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28 May 2007

Notes On The Week That Was, Part II (Why I Teach)


* Well, this is why I teach. Take all your classroom idiocy, your crypto-thugdom, and your senior apathy. It can't ever match the power of the really fine moments, the really fine kids.

Though I was running on fumes by this evening, the Underclassmen Awards ceremony was truly one of the best events I've been a part of as a teacher - top 5, easy.

To begin with, the format is wonderful, because only students who are going to win something get invited, along with their families. Some say the other students should see these awards during school hours, so they might take away some motivation from it. But this way of doing things allows for an efficient program, and also allows for relaxation: you know you only have good kids in the auditorium, kids who want to be there (and their parents, natch).

For me, the real thrill of the evening came in watching so many of the kids who have meant so much to me in the last couple of years walk across the stage and receive numerous rewards. And it was my privilege to hand them the awards and shake their hands. What an honor - what an absolute honor.

Seated to my left was a girl who has been in my classes, either English or yearbook, for parts of three years (I'll call her Lizzy). It was her job, as student government vice-president, to introduce the speakers, and I was proud to watch how poised and professional she was. Lizzy wouldn't look my in the eye for a while the day I announced I was leaving. She waited until she'd finished crying.

And maybe the best moment was when the girl I had quietly lobbied for as Best All-Around Sophomore - I'll call her Jess - actually won the award (I didn't know who had won until I turned the plaques over just before presenting them - when I saw she had won that award, and the award for highest sophomore grade-point average, I wanted to pump my fist). Jess is everything you could ask for in a student - bright, inquisitive, cheerful, polite, popular among her peers and yet an individual who always does the right thing. She's a pretty girl who refuses to get hung up on boyfriend dramas, and she's humble and considerate of even the unpopular kids in class. I told her Mama that I don't believe in cloning, but I would make an exception for her daughter. Way to go Jess.

Another of my students who I've had for parts of three years also won several awards, but most impressively it was announced he had a painting that won a Congressional contest award, and the painting is currently hanging in the nation's Capitol building. In June he gets to go to a reception in D.C., and he has also earned a $10,000 art scholarship. And knowing this boy, I can promise you he will one day do the humanities proud, in a way that will cut against the grain of the reigning elitist, po-mo schools of thought.

Not bad for a little ole' school. Not bad at all.


*I had my last observation today, and it went well, especially since my worst second-period headache was suspended for the day (I'll thank myself for that one). I'm beat, though. Happy, but thoroughly beat.

There are two more weeks of school left, plus three workdays. Of course, when you are in charge of a fall yearbook, the summer is never truly your own until the book is finally put to rest. I don't have to finish it off this summer, since I'm leaving and all, but I will (cue martyr's music now).

For now, though, with so many thoughts and emotions and responsibilities flying at me, I'm content to be content for a few days.

Notes On The Week That Was - Part I

Let's have an interlude from my lengthy soul-searching regarding The Big Move, so that I can share a little of the past, crazy week with you - a week that I've just barely recovered from. I'll use my previous method of writing notes as if the events just happened, which offers endless revisionist history opportunities. Enjoy!


* There should be some fun in the week ahead, but at the expense of my sleep and sanity, no doubt. We have three huge events, three nights in a row: Senior Awards Night, Senior/Faculty Softball Night, and Underclassmen Awards Night. Because I'm the reigning Teacher of the Year, I'm supposed to be on stage for the awards nights to help hand out items of distinction (plaques, certificates, stoles, etc.). And while I'm not as obligated to play softball, you wouldn't expect me to miss that, would you?

* Perhaps so God could make sure I stayed grounded in the face of so much feel-goodism and celebration this week, He offered the following scene to my Male Bonding Buddy and I as we were walking down the hall at lunch: two big athletic types on the outside sidewalk, one a freshman and one an already once-arrested sophomore, bouncing off of each other at full force while loudly repeating some kind of rap chant. These two were caught earlier this semester stealing Cokes out of my buddy's little refrigerator in his room.

Says Male Bonding Buddy, "A couple of future sperm donors right there." Just warms the heart to think of it, doesn't it?


