Back to School
Twentysomething teachers talk about shaping the minds of America's teens
By T.J. DeGroat
Back in high school, I thought teachers were distant, old, boring robots devoid of personality. They would never play favorites or gossip like my friends and I did. Even the young, “cool” teachers were, like 25, which I thought was ancient.
Fast-forward 10 years and my circle of friends is teeming with teachers. How could crazy Chris, the guy who downed 21 shots on his 21st birthday and (despite a full day spooning with the toilet) lived to tell about it, be charged with shaping the minds of our youth?
Wait, what were my high school teachers doing after hours?
Could Mr. Scott, my A.P. English teacher, have had a real social life? I always assumed he ran home after the bell rang to snuggle with The Wall Street Journal while sipping scotch. But maybe he preferred Penthouse and pot.
And what about Ms. Barnes, the art teacher? Did she spend her weekends trolling for guys in the city like my friend Sara?
To find out the real deal about young teachers, I turned to Mr. S, who just ended his first year at an urban high school in California, Ms. W, who finished her first year at a suburban high school in New Jersey, and Ms. C, who wrapped up year three at a private school in the Garden State. Here’s what they had to say:
What has surprised you most about teaching -- about teaching in general, about other teachers and about the students?
Ms. W: How evil people can be. I am so surprised by some of the words, statements and insults that come out of people's -- teachers’ -- mouths. I guess I assumed that there was a certain decency that came with being a teacher, but as I have learned, no, there is not.
I was also quite surprised by how dumbed-down everything is. I suppose I thought everything would be like the high school I attended, but I have discovered that many teachers think kids are stupid, and that is the way they teach them -- no matter how much those kids protest or rebel, they are treated like a lower form of the human race.
One of the last true surprises was that each and every one of those kids just wants to be noticed and not hated. All of them are somehow trying to get your attention and you just have to figure out how. I have one kid who comes up to me every day to tell me about hunting, car shows and other such topics that truly revolt me, but what are you going to do? Everyday I smile at him and let him babble away. It makes him happy, and he pays more attention in class and respects what I say … From the most well behaved students to the biggest miscreants, all it takes is a little encouragement, a smile and something to let them know you heard them and suddenly, they resemble nothing of the rumors that preceded them into your classroom.
Mr. S: What surprises me about other teachers is their rawness, so to speak. I've found most of my colleagues to have very grounded philosophies about human nature and the nature of teaching. They make no bones about it -- they all share their generalizations about students and the profession freely. There is something raw about this. One of my colleagues is a real veteran. Her whole thing is discipline -- the layperson's term for what we teachers call "classroom management." She doesn't talk about what she likes to read, or curriculum or her students' successes. She talks about all the ways she's figured out to keep her kids in line. She's become quite cunning, with lots of tricks to preempt students' malfeasance. "Since I post all my homework assignments online," she'll say, grinning, "students can't come to me with excuses as to why they were absent and didn't know what to do. I say, 'If you weren't here, you should have checked the
website, and if you don't have internet access, you should have called a friend.'" She has a million such counterpunches. It's all she ever talks about. To her, teaching is an annoying bout of chess. Great.
I teach in urban California, but grew up in quasi-urban Michigan. I was pretty sheltered. So what surprises me most about my students is quite simply the shit they deal with … I had a student who would show up every few months, when he wasn't incarcerated. One day he showed up reeking of pot. It was so bad, I practically got high myself. I probably should have thrown him out, but I didn't.
A freshman girl got fed up and called the cops on her dad, who was beating her. She got placed in a foster home, and has recently gone through judicial stuff to get adopted by her foster mom. Her new neighborhood is better than her old one, but after her foster mom's house got jacked a while back, she started sleeping with a baseball bat near her bed. Her family basically disowned her, and now she can't communicate with them directly.
At my school, the biggest problem is gangs. I have this one kid who has always been a lousy student -- but I identify with that somehow. I love being a teacher, but I hate being a student. And I love her, despite her shenanigans in class. She's a great person -- loyal to her friends and family to a fault. I want to see her succeed, but she's identifying herself more and more with the Norteños. We had an emergency meeting toward the end of the year where all the adults in the cramped room raised their voices and told her her friends sucked and were dragging her down -- I hate parent-counselor meetings because it's always a bunch of intimidating adults screaming at a single kid, who hardly gets to say anything. About a week later, she showed up to class decked out in red, the color banned by our school's dress code because of its Norteño association. I pulled her aside after class and allowed myself the use of profanity: "I don't want to see you blow your chances like this; stop fucking up." She nodded her head as if to say she knew I was right ... but I'm not confident she'll shake off her gang-banging friends. Anyone can tell you that teenagers will pay more attention to their peers than they will to us.
… I feel gross and exploitative in relating [this]. At the same time, I think a lot of people are ignorant about what our adolescents are actually facing from day to day.
Do you ever take a second and freak out about the fact that you are charged with shaping the minds of these kids?
