May the Fourth and Other Teachings from a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Even in the privacy of our own homes, if we’re out there on the computer or on our phones, we are On.We are On continuously. Perpetually. All the time.
It’s May the 4th and, as a Star Wars fan (I cannot truly say “life-long Star Wars fan” as the movie came out when I was seven), I decided to use this edition of Teach & Serve to mention some of the lessons Star Wars taught me and the ways it inspired me as a teacher. I have often apologized to The Cinnamon Girl, my wonderful wife, because I don’t know if she realized, when we married, that I am in a perpetual state of story, that tales of heroines and heroes move me and that I cannot and do not want to shake heroic myth.
I took every class in my English major that related to heroes and myth. I found a way to work Star Wars into conversation, into essays, into my academic work. I was an undergrad in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though it is hard to imagine now, back then Star Wars wasn’t particularly hip. Neither was I. That’s easier to imagine.
In my early years teaching, I was assigned British Literature classes. Brit Lit was not my specialty or focus in college and I knew I needed to find a way in for myself, a way to love the subject matter so I could convey some passion to my students. The way in? Star Wars and the Hero’s journey. Long before teachers world-wide began talking about Harry Potter as the paradigm, Luke Skywalker was Gilgamesh, was Beowulf, was Odysseus, was King Arthur. The Force was with me.
When the initial preview for The Phantom Menace was released, my school had just spent a bundle installing Smart Boards in every classroom. As a teacher, I was just mastering the technology. As a Star Wars geek, however, I knew what to do with it: stream that preview on the giant smart board time and time again. And invite friends. I really have no idea how many times I and other like-minded nerds watched that thing. More than a handful to be sure…
I wrote about what Star Wars means to me on the day The Force Awakens was released. I’ve never written, though, about the lessons Star Wars taught me. So, in no particular order and off the top of my head, here are Ten Lessons from Star Wars I brought into the classroom.
“There’s always another fish” – Qui Gon Jinn was a wise Jedi, indeed and his metaphor is spot on. Just when you think you’ve caught the biggest catch, there’s another one coming. Just when you feel you’ve lost the greatest opportunity you’ll ever have, another shows up.
“So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view” – Teaching English afforded me and my students many things… what it rarely afforded (outside of grammar rules) was absolutes. Obi Wan was right.
You can be princess and warrior – Princess Leia was royalty and beautiful along with being tough and savvy. Not a bad role model for young women and I told them so when I taught them.
“Already know you that which you need” – Yoda knew what good teachers now – the process is not about information transfer, it’s about awakening what is already
We need mentors who don’t coddle us – Obi Wan and Yoda didn’t coddle Luke. Qui Gon Jinn didn’t coddle Obi Wan. They all loved their charges, let them know that and also held them accountable, just like good teachers do.
If you want to succeed, you have to believe – Remember when Luke didn’t believe he could use the Force to lift the X-Wing? That was why he failed.
Choose peace – Jedi do not use the Force for attack, but to center themselves, to connect to those around them and to learn.
Don’t get cocky – Thanks Han. Enough said.
Beware of “always,” “never” and other absolutes – “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” so we shouldn’t. Ever.
Know what you stand for and stand for it – Yoda sums up a mission statement as only Yoda can: “Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things.”
During this Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, I intend to share a memories of my years in teaching – some I’ve posted in years past and some new ones – if only to recall the moments that stand out and the moments that have somehow inspired me to press on.
Mentoring That Changed My Students’ Lives
I completed my student teaching at a co-ed Catholic school in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, just over the Virginia state line. I was as intimidated as hell going into the practicum, as we called it, and nervous to meet the teacher with whom I would share a semester of my young life. The cooperating teacher to whom I was assigned seemed very, very seasoned. He was a veteran among his peers. I noted right away how they deferred to him and I felt that I’d been stuck with the “no fun” guy. One of my classmates was working with a gentleman who had already made it clear how to use personal days to the utmost: “never get caught at the end of the year with one” he told my friend. Later, this guy proved he lived by this mantra has missing a 3 days before and 3 days after the Kentucky Derby. I got the sense the 3 days before were so he could get tuned up and the 3 days after were to recover.
