I know it may sound childish and petty. And I know I am not in competition with the other math teachers, at my school or elsewhere. But I have to say that it makes my day when a student moves on to another math class with another teacher, then stops by my room to ask questions about the homework. Especially when they tell me that it is because “I just get it when you help me. She just confuses me more.”
“Caleb” is a brilliant math student. As a high school freshman, he is already easily doing problems that I couldn’t do until college. Easily. Not because I teach him, but because he just figures it out. That’s just the kind of brain that he has. Unfortunately, Caleb also might or might not be autistic, almost certainly has some emotional problems, and his parents don’t give a damn. They won’t allow him to be tested for anything, even by the school psychologist who will not cost them a penny. No checking into his emotional problems, no looking into the possibility of autism, they won’t even agree to get him tested for the gifted program. He has been raised to believe that his talent in math should be overshadowed by his inability to play football. Although I have met his father several times, I have yet to see the man say anything positive to Caleb, or show any pride in his accomplishments, or even give him a pat on the back for…well, anything.
Caleb feels like a failure. He walks around with his head hung low, refusing to make eye contact with anyone, and rarely speaking a word to anyone. He does realize he is talented, and clings to that. He has a terrific meltdown if he feels that his math grade is in danger. But most of the class has no idea that he has a higher grade than all of them, because he doesn’t tell anyone. He loves it, but is ashamed of it at the same time.
Friday as he was walking into my class, I stopped him and asked him why he didn’t take honors Geometry. He shrugged, didn’t look up, and mumbled that he didn’t know. But the look on his face left no doubt that the question bothered him. As he walked away, still hanging his head and cringing every time someone came near him, all I could think of was the school play that I desperately wanted to audition for when I was in high school. But I was afraid everyone would laugh at me for having the audacity to think I could compete with the other kids. I was all but convinced that I should give up, when my drama teacher pulled me aside and told me she thought I would be an excellent addition to the show. So I auditioned. And I got the part. And it was one of the most fun and challenging things I had ever done. I wondered if Caleb just needed someone to tell him to audition as well.
After lunch, I tracked down Caleb and asked him if he would like for me to see if I could get him changed to the honors class. A funny thing happened. He made eye contact with me. And for the first time since August, I saw him smile. A big, toothy, excited smile. I seriously almost cried, right there in the courtyard in front of everyone.
The decision has not yet been made on changing his class. But every day, he walks in with a smile on his face. He doesn’t talk a lot, but he says hello. He borrowed my book on the history of math, and is reading it every time I see him.
This story made my day because this is precisely why I stay in this job. But the fact is that in a perfect world, teachers wouldn’t be needed to do this. Every child needs someone to believe in them. You don’t have to expect ivy league from them. But you have to believe that they have talents, and those talents are worth something. You have to believe that they can improve in the areas that don’t come naturally to them. And most importantly, you have to believe that every child has something to contribute to the world. Because sometimes….many times, in fact…..that’s all it takes to make all the difference in the world to the math genius with the unfortunate luck of being born into a family of football fans.
My first year teaching, I took things personally. When a kid cheated on a test, I thought, “What the hell! It’s not like I wouldn’t have helped him get it if he’d just TRIED!” When kids talked incessantly while I was trying to teach, I thought it was because they hated me. When someone had a bad attitude, I assumed none of the other teachers had this problem – it was only my class. In fact, I was pretty horrified by the teachers who just kind of didn’t care if a student gave them a problem. I mean, I was the first year teacher who knew everything. Why weren’t they doing things my way?
The one thing that hurt my feelings more than anything else that first year was that all-too-common phrase from the mouths of high school students. This is Stupid. To a fifteen year old kid, everything is stupid. I’m stupid, you’re stupid, his friends are stupid, school is stupid, personal responsibility is stupid. Forcing literacy on kids is stupid. Telling them to stop walking around grabbing at their crotch is stupid. Asking for a small amount of respect is stupid.
I have since learned that “this is stupid” might actually be the most versatile phrase in the English language. It can mean dozens of different things, depending on who says it and what it is that is deemed stupid. Let’s explore some of these meanings:
Meaning 1: “I see no logical reason why I have to learn this.”