* My classes were awful today, and they've pissed me off enough that, even at this late date, I've resolved to crack some heads tomorrow. Think it's too late for a referral, my little chickadees? Think again.

* I'm going to declare this year's Senior Awards Night an almost-unmitigated disaster. To start with, it lasted three freaking hours, and we only had one stretch break in that time. I say stretch break, but despite the directions given to the audience, it became a full-fledged, don't-bar-the-door bathroom sprint. Since I was on stage, of course, I could do nothing so kind for myself, though I had to pee like a race horse (love that cliche).

Secondly, unlike last year, this year's senior class showed that it couldn't even muster one evening of full-class character. Sure, last year's class had plenty of losers, but only two didn't show for senior awards. After all, most of them get some kind of recognition, and the rest can at least give their friends some atta'boys or girls. But at least 20% of the class of '07 was absent tonight - there were gaps of three and four in their reserved rows of seats. Of the ones who were present, several crossed the stage with cell phones clipped to hips, or while smacking gum. There were also sidebar conversations galore, and snarky comments about middle names. The principal was so perturbed he chastised them, in as constructive a way as possible, at the end.

Plus, my butt hurts, and I've gotten home at 10:30. Any chance school starts late tomorrow?


* I found one of my senior kids this morning - the previously written about preacher's kid, in fact - and asked why she didn't attend the awards program from last night, even though she and many of her friends were getting major recognition. Was there a church emergency, or something? "Nah. I decided I'd rather stay home and watch American Idol."

Thank God. That little box, right beside the item "faith in humanity restored"? Yeah - feel free to check it off now.

* I didn't have to wait long to issue referrals. We had a hispanic girl fight this morning (a regular occurence), and when my class went out for its usual mid-class bathroom break, two of the girls bolted down the hall to congratulate one of the culprits, who was waiting outside the principal's office.

* At third lunch today, I heard a loud pop sound coming from one of the side halls. The fleeting thought that it was a gun shot crossed my mind, and just in case I poked my head out of my door. I could see people looking down the hall, but there appeared to be no huge problem. Later, I found out what it was:

My Male Bonding Buddy, while walking his class to lunch, picked up some trash in the middle of the hall. It was a scrunched up plastic water container, and it felt a little weird when he handled it, like it was moving. He figured it still had water in it, and just threw it in the nearest trash can. Moments later, the thing blew up. It contained some foil and some sort of cleaning solution in it, and apparently shaking it a little caused a reaction that made it blow. When my buddy told me about it later, I could tell he was on edge, though he did his best to remain unflappable.

They caught the punk who put it there on video camera. He tried to resist arrest - showing great wisdom to the end, since he came up to the belly button of one officer, and was about as thick as the bicep of the other officer.

The kid was 15, so what are the odds he one day darkens the doorsteps of the school again? Sadly, I would caution you not to laugh.

* Our softball game is less serious than the annual basketball game, mainly because we play co-ed, and we play with what is called a Chicago softball, which is largerand softer than the usual softball. All this lessens the chances that big dumb men (ahem), or big dumb boys on the other side, will take someone out with a slide or get in an argument over balls and strikes. Still, there is no bigger motivation to play hard, and play well, than knowing snarky 17 and 18 year olds are just waiting to laugh at you.

And I did play well, but unfortunately hit the ball hard, twice, right to a properly positioned outfielder. And, unfortunately, we lost 4-3 in nine innings.

While on second, one of the girls (a real softball player) for the seniors simply turned to me at shortstop and said, "Ya'll suck." To which I charitably responded, "No, you suck." "You suck!" "You do!"

Well, you get the picture. A good-natured - if not very eloquent - insult match with a student is one of the true pleasures in life.

Coming Tomorrow: Part II, which I promise will be a much more uplifting experience.

21 May 2007

Reason #2: The Mansion on the Hill

(With apologies to Hank and Bruce)
I had an English professor in undergrad who loved - LOVED - to reference the moment Clyde Griffiths, from the torturous An American Tragedy, walks into the lobby of a high class Kansas City Hotel and forever falls in love with all that money can buy.