Mr. S: If you'd asked me at the beginning of my first year of teaching, rather than the end, I'd have had a completely different answer -- it would have been one word: yes. Like a lot of young teachers without a whole lot of experience, I am sometimes wracked by professional self-doubt. Certainly, I freak out about this -- especially after bad days. "I'm the asshole who's supposed to be making them read and write better, and that is the best I can do?" But there comes a point when in order to preserve yourself, you have to let the bad days be just that: bad days -- in a string of days that blur together eventually, along with the good ones. A more experienced friend of mine told me, when I went to her broken up about what a terrible, worthless, scummy teacher I was, that after all, "It's high school." What she meant was, the kids' apathy can shield you sometimes.
The vast majority of your students really don't give a damn one way or another about how tight your lesson plan was -- I'll lay my next skinny paycheck that no high school teacher has ever been told by a student, "That was a wonderful lesson plan you had today!" -- and as evil and callous as it sounds, that's comforting sometimes. You can take refuge in it. A la, "Yeah, today is going to be rough, but it's only for today, and what the hell, as soon as the bell rings, they'll file out, Pavlov-style, to their next class. And it will be over until tomorrow." It's high school. I hate to say it, but it's true -- and please remember that I'm a new teacher. In later years, I'll be much more of a teaching ninja, with much less need to anesthetize myself like this.
On the other hand, there are great days, even for young punks like myself. Days when your plans go way better than you expected, and you see those lights turning on all over the room. Those days are why you remain a teacher. I'll jump up and down and go, "Yesssss!" right there in class. "You guys are totally getting it!" They'll say, "Dang, Mr. S. You're weird." But there's the rub. You actually get to see into people's heads. You actually see them learn. You see them do stuff they've never done before. I'm not sure exactly which hormone is released in me when this happens, but I can tell you that I get all giddy and giggly and wired. I start shaking, even. It's chemical. Those are the days when I think to myself, "I am proud to be the guy charged with shaping the minds of these kids."
Ms. C: I’ve been doing this for a couple of years and most of the time I actually feel confident, like I’ve got it down. But every once in a while I look around and I think, “What the hell am I doing up here?” I see myself in front of all of these kids, standing at a green chalk board holding an eraser and I just want to run screaming out of the classroom. Thankfully, those days are few and far between.
Is it possible to not have favorites? In other words, do you have favorites?
Ms. W: I had favorites from the first moment I walked into my classroom. You can't help it, and anyone who says you can lies. There are just certain kids who remind you of yourself or your best friend in high school. There are certain kids who look and act in a way that reaches out to you. There are certain kids who are amazing students without being sniveling suck-ups about it. I had kids who I simply adored, but what are you going to do? You can’t help liking some people and disliking others. The key to the whole unfortunate situation was to try to think beyond the environment of school. What is making this kid act this way? What could be going on at home, with friends or the lack thereof, with him/herself? I try to think about what might be going on inside of this unresponsive or annoying or uncouth or pathetic kid’s head, and what can I say or do that might spark a change? In the end, I just always try to keep my favoritism to myself. I am not stupid. I know that sometimes it comes out, but I do think that I was successful in hiding the negative aspect.
Ms. C: Please, I totally have my favorites. There’s no way around it. It’s like what they say about journalism. The goal is to be objective, but there’s no way to really be 100 percent objective. Everyone has an angle, and at my school, every teacher has their favorites.
Mr. S: How could you prefer the kid who mouths off and does no work to the kid who's cool, smart and trying hard? Actually, the picture is more complicated than that. I've given horrible grades to some of my favorite students -- students who are cool and mature but whose priorities simply lie elsewhere. The reverse is also true; relentless overachievers who demand A's are not always my favorites, but they still get the good grades.
How do you deal with students you can’t stand?
Mr. S: Fortunately, this doesn't happen to me very often. In fact, I had a grand total of one student this past year whom I couldn't stand -- one of the main reasons I teach is that I really like people. I like almost everybody. This is not common among teachers. My colleagues talk about students they can't stand all the time. When it happens, though, you simply deal with it. My thing is usually to focus on the bottom line with that student: I'm here to coach you in reading and writing, you're here to practice. Sometimes things go south and altercations happen. I know teachers who've told kids things like, "I don't like you and you don't like me; we're going to have to work together anyway." I can see the value in saying something like that, but I'm not sure I'd have the guts to do it. When I meet a student I can't stand, I feel like I've failed to find ways of liking them, and it bothers me a lot. Admitting it to the student would be hard for me.
So instead, I'll pull the student aside and say, "Our working relationship sucks. Right?" They'll nod. "What are we going to do?"
"Look, I've got a classroom to run, and you've got work to do in there. What are your goals in this class, anyway? What is it you want to get out of this experience?"
"Well, I want you to succeed, and I want you to get smarter. But you
need to focus. Can you do that?"
"Look at me when I'm talking to you."
(Eyes averted) "I am looking at you."
"Can you focus?"
(Eyes still averted) "Yeah."
"Okay. Let's get back into class and get some work done."
If this spiel works at all, it works for about fifteen minutes. But at least I feel good for having tried, right?
What has been your most embarrassing moment as a teacher?
