My back to school night dread begins in August. The ecstatic joy that is the first few days of the school year is always tempered by the dismal knowledge that in a few weeks I’ll be staying at work until well past my octogenarian approved bedtime.
Rationally I know back to school night isn’t a big deal. It just comes at such a rotten time. It’s always crammed into the third week of school when teacher morale is in the dumpster. The euphoric mixture of adrenaline and dopamine characterizing the first ten days of school has been replaced by the sobering realities of overstuffed classrooms, soul crushing bureaucratic demands, and germs. So many germs. Luckily September’s cocktail of choice, a noxious mixture of convenience store coffee and generic Dayquil, keeps me wired enough to get through the gauntlet that hits the third thursday of every September.
The actual night itself is a blast. I love talking to families. Old students come by and stalk the halls like they own the place. Every now and then a student who I haven’t seen in years will pop their near unrecognizable head (the changes from puberty are no joke) into my room and chat for a few minutes. This year’s pop-in was especially memorable.
Many years ago, I taught a student who was fascinated with drawing, thinking about, and talking about animals. They would stop by to show off their most recent artistic creations. A hippo with the head of a capybara. Some multisyllabic dinosaur combined with the spots of a giraffe. And accompanying each image, of which there were many, would be an intensely detailed description of the animal’s biome, mutations, and evolutionary stages.
I was never particularly interested in animal science. It was the kid’s joy that kept me engaged. They were just so infatuated with this stuff that I couldn’t help but grin and follow along with every obscure detail. I don’t think it mattered too much what I said or did, just that I was there. They would plop down at a desk, open up their notebook, and let it rip.
And then they were gone. They graduated and that was it. Until last week when they stopped by to visit me before back to school night began.
It was a joyous reunion. Nothing had changed. We had barely finished shaking hands before they brandished their latest notebook and guided me through their most recent illustrations. They’d even brought some of their original drawings to show me how their artistry had evolved. They told me about a blog they’d been keeping where they chronicled many of their creations. And about the friends they’d made who shared their interests.
They could only stay for a few minutes, but that’s all we needed. The muscles in my cheeks ached from smiling. Every cell in my body was grinning. Theirs were too, I think. It was the perfect way to begin an evening of confronting the high stakes privilege that is teaching language arts to the hearts and minds of young people.
A few moments families began flowing into the room, jostling each other to find space in a room built to accommodate the physical proportions of 7th graders. I did my best to reveal who I was as a teacher. What I hoped to accomplish with their children and how I was going to do my best to help them grow.
The next morning, as I sipped my coffee and chugged my Dayquil, an email from that student appeared in my inbox asking if I could read and provide feedback for something they had written. It’s a story about a group of humans who hunt dragons with futuristic technology on a harsh planet. I can’t wait.
It’s the penultimate day of school and I’m staring out my classroom window. This morning, like every morning (unless it’s raining or the temperature drops below 33 degrees), a gaggle of students push and jostle each other around. One large group of popular kids dominates the corridor leading up to the double doors entrance. The abundant shade and benches make this spot prime real estate. Down a slight hill on both sides of the main strip are “the pits,” small concrete courts bordered by a series of wooden planks. The pits are dominated by boys who alternate between whacking each other with sapling twigs and tossing semi-deflated footballs at each other. Other kids, mostly girls, run messages back and forth between various groups.
Where would I have been in all of this? Not the popular group. And for sure not down in the pits. I probably would have hung out in one of the peripheral groups, the smaller masses of kids hovering in and just beyond the popular group’s center of gravity. This sort of comparison to my own middle school experience isn’t common, but isn’t unheard of, either.
“Don’t regress. Just because you’re teaching middle schoolers doesn’t mean you become one again.” This is one of the few pieces of advice I remember from my teacher training. It seems foolish, but regression is easier than you might think.
To celebrate the end of the year, my team is taking a field trip to one of those combination amusement parks/arcades that seem to exist only in industrial parks around the exurbs. After an hour on a bus, my team and I “lead” a throng of middle schoolers into Fun Place/Zone/Land. The building’s atmosphere of recycled body odor and repressed hormones is the kind of smell that’s somehow timeless.
Without thinking, I latch onto Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher. The two of us get along well, and I know I can count on him for a steady stream of Dad jokes and enjoyable silliness. He’s “fun” in a way I could never be. We spend fifteen minutes wandering through the epileptic cacophony before settling in at a Terminator arcade game. It’s fun, but I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong; I’m nervous. Of making a mistake, of not being funny, of saying something clumsy, of being rejected. My nerves twitch from memories of my own childhood.
After the Terminator eats our money, Mr. Carter asks if I want to play a round of laser tag with him. My response is immediate: No thanks. I was spared any noteworthy humiliation during my teenage years, but I’ve always been awkward, perfectionistic, and “eccentric”. “Okay!” he replies affably.
