Letter from my April self to my August self (and to first-year teachers everywhere)

Dear August 2013 self,

So, girlfriend, you all rested up from summer vacation? No? You taught summer school? Damn. Well, I hope you did something chill like Literature in Film (Cameron Diaz Bad Teacher-style) because the 2013-2014 school year is ON for the next 180 days. Do yourself a favor and implement the following sanity strategies, courtesy of your exhausted, feverish April self; the self sitting in front of the computer in her underwear, counting the hours left in the 2012-2013 school year (82.5, plus Senior Breakfast and Graduation:

  • Be a hardass about cell phones on the first day of school. The first kid you catch using their phone in class? TAKE THEIR PHONE FOR THE REST OF THE DAY. If you don’t, you’ll be fighting those phones ALL YEAR LONG, and by November, the kids will be egregiously texting two feet from your face. Buy a lockbox; take the phones; stash them in it. What you didn’t fully grok your first couple of years teaching is: It’s not enough to post a rule; you have to enforce it. Tirelessly.
  • Be whine-proof. Kids want to whine? They should join a European soccer team.
  • Late work loses 10% of points for each day it is late. The only exceptions are residential drug rehab or the violent death of a first-degree relative. The minute you make an exception for one kid, the other 175 will smell your weak blood in the water. “My computer crashed, Miss,” they’ll say, like you’re some kind of moron. “Miss, I’m just really stressed out right now.” Giving in doesn’t prepare them for adult life. When was the last time anyone gave you a break?
  • Limit bathroom passes. I know you hate being in charge of when other people go to the bathroom and you never want to say no — you resented having to ask when you were a kid — but they’re taking advantage. People with active bladder infections and raging cocaine addictions go to the bathroom less often than your students do.
  • The first time a group does more socializing than working, warn them. The second time, reassign them. Do not apologize; do not explain. You don’t need them to like you — just to respect you. In fact, it’s better if they don’t like you at first. Less room for disappointment; more practice for the top-down management style of the real world.  We’re not a self-paced charter school in the strip mall, or a groovy Waldorf edu-farm with goats and conversational-Esperanto classes and shit. Sorry.
  • Load up your AP class with serious, rigorous academic reading and writing during the first week of classes. Load it up enough so that the kids who don’t want to do AP work; the ones pushed into AP by parents or counselors or boyfriends or girlfriends, will beg to switch to a regular section. 35 kids are registered for your AP class. This is too many. Your goal is 26.
  • 18 years old is not as grown as it thinks it is. It comes in a large, adult package, but in general, 18 = emotionally 15 in girls and 12 in boys. Remember the farting contest last month?
  • Nine months is a long time for a kid. You’ll have students who start out paragons of academic integrity and social maturity, and end in a counseling-office mess, so don’t trust easy. And don’t make  hard-and-fast judgements about kids who start off like jerks. Because at least a few of them will surprise you.
  • Four percent of the population are sociopaths — they literally have no conscience. This is a comforting statistic when trying not to take other people’s behavior personally. And, yo, that’s not even counting the vast array of personality disorders and sundry addictions that 21st century American flesh is heir to (plus food additives, toxins in the water, and quick-cut video graphics). Whatever’s happening to the bees is happening to the kids, too. Ditto re: the fish with ambiguous genitalia.
  • You are vulnerable to emotional manipulation, especially when it’s intentionally subtle or if the manipulator lacks the self-awareness to know s/he is being manipulative. Work on that. I don’t know if your insurance will cover working on it, but you could at least call up and ask the guy about co-pays.
  • When a kid wants to talk to you — really talk, not whine, manipulate or complain — stop doing whatever else you’re doing. The grading or emailing or whatever it is can wait. Listen to the kid. Give the kid your eyes. This is what you are here for.

Have a good year — and remember, 79% is not a B.


Your May 2013 self

10 thoughts on “Letter from my April self to my August self (and to first-year teachers everywhere)

  1. May I print and share with my co-workers at SIRYV? Please don’t stop writing – it makes us all giggle, feel, and think. And will probably be a great reminder for you in August. 🙂 Love you!

  2. Excellent advice for teachers, but also for adults dealing with other crazy adults. 4% sociopaths, and then the boarderlines. Yikes, but one has to be tough with all people who are time wasters, not reliable, don’t pay back on favors, and people who whine.
    The article seems so much like lesbian communities, and why they can be so draining sometimes.

  3. Your blog is one of the most well written I’ve encountered. This post captures the details of classroom control that were glossed over when I was majoring in education decades ago. Professors at the time said with authority that if we stood in front of a classroom with creative lesson plans and jazz hands, we would never have to deal with the issue of classroom discipline because our little charges would be too entertained to ever act up. Classroom management and discipline were never part of the college curricula.

    This post is something that every student teacher should read.

  4. Thank you! I wish someone had told me straight out that no matter how creative and engaging my lesson plans might be; no matter how glittery and blazing, they would NEVER be more interesting to the kids than their own cell phones and personal conversations. Then, instead of feeling guilty about not sufficiently engaging them, I’d have locked their phones up, been a hardass about classroom control, and moved on. Yay for Year #3!

  5. Good advice for life. I can’t imagine how anyone deals with high school students year after year. (I like some of them fine, just not everyday in large numbers in a classroom). Bless you and other dedicated teachers everywhere.

  6. Heck, I had to get tough with business associates … now at lunch, I put my turned off cell on the table and the rule is, the first person to grab the cell and answer it pays for everyone’s lunch. Believe it or not, they still do it and pay! Maybe we should just take the cells away at all dinner tables and in all classrooms!

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