My cooperating teacher turned up his nose at this.
As I said, very seasoned. Frankly, he looked old.
That is my perspective now, 20 years after I worked with him. He was probably younger than I am now.
He taught me much, mainly through osmosis. I watched what he did; emulated his cadence. I learned strategy and management and craft and all of that was critically important and I began to fill my tool box, as it were, with things that he did. I reach into that box all the time.
One thing he said, though, has remained with me all these years. Working through his students’ final exams with him before summer break, I was surprised to see him change a grade. I won’t pretend that I remember what the exact numbers were, but I watched him move a student’s grade up a few percentage points – certainly more than one. He must have picked up on my surprise and he said: “If I don’t know these kids by now, I’ve done something wrong. Aren’t we paid to make these distinctions?”
In thinking about this blog, I went and google searched my old cooperating teacher. He retired last year and has published a book of prayer through Paulist Press. That’s one I’ll pick up.
22 years after I worked with him he’s still taking me to school.
Just How Old Do You Think I Am?
Teaching is sometimes – often? – an exercise in humility. I stopped short of writing “humiliation,” but that word is probably more accurate. When you stand in front of 4 – 5 collections of 25-odd young people daily, whether they are interested in what you have to say or not (spoiler alert – usually not), they are, in large part, staring at you. Sometimes they like what they see. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are judging you. Sometimes they are judging you.
Yeah, I wrote that twice.
I remember, in my first year teaching when I was 22 years old, standing in front of a class on Halloween. It was All Hallows Eve 1992. I had assigned them homework – this year, Halloween was in the middle of the school week – and was deflecting the complaints coming at me like fireflies to a light. They had plans, these juniors in high school. They were going to Trick-or-Treat. They had parties. They weren’t interested in whatever I wanted them to do.
I teased them. I told them that, when I was their age, I stayed in on Halloween and Christmas and worked. I loved school, I continued, and would skip parties and movies to be dedicated to my studies.
“Sure,” a girl in the front row said, “that’s what kids did. In the 1960s.”
So that happened.
An Apology Never Proffered
When I moved into administration it was as Dean of Students for the all girls Catholic high school at which I currently teach. In our model, the Dean of Students is responsible for maintaining student discipline and correcting serious student behaviors. It was, frankly, not a position I was dying to fill when it was opened, but I did want to move into administration and felt lucky to have the job.
I lasted two years.
In those two years, I dealt with a gun on campus, drugs in a bathroom, infractions against our dress code policy and various other sundry offenses, some highly notable, some not so much. I presided, most unfortunately, over the expulsion of one of our students – my worst day on the job – and was forced to recommend it for others. These things tore me up. The Dean job and I were not entirely compatible.
There was a drinking incident that I fondly remember because of its hilarity. On one of the last days of school – it may have been the actual last day of school and I do remember it was a Friday – rumors started flying among our very small student body (this was in the first year of existence for the school and we only had 172 students, all freshmen and sophomores) that a freshman had been drinking after school and was going to get on the bus drunk. The bus was going to take our students to Catholic Schools Night at Denver’s Elitches amusement park. The other administrators and I found the information we had credible and by “credible” I mean iron clad.
I had the fifth of vodka, disposed of hastily in a garbage can in the cafeteria
I had a Mountain Dew can which many girls reported seeing this freshman consuming that smelled – strongly – of alcohol
I had the student in my office which, upon her arrival, most suddenly smelled strongly of alcohol
I had written statements from at least 10 different students who had seen her drinking and heard her sharing her John LeCarre-like master plan of how she sneaked the vodka from home to school – in her book bag!
But the kid denied it. She denied it up and down. Asked me to “ask anyone!” Told me what a good kid she was and that she’d never, ever had a drink. Swore on a bible (not really; we don’t go in for that sort of thing anymore).
I made her call her mom in my presence on speakerphone and had her tell her mom what she was “in” for. Then I stepped in with my comments. I could tell mom was not altogether convinced of her daughter’s innocence, but it would take mom about an hour to get to school and I was stuck with the kid.
