Introduction: Those Who Can’t, Get the Hell Out PDQ

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 “Those who can, do.

Those who can’t do, teach.”

As someone who has perused 30,000 student essays in his career, bleary eyes peeled for elegance, I certainly admire the beauty of that construction.

As someone who has read vast libraries while trapped in classrooms overseen by the tucked-away incompetent, indifferent, incurious, and ill-educated—classrooms far rarer than supposed, but still too numerous, though longer green and better conditions might help that—I can definitely understand that thought.

As a proud American who is sometimes too exhausted to deal with our peculiar complexity, I can see why someone might want that bumper sticker.

As someone who for his first 21 years could not quite see beyond the chalkboard curtain, I can even imagine why someone might reach that conclusion.

Conclusions, though, seldom stand still.

Thus, as someone who taught, coached, supervised, sponsored, advised, and, mostly, importuned the public school students of these United States from 1984 to 2015, through turbulence and change I need not catalog (because had those decades been unaccountably halcyon and stagnant, the truth would not have changed), I can say this with authority:

That quote is bullshit.

Oh, the times I have wished to Barbara Eden-blink an insufferably certain boor into a classroom of 30 variously motivated and inclined 15-year-olds, who are oh-so-simply waiting for something cool to happen—and keep that boor in place for 180 days.

Oh, how I have wanted to point out that, if teaching were that much of a soft option, why aren’t people stampeding in to get that easy money, that three-month vacation, that panoply of benefits, that podium behind which one need only stand and talk while urchins copiously take note of one’s unassailable wisdom?

The fact is, from my current retired vantage point, I deeply understand that I loved teaching because it isn’t a cakewalk. Maybe I can’t count money or prognosticate its movements. Maybe I can’t build a house, take a car apart, or help folks heal. I definitely respect and admire those that can. But I must say the doings of teaching are manifold—and, more than that, layered in a way that would cause most jugglers to drop their hands to their sides in defeat. Beyond the challenge, it is also very frequently fun, and always worthy.

My hope for this account of my final year of full-time teaching is to try to support those contentions beyond refutation—especially that such as the sophistry expressed above.

“Those who can teach, do.
Those who can’t, get the hell out–
PDQ.”

There. That’s at least a shade truer. Take it from me.

Though I am descended from several teachers on my mother’s side (she was a teacher herself), that I’d become one was far from a foregone conclusion. In fact, I had a bizarre stamp on my forehead from a very early age: “NBA statistician.” This may have stemmed from my father taking me to a Los Angeles Lakers – Kansas City Kings game in 1973, when I was 11—I was dumbstruck as I watched Wilt Chamberlain lope stiff-kneeded up and down a court for one of his last times, then pass within a yard of me coming out of and going back into the locker room. However, in my recollection, I’d begun a strange habit before that moment: designing my own statistics sheets and scoring televised games, then typing them up—little fingers hammering an old manual—hole-punching them, and keeping them in a notebook. Soon after, I began inventing players and creating box scores for imaginary games in which they, for example, grabbed 30 rebounds, scored 30 points, and passed for 11 assists. Fantasy career statistical profiles followed, and, before I really realized it, my notebook had stretched beyond 1,000 pages. Though my parents knew about it, I showed it to only one friend, and was still working on it when I became the statistician for the Carthage (Missouri) High School baseball, basketball, and football teams—while playing on the former two!

In a later time, someone would have suggested medication.

None of this seems to point to a classroom. Truly, it seems to point to loneliness. I did not see that; I saw myself gaping at the greatest basketball players in the world every night of the season for free while getting paid to do what I’d already been doing obsessively since I was 10. The fabled no-brainer. The reader’s familiarity with Malcolm Gladwell’s commentary on repetition might lead him to suspect I walked away from good fortune—but Gladwell really often misses points.

