PASSING TIME, PART 2: Advice for Young Teachers

  1. Stay out of teachers’ lounges. They have a tendency to attract bitterly bickering bitter-shitters (I stole that from Ed Sanders of The Fugs) and student-bashers.
  2. The best classroom control technique is a combination of deep knowledge of your subject matter, genuine passion for your subject matter, and the ability to communicate how your subject matter changed you for the better to your students.
  3. Patience is a virtue.
  4. Respect your elders. If they are still in the biz and haven’t evacuated to an admin job or some educators’ rehab job, you have something to learn from them.
  5. Figure out quickly how to balance your life and teaching, which can become your life. If the latter’s what you want, fine—it can work. I would argue that continuing to have experiences without having to punch in your building security code will make you a better teacher, not least because they rejuvenate you and keep you honest. Teaching is a job that can always expand to as many hours in a day that you want to devote to it. It is a job that is never completed.
  6. Eagerly pay your dues. They will help insure your survival, and enhance your love and understanding of the profession. Volunteer for a couple committees and ask if a club’s available for you to sponsor. If one isn’t, create one around your own interests.
  7. Set a goal to be human in the presence of your classes once a day. Once a week might be fine at first, but “don’t smile until November” is a crock. You can be kind and challenging, warm and tough, encouraging and demanding. It takes dedication—then it begins to feel natural. All my best teachers and peers had that complex core, and I always tried to.
  8. Never forget why your own worst teachers were bad—and avoid their habits. It goes without saying that you should emulate your best teachers, but that’s more complicated—their power often derives from an external je ne sais quoi, and you have to figure out how to give your own wellspring air.
  9. I can honestly say I never suffered by admitting I was wrong or deeply misguided in front of a class. First of all, they will sense you are lying; second, they will relate to you. I can think of three situations, in fact, when my relationship with a student radically improved when I confessed I had wronged him or her. Heather Porter, it’s been many years since our extra-credit argument, but you won, and I am glad, because it made all the difference.
  10. Don’t think you can win a disciplinary showdown in front of a classroom. You can’t. If there is a way at all, sic the class on an academic problem and have a calm discussion with the unruly one in the hall. Goals: keep them in the class learning, and handle your own business. If you need a motivation, it’s that achieving those goals will gain you freedom to be trusted, which does not come cheap or frequently these days.
  11. Reflect daily. (I hope you will see the value in that by the time you’ve finished this book; reflection is really the secret.)
  12. Screw professional reading. Yeah, I said it! It’s bad for the brain and rots the soul. Read exciting books on your subject matter or your personal interests. I’ll go out on a limb and say reflecting on your practices on a daily basis is the most important tool in improving yourself as a teacher. Besides, 99% of those writers can’t write to begin with and aren’t even in the classroom anymore, so why waste precious seconds of life? (Exceptions: Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn, but I am not sure the former writes “professional literature.”)
  13. If you don’t like your situation, get out and/or move on—there’s always a school looking for a good teacher. Don’t punish yourself, buffet your soul with pain, and become a martyr. As a great colleague of mine, Becky Sarrazin, once said to such a martyr’s face, “Climb down off the cross. We need the wood.”
  14. Abjure competition. No matter how great other teachers in your building are—and there will be some great ones—you will be able to do things they can’t. The difficulty is in figuring that out. Another thing: rather than sit stewing about how awesome they are and how much you suck, STEAL FROM THEM! It’s completely legal. All great artists are accomplished thieves, so you might as well hone that skill.
  15. It’s well worth the time and effort to learn about your students’ lives and interests. That seems like common sense, but the Herculean amount of other things you will have to do may distract you. When you know about their lives, you will understand the demeanor with which they enter your room (whatever their attitudes, they are seldom “about you”); when you know about their interests, you can more skillfully and honestly make connections.
  16. Look for the best in kids. And you may have to squint. Just remember the great things within you that your teachers couldn’t see and that you just couldn’t articulate.
  17. If you’ve made it this far without having developed a sense of humor about yourself, for Pete’s sake get started now. That lacking will lead to you being eaten alive, if anything will.
  18. Find a way to communicate weekly (at least) with your students’ parents. It’s simple now that we have email. Over the last decade of my career, I made a practice of sending out the coming week’s curricular overview, with some comments on the previous week’s activities. Though I mostly enjoyed talking to my students’ parents, that habit cut my parent calls and emails down to a trickle. Believe me, I found constructive uses for the saved time.
  19. Your administrators get their marching orders, too. It’s tempting to fall into an “us vs. them” mindset, but your building principals don’t have as much control as you think. You want to be a rabble rouser? You’re going to have to aim higher, and get your ass to board and teacher’s union meetings. I’m not discouraging that—it’s valuable as can be. Just make sure your aim is true.
  20. Be prepared to drink (or smoke—you may pick your own poison, child) heavily.