I put her on ice in the Main Office and went on about my work of wrapping up for the weekend. The she sat there, angry, stewing, ready to snap at me. After about 45 minutes of her death stares, I decided to give her one last chance.
“Drunken Obnoxious Girl (not her real name and I hope she’s not a Facebook friend),” I said, “we’ve been at this for over an hour. Your mom doesn’t seem to believe you. She’s on her way from work. She had to leave early. Didn’t sound too happy about it. Our principal doesn’t believe you. I don’t believe you. Are you saying that this is all going to end up with you proven innocent and my apologizing to you for wasting your time?”
“Yes,” said Drunken Obnoxious Girl, “that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Some Mistakes Are More Painful Than Others
Not all my teaching memories are good. Not all of them are funny. Unfortunately, not all of them make fill me with positive feelings about myself.
I have learned something from all of the experiences I’ve been reliving the last few days.
I am an administrator and my primary area of responsibility is supervision of faculty. The bad memories – the bad stories – they help me in two ways: first, they keep me honest and, hopefully, humble, and, second, they give me real stories to share.
There is always much to learn.
I teach young women. The chances of one of them finding herself in a difficult position goes up exponentially with the number of students who pass through the halls of the school. Hopefully, when that happens, these young women have the fortitude to make good choices from themselves and for the futures. We’ve been lucky to only have a few girls have to deal with these choices and I can say that I’ve been impressed by each of them.
I was teaching an AP English Literature class a few years ago. One of the students in the class was going to be late to school – about a month and a half late – so that she could make and live with the right choice for her life. I was so very impressed with her. She was, and I am certain, remains a terrific young woman. I knew she was coming back to class. I knew what day she would return. I was ready to deflect any uncomfortable comments around her, protect her from any derision. I guess I was so ready to do so that I lost sight of something very, very basic: my lesson plan in my own class for the day she returned.
The day she returned, I was conducting a Socratic Seminar. A Socratic Seminar is a class discussion for which students prepare for days. The research questions based on a novel or some other text so that they can speak intelligently and analyze deeply the work at hand. The idea is that their preparation allows them to carry on conversation without teacher intervention. It’s a big deal and, if done correctly, can be a very rewarding experience. The class had been prepping for this lesson for weeks. I was going to give the young woman a perfect score and move on, never mention what she’d been through, make this class a safe place.
She came in, I acknowledged her presence – didn’t call attention to her – and got the class in place for the seminar.
As the students began speaking, I almost cried. Truly. The seminar was moving. It was under its own power. I could have stopped it, but how? Wouldn’t that have called more attention to what was a painful and impossible situation? I could have stopped it and made a judgment call not to do so.
When teachers make bad decisions or handle situations poorly, when I would like to be disappointed in one of them, I remember this moment. I remember this young woman and her first day back.
I remember the Socratic Seminar on The Scarlet Letter.
The first week of May is Teacher Appreciation Week. I often felt tension around this week when I was working in a high school as an administrator because, in my role, I felt my job – year-round – was to appreciate teachers. Though I was happy when this week rolled around for the school to dedicate itself more fully to teacher appreciation, I kind of hoped they already felt appreciated.
Silly, I know.
Almost two years removed from school work, I wanted to take some time to look back on the blessings of being a teacher – the immeasurable blessings – and the moments I recall fondly from my over 20 years in high school work.
To that end, during this Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, I intend to share a memories of my years in teaching – some I’ve posted in years past and some new ones – if only to recall the moments that stand out and the moments that have somehow inspired me to press on.
I had always desired to be a teacher and had prepared to do so in college, but I was unable to secure a position when I graduated The Catholic University of American Teacher Education Program. Working a support position in a Washington, DC non-profit, I was pleased and surprised to get a call from a Forestville, Maryland, co-ed, Catholic high school to gauge my interest in applying for a job. Blithely excited, and not asking why the school found itself in the position of needing to hire a position almost two months into the school year, I eagerly accepted the interview and, as fate would have it, got the job. I cannot say I remember one thing from that interview – I believe I interviewed with the principal and the English Department Chair (two good friends who must have been about the age I am now back then; they seemed really, really veteran to me) – but I remember the feeling of pure euphoria upon receiving the call that I got the job. I believe the day I received that call is the most important day of my life that didn’t involve my family. I do wonder, if I had not gotten that job, if I would have ever made my way into education. It’s an impossible question.