A teacher interfered with my brain. A teacher who did many different things extremely well, unlike anyone else—unlike any teacher—I’d ever known: Howard South. Technically, he was an art teacher, and he actually painted and showed us his work. Every time I’ve written an essay or done an assignment to provide students a model, I’ve thought of him and smiled. But he was more than an art teacher—just as most in our profession are, out of necessity, teachers of things beyond our certification. Perhaps because he had accurately identified me as a cocky moron with a sand-grain of potential, he dropped a folded slip of paper off at my workspace almost every day, and I didn’t see him do it for anyone else. I’d unfold it to behold—well, I remember the very first one, scrawled in his eccentric, loopy hand: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. THOREAU.” I didn’t know from Thoreau; I dimly apprehended the meaning of the phrase, mainly because I was desperate to get in about 50 girls’ knickers, desperate to find someone who wanted to talk seriously about Bob Dylan, desperate to locate the delinquents who spray-painted “Ramones” on the baseball stadium walls, desperate not to be terrified while I was driving a car. That wasn’t exactly what Thoreau was getting at, but I was within shouting distance. I looked him up, and immediately figured something out: Mr. South had told us he’d built his own home in the woods, and ol’ Hank had done something of the same thing back in the 19th century. A-ha. Convinced of his authenticity (I didn’t know that word then), I took Mr. South’s art instruction seriously—how else to explain a cubist painting of Indiana Pacer star Billy Knight (I wish I still had that)?—but the quotes and my private research were a irresistible driving force that released my thoughts from the captivity of teenage self-involvement. Also, I was thinking about what weren’t known yet as triple-doubles a whole lot less frequently.

Not that everything was liege and lief between Mr. South and me. In his class, as in most others, I had jerkoid tendencies. The difference was in his responses. When I accidentally ripped a lightning bolt-shaped tear into one of his large-scale paintings with the leg of a stepladder and didn’t tell him, thinking I could sneak out undetected, he found me in English thirty minutes later and assigned me a 15-page research paper on the differences between objective and subjective art. Teachers aren’t supposed to punish recalcitrant students with writing, because that might condition them to hate writing. In this case, however, I was fascinated with what I learned, and my thinking is still influenced today by my discoveries then. Also, the paper was easily the best I had ever written, and the post-paper conference I had with him taught me more in 15 minutes than I learned that entire month elsewhere.

On another occasion, I made an honest if colossally stupid mistake. Just outside the back door of the annex in which South taught was a stump. Mr. South kept a sledge hammer leaning against the stump and, if a student became frustrated with a project, the student could step outside and hammer on the stump to release the frustration. I am telling you, he was a genius. I must confess, though, that I was easily the most frequent visitor to the stump, and the frustrations I was exorcising were seldom artistic. A summer had passed, and I was a week or two into South’s Art II class when I became vexed at something, likely a girl’s indifference to my cool. I slipped out the back door to find…no stump. Mr. South had ground out the stump over the summer and built a storage shed. Wind whistling between my ears, I picked up a large rock and two-hand-overheaded it into the shed’s cinder-block foundation. Literally. Into. As in, embedded in. This time, I fessed up, and South gave me a list of materials to buy at the hardware store; the next day, he taught me how to mortar up a hole by making me mortar up the hole. Like I said, he was a genius.

When I walked out of my last class with him, I walked out with a heavy heart. He’d shaken me up. As I approached graduation, I was still thinking about statistics, and what a guy had to do to see Julius Erving on television, but not nearly as often.

Arriving at the University of Arkansas via the spin-the-bottle method of college selection (it was the only school I had visited, and, even then, I was giving a friend a lift down there for his college visit), I took what I thought were the typical boring gen-eds and, through a fellow Carthaginian who’d been recruited by the Razorbacks, landed an unpaid position as the college baseball team’s statistician, a stroke of luck which thrilled me, even if I did have to tutor my pal in college algebra. As fate would have it, the excitement quotient inherent in these undertakings was the reverse of my expectations.

I had accidentally enrolled myself in honors composition and literature, and, after nearly vomiting when I came back from the university book store with 12 novels and a textbook for that class alone, then learning I was required to write an essay a week on top of the reading, I figured the jig was up and I would flunk out. I didn’t really know what drop-add was, but neither was I a quitter, so I figured I’d just take my lumps. The class and the excellent TA, however, picked up where Mr. South had left off, galvanizing my attraction to pure thinking and berzerking me into an English major by the time I walked out of my final exam. Slaughterhouse Five. We. The Crying of Lot 49. Emma. The Great Gatsby. Those are the novels I remember most, and they exploded my mind; in my six years of secondary school, the entirety of my reading (aside from weekly close inspections of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News) had been an abridged Great Expectations, Of Mice and Men, Hamlet, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, the latter two left squeaky-cleanly unexplicated by my senior English teacher, who preferred telling stories of his war experiences. After that freshman year baptism of literary fire, I was hooked on lit.

Meanwhile, the statistician gig bored me stiff. Part of this stemmed from no longer being an athlete myself; part of it was the daily wiping of tobacco off my shoes (even if the spit had originated from the lip of future MLB kinda-star Kevin McReynolds); part of it was the sheer torture of the tutorial obligation. The biggest, and saddest, factor was that keeping stats had lost its luster for me—particularly when juxtaposed with the challenge of reading Zamyatin and Pynchon. I’d known what career was in store for me since I was in elementary school, and I recognized quickly that that had vanished. The question for me had now become, “Can I just read for a living?”

