Why I’m Glad I’m Not a Kid: Part One

Recent trips into the classroom at one public school where I work has inspired a series of blog posts. In fact, it’s reminded me to be thankful I’m not a kid these days.

My main job is to be a writing superhero. My alter ego works as a substitute teacher in local middle and high schools. There are plenty of things there to inspire my creative side, as many blog posts attest.

Unfortunately, all is not magic and unicorns in the realm of public education.

I’ve known this to be true for many years. It’s the main reason I decided NOT to pursue a degree in education when I went back to college in 2010. But in the final weeks of the school year, it was reiterated to me.

Why am I glad I’m not a kid?

Because education in the 21st century is all about meeting regulations and ranking well on state assessments.

Back in my day, school was about learning to read, write, do sums (and other math you never use in real life) in a social environment where you were expected to get along with everyone.

Learning at School?

Isn’t school supposed to be for the purpose of learning?


And not learning how to bully others. Or make excuses for late homework. Or perfect the art of doing as little as possible.

Believe me. Spend a few days in the average public middle school, and you’ll start to wonder.

Who decides what kids are taught in school?

Did you say the teachers? You’re wrong if you did.

Not even the school board has the ultimate power over curriculum.

Nope. Big Brother gets to say what will be taught in school.

Or else.

The fact they require kids to spend weeks and months learning things that do NOT help them understand their culture or prepare them to be an adult isn’t even the worst of it.

It’s not?

High school teachers and counselors in our school district have been heard to say, “Middle school doesn’t really count.”

So, what are they doing there? Why are we wasting six or seven hours of our time hanging out in classrooms?

Every day of school should be preparing kids to be responsible adults. Primary school should focus on the basics of reading. Once they get to third grade, throw in the basics of math. Without those two things, they’re not going to be able to succeed in the upper grades.

Nor will they be able to fill out a job application or make a budget.

Citizenship in School

I’ll be the first parent to tell you that it isn’t the school’s job to teach my kid to be a decent human being. Sorry. If you wait until your kid’s five to start teaching courtesy, discipline and respect, it might be too late.

It is NOT the school’s job to teach my child values or how to treat other people.

School needs to be a safe place to learn the complexities of social interactions.

How do I react if I have to work with a stranger? What if I get stuck with someone I don’t like? What should I do if my teacher doesn’t like me?
And the answer is NOT tell my parents and have them call the school to put me in an ideal situation.

That’s not life. School social settings should prepare kids to face the interactions they will have in the workplace. We’ve all had to work with someone we didn’t know or didn’t like.

I might be the only one who’s ever had a boss that I didn’t get along with, but I’d like to think it’s a common occurrence. And my mom didn’t rescue me from that person because that’s not what being an ADULT is about.

Staff at school should model ideal behaviors, sure. They shouldn’t tolerate bullying. Yes, they should keep kids from beating each other up because school is supposed to be a safe place.

Natural consequences should be allowed to fall on students in cases when it doesn’t mean bodily harm. For example, if you’re late too many times to work, your boss will fire you. There should be consequences for being late to class.

And I don’t want to hear your excuse. You either have a note from an adult…or you don’t. That’s all I need to know.

We’re only hurting the future of our society by failing our students in school. They deserve to learn to read, write and do math, and they should be held accountable for obeying the standard of conduct required in the schoolhouse.

Politics in School

I’m not saying that learning and citizenship don’t happen in schools these days. But those aren’t the priorities.

Government has their fingers in the U.S. educational system, and they like to generate red tape. Schools rely on the government for funding, so they have no choice but to march to the regulatory drumbeat.

Or they can shut their doors.

What happened recently to remind me of politics in school?

A teacher who taught both of my sons and I’ve worked closely with for a decade is transferring to a different position. I didn’t know asking her about it would open a can of worms.

The school has decided to combine language arts and social studies for middle schoolers. This isn’t a new or unusual thing. We had it before when the students could have a humanities block—two class periods for this class.

That isn’t what’s happening. Teachers will be expected to cover the learning goals for both subjects in one hour.

Furthermore, they’ll only receive one day of training on how to do this.

I hope the trainers are handing out Time Turners or some other magical device that will stretch one hour in to two (or ten).

How can students be expected to learn twice as much content in half the time? How can teachers be expected to teach twice as much content in half the time?

The biggest problem I have with this: the school is doing this because of budgetary constraints. They will use fewer staff to teach in this way.
Because money is what education is all about in our world.

I’m sure schools were funded the same way when I was a kid, but there weren’t common core standards and annual state assessments back then.

We went to school to learn how to be a productive citizen of the United States of America. That’s why the founding fathers pushed for public education for all people.

Kids these days are getting the short end of the learning stick. And our country will reap its dues when these under-educated people are running our country in a couple decades.