Well, I hope I come to a better end than Clyde, but after working for five years in a cramped fifty-year old building that is replete with immortal ant colonies, equipped with one computer lab that is impossible to schedule much time in, serviced by a severely undermanned janitorial staff, and air-controlled by boiler heat and window unit a/c, it was impossible for me not to feel the allure of a clean, equipped, orderly, and comfortable school house. Who wouldn't feel it?

There is a measure of guilt here. Don't the poorer kids where I've been teaching deserve the same facilities and opportunities? Without question they do, and in a transcendentally just world they would get it. But we don't live in that world, and I can't resist getting excited about the more spacious rooms, the plentiful LCD projectors, and just the relative sheen of it all. (And this isn't even the spankiest school building in the county).

I appreciate you (we) taxpayers, I promise.

19 May 2007

Reason #1: It's The Behavior, Stupid.

Teacher turnover is certainly not unusual, and I don't want to give the impression that my move is some earth-shattering event. The education system is set up for the free-flow of teachers and administrators, and each year brings more change than any company, big or small, would want to deal with at once. In one way this speaks ill of the profession; to all-emcompassing bureaucracies, after all, the individual matters little, and is easily replaced by other "professionals" who also matter little. I'll save further commentary on this quandary for another day, but will point out that as an English teacher I relish the unique opportunity I get to strike at the bureaucratic mindset that created the system I work for (Hector and Achilles were both irreplaceable, and how could anyone but Lizzy have been right for Darcy, or anyone but Darcy have been right for Lizzy?).

To return to the stated topic, though, I want to explore some of my reasons for switching schools, aside from the obvious ones of proximity and pay increase. The first, maybe most alluring one for me, involves student behavior.

If you were to stand in the hallways of my school between classes, and were not used to being around hundreds of teenagers at once, my guess is that you would quickly display symptoms of a panic attack. The noise is deafening, the laughter is out of control, the language crude, and the attitude extremely nonchalant. It's a "I might make it to class on time, or I might not, but I will be loud regardless" kind of approach. This extends into the classroom, where it takes many kids ten minutes to calm down and get their things out, and there will be at least five in even a small class without proper materials. Yes, we could write all this up every day, but both we and the kids know we won't. It would take a good fifteen minutes to do five, or ten, write-ups, and time is a precious commodity. Plus the principals would literally not have time to do anything but handle discipline, and would probably start to give us cross stares. Most of us, for better or worse, save our referrals for the big-time stuff, and try to handle the rest ourselves. On top of all this, we have a consistently high minority of students whose personal dramas, and the special accompaniments of said dramas (notes read and written in class, constant harping to "go to the bathroom" or "get water", crying or heads down in depression, lack of sleep), completely affect everyone and everything around them.

Now, when I spoke with one of the assistant principals at my new school who used to work at my current school, and was an assistant principal at another school in the same county, one of the first things she told me was that she no longer spends much time at all on discipline. At the previous school she worked at, though, all she did all day was deal with discipline problems. She told me it was night and day. On the day of my interview I was at the school for over two hours, which was enough time for me to notice the lack of noise or chaos I am so used to, and I popped my head in to a couple of classes where I saw nothing resembling out of control behavior.

To be sure, there will be disciplinary challenges for me in the new position; I know these kids will be nowhere near perfect. But relatively speaking, based on what I saw and have heard from others, life will be much easier on that front. Still, what accounts for the apparent disparity?

I don't pretend to an expert, so I will lean on two recent opinions I heard that I think partially explain why the behavior at my current school is so bad. First, as one of my colleagues pointed out, a sizeable number of our students come from homes with single parents who are still in their thirties, or they live with grandma and (maybe) grandpa, or there is no parent present at all (I know of a few cases where the kid lives alone or only with older siblings). What you get from such a toxic social mix is poison, my friends, pure and simple. Try hiring one of these kids some day and you'll see.

A thoughtful senior student of mine pointed something else out to me the other day, though, that should also be factored in. Because our school serves a small town/community, and so many of the kids and teachers know each other so well already, she believes the kids feel no sense of discomfort when they enter the school building. It is no different than home for them, and they hold it in contempt because of that. This is an excellent point, and I can refer to the number of kids who love to kick their feet up on desks and chairs while I'm trying to instruct them as anecdotal evidence as such.