As Mr. Carter wanders off into the laser tag area, I sense a galumphing that can only mean teenage boys. I turn around to see Jason and Jorge in front of me. “YO! Mr. Anderson! Come do the bumper cars with us!”
“Uhm, yea, sure! Let me just check out laser tag with Mr. Carter first,” I reply unsteadily. Unfortunately, he’s scooted off and can no longer provide me with an excuse to decline the invitation. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that interacting with anyone outside of a classroom is unnerving. Within the borders of my classroom and the standard 42 minute class period, I’m unstoppable. My purpose is clear. Outside those boundaries, however, is another story. When it comes to just sort of hanging out, my brain hiccups. I don’t enjoy small talk and I prefer to chat about lessons than weekend plans.
Without a solid reason to decline, I follow Jason, Jorge, and a handful of others to the line. I let Jason explain to me how to operate the cars. Jorge already told me while we waited in the line, but Jason was visibly excited to let me know what to do. Besides, there’s something sweet in these small moments of relationship building.
“How do I get my seatbelt on?” I ask no one in particular as I flail my arms around.
“Mr. Anderson! Look!” Jason replied as he took his own seatbelt off and demonstrated the simple process. “Just lift your arms up and let it fall into place.” I’d already figured it out, but again, moments like this make my heart sing.
The operator turned the cars on and everyone immediately smashed into each other. Cackling, we spent the next five minutes caroming around the course, ricocheting off one another and weaving serpentine paths to set up sneak attacks. There was no malice or latent aggression, just fun. “YO! Mr. Anderson! Look! Spin some wheelies!” Jason shouted to me. I looked over at him and saw him spinning in place with Jorge. I cranked one lever back and pushed the other one forward, causing my bumper car to revolve around and around. In that moment we spun as one, howling together as the rest of the kids continued smashing into each other around the periphery of the track. This continued until the operator ended the ride and we poured out of our bumper cars and gave each other daps.
Jorge and Jason ran off to annoy some girls who had congregated near the photo-booth, leaving me alone and fulfilled. Buoyed by the bumper car success, I hazarded a walk past the laser tag area. “Anderson! Laser tag game. Teachers vs students. You in?” My team leader called out from the arena’s vestibule. After a split second of hesitation, I stopped and turned towards the group of teachers and students gathered together. One of my favorite things about teaching is are the endless opportunities it presents for practice and improvement.
“Come on!” Jason yells, hopping up and down.
“You gonna get CRUSHED!” Jorge hollers, aiming an invisible gun at me and firing off a few rounds.
“Absolutely,” I reply. “Let’s do this.”
During testing week at my school, students show up dressed in their finest sleeping apparel and rocking their favorite bedtime accessories. In an endearing trend I began noticing two years ago, students walk into their testing rooms loaded down with blankets and pillows of various sizes, shapes, and patterns. They use them to turn their desks into pop-up sleeping quarters when they’re finished testing. Since they can’t go anywhere, speak to anyone, or listen to anything during exams, many have taken to curling up beneath the room’s glaring fluorescence in order to nab a few Zs.
Although I suspect comfort is the primary reason for the bedtime theme, I can’t help but wonder if ornate sleeping masks and emoji pillows are also a quiet form of rebellion. When it comes to the do’s and don’t’s of testing season, student apparel is just about the only area Pearson and the state have yet to dictate.
During testing week, children and teachers are subjected to a draconian set of restrictions. Students spend roughly four hours every morning hunkered down in front of dusty laptops, clicking through absurdly boring reading passages and math problems. The monotony is crushing. They aren’t allowed to chew gum or eat food, and any trip to the restroom or a water fountain requires waiting outside the room until a hall monitor is available to escort them to a restroom. This can take a while because during testing only one student is allowed in each bathroom at a time. For teachers, our four hours are spent tracing and retracing serpentine paths up and down rows of desks. Just like the students, we aren’t allowed any distractions. There can be no reading, writing, or planning. Just continuous motion. So today, for the third day in a row, I walk and they click.
There’s something disarming about watching a student in an Eyore onesie focus intently on a high-stakes exam.
My group starts off strong. Except for an unfortunate bout of hiccups, the first two hours glide by in silence. Every kid is in the zone. Students who are allowed to use bilingual and English dictionaries during the exam put them to work, flipping between page and screen for what seems like every question.
Cracks begin to form during the third hour. Feet start to tap. Exaggerated sighs and poorly muffled coughs ping pong around the room. Students begin squirming in their chairs as if the hunks of faded plastic were covered in ants. At this age, students are 95% arms and legs, and it’s charming to watch them contort their ungainly limbs in an endless (and futile) quest for comfort.