I do know that I was offered a job, I had – quite literally – a weekend to prepare for it and was not at all ready for what would confront me the first day… but that’s a story for tomorrow.
Oh, and the reason the school was hiring? The teacher I replaced suffered a nervous breakdown. True. Story.
Monday, October 5, 1992.
I actually remember very little about the first day, not what I ate or how early I got to school (I am sure it was very, very early) or what I taught for my first period class. I hadn’t had time to decorate the room and I hadn’t had time to learn one name of one kid on any of my class rosters.
I do remember the fear.
And the mimeograph machine. I remember that, too. My first school still had one when I started teaching in 1992.
I remember the fear more.
Room 108, across from a bathroom and water fountain, two doors down from the Faculty Room, occupied by 35 student desks in 5 rows of 7. Every school has a Room 108. This was to become – for two years – my Room 108. I can picture it clearly. I can picture where I had the teacher desk, where I would stand to begin class, where I put up my decorations on the walls.
Classes were 47 minutes long. Seems a pretty short time, but minutes play out in distended fashion when you are a young teacher and the minutes that day lasted a long, long time. As I slogged my way through that first class, trying to learn who these kids were, trying to figure out what they had covered in Senior English (yes, my first class was with seniors) prior to my arrival, a sudden motion in the very last desk – the 7th desk – on the left hand side of the room caught my attention and I turned toward it just in time to see a young woman slip out of her chair and hit the industrially tiled floor.
Welcome to teaching.
I pointed to the biggest kid in my field of vision, had him pick up fallen classmate and asked him to carry her down to the Main Office. Great first day judgment. Move the injured child. This Frankenteen ambled down the hall carrying his classmate while I ran ahead, panicked that my first teaching job ended immediately after I had said “Hello, my name is…” to my first class.
When I returned, the class was talking – not out of control by any means, but talking. I gave them some angry speech about how disrespectful they were to their classmate, how they didn’t know what was wrong with her and were talking and speculating and how they should have more maturity. I was pretty vocal – adrenaline will do that to you.
It was drugs, by-the-way. I don’t think the student ever returned to class.
I did, the next day and for many days after.
Trial by fainting.
Parent/Teacher Conferences – The First for Me
So, when one is hired to replace a teacher who left the job with a nervous breakdown fairly deep into the fall, one is guaranteed to run into Parent/Teacher Conferences very quickly into his tenure as a teacher. So it went for me. Within two weeks of accepting my position, I found myself sitting across the desk from students whose names I barely knew and their parents who intimidated the hell out of me.
And they weren’t trying.
I am sure I remember these first conferences as more intimidating because of a solitary event.
I have a problem with recalling my students’ names after they pass through my class. Once they leave, I tend to dump their appellations from my memory banks. When they come back to visit after they’ve graduated – and many of them do come back – I have a terrible time recalling their names. I know I taught them. Sometimes I remember where they sat. But remembering their names? Not too often.
I will always remember the name of the kid whose father punched him during my first set of Parent/Teacher conferences.
I remember it because it was shocking, because it was so far out of my frame of reference (my father never struck me) and because it was my first failure as a teacher.
That the punch wasn’t a haymaker, an upper cut or a round house. It didn’t make the kid cry or knock him off his chair. And it was 1992. I’d had zero training (though I had a degree in Secondary Education) in mandatory reporting or calling social workers or even resourcing with my principal, dean or department chair in a circumstance like this. Now, 21 years into my teaching career, I’d know exactly what to do if confronted with this situation again.
Then, I didn’t. And I failed in my first duty: the keep the student safe. We learn from failures (Isn’t that what we tell ourselves?). But there are few moments in my life where I can point to a screw up and say: “That’s it. That’s the moment I grew.”
I can point to this one.
It’s not a shining moment of my career, to be sure, but it’s an important one.