One question, though. The school served a small, probably tighter community fifty years ago, and for succeeding decades we all know the discipline was not a major issue. Why not, when the same level of familiarity existed then? Without writing for days on this question, I would sum up my answer by saying welcome to the world of Informalmania, where we question authority and raise consciousness and watch aging baby boomers pretend they are still 16. However, those of us who are more ambitious and on surer footing will make sure our kids don't take this to an extreme so that it detracts from their ability to make good grades and excel in other ways. We understand that formality at times is essential. It's the rest of those kids, the ones with the aformentioned home lives, that don't understand we are all just playing around. Unlucky chumps.

There are more of those kids at my current school, it is fair to say, than will be at my new school. That is the crux of the behavioral difference. And that leads me, logically, to reason #2 in the next installment.

15 May 2007

It's Official!

As of yesterday afternoon, in fact.

I have been offered the position that I interviewed for last month, and have accepted. This is very exciting for a variety of reasons, including the following: school with a great reputation, 1/3 the commute, working in my home school system and on the same calendar my son is on, a little bump in pay, and a signing bonus I wasn't even aware of.

While I am elated (perhaps mostly because the trauma of waiting to hear is behind me), I have a host of mixed thoughts and emotions about all of this. I've had kids cry about it already, or just look at me doe-eyed, like if they do that long enough I might change my mind. And you know, if anything could, it would be those kids - the ones I love beyond anyone outside of my family members. But, as I told them, they always end up leaving me in the end. In an occupation full of impermanence, I can't forever pass up opportunities to improve my lot - my family's lot.

In the coming days, I want to use the blog to reflect on all this - what I think is in store for me, and what my experience at my current school has meant. Please indulge me, gentle reader.

13 May 2007


One of my yearbook editors is a Preacher's Kid (PK), and she fits the stereotype quite well. She is spoiled, mostly unsoiled by the milk of human compassion, and though not a delinquent, certainly a bit on the wild side. In addition, she lacks a filter between her brain and her mouth. Yet, in some way she maintains a certain loveable quality - perhaps because she buys us off by saying outrageous, but amusing things. In any case, here is a snatch of conversation with her from Thursday:

Me: (entering room and seeing her on my computer) Oh, hey. What are you doing?

PK: I'm downloading my Beta Club field trip pictures from yesterday. But I've got to get back to class. So I'll clean off the other stuff that is downloading when I come back 4th period.

Me: (sporting worried brow) Other stuff?

PK: Just some videos on my camera.

Me: (sporting spiked worried brow) Videos?

PK: Don't worry - it's not like it's porn. Just some videos of us drinking.

Me: Oh, well thank God that's all.

08 May 2007

Steady Descent to Hell

Incidentally, my comments are now back on unmoderated. Should have handled that a while ago, but have been too lazy. I have other changes I need to make to the site, but they may wait until summer. As for school:

It feels that we are on that aforementioned descent lately at my little folksy rural school. Last week brought rumors of a "Bloods-Wannabees" vs. "Crips-Wannabees" fight pending at any time. The only solace is that the kids rumored to be involved have all shown themselves to be wimps in the past (thankfully). My uncharitable side says,"Hey fellas, I'm all for you taking each other out. Just have the decency to have the rumble in one of your own backyards, and not in public where you endanger what passes for our remnants of civilization."

And then this morning I had to write up five students who disrupted class with a screaming fit, all brought on because a boy of Mexican descent wrote "Mexico" on the back of a paper he was grading. The paper belonged to a girl of Honduran descent who gets unreasonably angry whenever others poke fun of her accent or nation of heritage. The next thing you know, the boy's pregnant sister, who happens to be my teacher's aide that period, is yelling in an attempt to defend her brother's honor, and the whole class seems about to blow. How much learning did we get accomplished today, boys and girls?

You know what would really be entertaining? To tell that little story over dinner with Pat Buchanon, Tom Tancredo, and most of my family members. Would be a laugh riot, let me tell you.

