Tag Archives: teaching

Apparently I’m Great

It’s no great secret that I’ve been in a funk lately.

Take the general lack of confidence, the pervasive self-doubt, and the overall bewilderment that’s sort of the stock-and-trade of this entire website and multiply it out a few dozen times and you get the idea.

Still, there are rays of light in the dark.

For example, when I got to work this morning, I found this:


One of my students (I’ve no idea which one) just sunlight-bombed me out of nowhere.

And as a guy who, even in my ninth year (help!) of teaching, still feels pretty strongly that A) I have no idea what I’m doing and B) I’m probably screwing it up more often than not? This was the kick in the pants I needed this morning.

Momentum matters. Good vibes beget more good vibes. I wanted desperately to stay in bed this morning and skip my run — the skipping, I knew, would leave me feeling like an overturned dumpster all day, but I still wanted it, wanted the sweet oblivion of one more hour of sleep. In a weird way, I was almost craving the garbage feeling. But I forced myself up, and I’m glad I did.

And now this.

It’s Friday, and even though it’s dreary outside, there’s a little bit of sunlight in my soul.


Happy Stuffing

I am moving rooms today for the second time since being at my current school.

Which is to say, as of next year, I will have been in a different location every year since I’ve taught here. (Future progressive verb tense is fun. English teachers, you feel me.) And that’s kind of a bummer. You get moved around every year, it’s tough to feel at home in your own classroom. Can’t put down roots. Can’t put your feet up too much. Like living in an apartment and never bothering to paint the walls because you’re gonna have to paint them taupe again when you move out, so why bother?

I didn’t make this connection for my first couple years. up went the posters (dozens of them). Decorative lamps in the corners. Personal pictures and bulletin board borders and all. I even hung stuff from the ceiling tiles. Deep roots sunk into the earth of the place.

Which takes forever to clean up and stirs up all kinds of emotions while you’re working for hours to do said cleaning.

So, I don’t put down roots anymore.

When I realized I could — and likely would — get moved at the end of the year, my personal touch became more of a tap. Just a couple of posters and only a few things in my own little corner of the room. The room writ large mostly blank or marked with a couple materials that we’re working with actively — to be pulled down again once we’re done.

Yet even without those personal imprints, I feel more at home teaching in this school than I have in any of my other schools.

The moving is frustrating, but it also serves as an opportunity for cleaning out and reflection, more perhaps than I would have had otherwise. Everything must be gone through, everything must be assessed, everything must be weighed and measured and either kept or discarded. Rather a lot like moving house, except instead of evaluating your memories and keepsakes, I’m evaluating practices and methods (will I teach that next year? Will this handout be useful again?)

So while the students are signing yearbooks and studying for finals (HAHA who studies for finals), I’ll be stuffing boxes.

Happily. Peacefully. I might even enjoy it.

Thanksgiving for Teachers: A Sample Itinerary

Thing about teachers is, it’s hard to describe being one. I mean, in a vague way I guess people think they understand it — well, you babysit some students who are sort of vaguely jerkish, you write some lesson plans and quizzes, you grade some quizzes, assign some homework, take an hour-and-a-half lunch every day, and then you get three months off during the summer. Oh and THOSE WHO CAN’T DO, TEACH HAW HAW HAW. And that’s true, in the sense that it’s true that bees are face-stinging forces of evil. Sure, they are, but that leaves out the much more important truth that they power the agricultural engines of the entire freaking world.

Teachers are people. Flawed people. People whose work gets the better of them sometimes, just like anybody else, and people who look forward to their well-earned vacations with a gusto that borders on the psychopathic. Seriously — take a walk through any school building in the days leading up to a holiday. See if you can’t smell the desperation coming off them in waves, if you can’t see the frenetic ecstasy rimming their eyes.

But as much as we look forward to our time off, we always screw it up. (Or at least I do.) Here’s how this Thanksgiving went in my life as a teacher:

  1. Organize a series of quizzes and essays to grade over the break. You have a week off; that’s plenty of time to fit in an hour or so somewhere to do a bit of catch-up work.
  2. Stuff said papers in your “teacher bag” and carry it home.
  3. On the short drive home, allow yourself to drift away completely from even the abstract idea that you are a teacher.
  4. Bag o’ papers goes in the closet. Enjoy a nice adult beverage with dinner because it’s vacation, dammit.
  5. Spend next few days doing house things and totally not doing teacher things. Bag o’ papers collects lint in the closet.
  6. Organize for your trip out of town. Do not, even for a second, consider bringing Bag o’ papers with you.
  7. Turkey and stuffing and travel whirlwind for a few days.
  8. Arrive home and decompress from seven hours in the car with kids who do not want to be in the car for seven hours. Bag o’ papers is still in the closet, lurking like bad leftover green bean casserole. Nobody is interested in either.
  9. Plan to hang Christmas decorations. Find that on your earlier trip to Home Depot, you got the wrong size staples for your staple gun. Go to Home Depot again. Get wrong size staples again. Give up and watch college football. (LOL what bag o’ papers?)
  10. Last day of the break. Plan to hang Christmas decorations. Watch Inside Out with the kids instead. Remember that you’re a teacher and you have to go back to teaching tomorrow. Write a blog post about the things you did instead of grading papers over the break. Think about taking some time to grade papers today (there’s still time) and remember that the Falcons play at 1 PM. That means: morning for decorating, football in the afternoon, and by evening it’s time for the usual Sunday evening routine of dinner, bedtime, and sobbing over the lost weekend while sacrificing a goat in hopes of buying more time before you go back to work.
  11. Wonder how in the hell nine days passed so fast. Drink wine until you no longer care.
  12. Monday morning. Retrieve ungraded bag o’ papers from closet. Go to work in a panic. Resume regular teacherly duties.