Are there things you’ve noticed about kids in school that make you grateful to have grown up in an earlier era?

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Flashback or Dream Sequence

I find myself seated in the center of the second row in a nearly empty auditorium. Am I having a flashback to high school play auditions? Or is this a dream where I’m the director seeking a cast for my original short production?

Or maybe it’s neither.

It’s my other job…as a substitute teacher.

And it gives me plenty of flashbacks. Although the dreamlike-moments are far and few between.

An Easy Two Hours

The permanent teacher’s sub plans are the shortest (if not the sweetest) I’ve ever seen. “Hi there. Thanks for taking my classes. I have two amazing TAs who will run the class, so sit back, relax and make sure everyone keeps their phones away and no one dies.”

Seriously. Those are the exact words.

What would any writer do when told to relax?

Write, of course. So that’s what I’m doing. Because this blog needs content, and if I was home, I’d be working on the never-ending edits.

The TAs were responsible. They happily ran the classes (not like other TAs who balked when I asked them to step up to the plate for any reason).

Strangely Disconcerting

My brain rebels at the thought of sitting in a cushy chair while others lead in my place. Even if I’m clueless about what the class might expect.

After all, I’m getting paid for this. Shouldn’t I do something to earn the paycheck?

That’s one hundred percent my mother’s influence on my psyche. No one had a stronger work ethic than she did.

Industriousness isn’t reclining with an iPad on your lap, even if you’re spewing words that will appear on your website at a later date.

Burst of raucous laughter break my train of thought. They’re playing a game, acting off the cuff. Some have a bigger ham-bone than others. You can tell the ones who’ve spent more time onstage.

What about you? Do you find it disconcerting when something is much easier than you expected? Do you feel dishonest getting paid if you don’t really “work”?

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Everyday Heroes Teach Unexpected Lessons

Maybe a hero is someone who showed you how to be a better person. You might not even have realized that person was heroic until much later.

It might have been a family member who showed unexpected tenacity in a difficult situation. From them, you learned that life was hard, sure, but also that the hardness didn’t have to crush you.

Stand up and fight against cancer or an unexpected accident that cripples you.

All of us have had a teacher or coach who imparted an unexpected life lesson to us.

For me, there were several:

  • My seventh grade language arts teacher made me believe I could be a writer
  • My freshman basketball coach showed me that no matter how little a person has to offer, every bit is important for the success of the team
  • I learned from a high school teacher that dreams don’t always look the way you expect them to…but that doesn’t make them any less amazing
  • A drill sergeant taught me that a positive attitude changes everything and affects everyone around you

The list could go on.

In this article from success.com, the author learned these lessons from everyday heroes.

  1. From her grandmother: nothing is impossible
  2. From her basketball coach: the greatest enemy of excellence is “good enough” (Here is double proof that coaches impact lives AND the athletics teach real life lessons as well as any sit-down subject in school)
  3. From an employer: learn from your mistakes

What can you add to this list? Share a lesson you learned from an unexpected source in your life.

Three reasons why I avoid Guilt trips

guilttrip

Come along on a recent guilt trip I took! No, really. It will be delightful. I promise!

“Did you know Lily’s foot was hurt?”

My stomach plummeted lower than the soles of my manure-encrusted boots. This friendship detonated in front of me. I’d done the unthinkable – injured her horse.

“No. When did this happen?”

Explanations ensue. Part of my brain is processing the input, determining guilt or innocence with the finesse of an experienced judge. Sounded like it happened in the field. I worked her in the arena. Whew!

“She was wondering why you trotted a horse with an injured foot.”

The guilt swells again, almost exploding my chest. What sort of imbecile would lunge a horse that was limping? But she wasn’t limping. Apparently, all that head tossing she did – low rather than high – was supposed to clue me in.

Except I’m a greenhorn. Yes, I noticed her stretch seemed shorter than usual. She moved sluggishly to a trot when she normally snapped into that gait.

Let me tell you, when an expensive animal is involved, the guilt trip can be bumpy.

My mother could put me on a guilt trip with less than a blink of the eye. One well-placed glare, saturated with condemnation, and I was gone.

vacationwatsthatIt made me appreciate the fact that this sort of trip was hardly a vacation. There wasn’t anything fun about it. Did it lasso me into conformity? Certainly. Until I decided I was done being controlled by someone else’s whims.

Mothers are expert “travel agents” for guilt trips. Older siblings learn the job well, too. Most of these must become teachers since, next to Mom, teachers have perfected the art of launching an unsuspecting soul into guilt orbit.

I decided to be atypical. As a mother and a teacher, I refuse to employ the guilt-inducing tactics that produce the desired compliance for sons and students. I have my reasons. Three of them.