Maybe I was under the influence of Flannery O’Connor—actually, I still am—but I did have an epiphany, and remember the exact moment it emerged from my progressively brightening consciousness. At this point, I was a sophomore. I’d characteristically changed majors twice, from journalism to psychology to English. But I was just having fun in the moment. I don’t remember giving much thought to a career, and, as great as Mr. South and that freshman-semester TA had been, I was still locked into the idea of a solitary job. Much of my life’s grand excitement had really happened in my head, and I pictured myself working by myself. Right there, the reader should see how important this epiphany was going to be.

I was sitting in Mr.—that’s Mr.—Soos’ English literature class, and he was leading us in a discussion of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us.” Soos had already won me over by a) making deceptively difficult essay assignments (“Write a 1000-word personal essay around the word ‘vacillation.’ That is all.”); b) digging my argument that “Layla” was the greatest rock and roll song of all-time (he argued for “In the Still of the Night”—I’d bow to that now over my own choice); and c) really taking time to break literature down with us—not for us. In the case of Wordsworth’s poem, he was on fire, and fellow students were making modern connections like a string of Black Cats popping. I watched, listened, thought about his smart, funny, and encouraging comments on my essays, and realized, “This would be a fun a job. This is for me.” Helping people see, think, communicate, and appreciate—for one, those tasks were unselfish and paid dividends for humans in the future, and, for another, one could enjoy oneself thoroughly while performing them. I can still see Soos wildly waving his arms as he homed in on a line, suddenly came to a stop and slammed his hands to his hips, leaned forward, and stared at some mesmerized student for a response, then exploded in joy when the student articulated a powerful thought, scanning the class to make sure we had heard what our peer had just said. Yep, I thought, I think I can do that.

And I did. My professional career carried me first to Springfield, Missouri’s Parkview High School, where old pros like Charlie Smith and Jim Dunlop taught me the dos and don’ts in the faculty smoking lounge, where speech-and-debate legend Bob Bilyeu, the first of the “great ones” I ever met, explained the pedagogical concept of benign negligence to me, and where a great principal named Dolores Brooks forced me to sponsor two different extracurricular clubs—as it should be for the newbie, as it isn’t often enough done today. Now, they get a choice. What’s up with that?

After a difficult wrangling with a new and high-strung principal who thought my student government was doing too much (more on that later), I found my way to Columbia, Missouri’s Hickman High School, a much larger school where class, academic, and racial tensions throbbed through the hallways and the competition between teachers might have finished me had I been a rookie. For the first time, I drank from the well of teacher leadership, ever so briefly, as we debated the issue of tracking as it (truly) existed in our school; I was also introduced to the concept of team teaching, specifically the CWC (“class within a class”) approach, through which my partner Karen Downey would train me to be twice the teacher I was coming in.

Karen and I followed an excellent principal, Wanda Brown, to a newly constructed middle school named Smithton, where I fell in permanent love with 6th and 7th grade humans, entered a skill zone that sometimes seemed unconscious, served as team representative, after-school detention supervisor, basketball and track coach, building philosophy committee member, and unwilling mediator of 97% of team discipline issues—all at the same time, and I never felt too tired. It was great fun, until certain adults ruined it with their narrow insights into pedagogy, personal responsibility, race, and special education, and Karen and I split for our old Hickman haunts (more on that later, too).

During the final decade-plus there, I taught decently (I’d give myself a “B”—after middle schoolers, I was spoiled for older students, and never quite regained my mojo), but did co-found, with a horrible English student named David Kemper who also happened to be genius networker, a club called The Academy of Rock, that achieved many of the heights with which I am most proud to have been associated with in this business. Somehow, I also ended up coaching Science Olympiad—I am science guy, but a “C” student in the field—which, though I did little but paperwork and bus-riding, put me in contact with some of the brightest, nicest, hardest-working, funniest students I’d ever known. Then the convertible of my career rear-ended the 18-wheeler of retirement. What followed is the nougat of this book.

 

Today, as a retiree who likes to work and can’t give up a longtime habit, I tutor college students when they have difficulty with any writing-related project. One thing I hear from them on a regular basis is how scared they are that what they think they want to do, what they are paying great gobs of money for the paper that says they can do it, will end up not being what they want to do, and they’ll be S. O. L. Every time I hear that, I reflect on how grateful I need to be that I ran into these three teachers in particular. They disrupted and rechanneled my thinking, and saved me from sitting on my ass watching sports events (albeit getting paid to do so) for 30 years, which I can honestly say would not have been as enriching as what I ended up doing instead: teaching.