Okay, a valid argument in some cases. I’ve been teaching math for years and still have yet to see a real-life application for box-and-whisker plots. My complaints about continuing to have it in the curriculum have fallen on deaf ears. Maybe next time I bring it up, I should use the phrase “this is stupid.” Still, in the case of pretty much anything except box and whisker plots, this can be remedied by an explanation of how this is used in real life. (In the case of box and whisker plots, it can be remedied by agreeing that it’s stupid, but explaining that the state says you have to know it. So shut up.)
Meaning 2: “I don’t understand this.”
This particular meaning is rarely used by the kid who is trying, but confused. It’s usually the kid who has spent the entire class performing a one-man circus in the back of the room. This kid juggled paper wads, balanced his chair on one leg, threw pencils in the air (sometimes hard enough that they stick in the ceiling), and sang a song through the 45 minutes you spent explaining this, and yet it is surprising that he doesn’t understand it. But he was busy doing the world a service by entertaining his classmates, and I was interrupting his performance by trying to teach them some math. (Something other than box and whisker plots….even I would rather see the circus than those.) So it’s my fault he doesn’t understand.
Meaning 3: “I understand how to do it, and I understand why I need to do it. I’m just in a bad mood.”
Hey, they’re sophomores. They’re always in a bad mood.
Meaning4: “I understand how to do it and why I need to do it, and I’m not in an especially bad mood. But my friends will think I’m cool if I occasionally say something is stupid.”
It’s weird. It’s like a secret handshake or something. If so-and-so hasn’t told an adult that something is stupid in 24 hours, he is no longer a part of our club. He can no longer do the things the cool kids do, like walking around grabbing their crotch. Yeah, that’ll show him.
There are many, many other meanings. But you get the point. Anyway, after about a year and a half, “this is stupid” started to lose its effect. I realized, by that point, that it wasn’t personal, and half the time I didn’t even know what they meant when they were saying it. For all I know, if they said, “this is stupid,” it could actually mean, “I like your shirt.” Or, “My grandfather eats cheetos on the couch and wipes his fingers on the cushions, which really annoys my grandmother.” (Seriously, it’s the favorite phrase of the fifteen year old. It could be ANYTHING.) Hmmm….so maybe those teachers who had far more experience than I did were not completely heartless when they didn’t let it upset them. Maybe they were on to something.
Fast forward to today. A kid who we will call “Chris” spent most of the class making googly eyes at the cute blond beside him, and missed most of the lesson. Since he tends to be a bit oversensitive, I did not bring up this point when he asked for help with his assignment. Heck, I was just glad he was trying to do it at all.
Chris: “Why do I have to do this?”
Me: “Well, it’s graphing. You kind of use this every time you look at a map. Or a heart monitor. Or ….you might also need to use it to…umm….PASS THIS CLASS.”
Chris: THIS IS STUPID!”
Me: “Sorry. I have to do stupid things as well. Get over it.”
Chris: “Man, I don’t like math!”
Me: “GASP! I am SO SORRY! I must have missed the part in the curriculum where it said I should only do things that make Chris happy. My mistake!” (At this point, I pulled out my binder with the 68 page synopsis of the topics I am supposed to teach in the class.) “Can you show me where it says that? I’d hate to think I’m neglecting other people as well. Or is it just you that has to be happy all the time?”
Yes, it seems I have become one of those heartless teachers who doesn’t care if someone thinks my class is stupid. Also, taking bets on whether or not I will get an angry phone call from a parent tomorrow.
Nothing earth-shattering today. I just want to point out that as someone who has spent years honing her skills at catching this sort of thing, I can say with relative certainty that Joe Biden was playing with his phone under the desk during the State of the Union.
I live just far enough north that we occasionally get a little snow, but just far enough south that people are still afraid of it. Not terribly afraid, just a little overcautious. That is, until they close the schools. Apparently, school closings are the catalyst this county needs for “Let’s just check and make sure we’re good on groceries for a day or two, just in case,” to “OMIGOD, THE WORLD IS ENDING! STOCK UP ON BREAD AND MILK! RUN OVER PEOPLE IF YOU HAVE TO, JUST GET THE BREAD AND MILK!”