Guilt trips damage self-esteem

You don’t normally hear me spouting to protect self-esteem at all costs. I think focusing on low self-esteem is a form of pride. Let’s focus on edification instead.

Guilt tears down. It makes a person second-guess their ability to make decisions. With one good swing of its hammer, guilt can make a decent person feel lower than pond scum.

“What was I thinking? How could I have done that? I’m stupider than dirt.” Doesn’t sound like healthy self-talk to me.

Guilt has a silent partner: shame

At the end of many forays motivated by guilt lies the ugly companion of guilt: shame.

While on the little trip, we fill our heads with the negative self-talk demonstrated above. By the time we reach our destination, we’re feeling about one centimeter tall.

You can be sure that the inevitable whammy life will throw at us as we disembark the Guilt Train will shove us under the wheels. Slicing through our soul with a hefty dose of shame.

“I’m going to stay in my room for a week. I’ll never go near another horse. I’m a danger to everyone.” Sounding more desperate all the time, right?

Guilt doesn’t teach responsibility

This is the biggest reason I despise guilt trips. My job as a mother and teacher is to help my sons and students grow into rational adults. They need to learn to be responsible for their own choices.

Too many guilt trips and those people start blaming us for their mistakes. After all, we’re the only one who seems to condemn them and send them down the dark path to shame.

I believe in natural consequences.

In the event of the stupidity revealed at the outset of this post, I suffered natural consequences. Lily needed shoes on her front feet to reinforce the walls of her hooves so her soles wouldn’t get bruised by the hard ground. The ferrier couldn’t come for almost ten days.

The natural consequences of exercising an injured horse: no working or riding her for at least two weeks.

Every choice has a consequence. You choose not to go to the family reunion regardless of mother’s attempt to guilt you. The rich uncle you’ve only met twice writes all attendees into his will. Guess what you aren’t getting?

What do you think about guilt trips? Do you employ them? Have you been on one recently?

Life, Time and other Non-renewable Resources

Image courtesy of gacowallfoam.com

Growing up, I heard about water conservation and gas shortages. Sounded like another lesson to memorize, but it didn’t inspire me to take shorter showers or keep the faucet off while I brushed my teeth.

Sometimes, I think we’re as careless rationing the valuable resources that pepper our emotional biosphere. We waste time playing Candy Crush instead of choosing to interact with people around us. Procrastination paves our daily to-do lists with something other than lines indicating accomplishment.

Sometimes it takes an emotional earthquake to shake us out of our wasteful stupor. Time is valuable; once it is spent, there’s no bringing it back, and it can’t be hoarded like Scrooge McDuck’s gold. Life is more than lists. We can make a difference or we can trudge along, minding our own business.

Hours and days have been invested by me into the lives of middle school students. Many of these kids touched my heart. All of them meant more to me than a paycheck. (If you saw the size of the check, you’d understand I’m not really esteeming them all that highly.)

One student entered my classroom, a pixie of positive energy. Her voice, made more childish by a slight diction issue, spread feel-good fairy dust whenever I heard it. The round face of seventh grade matured to a lovely young woman’s features by the end of eighth grade.

I spent several hours each school day with this girl. Some days felt like weeks. She would probably say they drug on for a year. Hyperbole, a teenager’s best friend.

“The sixteen-year-old driver was killed in the crash.”

Image from OSP
Image from OSP

Time stalls for no one. It doesn’t give an extra second to those in desperate need. All that time I spent with her, not enough, non-renewable.

A winding road in the wee morning hours combined with the whir of the tires against pavement to create a lullaby. Snapping awake when the tires spun on the gravelly shoulder, the driver jerks the wheel. Too sharply.

The car rolls end over end. Seat belts strangle the two occupants. Air bags deploy to soften the impact. The windshield shatters, spraying glass shards into the front seats.

“Police suspect driver fatigue could be the cause of the accident.”

Only 16 short years of life – gone. No mulligans. No second chances. Life is a precious commodity and sadly, non-renewable.

Several months before this, almost two years after she spent all those hours in the classroom with me, I saw the pixie at the grocery store. Or I should say, she saw me. Ran up to me and threw her arms around me.

I’m not much of a hugger, but her affection softened my reserve. I returned the hug and asked about her life. School wasn’t going so well. There were so many activities at high school to distract from doing homework. She missed having someone like me to help her understand the assignments and encourage her to complete them.

She was floored when I said I wasn’t working at the middle school anymore. “But you were one of my favorite teachers.”

Precious words. The time wasn’t ill-spent. Meaning infused those years of my life. Apparently, the investment paid dividends.

What other “non-renewable resources” do you see being wasted or well-used in our world? Don’t let it take an earthquake to make you consider conservation and productive use of these irreplaceable commodities.

