’t leave it alone. They’re so into it they’re bringing in words from their other classes. They’ve brought in your sheets on Latin and Greek roots and they’re using those too. They’re even competing with each other! So I’m having them play for prizes like candy bars.”
“Well, great,” I said, “That’ll help them remember the words they’re getting from me better.”

Renee made this little look and then glanced down at the floor. It was clear she didn’t think too highly of my learn-the-roots method, and she was right. She knew how to reach our kind of student. Learning roots is how they teach vocabulary out in the burbs we both grew up in, and it’s still a highly recommended way to do it. But games for kids from this income level are not only needed, they’re indispensable, crucial, and vital. Any other way of teaching is a deal breaker. Anything that has them learning in spite of themselves is teaching excellence at its zenith.

“So, hey, how did you come up with this idea?” I asked, and I wasn’t being polite, I really did want to know.
“Well, my girlfriend and I were vacationing in Mexico this summer and I got a word game in the airport gift shop for us to kill time on the plane with. It’s so engrossing that we kept on playing it the rest of our vacation. We even played it poolside, when I thought, wait a minute. The kids will love this.’”

Just like that she came up with a fun-while-you-learn game. Oh well, she was on vacation, she doesn’t have any kids or a family, she works eighty hours a week, and she was with her girlfriend, not that that means anything. I think it was because while she was playing the game poolside, a cabana boy walked by and looked like one of her students.

In the faint hope of her commiserating with me, I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice I if we didn’t have to entertain them? If we could just teach the little buggers vocabulary the old fashioned way? God, I wish these kids were middle class.”
“Oh, you can’t think like that……you have to–what did you call them?”

“Little buggers?”

“Did you just call them little buggers?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Do you know what buggers do? They do buggery. 

Yewwwww, now I won’t be able to get that mental image out of my head. Thanks a lot.”

Like I said, she tended to spend a lot of time with other women.

But joking aside, Renee was one of the best teachers in our school. The only other instructor as well liked by the students was a biology teacher, but she had the advantage of hands-on labs (It’s hard to surpass dissecting a fetal pig for a riveting lesson.) Plus, Renee ran the environmental club, the book club, taught ACT prep classes, and professional development district workshops. She had disposable time and the school was the lucky recipient. And she fit into a teacher type that nearly every high school has, the really good teacher that parents request.

Visit any high school and you’ll swear a Hollywood casting director did the hiring

It’s kind of eerie, really. But it seems every high school I’ve been in or worked in, the teaching staff insists on playing roles you’ve already seen in the movies, teachers such as:

The “absent minded professor” who goes into so much depth he only gets up to The Civil War in a class that supposed to go to Vietnam
The self-absorbed teacher who goes on personal tangents that always reveal him to be a genius
The extra prissy teacher who’s constantly annoyed with someone
The young iconoclastic teacher out to change the system
The older iconoclastic teacher who’s learned you can’t fight boards of education and thanks God for tenure
The teacher who’s vowing she’ll write a book but never does
The young teacher who really relates to the kids
The dim bulb teacher who has trouble understanding the material
The bright, sunny teacher who’s nice to all her students
The mood-disorder teacher that flips from loving or hating her kids for indiscernible reasons 
The OCD teacher who demands that the room be exactly the way she left it
The young stud teacher who’s out to “bag” all the pretty single teachers
The gay teacher that everyone knows is gay but is still in the closet
The gay teacher who doesn't make us feel tense because he's open about it
The teacher who everyone thinks is gay but has a wife and two children
The untenured, former college instructors here for the steady paycheck
The went-on-sabbatical-for-a-little-too-long teacher who’ll tell you getting back into the system is a lot harder than you think
The special-ed teachers who co-teach with the regular teachers and will readily rattle off which ones they like and don’t like
The bore-you-to-tears teacher usually found in the history or math department
The “assisting the head of the department” teacher whose real function is a mystery
The computer lab teacher who sighs, “Oh, alright” when you ask him to fix something
The librarian who thinks she personally owns the library
The functional alcoholic teacher
The teacher who tells the kids marijuana is bad then tells them drug jokes later
The Assistant Principal s waiting for their own schools where they’ll finally run things the right way
The teacher who abdicates her authority to be “friends” with the students
The only reason I have this job is for the summers off and to watch my kids after school teacher
The I-taught-at-the-worst-ghetto-schools-imaginable teacher who thinks this gang-infested hell hole is a good school
The long time spinster English teacher who owns eight cats and has never owned a TV
 The “connected” teacher who knows somebody
The I’m-just-doing-this-until-I-get-accepted-into-law-school teacher who’s been there for seven years
The I-don’t-need-any-adult-conversation teacher who talks to you like a teenager
The this-room-is-my-room teacher who won’t allow you to sit at her desk or use her chalkboard during your classes
The nerdy science teacher with no people skills
The teacher with a derogatory nickname that the kids and even his coworkers say behind his back
And my all-time favorite….the attractive young female teacher whose clothing is just a         little too tight 
And for added fun, see how many types you can spot on your next open house visit.

In the last three days of August, teachers come in to prepare for the new school year, and it’s done by going through wall-to-wall meetings where checking the wall clock every fifteen minutes is unavoidable. The first day starts bright and early with the principal’s “welcome back, I hope everyone had a nice summer” speech. Then it’s on to the updated time clock procedure that faithfully has a new wrinkle to learn every year. The dean of discipline comes up and assures us he’s there to back us up, and “let me explain how to use the new write-up sheet.” 

After the support folks run out of things to tweak, we break out into department meetings where the department chair goes into what he’s tweaked for the year. We go through the new text book, the additions and subtractions to the curriculum, what kind of students to expect, how to enter lesson plans on the computer, and how to reserve library time which we ignore because the librarian has the place cordoned off like a crime scene, which it is because it’s so ripe for vandalism.