The overwhelming majority of teachers I know will teach and love most anyone you put before them in class. But if you took a private opinion poll on immigration matters, no matter their general political leanings, you would find a great majority lining up right of center. To paraphrase Irving Kristol, reality can be a hell of a mugger.

04 May 2007

Big 'uns and Little 'uns

School systems, that is. It has always amazed me how my school system, a mere 50 miles from gigantic (relatively speaking) Wake County/Raleigh, is SO on the opposite end of the spectrum, in its problems and day-to-day issues, from the Wake County district. And yet, as in much of the country, both areas share this: constant anxiety and trauma revolving around school issues. Let's look at the last couple of weeks, starting with the Big Guys in Wake.

1. Yesterday a judge ruled that the Wake school board cannot make a year-round school schedule mandatory for thousands of students next year. The board has argued that this move was necessary to best accomodate a student population that, thanks to a constant uber-population boom in the county, continues to expand in huge numbers. The board is now meeting to determine how to proceed. One option that some of them swear is inevitable is to put some elementary kids on "shift schedules", whereby some would go to school from 7:00 to 1:30, and others from 2:00 to 8:00. Since I have no dog (well, actually no child) in this fight, it is easy for me to boldy predict that such schedules will never happen. Truthfully, I doubt they will (you want to talk about PISSING PEOPLE OFF!), but if I lived, or taught, in Wake County I would be darned nervous.

Soon we may have to add "schools" to the infamous list of taboo dinner-table topics previously restricted (in general) to "religion" and "politics".

2. And now for something completely different, let's check out things in Ruralville. You know, I wouldn't trade my Southern heritage with anyone's, but that doesn't mean the old "local yokels" way of doing things in small Southern communities can't be severely embarrassing. Before I give you a story excerpt, from which you can draw your own conclusions (and especially if you are a Southerner, I expect you will at least chuckle), let me just point out that my school is filthy. FILTHY! We have two janitors who are sweet but past their primes, and who manage to only empty the trash and do a quick sweep through our rooms each day. The sweeping does not include getting in corners, or under teachers' desks, so dust bunnies abound. We get one mop and wax over the summer, and no dusting. Teachers routinely clean their own rooms to make up the deficit (well, some teachers do - ahem). So, the principals of the county decided to push the issue with the superintendent, who in turn was asked by the school board to look into contracting out our janitorial services. Now, read with delight (slightly altered by moi):

It was a night filled with emotion, confusion, confrontation and, in the end, victory for the more than 40 _______ County Schools custodians, as the ________ County Board of Education voted to reject privatization of custodial services Monday night.

After it asked superintendent Dr. ________to provide a cost comparison a few months back, he recommended the board approve SCC Service Solutions Monday night because of the companies “willingness” to work with and employ all the current ________County custodial employees.

With a standing-room only crowd in the central office auditorium, over 30 custodians, their fate, they said, hanging in the balance, listened as the school board prepared to vote .

“This is not just saving money,” Superintendent ________ assured the audience. “Because if it were, we would contract the services out; this was about the principals and the board asking me to check into this, and that is what I did ... SCC Service Solutions offered the best product and offered all of our current employees jobs.”

Custodians began the meeting by delivering impassioned pleas to the board for their livelihood.

“I love my job here,” said custodian ______________. “We are the eyes and ears of the school system, and a lot of times we are first responders to your children’s needs.”

Custodian G____________ followed. “I don’t want to lose my job,” she told the board. “I don’t understand how going to privatization will change things for the better. I hope and pray that the board considers what you are doing very carefully and look at this a little deeper.”

Perhaps the most thought-provoking commentary came from custodian E______.

“There is more involved than just a decision,” he said. “There is so much at stake here tonight. The decision you will make will be a decision that will effect so many lives, so many homes ... What will we do? Privatization is not going to save _______ County anything. People that are not working will have to get aid and funding from the county; it just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever”

Although Superintendent ___________ explained that he was sympathetic to the custodians and their plight, he still had to present his findings to the board.

