Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Regarding Teachers

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. 
 — Henry Adams 
(1838-1918)
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are teachers and those who are not. 

Some of my best friends are teachers, including my mother, who has never really forgiven me (or my brother) for not following in her footsteps. 

If you are lucky, you will experience at least one truly wonderful teacher in your life. If you do, you will carry that memory and those lessons with you forever, even if you didn't recognize the gift at the time.  

We've all heard the claims about the cushy lives teachers lead: short hours, great vacations, summers off and autonomy in the classroom. Don't you believe it. Teaching is hard. How do I know? Well, my mother and my teacher friends have told me their horror stories. As a parent, I've observed nearly 100 teachers who have had the herculean task great pleasure of trying to meet the disparate learning needs of my four very different children. And now I'm experiencing it first hand as a newly minted substitute teacher. Let me tell you, it's been an eye-opening experience.

While I have taught before — everything from preschool through graduate-level adults — I am not a teacher in the traditional sense of the word. My formal ed school experience was limited to one disastrous semester my sophomore year (don't ask). 

In many ways, teaching is like parenting: it's the constant, all day, every day nature of the thing that will drag you down. In the course of any given day a teacher, in addition to educating her students, will be called upon to act as: manager, nurse, cop, judge, disciplinarian, mediator, secretary, parent, social worker, guidance counselor and confessor, to name just a few.

Unlike parenting, teachers don't have the biological or emotional imperative to work toward the success of their students. They must summon from within themselves the dedication, perseverance, sense of humor, and something else — a certain je ne sais quoi — that enables them to try to reach a new group of students every year. You can't pick and choose your students; all are strangers in the beginning and some are very hard to like. From all reports, it's the ability to touch a student in some profound way that keeps teachers coming back September after September, despite mediocre pay, little respect and lots of contagious diseases.

I don't think substitutes get those same kinds of warm fuzzies. Substitute teaching is like babysitting — your primary responsibility is to keep everyone safe and busy until the real deal returns. In just a few days of subbing, I've learned that group dynamics are everything, you have to set the tone in the first 60 seconds, and that the most important asset for a teacher (substitute or otherwise) is a sense of humor.

As I started on this journey, I sought advice from a variety of sources. My mother told me not to be late and to dress professionally. My 17-year-old daughter told me to be sure to introduce myself and:  "Don't pretend to know something you don't know. You'll just look like an idiot." My teacher friends told me not to complain about anything. Absent teachers don't want to know that Johnny was throwing spit wads, or that Sally and Amy wouldn't shut up, or that A.J. tried to scam 15 extra minutes of recess. Unless the building burns down, the absent teacher just wants to pick up where she left off.

I also had the opportunity to learn from a 20-year veteran, Phillip Done, an award winning teacher who recently published 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons from Teaching. Whether you're a teacher or a principal, a parent or a truck driver, whether you've had a third grader or only been one, this witty little treasure will keep you laughing while teaching you everything Mr. Done has ever learned.

Mr. Done is a real teacher. He knows this because he has sung "Happy Birthday" 657 times; he can fix zippers that won't zip; and he can make a totem pole out of oatmeal boxes. In these short, clever tales that cover the school year, Done takes us from pie-eating contests through third grade musicals. He laments his annual first-day-of-winter-break virus:

"Why does this happen to me every December? I was so careful this year too. I handed out Kleenex every morning when the kids walked through the door … Next year this will not happen. Next year if I hear so much as a sniffle, I'm not letting any of them into the classroom without a note from the surgeon general."

He extols the value and virtues of garage saling for teachers:

"I walked over to one of the boxes, put down my coffee mug, and started to shake. The boxes were filled with Madelines and Babars, and Encyclopedia Browns and Nancy Drews in almost perfect condition! This was better than Vegas!"

He admonishes the late, great Roald Dahl for using the word "ass" in chapter 6 of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

"Do you know what it's like having a classroom full of third graders read that word? Do you? Let me explain what happens … This year was one of the worst. Melanie said she's telling her mother that I swore in class. And Justin? Justin had to be rushed to the nurse's office for oxygen. Quite frankly, Mr. Dahl, I'm trying to have a nice reading hour, and you're ruining it!"

I cried when Katie, who was to be a tree in the class musical, reminded Mr. Done why he does a musical with 90 third graders every year. I was touched when Phil took French lessons and learned all over again how really hard it is to be a student. And I'm still laughing at his passionate, but tragic love affair with the laminating machine. 

So, thank you Mr. Done, for teaching me about being a teacher and a student. I'll carry you with me on my next substituting assignment, laughing all the way.

Tell me about your favorite teacher or what made you laugh in Phil Done's book by clicking here.

1 comment:

Molly said...

YES. The laminating machine. :)

It was lovely! I showed it to Emily and she thought it was hysterical.

Very good. Your best one yet, I'd say.