When a kid drops his calculator and everyone whips their heads around to stare at him, I know students have hit the wall. From that point forward, sounds that would have been ignored earlier become the subject of intense scrutiny from everyone in the room. All it takes is a single automatic pencil click to cause half of the room’s heads to whip around and glare at the source. Kids are now raising their hands to go to the restroom at a fever pace.
A girl in the back of the room takes off her oversized sweatshirt and drapes it over her testing shield (a cardboard trifold blocking a student’s primary lines of sight). I watch as she tries to push herself into the plush cave. A boy in the back of the room is about to make a farting noise on his arm, but I glare him down.
With only twenty minutes until lunch, kids who haven’t finished yet begin speeding through the remaining test questions. They don’t want to consult any dictionaries or highlight any evidence, they just want to go to lunch with their friends. Because when you’re in 7th grade, the possibility of missing out on treasured, unfettered social time easily outweighs some test.
I’m not allowed to make any comments other than “Please click on the ‘submit test’ button” or “Be sure to use the pointer tool to select the correct answer,” so I simply continue pacing. Finally, the bell rings. I collect everyone’s materials (any scratch paper is collected and shredded) and dismiss them to lunch. I’m exhausted. I cannot imagine what this feels like for the kids.
And just like that, the moment is gone. Although test results begin rolling in immediately, we refrain from telling the students their scores for a few days. And even then, we only reveal whether they passed or failed (versus the common performance categories of below basic/basic/proficient/advanced).
After lunch, the schedule goes back to normal. I tell the students in my three afternoon classes that they can do pretty much whatever they want. They play Uno, take silly Snapchat pictures, and write on the whiteboards. I play a few hands with them and photobomb their snaps.
Next week we’ll be back to academic content, so on these days I try to give them as much space as possible. The summer itch is real, and I’ll need my strength to lead them through one final (and short) unit. So for now I sit on top of my desk and laugh with them, marveling at the hyperbolic existence that is life as a middle schooler.
I sometimes imagine that teaching is sort of like playing in a local band. You’re the opening act for some larger performance. As the opener, not everyone is going to like you. Most of the audience didn’t come to see you, and they simply have to tolerate you. They bought a ticket to the show, they’re with their friends, and they’re excited for the headliner, so they stick around. But there are always a few diehard fans who are ecstatic to hear you play. They know the words to every song. They come early and stay late. When everyone else is on their cell phones, the diehard fans are pumping their fists and sharing that moment with you.
I use this analogy not as a way to compare teachers to rock stars (shudder), but as a way to think about the unique connections that can form between teachers and students. What starts out as a fandom built on the superficial aspects of performance (I love his energy! or He’s awkward like me!) can, over time, develop into a meaningful relationship. This is more the exception than the rule.
The analogy speaks to my belief that students will connect with certain teachers for specific and often idiosyncratic reasons. Some teachers might collect more fans than others, but even the quirkiest among us can make a difference in another human being’s life.
Over time, relationships between teachers and students can grow beyond the hierarchical structures common (and somewhat necessary) to schooling. If a student I taught last year stops by after school to talk, I’m able to engage with them holistically. We can interact with each other outside the realm of immediate academic transactions. Discussions of academic progress can still play a role; they just don’t have to be the focus.
Last week I received a Facebook message from a former student asking if he could come visit me at school. Since his high school classes don’t start until later in the morning, I told him to stop by around at the start of my first planning period. The two of us had kept in sporadic contact ever since we first hit it off four years ago when he was a student in one of my 7th grade English classes.
As he left my room and I scurried off to my meeting, I was struck by how joyous it felt to see him and talk to him about his life. To watch a life grow and stretch and push outwards. He is finding his groove, and I am so proud of him.
Although this might reflect poorly on my character, I’ve always looked forward to the possibility of former students reaching out and reconnecting with me. I guess it’s a reminder of what I love about teaching: growth, relationships, knowledge, the dialectical possibilities of minds interacting with one another.
The rest of the day was a fairly typical middle school day. I left the building exhausted, overloaded with work, and saturated with the tiny victories and big defeats that sometimes seem to characterizes my life as a teacher.
After the school day ended, I found myself in a situation inverse to the one described in the beginning of this post. Now, as I’ve written about before, I enjoy emailing people whom I admire. I’ve been lucky, fortunate, and privileged that some of my correspondences have blossomed into mentorships, leadership opportunities, and professional growth.
I’m currently co-writing a piece with Julie Gorlewski, one of my academic idols. We had a productive Google Hangout session yesterday, speaking through video chat about teaching, the state of public education, and our article. Julie is in every way my superior. She has published widely, taught in a variety of settings, and knows infinitely more about education than I probably ever will. But she treats me as an equal. I left our 75-minute conversation feeling valued as a thinker, learner, writer, and person. She took my ideas seriously and validated how I perceive the world. This, to me, is some of the raw power of education. It reminded me of who I want to be as an educator. Of how I want to interact with everyone I come into contact with.