“A lot of the things that were said here tonight, I agree with,” he said. “But the fact is that our custodial staff is still severely undermanned. If someone is out, we cannot fill that position, and the work does not get done. You know, these are hard decisions to make, but they have to be made in the best interest of the school system. We have to look at this and keep moving forward. The principals were unanimous in their decision (for privatization), and the board asked me to look at it, so I did. Some bids were lower, but SCC Service Solutions offered the best for our current employees.”

With that said, he recommended the board approve the proposal from SCC Service Solutions for the 2007-08 school year.

Not one board member made the motion to accept.

“In light of what we have heard tonight, I think that we really need to sit down and take a closer look at what this will do to our workers — I want to make a motion that we table this issue until the next meeting,” board member T__________said.

The crowd erupted with “no’s.”

With no one seconding S_______’s motion, board member R________ unexpectedly asked that the board approve the recommendation, to a stunned audience. One custodian in the crowd cried, “No, No ... Oh no.”

As chairman N___________ asked for the motion to be seconded, board member D____ W_____ lashed out at the board.

“I would like to say, I think that we are being asked to take a philosophical position on this. In that sense, if we approve this, what would happen if you are gone next year and we have a new superintendent who decides to cancel the contract? We never know what is going to happen next — the cafeteria people are low paid too. We have got to understand the views and fears that our custodians face with this decision. How would we feel if it was done to us ... I was always taught from the Bible, do unto others as you would have done onto you — I just cannot support this.”

The crowd erupted in applause.

A visibly stunned superintendent quickly countered. “Ms. W_____, this is not about me. If the board doesn’t want to support this, that is fine. We need to take a look at what is best for our school system ...”

W_______ shot back. “Our seven board members are evaluated every four years by _________ County voters, no matter what. The custodians should each be evaluated too. If they are not doing their job, they need to be terminated.”

Again, W__________’s comments were greeted with rousing applause.

“Ms. W_______,” said the superintendent, “I am not saying that they are not doing a good job — it is not about that. It still doesn’t hide the fact that we are severely undermanned. If this board is willing to take local money, then we can do that too.”

W_____ shot back again at him. “Five thousand dollars in our budget for school equipment doesn’t pay for a lot of buffers,” she said sarcastically. “I look at it like my house — if I don’t have tools to work with, it won’t be clean. All I am saying is give them a chance to do a good job.”

The superintendent reiterated that it wasn’t about the performance of the current custodial staff, it was about getting more man hours to help the school look cleaner.

“I would like to say that this was never about the performance of the workers,” said board member M________. “There was a lot of miscommunication about that. The board was looking out for getting more man hours in the schools. We appreciate the hard work and the commitment that you have; you are doing a great job. It was about getting the help. We were concerned about you being overworked.”

At that point, W______ made a motion to have Hobb’s recommendation rejected, again to rousing applause.

Inexplicably, R______, who previously asked to have Hobb’s recommendation approved, seconded her motion.

It was unanimous.

After the decision, the custodians gathered outside to celebrate in prayer.

“Lord, thank you Jesus,” said longtime custodial employee A__________. “I just want to thank the board and Mrs. W________ for thinking about us, and thank the Lord for being with us tonight. From the beginning, we prayed on this. He has been with us all the way and He showed us tonight that our family will stay together.”

Custodian W_________. “This is truly a family,” she said. “We came together and got through it together. God led us.”

There you have it. Emotionalism? Check. Feckless board members swayed this way and that? Check. Dubious Bible-thumping from a politician? Check. Racial/virtue pandering from a board member famous for being foul-mouthed, rude, and ruthless? Check. Continuation of dirty schools? Check.

And don't think that the kids don't notice.

01 May 2007

Quick Update

I was prepared to write a bitch-and-moaner about how completely overburdened I am (we all are) at school right now, but when I got home today I received a phone call from a VIP telling me, in essence, that once I file the correct paperwork I will be recommended for that little job thingy I've been MINORLY stressing about.

Nothing is official yet, and I don't want to bite the hand of the Big Guy who giveth by complaining about anything right now.

Got my drift?

I do have many interesting goings-on to relate, but not today. Stay tuned.