Taking Note of a Few Things:  School Daze

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Recently, I was going down memory lane with my buddy Rod. He and I taught together for seven years at Santa Fe Middle School in Hemet, California. He was a rookie teacher fresh from Nebraska and I was in my fourteenth year. For seven years, we made a dynamic duo teaching Physical Education to some of the most challenging students from difficult environments. Together, we found a way to do more than just survive working at a school many were afraid to just drive by. We were able to experience the highs that come from seeing all your hard work pay off with great results as well as the lows that come from seeing it all yanked out from under you. So, with this issue of notes, I thought I would focus on education. Besides, rumor has it that it is Back to School time.

Stranger Things is one of those popular TV shows I have never watched. I am not even sure what it is about, but the title is not enough to entice me to want to see it. Having taught for 30 years, 21 of those at the middle school level, I can say I saw enough strange things to satisfy any curiosity I might have.

Whenever I am asked what the strangest thing I saw while teaching, I am taken back to the time I was alerted by a student that two boys had wandered over to our PE class area and were doing something strange. When I investigated, I caught them both with their shorts down to their ankles and humping a tree. Like all middle school kids, they denied it.

The best way to get a confession out of a middle school student when it is basically your word against what is usually a group of students is by lying to them. Middle school kids will believe almost anything that comes out of the mouth of a teacher so whenever I pulled out a blank video tape and asked kids if they wanted me to show the video surveillance I held to their parents, suddenly they began telling the truth.

Another great way to get a group to tell the truth was to separate them from one another for five or ten minutes. Then go to one of the kids and tell them how the others claim he was the one to do it. That kid will spill the beans on the others. Then go to the next kid and so on and by the time you finish, you piece together quite the caper.

Sometimes sending a kid to the office is pointless. I remember an eighth-grade boy who was being sent to the office with his girlfriend after class by the female PE teachers daily because they were always making out behind the locker room. No number of warnings were going to keep two hormone-driven kids from following the school rule so one day I stepped out of the locker room to solve the matter. As soon as I appeared, the couple stopped, and I just walked by casually. Then I stopped and said, “Hey Robert, she’s not the same girl I saw you making out with the other day.” As I walked off, I heard a slap that landed on the side of Robert’s face and a few cuss words from the girl. Problem solved.

In my first year of teaching, I can remember seeing our principal pick up a seventh grader by his belt and carrying him into his office for corporal punishment. In my final year, I can remember being reminded not to send students to the office for swearing because it was their First Amendment right to do so. In between, society changed a lot.

I have far more fond memories of my early years of teaching than my later years. Maybe I did not change with society, but I do think when kids stopped fearing being sent to the office for their behavior, strange and extreme behavior became normalized. I also can’t help but believe as things that were once considered a major offense, say swearing, became minor, we also saw the rise of school shootings, increased fighting, and our schools viewed as no longer safe places.

Names matter to more than just parents.  Never, in thirty years, did I ever have a student named Precious come close to being what she was named. The same was true for Angel.

K.I.S.S. In the world of education, it means Keep It Simple Stupid. It also applies to parenting. The more complicated the lives of parents are, the more unsettled a child is. Parents who kept their lives simple and balanced were the ones who far more often had well adjusted, kind, and successful kids. Parents who do not change their lives once they have kids produce as many train wreck students as any other group.

The worst teachers are the ones just waiting to retire. All too often, they wait far too long.

Some of the worst students to have in class are kids of teachers.

Too many teachers make passing too difficult and failing too easy. I always found the harder I made it for students to have an excuse for failing the more supportive a parent was to explain the grade to. At the same time, if you think you are a better teacher because you take pride in how hard your class is, you miss the point of educating kids. Your job is to light a fire under students and not put it out before it is lit.

The best administrators I ever worked with spent more time out of their office than in it. They knew what the vibe of their school was because they were constantly out and about campus talking with students, popping in on classes, and pitching in whenever necessary.

The worst principals were either in their office with their door closed or off campus. In some cases, students didn’t even know who the person was.