As I reflected on the day, I was struck by the richness of education. By its ability to forge powerful relationships through generations and influence the outcomes of multiple lives. Most of all I felt an almost cosmic connection to those around me. In my former student and my new co-author, I felt my place as an educator and a human being.
As a general rule, I try to stay out of after-school clubs. This is mainly a self-management technique. My dizzying ADHD requires me to keep a pretty rigid schedule if I want to get anything done. For instance, here’s my M-F afternoon routine:
3:00 Arrive home
3:00-4:45 Write, look through books, eat lots of snacks, chew lots of gum, pet my dog
4:45-5:30 Do some form of exercise
5:30-7:00 Hang out with wife, make dinner, clean up, watch news
7:00-8:00 Mess around on the internet
Pretty intense structure, right? Today I’m ignoring that schedule and helping out one of my colleagues by hosting the Anime Club he normally runs every Tuesday afternoon (his wife just had a kid, so he’s on leave). I figured this would be a good time to get a blog post in. Ever since I started working on a couple of longer projects, I’ve had trouble keeping up with my weekly schedule. Therefore, I decided to write a slice of life post (read more about what these are here). What follows was written off the cuff with minimal editing.
A swarm of seventh-graders just poured into my classroom. I teach nearly half of the kids in here, but I barely recognize some of them. Unshackled by the boundaries of school (adult-child power hierarchies, formal language and behavior guidelines, etc.), the kids seem to be in a near-constant state of excitement. This only lasts for a few minutes, though. It’s funny how quickly the students replicate what happens in a class.
The two leaders of the club are frantically screaming at everyone to put their devices away, to sit still, and to stop talking. The language is more coarse (I quickly gave up trying to count the number of times someone told someone else to ‘shut up’), but there’s a definite method to the madness. There is an objective (pick an anime and watch it), a lesson plan (vote for an anime on Google Classroom, set up the desks, and load up the video), and group norms (try to stay seated and keep side talk to a minimum). It’s just like school! Only louder and with way more libidinal energy.
In the time it took me to write the last two paragraphs, I heard the following words and phrases: semen, nerdgasm, hentai, digs for the booty (?), boobies, and that’s what she said.
While their cultural references are obviously influenced by the current milieux (Netflix, YouTube, the internet in general), they’re also engaging in a form of adolescent identity development that’s been around since at least the 1950s. They’re feeling each other out, comparing themselves, and practicing the complex art of suburban teenagerdom. They make eyes at one another, pick up on or ignore each other’s conversational bids, and perform complex social calculations. It’s all just so interestingI think I need a shower.
At 3:30 the late bus bell rings and the students immediately disappear from my room, scampering off to various forms of transportation.
I think I need a shower.
Every Tuesday the amazing gang at Two Writing Teachers hosts a ‘slice of life’ challenge. Anyone who wishes to participate simply has to write a post on their blog exploring some aspect of their day. I write my SoL posts quickly (under an hour) and post them without much revision or editing.
Today was my eighth first day of school. As often happens during the first week back, my throat is a desert and my feet feel like pulpy bundles of nerves. Two distinct pleasures mark every first day back: greeting my new students and reconnecting with old ones. Seeing old students can be intense, depending on last year’s relationships. Even though it’s only been nine weeks since I saw 2015-16’s kids, they can often feel like strangers. Students who hung out in my room before school, boys and girls who trudged up and down the hallways trying to find me just so they could relay the day’s accomplishments and struggles, no longer need me.
They’ve moved on to other students, teachers, and adults. The specific services I rendered, whether it be help on a writing assignment, tips for dealing with another teacher in the building, or simply a compassionate ear during the emotional gauntlet that is middle school, aren’t necessary. Maybe that’s not the best way to put it. I remember reading that caring relationships have two components: one person to offer care and another to receive it. Last year’s students now have a new crop of teachers to nurture them.
I’ve always found this aspect of teaching interesting. I spend 180 days working closely with students, gaining their trust, falling in and out of favor with them, and ultimately doing whatever I can to grow their love of literacy. Teach the writer, not the writing. And then after an academic year they move on. This can be a wonderfully humbling experience. So when I saw my boys in the hallway this morning, I didn’t take it personally when they kept our reunion conversations short. We fist-bumped, said ‘what’s up?’ and kept it moving. Because we all had new relationships to cultivate.
This year’s students seem pretty much just like last year’s students: awesome. For right now they remain almost featureless in my mind. I’ll spend the next 179 days learning to see who they are and how they express themselves. This year’s goal is pretty much the same last last year’s: to use literacy to help adolescents become caring individuals who are willing and able to read, write, and remix their worlds. In this capacity I function with an abundance of joy, here to work with every and any student who walks into my room.