I’m assuming it’s pretty much the same for all teachers.

The Weekly Re-Motivator: We Are Not Enthused

I’m a teacher, as I believe I may have mentioned before, and it’s back-to-school week in Atlanta. Which means, from one perspective, a brand new crop of impressionable young minds, ripe and ready for me to rain upon them a bounty of knowledge that will allow them to flourish and grow into the pillars of tomorrow’s society. From another perspective, it’s another motley crew of jaded, disinterested teenagers, just marking time in my class until they can graduate from high school, go out into the world, and infect society with their brand of poisonous, dull humor, ridiculous taste in music, and skewed views of entitlement and overconfidence in their abilities.

Either way, they’re in my class, and we’ve got several months of together time ahead, which means it’s time to be on my toes. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from five years teaching (wow, has it been that long?) it’s that if you want them to care about the material at all — outside of those rainbow-encircled few who have Ivy League dreams and would probably flay and flambe an elf at Christmas if I promised them an A — you have to find a way to make them care about the material. If they aren’t having at least a little bit of fun, then, well, neither will the teacher.

Which is a good reminder of the relationship between author and reader, actually. Because unlike my captive audience in the classroom, whose attendance I can count on if not their attention, the author has no hold at all over the reader. The vast majority of my students aren’t gonna walk out of the room if I fail to entertain them — they might check out, but they’ll suffer through, because they need my course to graduate. But a reader is a different animal. Not only does a reader not need my course to graduate, but a reader can choose from any of the myriad other teachers out there and take their class instead.

So a writer has a tougher job than a teacher, because a writer can’t really have an off day. If I lose focus or just don’t have energy one day or come in wearing a bad mood like an oversized, angry “fargo the police” shirt, I can put on a movie or give them a crossword puzzle or any number of distracting activities to give myself a break. The writer, on the other hand, who brings sub-par writing to the table, who leaves in his story those things that are boring, or nonsensical, or that just don’t move the story, loses his audience immediately.

And how does one keep an audience enthused? Well, I think a first step is to stay enthused oneself.

The middle of my current WIP has been sodding boring. It’s trudged along with its narrative feet in treacly mud, losing its boots and its socks and its gumption in the muck. Partially, that’s because I have been trying to figure out where the story wants to go next, and partially, it’s because after an actiony bit at the beginning, the narrative (I felt) needed a bit of time to breathe and relax before gearing up for more actiony bits toward the end. And that may be true — there may be a need to take the foot off the gas here and there — but perhaps most telling of all is the fact that while writing it, beyond the first 25,000 words or so, I haven’t been having much fun.

And if I, the guy writing and inventing the story, am not having any fun, how can I expect a reader to have any fun?

So I took that thought and poured it into a syringe the size of a blood sausage, and I injected it straight into the heart of my story. I axed a major character who was a ball-and-chain on the leg of the story, had the schemer stop scheming and start doing, and threw in a sneak attack from the villain who had been lying dormant for far too long. The result? The story lifted itself out of the water like a speedboat zipping along at full throttle. The writing became less like performing invasive dentistry on an angry shark and more like trying to keep your laptop bag dry in the rain (hey, writing is never easy, it’s only varying degrees of wish-I’d-never-started mixed with have-to-get-this-story-out-before-my-brain-explodes). And, big shocker here, but I was suddenly having fun with the story the way I haven’t since those first 25,000 words.

In other words, I was enthused, and I think and hope that a reader reading will be enthused at this point in the tale.

Now, first drafts are pretty much universally sharknado. Getting it right the first time is neither expected nor necessary. You can always fix it in post, and you can keep it in post for as long as you need to. But when you’re fixing up a first draft in the editing stage, it’s a lot easier to shape it into a sleek, aerodynamic sports car if it at least looks something like a car to begin with. That task is a lot harder if the first draft is an elephant braying as the tar pit sucks it slowly down.

So, when writing, have fun. Stay enthused. Or else you can’t be mad at readers for giving up on you.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

The Summer Rhythm

Teaching is weird.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great; having those two months off during the summer is fantastic, and it’s enviable to people who don’t work in education. (It’s maybe the only enviable thing about the job, but hey, you take what you can get.) And I’m certainly not complaining about the time off: that time translates into lots of opportunities to sleep in, go running during earthly waking hours (during the working months I’m out there before the sun is up, which has its own sort of ethereal calm about it but also sorta makes me feel like a vampire  — NO I MUST AVOID THE SUN), be a dad who’s actually present in his kids’ and his wife’s lives, check out some horrible daytime television.