PASSING TIME, PART 1: The Violence of Chuck Berry


I have taught many unusual lessons in my career. This one was not only successful (though even the best lessons are only partially so), but its history also incorporated a lot of the best and not a little of the worst of this profession.

I was teaching middle school at the time and was graced with a bunch of seventh graders who were game for anything interesting I proposed. They would go on to make me look great many, many times that year. In this case, their lesson grew out of a screw-up on my part.

Striving to realize our school’s challenging goal of integrating curriculum, our instructional team had tried to design an opening unit focusing on the idea of “culture.” For three weeks, each teacher—math, science, social studies, reading, writing, and special education—would design his or her instruction so that it addressed that common theme, with the unit output being a single assessment of learning, as opposed to five separate tests. Theoretically, it still sounds neat to me—in fact, it drew me away from my previous job just for the chance to try it. In reality, it’s a bitch to pull off. Just trying to talk about it caused my first teaching team to implode.

At this point in my middle school tenure, however, I was surrounded with comrades willing to give the idea a shot. We planned our culture unit very meticulously, and, of course, I, likely the most enthusiastic among us, zipped through my part of the unit quicker than necessary, quite possibly leaving a few students in the dust in the process. So, confronted with an additional three lessons to write before my fellow teachers were finished, I decided to give the young’uns a dose of Missouri culture and rock and roll, as well as an opportunity to be creative.

I have often said, only half-joking, that I teach to subsidize my record collection. But I have always reinvested what I’ve gained from music in the stock of U. S. public schools’ pop culture curriculum (even though that exists only in my mind), and, in this case, I thought it would be valuable for my students to study how one great rock and roll writer reflected his rich and complicated culture. I prepared, with one eye on Fair Use guidelines, a handout highlighting some of Mr. Chuck Berry’s most revealing lyrics (“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Back in the U.S.A.” among them), prefaced the lyrics with a quick artist bio, then guided the class through some close-listening of his music. As we proceeded, I led the kids in discussing what we had learned about U. S. culture circa 1955-1964, and advised them in taking a few notes. Then, over the next two periods, we put our shoulders to the wheel of the task: either write a song of your own, reflecting current U. S. culture, in Chuck’s style, or write a song about Chuck’s version of U. S. culture in your own style.

We had a blast, and, I must say, their work was very perceptive, witty, and—what do you know?—indicative of their having learned some valuable things! A couple students even brought guitars and played their songs. What we’d done leaked outside of our classroom (not surprising, in that my classroom was open to the hallways!), and we soon learned that our homeschool communicator’s college roommate had been Chuck’s lawyer at one point—and had his phone number.

One of the kids excitedly blurted, “Hey! Let’s send Chuck some of our songs!” You don’t say no to such a proposition, and soon the ex-roomie lawyer was on the horn to Chuck, asking him if he’d be up for reading some 7th graders’ tribute-songs to his bad self. Almost immediately, we received word back from Berry: send them on! We did a quick read-around, whittled our stack of 150 songs down to the best 30—we didn’t want to swamp ol’ Johnnie B. Goode!—slid them into a “vanilla envelope,” and put ‘em in the post. I didn’t really expect to hear from Chuck again; one of my long-time philosophies regarding ambitious enterprises is to expect absolutely nothing, which intensifies the exultation if things work out.

The next thing that happened was not a working-out.

A week after the culture unit’s conclusion—it worked nicely, but we were never to replicate its success beyond squeezing a birds-and-the-bees discussion into a “plant life cycles” unit—came our school’s “Back to School Night,” a late summer public ed staple during which parents are invited to meet their students’ teachers. These evenings usually prove a bit of a dog-and-pony show on our parts, but they are seldom high intensity, and, though the parents who most need to come don’t (usually they can’t—they are working), we usually at least mildly enjoy the opportunity to communicate to the grown-ups what we’re up to.

I didn’t expect to be called to the principal’s office. Via intercom.

When I stepped into her office, in front of Dr. Brown’s desk sat what I presumed to be a parent. On the parent’s lap lay her daughter’s English folder, open, with the Chuck Berry handout removed and unmistakably on display. I thought, “Oh shit—she’s a journalism professor and she’s got a copyright complaint. I knew I should have picked up those handouts after we finished writing!” I stood at attention, ready to be, perhaps justly, upbraided.

“This man does not have the moral fiber to be teaching my daughter!”

I take copyright seriously, but, well—wasn’t that a bit strong?

But this wasn’t about copyright. I could not have possibly guessed what it was about.

Remember that “quick artist bio”? I know what you’re thinking: no, I did not mention Chuck’s Mann Act scrape and accompanying prison stint, nor his naked photos with equally naked groupies, nor his tax evasion escapade, nor his exploits with video technology. Nor did this mother look those biographical tidbits up. (All idols have feet of clay, anyway.) Her concern was this: I was promoting violence in this unit.

