Absolute power corrupts absolutely. A teacher’s power isn’t nearly as cool.
One day when you realize that you’re really teaching something well to a kid who really wants to learn, you’ll feel like the hero of a story. But, if there’s a story at all, the kid is the hero.
I was hired to teach high school when I was twenty-two. The teacher I replaced had died on Thursday. She was at a restaurant alone, reading a trade paperback and collapsed right at the table. Heart attack. I came in for an interview on Friday and started on Monday. I showed up ten minutes early. The school secretary gave me a map of the campus, a key and said, “Good luck.”
After I rearranged the seating chart, I allowed each class to ask me a few personal questions. My head was tightly shaved, just as it was when I was in high school. I was wearing a red tie and a short-sleeve, buttoned-up shirt, fresh from its plastic wrapper. One student in each class asked me if I’d just gotten out of the military. By third period, I realized that was the only question they had for me, and I began to say yes.
You can tell right away which teachers to become friends with.
The students who nod the most probably don’t speak very good English.
Nearly every public school in LA is an inner city school—even if it isn’t in the inner city, they bus some inner city out to it.
There are so many opportunities to be weak in a classroom. One of my teacher teachers told me that by the time a kid is ten they should have a PhD in Manipulating Adults. The best advice I ever got was to stare at a disobedient child and take two breaths before you correct them, and never tolerate bullying, especially from yourself.
Avoid almost any teacher who immediately complains about her students. Until you have tenure, try not to be seen with the teachers who complain about the administration. Attempt to spend every second you can with any teacher who can manage to talk about anything but school.
Kids who copy other kids’ homework are probably low skilled yet somewhat motivated.
My mom gave me the flyer about becoming a teacher. It came with one of her paychecks. When she asked me about it over and over, I realized that she was really afraid I’d spend half of my life out of work, just like my dad.
Even if you became an English teacher to learn more grammar yourself, there is almost no way to teach grammar except by giving students sentences to correct. Grammar books are the worst, dustiest books in any bookroom.
Try to not say “no” or “but.”
When a student says, “You’re younger than my boyfriend,” try not to think about it.
If you can find a student who has low reading skills a book, any book, that they will love, you might change their life. He or she may also disappear the next day, along with your book.
Some of your students may be illiterate. They have some other thing—interpersonal skills, deception, friends—that have helped them get so far.
Find out who the best teachers are and become their groupie.
Be consistent as possible. Be a robot with a sense of humor if possible. When you are inconsistent, forget it and go back to being consistent.Catcher in the Rye
will be loved by 90% of high school students from any culture. The other 10% will constantly point out the inconsistencies in Holden’s character, which will remind you of why you wanted to become an English teacher in the first place.
If you are teacher, you were probably a teacher’s pet. You shouldn’t hate yourself for that, but it should convince you to look around the room and lavish some unexpecting child with some errand you need done.
Speak slowly. Use your hands.
Ricardo would nod at me and stare back. I was scared of him.
The Principal walking into your room will always change your posture. My mom was a Kindergarten teacher for thirty years. Her second to last year, she almost cried when the Principal came into her room to observe her on an off day.
Shake your head like an Etch-a-Sketch every morning and pretend it’s all brand new.
If you begin to think you are underpaid, ask your friends in their cubicles how much time they get off a year, or what time they got home from work last night. Ask them how often they have to deal with their boss. Ask if they ever set the agenda for what they will do that day. Try to get them to buy you a drink or give them your resume.
Grade a little bit every day. Piles of papers ruin the quality of your life and remind students that they can slack off. (Full disclosure: I’ve accumulated stacks that were taller than me. Fuller disclosure: I’m a pretty tall man.)
Laugh when possible. It makes you realize that teaching is one job where you always get to set the tone for the day. When you yell, remember the same thing.
Every kid has it rough in some way. When a kid suggests they may kill themselves, by law you have to take it very seriously and report it. You should also then pause, take, look around and wonder why you took a job no human being is capable of doing.
If you allow sexual insults of any nature to be made under your nose, you should consider resigning immediately.
You will fuck up at least a dozen times every hour.
You will do more right things than you can ever realize.
If you have patience, you will restore some child’s faith in the world.
If you bought a house in the late 90s, you were really smart.
Try really hard not to be impressed by the jocks. They get enough attention, of course.
When Ricardo stayed after class during my third week, I wondered how I could contact security. I wondered if there was security.