Yesterday morning, there was a small chance of snow today. By noon, things were pretty calm, but cautious. Around 1 PM all of the teacher’s phones started buzzing with the message that we were getting out three hours early today. By 2 PM, the whole school had decided that we would be out for the rest of the week, which made me wonder where the hell all the science teachers were. No one seemed to be bringing up the point that it will be 45 on Thursday, and that’s far too warm for ice on the roads. As I was leaving work, heading to the store to get some cat food, I got the call that school was cancelled. By the time I got to the grocery store, I had to use my mom reflexes and eyes-in-the-back-of-my-head teacher ninja skills to narrowly avoid being run down by a panicked woman with a basket full of milk and beer.
Today is the day of the arctic apocalypse. So far we’ve had about four drops of freezing rain, and it’s about time school would have been getting out. I’m so glad the whole city follows the lead of the schools, because whew! Those four drops were rough! Meanwhile, I’m bored to tears. No one has given my any unnecessary paperwork today. No one has dropped in unexpectedly for a meeting. No teenage girl has told me why they hate so and so, again, even though so and so was her best friend yesterday. No one has panicked over fractions.
My goodness, what do normal people do when they have free time?!?
Teacher work day: 8:05 AM:
Okay, so I’m a few minutes late to work because I left my classroom keys in my other jacket. The one that would not do when it is EIGHTEEN DEGREES on the coast of North Carolina. Since this is the only school where I have EVER worked where one classroom key does not work on every room in the hall, I couldn’t just borrow someone’s keys. Still, going home to get the keys only made me five minutes late, and honestly, no one cares that much if I’m really here today. I have one day of lesson plans left to finish, and turn in my final semester grades, and that’s it. I should be out of here by lunch time.
8:10 AM: What do you mean I don’t have all of my state exam scores back yet? Grades are due TODAY! And how are we missing FOUR, out of three classes full of kids? Shouldn’t they either all be there, or all be missing?
8:30 AM: Intercom from the office: “Just wanted to remind you that grades are due today, if you haven’t done them.” Thus begins my trek around the school to find out what to do about my missing test scores. The principal, assistant principal, department chair, Guidance counselor, data manager, and at least four other teachers have no idea. Did I mention it’s 18 degrees? Did I mention my school has outdoor breezeways instead of hallways? My travels bring me to the office of the testing coordinator, in a building that I did not know existed, despite four years working at this school. She gives my frost-covered hair a condescending pat and tells me a super simple way to handle this problem that I should have figured out myself.
9:30 AM: The super simple solution doesn’t work, because the computer hates me. I call in not one, but TWO tech people to help me, both of whom have never seen this problem before.
9:45 AM: Problem solved. Grades Entered. on my way to data manager’s office to turn in my grades. Then a day of lesson plans, and I’m out of here.
Oh, wait. There are at least fifteen teachers waiting to see a very frazzled data manager. Sigh…I’ll just wait here in this line.
10:00 AM: Whee! I’m next! Wait….why doesn’t my grade report look like everyone else’s? Damn, I clicked the wrong button. Let me go back to my room and fix it.
10:10 AM: I’m pretty sure my fingers are turning blue. But I have the right report.
10:30 AM: I can’t give them a grade below a 50? When did THAT rule happen? So the kid who has turned in exactly four completed assignments during the entire semester gets a FIFTY?
Fine. Let me go back and fix it.
10:40 AM: I’m going to throw my laptop out the window if it doesn’t let me print this &$#@ report. On second thought, I might throw it into the hall. The last thing I need is a broken window when…why has it not warmed up in almost three hours?
10:55 AM: Back to the office, and now there are at least twenty teachers waiting to see the data manager. May as well make myself comfortable. Although it’s hard to do when you have to drag a coat, hat, scarf, and gloves everywhere you go. (Please don’t remind me how much I LOVE the breezeways most of the time. I’m not in the mood.)
11:35 AM: What do you mean I didn’t enter this kid’s transfer grade three months ago? He has a thirty in my class….oh, sorry, I mean a fifty. That grade is not going to help him. FINE. I’ll go do it again.