Mr. S: When your lesson plan sucks and everything falls apart and you don't know what to do next and the bell isn't going to ring for 20 more minutes and you're standing there going "Umm" and the kids realize what a total fraud you really are, that's embarrassing. Thirty pairs of teenage eyes are looking at you. They all want to leave just as badly as you do, but you're all stuck in there together, and you're the one in charge and you're choking. Imagine what a comedian must feel like on stage when nobody's laughing. That's what it's like.
Ms. C: Let’s just put it this way: Kids aren’t the only people who sometimes let one rip in the middle of class. I wanted to die.
Do teachers know all the kids' gossip?
Mr. S: Yes. High schools are the worst places in the world to try to keep a secret. I had three or four students tell me independently that another student of mine, a junior, was going to get married. Weeks later, the student in question whispered conspiratorially to me, "I'm getting married! Don't tell anyone." I acted surprised.
Ms. W: Teachers know all of the kids’ gossip. By nature, high school students are not too discreet. Everything is a drama. They scream at each other whenever or wherever is convenient at the time. I have seen a girl grab a guy’s balls and tug down on them as they were having an argument -- right on the path surrounded by classroom windows, between buildings. I have seen kids bitch-slap each other. I have heard insults far worse than anything I could have constructed while in high school. And all of this is over members of the opposite sex, parties gone wrong, friendships betrayed, fluids exchanged and, of course, misconstrued gossip. After hearing this loveliness in the halls and classrooms, it begins to filter through the teacher’s grapevine -- in the teacher’s lounge, teacher’s cafeteria, shared classrooms, passing in the halls, meetings -- you name it. We also get gossip from other sources such as parents and administrators.
Is the gossip among teachers as bad as among the kids?
Ms. W: By all means. Teachers talking about teachers. Teachers talking about other kids. Teachers talking about parents. Teachers talking about administrators. You would not believe what it is like to have lunch with a bunch of teachers -- or, if you are not far removed from high school, maybe you would. Everyone has a shit list. There are little cliques and alliances. This person hates that person and since you hang out with him, you are hated too. Really, another lovely challenge to add to your day. Not everyone is that bad, but every school I have been to so far has had a core group of, well, I guess the best term would be “haters.” These are usually the same people who hate the kids, who hate the parents and who hate the administrators. Just smile, nod, and eat your turkey sandwich.
Ms. C: It’s definitely not as bad in my school, but teachers are people, after all. Anyone who’s worked in an office building knows how bad things can get, even among middle-aged adults.
Mr. S: Think of it this way: Imagine all the time I waste standing up in front of the room teaching when I could be gossiping instead. During most of that time, my students are whispering, passing notes, even e-mailing friends in other classrooms on their cell phones. Then at lunch, they're all out on the quad, and the gossip continues. Meanwhile, I'm eating alone in my classroom or with a small handful of teachers in one of the school's several separate teachers' lounges. Yes, we gossip some, but we also talk about current events and books and stuff. Teacher gossip is bad, but we're not in the same league as our students. It's really not a fair comparison.
Any other funny/crazy/shocking moments?
Mr. S: God. Too many to mention, and most of them are those "you had to be there" moments. There was this kid who simply could not function academically, as a student. I liked him; he was laid back and funny, when he wasn't being offensive, but he truly didn't belong in school. One day he asked me if he could go to the bathroom, and I said, "No you can't, because you came to class late," according to my usual policy. This pissed him off, so he dropped a stink bomb. I didn't see him do it, so I don't really know how it's done, but Mr. F., one of the school's security officers who later came to apprehend the culprit, told me that stink bombs come as vials which you break open and throw on the ground. It happened 15 or 20 minutes after I'd denied the student permission to void his bladder -- something I always feel weird about doing, it's so incredibly Orwellian. A foul smell appeared, like the apparition of a dead skunk … We all assumed it was somebody's particularly rank fart at first, and as such I tried to get everyone to stop giggling and ignore it. But as agonizing seconds passed, it became clear that foul play was afoot. The stench got so bad that I ordered my class outside to the courtyard.
"What happened?" I demanded. Nobody fessed up. So I called security. Immediately upon the arrival of Mr. F., the guilty party adopted a shit-eating grin and admitted everything. He was carted off and suspended for a few days. I let my class go early, as my classroom was now totally unusable, and held my last period of the day in the library, after spending my lunch period scrubbing the floor where the Gatorade-green slime of the stink bomb threatened to penetrate the linoleum and cloak my classroom in dead-skunk stench forever. Happily, things were fine by the next morning.
… There were several surprises here. One was the extent of the anger which my student clearly felt at being denied clearance to piss. I say this was surprising, yet I can understand it. It's simply dehumanizing to have to ask permission to shake the dew off the lily -- even more so to be denied.
… I liked this kid. Not as a student, mind you. He was one of the suckiest students I've ever had. I liked him as a normal person -- he was funny and warm, if occasionally off-putting. And there were moments where you could really see him being honest, and not just clowning around for the benefit of his buddies. You could really see that he wanted to learn and get smarter, despite how behind in his skills he was and how horrible his grades and behavior were. English -- my subject -- would never be his forte -- he responded to rote things that involved copying and blank-filling-in, which he rarely did in our class. I liked him -- even after he performed the most destructive act in my classroom I'd yet seen. That, too, was surprising.