The best film on education came out the year I began teaching in 1984. Teachers stars Nick Nolte and does a great job of looking at the system of public education and its many shortcomings. For those who spend the bulk of their career tangling with the absurdities of the system, it’s a must see.

I know, people love inspiring films, but the reality is, there is a lot that goes on in education that people high up work hard to keep the public from knowing about.

The best superintendent I worked for was Mary Panucci in Red Bluff, California in the late 80’s. In many ways, she was a visionary who was blessed with the power to make things happen. Our high school had 1,200 students which was more people than the population of some of the tiny communities we drew from. The farthest point west to the farthest point east in our district was about a three-hour bus ride. Many of the kids from these areas had horrible attendance and in some cases were just overwhelmed by the number of students we had. In the late 80’s, she came up with the idea of homeschooling students in distant communities. The resources used to place satellite dishes would come from the money saved on the bussing it took to take them to and from school and the increased revenue that would come from improved attendance.

In most cases, school superintendents are just using smaller to average size districts as steppingstones for a better paying job elsewhere. They have bland personalities, can cite more data than they know the names of people, and think nothing of cutting programs because they have failed to connect with the student bodies or public, they serve.

No grade level is easier or harder to teach than others. I spent one year at the elementary level and could not leave fast enough  These kids might be adorable, but man are they needy. I am not the nurturing sort. Middle school kids are like four alarm blazes and teachers need to be able to control how they burn if they do not want to end up being incinerated. High school kids are the opposite. They tend to need a good dousing of gasoline so you can light a fire under them. For the most part, I preferred being a firefighter and teaching middle school.

Back to School Shopping is now the second biggest shopping season of the year, next to Christmas.

That kid that parents tell teachers they do not know how they put up with in class does not need a cell phone at school. If you want to send him a text every 45 minutes to see how his day is going, stay home and homeschool him.

Guess what? Even your middle school aged kid tells lies. They all lie. It is part of their growth process and when you blindly trust them over what the school is reporting to you, it just means that kid has you wrapped around his finger which is probably attached to a cell phone you gave him.

Your high school kid would rather not lie to you, so they prefer to just not tell you anything. If you press, they just say something awful to piss you off so you will leave them alone. This is normal so don’t call his teachers.

Don’t take all the credit for what a great kid you have unless you can also take all the blame for what a turd you drop off at school every day.

Seriously, I once had a parent tell me the highlight of her day was watching her son leave for school and the low point was when he arrived home. She swore he was going to be incarcerated and just wished the system would hurry up and get it over with.

By the way, she named that kid Lucky.

Your child’s birthday does not matter to anyone else at his school so don’t expect teaching to stop because he was born. Celebrate it on the weekend and invite the entire class to your house and let them destroy it rather than a classroom. And for God’s sake, stop expecting the office to drop what they are doing to send birthday balloons to your kid’s class.

Your teenage girl is not going to bleed to death during PE because she is on her period. That note she wants you to write her is to get her out of having to run the mile. That’s not going to kill her either because most likely she is going to walk it while she talks on her phone.

Just a reminder: Prom is a formal affair and not one where your daughter should dress like a high-priced call girl. That’s what Halloween is for.

I once spent two hours alone in a room with an armed teenager experiencing a mental health crisis and I faced less ire from him than dealing with any parent whose child got kicked off the cheerleading squad because she failed my class.

Oh, and please remember, your kid failed my class. Teachers tend to shut down when you tell them they failed your kid.

That said, more than a few teachers are idiots. Several times, I had classroom teachers ask me to come talk to their classes about how if they don’t behave better for their teacher, I will take it out on them in PE. I always turned down their requests.

I once convinced a yearbook class that came to me to tell me I needed to take my staff photo that I would not be able to because I was in the witness protection program and could not risk having my identity compromised. I was nowhere to be found in that year’s yearbook.

Spirit Assemblies are a complete waste of time that is better spent teaching kids’ subject matter they are struggling to comprehend. However, you won’t get any complaints from staff or students because both want a break from each other.

