Brief Thoughts About School Trips

We took students to the Chinese buffet for lunch. Just a few of them because that's all who brought signed permission slips and were willing to go. We invited every kid in the program (a pretty small number, ours being an alternative school for at-risk kids) and were prepared to take all of them.

Shouldn't such a trip be a reward?, you ask.

First, they had to come up with the money. It was too much hassle to have the school pay (though my supervisor tried her best, bless her). If kids have to pay, that's no reward.

More important, rewards are a stupid educational ideas. Here's how to tell: they are done all the time and accepted as a matter of course. Anything at school that is just the way you do it is probably wrong. Also, consider the kid barred from going. It's a punishment and if you're into that, fine, but I'm into teaching and learning. The "bad" kid is taught that she/he sucks and thus learns to be worse in order to reciprocate.

Exasperated, you say, so it's a participation trophy!

If the trip was a reward and we then let every kid go, it's a participation trophy and bad lesson. If instead this is something to which every student is invited because there is a lot to learn from it, then it's just like a class, only tastier. We invited kids, set up a structure for participating, and let them learn from the experience.

Yeah, what did they learn from eating at a Chinese buffet?

  • Swearing in public is a mark of bad manners, disrespect, and idiocy.
  • Take small portions and go back for more.
  • Saying please and thank you makes everything better.
  • Try new things and talk about them.
  • Not everyone likes the same things.
  • We like each other.
  • There's more to learning than four core subjects.
  • Learning is better when it's not graded.
  • Teachers do their best work when they seem like they're doing none at all.
  • Eating too much is uncomfortable but unavoidable at a buffet.
  • There's always room for sugary coffee drinks.

One kid learned that "bring a signed permission slip or you won't go" means just that. He wanted us to call Mom for permission. I said no and when he asked why I told him tennis is best played with a net.

To recap: school trips are good, rewards suck, and remember your signed permission slip if you want to eat at the buffet. Class dismissed.

Teacher Sadness

How do you know you're done with a job?

I've been a teacher my whole adult life. Even my summer jobs have been about teaching. But I'm done. Here's how I can tell: I wrote this note to a kid (I didn't give it to him). It captures where I'm at with this job, the sadness it engenders.

Frank,

I worry that the sum total of your life will be framed within the narrow confines of an iPhone. To live virtually, through a phone, is no life at all.

How is a phone different from the book I'm trying to get you to read? Why is a book so good and a phone so bad? I'm glad I asked.

Phones are all about now and me. They are self-centered, ego-driven, isolating things. People argue that phones connect people, but I don't buy it.

Books are about forever and everyone including me. Books help us to make connections inside ourselves and with others near and far. Those connections last and build things. Plus you never have to charge a book or upgrade its operating system. It's a hell of a deal.

I wish texting had another name. Text is a sacred word. Books are texts. The Torah, The Quran, and The Bible are texts. Letters written to someone you love are texts. Writing is text and it is the top of the pyramid.

Texting, on the other hand, is brief snippets of conversation that are less substantial than the wind and more polluted. I wonder if there have been one hundred texts in the course of history worth saving. If there have been a dozen, that's a miracle.

I encourage you to set the phone aside and get into something more substantial like your book or even just the real world.

But here’s the thing: You and I both know you won’t. That makes me sad.

I signed off feeling there's little I can do for students so lost to headphones, screens, and a virtual world that leaves them anxious, angry, and isolated.

In the last half dozen years I've become less effective at reaching kids. This year it has made me so sad I can't go on. This job is pretty much killing my spirit.

There may be other teaching in my future, different kinds of teaching, but I don't know. I hope that whoever follows me in this job will be able to do it the way I used to, to make a difference, and keep themselves on an even keel, sailing off into the sunset. Me, I'm tacking in another direction.

Development

Ask most teachers "how do you like professional development?" The answers will include boring, useless, and a waste of time.

During staff development I nod and look interested while writing in my notebook. I imagine tunneling out or going over the wall dodging management's spotlights and Tommy Guns. At one particularly awful presentation I calculated the factorials from 1 to 20. (20 factorial is equal to the product of 20 and all the positive integers less than 20. Google tells me it comes out to be 2,432,902,008,176,640,000. I wonder if I got it right.) All this because management frowns on my drinking bourbon while on the job.

It was a nice surprise yesterday wasn't a total waste. A full-day training in restorative circles was actually pretty useful. Though it was mostly a re-run of training we did just months ago, I learned a couple things. I'm surprised but happy.

I may be sanguine about this professional development because it is my last with this school. It helps to know I'm almost gone. Some fads and ideas brought in by management for our professional development are good, most are bad, but all of them fade and disappear after three to five years. Like riding a merry-go-round, we come back to where we started over and over. This time I'm getting off.

It's nice to go out on, if not a high note then at least not a low one. I'm grateful to the trainers, the participants, and the clock which moved steadily and without fail toward our dismissal. I'm grateful to my friend with whom I texted ridiculousness throughout. I'm grateful that I'm done with professional development in this organization. One more step toward something new.

A colleague sitting next to me at the training asked what that something new will be. I said I don't know yet. Ah, he said. What a good place to be. It really is a good place, an interesting place strange as that may seem. I've learned that much even if it wasn't part of the plan. Learning is unpredictable like that. We never know what we'll learn next.