Embarrassment: An Effective Teacher

Some people have embarrassing moments.  I tend to bypass those and move straight for the humiliating.  As an example, imagine breaking down into tears in the middle of teaching a classroom full of teenagers. Embarrassment? I think even humiliation is a kind euphemism.
The first time it happened to me was my first year as an instructional assistant.  The teacher assigned me three reading groups, each reading a different novel aloud and then discussing it together.  Everything seemed fine until I saw the title of one of the books: Where the Red Fern Grows.
“I can’t read this book,” I tell her.
“What?”
“I can’t read this book.” Repetition is often the key to understanding.  For emphasis, I shake the book at her.
“Why not?”
“The dogs die.”
Blank, non-comprehending eyes stare back at me.  What part of “I can’t read aloud a book in which dogs die” is so difficult to understand?
With a heavy sigh, I admit with unapologetic sharpness, “I cry every time.”
She nods.  “I know.  It’s sad.”
That’s it? It’s sad? I think heart-rending, painful and guaranteed to induce tears is more accurate.  My stunned disbelief must be apparent because she asks, “Would you like to take a different group?”
“What are the other books?”
She gestures to the stacks of novels on the round table behind her.  I step around her to peruse the other titles.  The Outsiders featuring gang wars and a boy who burns in a church.  Not really any more appealing.  Next to that is a stack of red paperbacks:  Number the Stars about the Nazi occupation of Denmark.  Not a very exciting story, but at least it has a semi-happy ending.  The final book is The Bridge to Terabithia.  I have recently read this since she hinted that it would be one of the novels we were using.  Do I think reading about a best friend dying will be more palatable than the dead dogs?
“I guess I’ll stay with this,” I tell her.  As unappealing as the thought is, I comfort myself with the fact that it will be weeks before we get to the sad part of the book.  I’m pretty sure I feel a sick day coming.
Instead, the day we read about the coon hunt gone awry is such a summery spring afternoon that we sit outside beneath the tall evergreen trees.  Wind ruffles the pages.  The fresh, pine-scented air brings the reality of the woods at night clearly to mind.  I try to cover up my emotions, but there’s just something about a clot of mucus in the throat that makes speaking impossible.
Three young teenagers are aghast, practically gaping while my tears threaten, unwilling to be quelled.  Understatement:  I feel mortified.  However, their attention has never been so completely focused on my face or words.
“Are you crying?” one girl asks.
Gulping down the infernal throat-frog, I admit, “This part is so sad.  It always makes me cry.”
“I hate when animals die.”
“I cried when we had to put my dog to sleep last fall.”
Who knew overly dramatic, hormone-driven teenagers could be compassionate and empathetic?
The next time, it wasn’t quite as horrifying.  Reading one-to-one with a student decreased the audience.  The scene described a heart-to-heart talk between a misunderstood daughter and her recently remarried dad about the mother’s passing. A few tears fell.
“Are you crying?” my student asked, turning to stare at my face with wide eyes.
“It’s really sad,” I choke out.
Afterward, she tells the whole class how sad her book is and she’s not sure if she likes it anymore.  When she whispers to her friends a few moments later, is she telling them how weird it was when Mrs. Hughson started crying? I refuse to feel ashamed.  My tears prove that effectively written prose can evoke deep emotions.
Today, however, was a completely different ball game in front of the entire class.  How I managed to read about the notification from the army of the young soldier’s death without even batting an eye, I’ll never know.  Stymied at last, the clog begins to form while reading the reflection on the unimpeachable character of the recently departed.  Why is it that “Only the Good Die Young”?
Of course, I must appear strong, so I attempt to struggle through it.  I swallow, blink rapidly and even try to clear my throat.  I look toward my feet so I won’t see 24 eyes staring at me expectantly.  Waiting to hear the rest of the story? Or waiting to see me break down and sob like an over-emotional, pre-menopausal, middle-aged woman?
It’s no use.  I can’t go on.  The teacher who I assist steps in and I have to step out.  Red-faced and red-eyed, my emotions ooze from every pore.  One Kleenex, and then another, before I’m also red-nosed.  What is wrong with me? Did I break down this way when I read the book at home a few weeks ago? Maybe.  It seems the tears have fogged my memory banks.
When I return, the classroom atmosphere is akin to a morgue.  All eyes once focused on the teacher, turn to follow my progress across the back of the room.  I take a seat next to one of the boys.  He’s writing, or doodling, but he looks up.  His eyes are wide, his lips slightly parted, a question obvious in his eyes, “Are you okay?”
“They were as good as gold after you left,” Mrs. Tayler tells me later.
We’re talking about the last period of the day. On any normal day, this group could enter a chat marathon. Today, every one of them understood the seriousness of a single moment.
Just call me Confucius, I guess. I’ve created a new proverb: A teacher’s embarrassment is a great teacher.