Even after my epiphany in Soos’ class, I was still shooting craps: you can’t know if you’ll like teaching until you are left alone with your own classes and have enough time to work through the initial shocks, which can last a few years. However, the moment I stepped in front of a class of seniors at Greenwood Laboratory School in Springfield, Missouri, a student teacher charged with selling Anglo-Saxon and Medieval lit to a passel of jaded seniors and knowing precious little about either the lit or the kids, I knew that space was home. In time, I’d feel more comfortable in front of a class than any other place (until I got married); I am still not sure why that’s the case, since humans fear public speaking just a little less than dying. I speak more clearly, think more freely, respond more spontaneously, and laugh more frequently when I am running a classroom than when I am doing anything else. In fact, it hurts my heart to realize I just wrote that sentence with present tense verbs, because I don’t run classrooms anymore. But teaching has been a gift I have been able to enjoy for 60% of my days on the planet, and I am deeply thankful.

For most teachers in current United States classrooms, the game has changed a bit: their preparation time, organic collaboration time, and recovery time have been clogged up with tasks invented by people who’ve either never taught or got out into the big money of administration as soon as they could (“Teaching: where the major financial rewards are in getting out of teaching!”). In addition, today’s teachers are regularly not trusted to do what they are trained to do, and their so-called evaluators, often with no background in the subject matter at hand, render potentially career-altering judgments based on five-minute observations of 50- to 90-minute lessons. In the district I just retired from, these judgments are made under the rubric of “rigor” and “relevance.” The two best teachers I have ever taught with, one a classical ideas and world religions expert whose classes for the adult community in our city are in high demand, the other a history teacher who’s visited damn near every country in the world and structures her lessons around not only her direct experience but also classroom reading that would give college upperclassmen pause, were both judged to be offering lessons lacking both rigor and relevance by administrators half their age with a tenth of their experience and none of their background. A damn shame.

Fear not, reader who might want to teach, or who is teaching under the above yoke. Trends cycle through; the current one has cycled a little more widely, but it’s recently been exposed—unsurprisingly, in massive cheating scandals and plummeting standardized test scores—for the sham that it is. That doesn’t mean the next trend will be any more, um, rigorous and relevant, but it is sure to be a reaction against a method that’s seems designed to suck all of the joy out of our profession. All jobs have such obstacles, but for us this is the truth: in teaching, if you are passionate, if you know your subject matter, if you like the young, if you aren’t allergic to hard work, if you can reflect and adjust, if you’re joyful, if you can take a bad day and know the next one might be (and often is) fantastic, if one academic victory in seven hours can sustain you, if you’re not afraid to play and improvise, if you really believe that all humans can learn and change—nothing can touch you. Also, if that string of ifs applies to you and you aren’t teaching at present, you might want to think about filling out an application today.

What follows is a day-by-day account of my final year of public classroom teaching, which, as I described above, came faster than I ever could have expected, and which I did not exactly meet with relief. It was originally published in different form in 2012 and 2013 on Facebook, where my audience was composed to a great extent of fellow teachers, current and former students, and many others who’d been in my educational orbit. Knowing it was my last year, I wanted to remember the best moments of every single school day. I could have been more discreet and written in a private diary—“How public – like a Frog – To tell one’s name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!”(Emily Dickinson, you ol’ spoilsport!)—but my instincts told me that, for one, the journey might be entertaining, and, for another, it might reveal an educator’s reality in an appealing way at a time when we were under a bit of political fire. I’ve never been one to grouse much about student behavior or tsk-tsk across the generations, so I chose to pick an instance each day that was simply piquant. Initially, I feared I wouldn’t finish it, but when I named it “The Farewell Tour” and began numbering the days, I provided myself a sense of obligation and appealed to my old statistician self (it’s still down in there, somewhere). To occasionally break up the marching-by of days and elaborate on some of their happenings, I have inserted some useful advice for future and current teachers, humorous and frightening career anecdotes that may defy belief but are verified true (I assure you), a few Top 10s (because who doesn’t love those?), and a few encomiums to colleagues and students without whom I probably wouldn’t have gotten here.

I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I did, and encourage some of you to consider sharing your knowledge in a classroom. My biggest hope for this book is that it will convince you that teaching is a very fun profession, and please keep in mind while you read that, according to ol’ Fessler’s career cycle for teachers, I was allegedly in a stage accompanied by stagnancy, cynicism, disengagement, and—I love this one—the wind-down. Make any interpretative adjustments as you see fit, folks.

 

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