Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Snake oil & motivational speakers

Snake oil.

Sadly that’s what first pops into my mind as I sit through yet another motivational speaker on the Welcome Back Day for teachers. Now mind you, I have nothing against motivational speakers. In fact, this one rates pretty high on my rating scale of smiley faces–probably worth eight smileys. (He was much better than the handshaking guy I listened to a few years back, but that’s an entirely different story.)

Still, sadly the fact remains, that I can’t shake that snake oil image. I like a good yarn as much as the next person, but I tend to wonder if we don’t have a bit of the Janet Cooke’s Jimmy working here. (Remember her? The Washington Post journalist who had to return her Pulitzer Prize once it was discovered that the main character–an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy –was not a real person. It made for a great story, but that’s all it was–a story. It was a sad day for journalism and marked the beginning of a series of fourth estate betrayals.

But let’s get back to the issue here. While listening to yet another sad story about how a teacher ripped the heart out of her fifth grade student, I marveled at my own educational history. I must be some sort of anomaly because I never had a teacher tell me I was a failure at life and would never amount to anything. Did I face mean teachers? Yes. Insensitive ones? Sure. Incompetent ones? Of course. But don’t you pretty much find those types of people in all kinds of professions? That’s just life, isn’t it?

So, let’s raise our hands and ask…Where exactly are these teachers and how come every motivational speaker had a teacher who channeled the Wicked Witch of the West? And then let’s ponder how come that teacher was always followed by Glinda the Good Witch of the North who inspired them to be all they can be? (And while we’re at it, just where in the Sam Hill are those ruby slippers anyway?…Sorry, got off track.)

But you see what I mean? It’s a bad version of good cop/bad cop. In the gazillion years–ok make that 22 years of teaching–I’ve never run across a peer who face-to-face, toe-to-toe told a kid, “I don’t like you. You’ll never amount to anything.” Now that is not to say that teachers (sadly again, myself included) from time to time haven’t thought, “Geez, you’re such a big, fat stupidhead.”

But that really shouldn’t be much of a shocker either. I think those thoughts can pop into your head regardless of your profession. In fact, I often think that about other drivers while maneuvering through rush hour traffic. (I have patience issues.) But to actually have those words reverberate across my vocal chords or any of my teacher friends, well, I don’t think so. Otherwise, I might encounter a nasty bit of road rage involving Mr. Smith & Wesson in the traffic “situation.” In a classroom “situation,” I’m sure my rather large behind would be sitting in the principal’s office. And, it wouldn’t be pretty, and I’m not just talking about my backside either.

It all just makes me wonder why we listen and gasp mesmerized by these witchy teacher stories. This doesn’t mean that these incidents haven’t occurred. I’m just saying that apparently these happen disproportionately to motivational speakers. Sort of a badge of the trade, I guess. So now that I’ve reached this epiphany, I’ll have to cross that field off my “Potential Things I Could Do If I Didn’t Teach” list.

Regardless of this new insight, I still joined in the laughter and felt a few tingly sensations once or twice as I listened to our speaker. I applauded, nodded in agreement, smiled and even stood for the ovation.

Snake oil. Not a cure, but it sure feels good.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

In the beginning…my first blog entry

I doubt that I would have survived these 20-plus years as a public high school teacher if each and every day I didn’t ponder, “Is this the day?” You know that day–The Day to actually set your hair on fire and run screaming from the classroom. That day.

And now that I am just about to start my third year at my still-new-to-me school district in my new facilities, the irony is not lost on me that my classroom door is just mere feet from the emergency exit to the parking lot. So, you see, I really could set my hair on fire, run out the door, hop in my trusty blue mini-van and leave in a puff of smoke. If you love that kind of twisted humor, then I think you’ll like reading this blog.

Now that school is gearing up, I’m trying to shift my focus back to the classroom and my incoming students. I must say this focusing thing seems to get a bit more difficult each year. I know I’m not the only one. Kids have problems, too. Can’t you just hear the pens scribbling across prescription pads dispensing medication to treat ADD and ADHD in an attempt to find a magic pill to focus kids back on education? While I have no quick fix solution, sometimes I believe we should remember a simpler time when all a teacher had to do to focus students was to pop a bell ringer – an instructive little ditty that required no hands-on teaching from the instructor–on the overhead. Ah, those were the days, when kids labored over the day’s journal entry, math problem or some other bell ringer, while teachers throughout the school had a small, but important block of time to take care of things from attendance to handing back papers to recording grades.

My bell ringers always provide a small window of opportunity for me to exhale or inhale (depending on whether hyperventilation was in order for the day). Bell ringers also gave me a chance to survey the classroom scene and ponder whether this was, you know, “The Day.

Educational experts (defined as anyone and everyone who has ever sat in a classroom) like to ponder, too, and whine about the problems facing our public school system. They offer a wide array of this and that, believing they have the perfect solution to the problem du jour.

But I have a secret: perhaps instead of dissecting our educational system, we should just celebrate our successes, laugh at our shortcomings and learn from our mistakes and failures. This blog, Bell Ringers, is intended to provide stories from the trenches of more than two decades of classroom experience, three school districts, eight principals, four superintendents and hundreds of children. I’d also like to hear your stories, too, because we all need to celebrate, laugh and learn together.

To get us started, here’s one of my favorites: In my old school, I had just completed my allotted 20-minute lunch block with my lunch-bunch buddies when one of them — a social studies teacher — started talking about her morning class. She was lecturing about how prices have increased over the years. She used stockings as an example, except she used the word “hose.”

“I was telling the class about how the cost of hose had risen over the years, and I didn’t understand why most of the class was giggling,” she told us, “until my student teacher told me the class thought I was saying ‘ho’s’ as in prostitutes instead of nylons.”

Unfazed, she told the class it didn’t really matter which ones she was talking about — the point being that both have increased in price through the years.

Now, there’s a teacher for you, as well as a mini-lesson plan for laughter and learning – two things we certainly could use more of. Hopefully, you will find both here, and we can all survive another day.

And, should we fail? Well, we can always set our hair on fire and run screaming from the building.