As soon as you become a teacher, you are a minor celebrity. People besides your Jewish mother will actually care about your love life. Just walking across campus with another teacher could start a rumor. When kids run into you at the supermarket, their eyes will be wide, and they’ll whisper something to someone.
Don’t park in the same place every day.
If lots of kids love you, you are either a great teacher or completely inappropriate.
Che Guevara’s life makes every possible argument for and against education. If you have a book about Che in your classroom, it will be stolen by the end of the day.
Ed Markarian is a great teacher. It’s obvious when you walk into to his classroom, when you talk to his students, when you watch him listen to you.
Read everything you can about teaching. It’s an art and a science, just like reading.
Ricardo had a daughter. The result of a one-night stand. He convinced the girl to keep it. He was working full-time. He needed to pass my class, one other and the English Exit Exam to graduate. He told me I spoke too fast.
If you have more than one adrenaline burst a day, you will go home exhausted.
Kids, who will either forget you or love you in five years time, will hate you.
Sometimes just being someone a kid can hate without the fear of violent retribution is a very good thing.
You will be loved more than you can ever know.
If you can teach a kid to answer questions in complete sentences and back up every thought with either evidence or personal insight, you’re pretty rad.
Any movie about teaching will make you cry.
Read Pedagogy of the Oppressed
by Pablo Freire.
I spent lots of lunches with Ricardo, correcting his Business Letters, letting him explain things to me, wondering how I was ever scared of him. Still I was a bit shaky when I had to tell him he hadn’t passed the Exit Exam again.
Never read notes your students write in your class. The whole classroom is designed for students to be able to see your nose hairs.
Learn the power of inconsistency. It’s the number one cause of bad days.
Ed Markarian spent a few lunches breaking down the Exit Exam for me. Around then, Ricardo started staying after school to work with me.
If you have to yell, you need to rethink the basics.
Don’t try to teach Shakespeare your first year.
Don’t try to figure out students’ motivations. They’re like genitalia: something no one should ever reveal in public.
Don’t be the Yearbook advisor.
Confession has played a great role in building many empires. Beware a child’s confession. The more you know about them, the harder it is to be consistent.
Look at every child differently.
Try to have conversations you would never normally have.
Always learn. It’ll remind you to be humble if the bells and crappy coffee in the cafeteria don’t.
Form alliances with parents. They obviously need you to succeed even more than you do.
Always think about what you’re really trying to teach. Have your students explain it back to you.
Pick new favorites every day.
Terrible days should remind you of the good ones.
You’ll always have way more good kids than “bad” ones. The bad ones just know how to get your attention.
You don’t have to dress up. But when you do, the kids listen more. It’s totally unconscious.
If you like teaching, you’ll be doing it in some way for your entire life.
Ricardo disappeared for a week in February. When I called his house, someone hung up on me.
If you don’t like teaching, quit in June. You have to be a giant asshole or a pedophile to be fired, so keep that in mind.
If you have a poker face, you can be a great teacher. You don’t have to be a great teacher to be a great teacher. Caring matters more than anything.
Ricardo wrote about thirty essays for me. On the first one, his grammar made it impossible to read. On the thirtieth one, he still had some problems with capitalization.
If you’re going to stick with it, start a 403B.
One day, long into your second year of teaching, after you’ve misplaced the pictures of half of the 10th grade class, you’ll realize that the only reason you were able to finish your first yearbook was because of the AP and Magnet kids you had who were trained by a woman who died while reading a trade paperback alone at a restaurant.
When you go to conferences at universities, don’t let the professors explain their schedules to you.
Don’t waste your sick days on being sick. But make detailed plans for your subs and expect nothing to get done while you’re gone.
You can’t tell kids not to go into the military, explicitly, I think. But you can teach them to love books and recognize contradictions.
If you volunteer to work at prom, you can have a drink after all the kids have arrived.
The day after Ricardo found out he passed his Exit Exam, he gave me a little ceramic statue of a desk with a little ceramic apple resting on it. There was a little blackboard resting nonsensically on the desk. In ceramic chalk it read, “My Teacher.”
The biggest regret of your first year may end up being that you completely ignored the vibe you were getting from another teacher that she and her friend who was in town visiting might’ve wanted to have a threesome with you, one night, after a football game.
Go to graduation. When the parents applaud for the teachers, you’ll feel like you’re watching a movie about teaching.
Get drunk with old teachers. When they tell you about teachers they know who’ve retired in Thailand to pursue full-time Sex Tourism, you’ll feel better about yourself.
There are no happy endings. But you always get to do it again.