11:40 AM: I really don’t want to tell anyone that I lost this kid’s transfer grades. I’ll just look a little harder.
12:10 PM: Hello, Guidance office. I’m a disorganized buffoon and need you to look up this kid’s transfer grades.
12:30 PM: Woohoo! It’s up to twenty degrees on my third trip across the Arctic wasteland to the office. Why is National Geographic not filming this?
Shorter line this time – I am no longer tempted to stuff some of the other teachers in a locker to make the wait a bit shorter.
12:50: So my reports are good, but you aren’t allowed to take it because I didn’t click the green button on the top left of my computer screen? Seriously? By now, I’m convinced I am part of a bizarre and unethical psychological experiment.
1:00 PM: Grades are done. I am going to avoid the office for the rest of the day. Now just one more day of lesson plans to do, and….oh, hello, mother who I tried to get in touch with all semester who ignored me. Yes, your child failed my class. No, there is nothing she can do at this point because her grades are already turned in. Oh, she couldn’t make it to tutoring after school because she had driver’s ed? Well, that makes all the difference. Let me just change all of these grades. When her next math teacher comes back and asked me why I passed her when she has no clue what she’s doing, I’ll just say, “She was in driver’s ed!”
1:30 PM: Seriously, lady, I’m sorry your kid failed my class. But get out of my classroom.
1:45 PM: I’m going to stab myself in the eye with this expo marker if you don’t leave this room.
2:00 PM: “Hey! Isn’t that your daughter’s science teacher walking by? Maybe you can talk to him about passing his class. Because grades were due three hours ago, but I’m sure his are not done yet.”
Finally, one more day of lesson plans, and I’m done!
2:15 PM: Wifi crashed for no apparent reason, and my lesson plans are on a shared drive that I can no longer access. Screw this, I’m going out to get a really, really late lunch.
2:45 PM: Okay, Wifi is back up, I can get to my files, and….WHERE THE HELL IS ALL OF THE MATERIAL FOR THE PROJECT I’M STARTING THIS WEEK?!?
A terrified tech guy tells me most of the files are gone, but are backed up on a separate drive and will be back ASAP.
I walk next door and pester my neighbor, a first year teacher who is so caught up on everything, she is spending her planning time decorating her door with sparkly wildcat paws. How spirited of her.
3:10 PM: Walk back into my room to find that the custodian has moved all of my desks around because it’s easier for her to sweep this way. Seriously, this has to be an experiment. Don’t psychological experiments have to have an ethics board?
3:15 PM: My files are back! Almost done…… Oh,hello Guidance Counselor. I’m going to have a child with severe psychological issues in my class this semester? I’m so glad you waited until three hours after I was planning on going home to come and give me a lesson on how to deal with this problem. Got it….the main thing is to make his environment as stress free as possible. Oh, and he also has a math related learning disability. Any ideas on how to make math class less stressful for him when he has panic attacks over math? I didn’t think so.
4 PM: Look, we finally got those last four exam scores! Do you think you can put them in real quick before you leave, and run a new report? Thanks. Oh, and don’t forget to click the green button!
4:30 PM: I skated across a puddle outside on the way to the office. It didn’t break. I have learned that I’m a big baby when it comes to cold weather. I slid my grade reports under the door, since the data manager went home.
5:15 PM: Lesson plans are done. Grades are turned in. I’m going home! Wait….my desks are still all screwy. Let me fix them.
DING! Oh, look, I have an email. It’s the department chair, informing me that book inventories were due today and I’m the only one who hasn’t turned it in yet. Go me. Let me go through the 120 books in my classroom and send you these numbers, even though I won’t be using them because they don’t follow common core. Sure, that sounds totally necessary. Why can’t I learn to ignore emails until tomorrow?
6PM: I CAN LEAVE! YAY! But it’s dark outside, I’m the only one left here, and there is a creepy looking stranger outside. Let me just hover at the window and wait for him to leave.
6:10 PM: I make my big escape, so that I can go home and watch a webinar on technology in the classroom.
I love my job….at least the part of my job that involves actually teaching. Not so much the bureaucratic BS. But the next person who tells me how lucky I am that I get off work at 3 every day is getting stabbed in the eye with an Expo marker.