She said that. Yes. And it was in the bio ‘graph I had written, branded into my memory since:“Berry’s machine-gun lyric delivery in songs such as ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (see below) influenced none other than Bob Dylan, one of this century’s greatest songwriters.” She read that aloud, from the handout, to my principal and me, with supreme confidence and righteous indignation, as if it were irrefutable proof I was a warlock.


Actually, I think that is exactly what I said. I looked at Dr. Brown—an excellent administrator I had purposely followed over to this particular school, and a human whom I was desperately hoping valued loyalty at the highest level—and stared in disbelief. The mother stood, read the passage aloud again, and punctuated it with this outburst: “It says right here—‘machine-gun lyrics’!!!” (As you can see above, it didn’t quite say that.)

I confess to being a lifelong smartass, but my reply was simply self-defense: “Do you understand figurative language?”

“Don’t try to slither out of this!” At that moment, I was the closest I have ever been to deeply understanding Kafka. And “slither”? Really?

Keeping my far eye pleading with the principal and my near one defiantly on my judge, I patiently explained the point behind the lesson. No sale.

I looked directly at my boss and said, in quizzical defeat, “Well, you could move her daughter to another team.”

The parent exploded. “She’s not going anywhere!”

I was stunned. I reflected for about an eighth of a second and said, to them both, “This is ludicrous. I have sane parents to speak to. Do what you must. I cannot explain more clearly what my valid and very moral intentions were. Goodbye.” Turned on my heel, went back to my class, and pictured two die spinning through the air.

That absolutely wonderful administrator, Dr. Wanda Brown, refused to budge in giving me full support—that’s one of the reasons why she still hangs the moon for me. The parent pulled her daughter from regular classes for homeschooling (I am sure, much to the daughter’s embarrassment), though she continued to send her over to us in the afternoon for French classes (that’s bullshit, if you ask me—you teach her French, lady). In spite of the whackiest—and wackest—parental guidance episode I had ever witnessed in my career, I proceeded to have a better year than Frank Sinatra’s in the song. The story of the Chuck Berry unit, however, had not yet concluded.

Spring. That lovable homeschool communicator rolled into my classroom—he did, in fact, roll—and motioned me over.

“Chuck’s coming to play at a local high school next week. [He lives in Wentzville, Missouri, just down I-70 from Columbia.] He loved the packet of songs, and he’s authorized you to bring over the ten student writers you think would get the most out of hearing and meeting him. I’ll take care of the bus.”

As the generation of teachers prior to mine would have exclaimed, “My goodness!” (That is not what I said; I repeated the title of a well-known Funkadelic title exclamation, but my moral fiber is too strong to repeat it here.) Though selecting the ten students proved an exercise in pure agony, we were soon filing into the choir room of the local high school, where the kids were given a front-row seat—a mere five feet from the man himself, at that moment swiveling on a stool, his guitar on his lap.

My natural high was so intense, I cannot remember much of Berry’s talk, other than that Chuck gave rap lyrics his seal of approval (good man, and my kids beamed). However, when the afternoon turned to Q&A, I received an electric charge greater than a cattle prod’s when one of my students, Sekou Gaidi (whom I must name for posterity’s sake), stood to ask a question. Sekou, who often underperformed for me despite frequently being the smartest person in the room (including me), had actually been inspired during the Chuck Berry unit and written a killer song. He was also a combination of a cannon packed a shade too loose and Sun Ra (a jazz genius who uttered many a head-scratcher in his day). I admit, as the charge passed through me, that I was holding my breath.

Chuck: “Young man, what would you like to ask?”

Sekou: “I don’t know who in the heck you are”—Unadulterated claptrap! He was laser-focused through the entire three-day lesson!—“but my mom wants you to autograph this book.”

This request was delivered dry as toast, with arm toward the stage, Chuck’s recent autobiography at its fingers’ end as if it were trash recently plucked off the ground. Sekou’s expression? Slot-mouthed.

Three beats of silence. Excuse me while I break to present tense.

Chuck—Chuck Berry—is staring (glaring? I couldn’t tell!) at Sekou, then a pudgy, bespectacled little seventh-grader wearing mauve sweats. I am covering my hands, shaking my head, fairly sure that this is one of Sekou’s jokes, stunned by his unholy audacity if I am correct, and dreading what might rush into the resulting vacuum of silence.

Into the void rush explosive guffaws, straight out of the gut of The King of Rock and Roll. Then out of the audience’s. Then out of mine. My team teacher is laughing so hard she’s tearing up, and my wife Nicole, who’d come along and would later get her own copy autographed, is staring at me in stunned, gaping delight. In fact, I am tearing up a little right now, staring at this screen, mouth agape as I recall it.

Thus properly ends one of the best lessons I ever taught, embedded in the history of which, as with all the best lessons, are other very important lessons. I can only be thankful that the lessons did not come at me with machine-gun-like rapidity.