Problem is, when I’m working, I have this routine, and over the summer, that routine is shattered. Not just shattered, but then stomped on by little toddler feet and flung at my face by little toddler hands and then not only do I have to deal with the shards of shattered routine embedded in my corneas, I also have to stop the toddler and the infant from swallowing the broken pieces and…

By the way, can you still call a three-year-old a toddler? It seems idiotic to do so, all of a sudden, since “toddlers” are named for their toddling, that wobbly, baby-goat stumbling gait that’s the hallmark of an uncoordinated, top-heavy biped learning to walk. But sprout #1 is well past wobbling. He can still lose his balance and go crashing into a table edge or fall down the last stairs, bouncing off like he’s made of rubber, but when it comes to walking, running, galloping, skipping… I mean, he’s mastered it. So he’s not toddling anymore, but what is he? Still too little to be a boy, I think. Is there a word for that? Fargo, the kid is going to be in preschool next year. Look, let’s just dial the clocks back a little bit…

Okay, enough of that sentimental diversion. (Seriously, though. Kids grow up FAST.) I was talking about routines and how over the summer my routine breaks down worse than my old Chevy Malibu (god rest its hunk-of-junk soul). I’m trying to find the routine for getting my writing done over the summer, because even though my 9-5 job is on a little hiatus, the writing dream NEVER SLEEPS, and its hungry maw must be fed a steady diet of word count, despair and whiskey.

Nice thing about doing my writing on and around the job is, there’s structure there. Typical work day: Wake up, exercise, get to work, do the teacher thing for four hours, break for lunch, write for about thirty minutes while pounding down a salad or a sandwich, do a lightning session of grading papers and planning the next day’s lessons, and write for another fifteen minutes or so before my last class of the day comes in. Patterns. Regularity. You can plan for that and the body adapts nicely to it, not unlike it adapts nicely to a bowl of raisin bran in the morning and a visit to the crapper in the afternoon. Easy to plan your day that way.

Over the summer, there’s no such luck. One day, my wife’s at work, so I’ve got the kids for nine hours, then a spot of cleaning and cooking in the evening, then it’s time for a glass of wine with a nice TV show in the evening, and then, whoops — it’s bedtime again. (Here my wife is rolling her eyes: “I still find time to get things done!” and that’s true, honey, you do. But you have superpowers, and I don’t, and it’s virtually impossible to maintain the focus needed to hold a narrative together when you’re constantly stopping to make sure the sprouts aren’t devouring a bucket full of chalk, or shaving the cats, or trying to feed your lunch to the dog, or taking markers apart to see how they work and then smearing the magic ink on their faces, or pretending to be dinosaurs and stomping all over creation and, again, eating everything in sight.) Next day, wife’s home, but we’re prepping for a yard sale. One minute we’re taking sprout #1 to Grandma’s house for the day, next minute we’re hauling stuff out of the garage, next minute we’re hauling stuff into the garage, a bit later on I’m off to the Home Depot to get some cleaning supplies, then it’s more sorting and prepping and cleaning and don’t forget changing sprout #2’s diaper and keeping her from sticking her fingers in it as you do so (her new favorite habit, and there go my wife’s eyes again because I think she actually cleaned more diapers today… again, she’s just better than me at handling that stuff promptly, whereas I’m maybe better at letting things be), then holy carp it’s time to put sprout #2 to bed and hey did we eat yet, no we probably should so it’s time to cook and whoops the sun is down, hey let’s go to bed. Which is a fine day, very productive and all, until I realize about 9pm SHARKNADO I forgot to write today.

Do you let it slip? Or do you gird your loins for battle and go in to do battle with the Word Monsters when all you really want to do is go to sleep to prepare yourself for the unpredictability that tomorrow will surely bring?

Problem is, as I may have mentioned once or twice before, momentum matters. I know that if I let the writing slip today, it’s twice as easy to let it slip again tomorrow (well, I missed one day this week, what’s one more — I can rest up and hit it properly next week), and so on and so forth until whatever dubious progress I’ve managed in this little endeavor is lying in a twisted heap at the bottom of the chasm, smoke pouring from its innards as I crawl toward the couch for a nap.

Anyway, I’m looking for that rhythm, that pattern that will let me get my writing done during these oddball summer months without feeling like I’m taking away time from the wife and kids. And yeah, I know these are totally first world problems, and I own that. But, privileged problems or no, when there are things throwing your life out of balance, I think it’s worth slowing down a little bit to see if you can work toward restoring that balance, rather than just riding it out. We humans, we seek the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, nothing worth having is easy.

So, the question: when your regular routine is thrown off, how do you make sure you get everything done? Technically I have more time than ever in my days now, but it feels like those hours just slip away.

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