Staff lunchroom conversations do not all center around what a pain in the rear some students are. You would be surprised how many conversations are about what lack of support there is from parents.

I stopped eating lunch in the staff room after about ten years of teaching. There was way too much negativity. The peace and quiet of an empty classroom was far more conducive for a better afternoon of classes.

It always amazed me how many teachers believed that their subject was the most important subject to learn, which was how they justified all the homework they assigned only to complain about how little homework their students turn in. Kids are smart. If they don’t do the mounds of homework assigned by a single teacher, they may fail that class, but they will have more time to focus on their work in other classes. The not so bright kids will work like mad to complete it all only to run out of time to complete their homework in other classes and end up failing several of them.

Time management, dependability, respect, and a willingness to try are all more important than any single subject. Urge your kid to master these things and they will be surprised at how well they do in school and in life.

Getting high, drinking, doing stupid stuff is what many teens want to do on Friday night. Maybe it is with just a friend or two and then again maybe it is at a kegger, but you’d be surprised at the stories some kids tell each other between classes while they think their teacher is not listening to them.

Cheating, coming up with excuses, and failing usually takes as much effort as it does to just do the work and earn a passing grade.

Teens were better off back in my day. We didn’t have helicopter parents thanks to there not being any cell phones. Graduation from high school was an expectation and not a huge deal. And we also had more opportunities to grow as individuals by holding down part time jobs.

In my day, we thought nothing of it when our PE teacher paired us off on teams of shirts against skins. We also showered after PE because we had to. Today, either one of those would be cause for disciplining a teacher.

Being an only child is not an excuse for your kid’s classroom behavior.

Your divorce or child custody battle is also not an excuse. Would you accept it as an excuse for a teacher’s shortcomings?

Teachers have the luxury of calling in sick and taking the day off while still being able to expect their classes to carry on. At the same time, they are often quick to forget when they have done so whenever a student tells them their parents pulled them from school to take the day off.

The average school year is 180 days. Teachers are only paid for those 180 days. They are not paid during summer break.

If teachers worked 240 to 250 days a year like other professions, their pay would not be an issue. Teachers who complain about their salary forget they chose their profession and have the option to work a part time job during summer break. They might see the world differently if they did and not complain so much about their salary.

Teaching should offer a 20-year retirement option like in the military. This would allow teachers the opportunity to receive a smaller pension while they go off and try their hand at another profession for another twenty years.

There is no excuse for a school or school district not to be set up and ready to go when the first bell of the year rings. Unfortunately, many administrators take a wait and see approach, and tell their staff it might be a month to six weeks before we are operating smoothly.

Once testing ends in the spring, too many schools are already preparing for the end of the year rather than working right up to it. This means eight to 12 weeks of education can be wasted on getting schools up and running and ready to close for summer. Twelve weeks equals one-third of the school year.

Students are like sharks and can smell the blood of a bad or inexperienced teacher in seconds. They also know when they are in the presence of one who has their act together.

The teacher shortage has a lot less to do with salaries and a lot more to do with working conditions. No amount of money will make someone a better teacher. It won’t decrease the number of students they have, lighten their workload, or improve the conditions of schools. Doubling their salary won’t make teachers feel better about being cussed at by students, written off by administrators, and dumped on with more programs and tests by the state. It’s no different than a hospital that has the highest salaries in the state while lacking in the basic equipment and support to save lives.

Ask most anyone who is an educator, and they will tell you pretty much the same thing. About 15% of students take up around 85% of the school’s time and resources for all the wrong reasons. The remaining 85% of the good kids are left with table scraps.

Who is elected to your school boar  has a greater effect on you and your family than who your local representative in the House is or who your State Senators are. The philosophy of your school board can determine what sort of life your children have as adults, so get to know who your board members are and hold them accountable. Your child’s future depends on it.

We call them public schools but thanks to our culture, they’re basically closed to the public. It’s not just during the school day. When was the last time you saw kids playing a game of touch football or half-court basketball on the weekend at a local school? They can’t because they are now gated, barbed wired, barricaded, and locked up.

Have a nice school year. Please leave your guns at home.