There are a couple of workshops on teaching methods that liberally award CPDUs or Professional Development Units, the C isn’t important. A teacher needs fifteen professional development credits per year to keep his or her license, and half of them are handed out like Skittles in the opening days.
The professional training that does have value takes effort to locate but is well worth it after you’ve forced yourself to go. The Newberry Library has exceptionally knowledgeable historians talking on their specialties. The Steppenwolf Theater has actor workshops on how to bring drama techniques to the classroom. These are my favorites. They’re like getting acting classes for free.
And from the get-go there’s always one meeting where the bureaucratic insanity starts up. This time it’s the Assistant Principal  busting the chops of a teacher almost sleeping right in front of him, sleeping because this is his last year after a career of thirty-five years. The only things getting us through these my-eyes-glaze-over summits are the carrots of the CPDUs and the “self-directed” time, and the whispered jokes that always include old chestnut, “I think I’ll ‘self-direct’ myself over to the bar.”

When self-directed time does come, the female instructors bolt for their rooms like it’s the Oklahoma land rush. They can’t wait to clean up their accommodations. They have things to do: hanging cheesy motivational posters, artfully decorating bulletin boards, filling their desk drawers with moisturizer, hand sanitizer, snacks, tissues, band aids, spray cleaner, paper towels, three-hole punches, paper clips, colored pens, and a pair of “comfortable” shoes. On the desk top go the family and vacation photos, the laminated bathroom pass that permits students to go only one at a time, a homework tray, decorative knickknacks, and a small plant. The male teachers have their own preparation too. They walk into their room, plop their teacher’s edition on the desk and leave for the Mexican restaurant on the corner.

When you get your course assignments, you first check how many different subjects you have. Most of the time you get two. But if you have three different courses that means three different lesson plans to write every day, a lot of work, unless you’ve been teaching long enough to be able to repeat your lessons from previous years. You’re supposed to be constantly improving and updating your lessons, but in reality, you’re better off using the lessons you’ve gotten the “bugs” out of. Try something too new and you’ll be getting the kinks out all over again. What you do is sprinkle in new lessons sparingly while you keep polishing your old reliables.

Some poor teachers, because course assignments are never flawless, get four different classes. These poor souls beseech the schedule planner for a lighter load. If they don’t succeed, all they can do is suck it up and realize that next year it isn’t going to happen again. It’ll be somebody else’s turn to carry more than their weight.
The teachers suppressing a wide, toothy smile are the ones who’ve received only one class to prepare. They have a coast year and they know it, and they also know there are no guarantees it’s going to happen again soon. On average though, most teachers have two classes they need to prepare lessons for on a daily basis.
After this, everyone checks if they’re in one room or several. It’s assumed you finally get one room throughout the day after you’ve achieved enough seniority. So newbie teachers are forced to travel around to their different rooms, with some using a long-handled suitcase on wheels for their books and papers. They didn’t find it amusing when I’d announce, “United flight 1379 now departing from gate 16” when they passed by.
If a first year teacher does get one room, there are only two reasons why. It just happened that way, or...they’re “connected.” When I ask about it, an older, more cynical teacher tells me, “She’s got a china man. You got a china man? No? That’s why you’re in five different rooms. I don’t have a china man that’s why I’m still teaching freshmen.” I look at the guy and wonder what the hell a china man is until I remember that back in the past it was a Chicago alderman who interceded on your behalf so you’d get a cushy patronage job.

One poor teacher got four different rooms for the last seven years. The department head had no idea why this happened. My guess was her snarky, to-the-manor-born attitude. Daddy was a wealthy lawyer, and she had somehow been orphaned and left at this poor, hellish outpost. Worse yet, she had to prostitute herself by being a cocktail waitress on the weekends. Other young, single teachers got by on the salary, but she, of course, had a lifestyle to maintain. I sincerely felt sorry for the husband she hadn’t met yet. First time he got laid off he had a year max to maintain her standard of living.

Or it could have been that every Monday morning after she had been cocktail waitressing the night before, she came in with a noticeable hangover. One day I was in the department head’s classroom before the first bell shooting the bull, and he kept scoping out the parking lot and the teachers coming in. He’d get all excited and call me over. “See her down there. Tell me she isn’t hung over. She’s like that every week.” But the department chair didn’t come in forty minutes early every day to patrol the parking lot. He came in to sip away at his Starbuck’s full-strength Columbian brew. It was his way of handling the stress. He needed to decompress before the day started.

With my lessons, I found I was naturally editing them in my first two classes, the same way a new play gets revised during rehearsals. By the afternoon periods, the lessons were so polished I’d finish early and still cover the material better than before. So in my last class, because the kids had been so good, I let them out early. It gave the teacher across the hall acid reflux. “Stop letting your class out early. My class sees them leave and they all start asking me why they can’t go.” I was letting my class out all of three minutes before the bell, a time when most classes were packing up anyway. I nodded and agreed, and I cut back to Fridays only.

In the end though, no matter what classes or rooms the teachers had for the year, these beginning days were filled with hope and optimism. 95% of the staff was a dedicated bunch, and I could feel their ready to get back to work energy and their camaraderie. I could see the veterans stepping up to mentor the new, inexperienced teachers. Teaching is a helping profession and that’s what they want to do.

It’s only later in the year after the stress has been building for months, after personalities have been colliding, and the students’ indifference to their classes doesn’t relent, that the faces in the hallways stop smiling. But for now, after a warm, pleasant summer, they all believe that this year would be different.

This is another excerpt from the book Teaching the Invisibles by Jack Seeker. You can order the book on Amazon Kindle. 

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