Tag Archives: teaching

In Times of Crisis, Set the Standard


We got a gut punch in my state last night. Teachers, students and parents got the unbelievable news that schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year. For those keeping track at home, that’s the two weeks we’ve already missed, plus this week, plus six more weeks (and our “Spring Break” week is there too, which is just hilarious to me because it just means we’re home like we’ve been for the past several weeks already but nobody can go anywhere). Nine weeks of class time, of face-to-face interaction, gone.

I’m shell-shocked right now.

I have feelings about the closure. I’m sure you do, too. But they’re irrelevant. The die is cast.

All I can think about is everything that’s broken, now.

I think about the musical we were in rehearsals for, which will now not be happening. Six weeks of rehearsal and months of building and planning, for a show that, at least the way we envisioned it, will not happen.

I think about my seniors, who will now miss out on their senior prom and their senior graduation and their final performances and bows on our stage.

I think about all of my students who are suddenly, shockingly, with no forewarning or preparation, deprived of their daily interactions with friends and teachers and coaches.

I think about our parents, likewise deprived of graduations and shows and sports; and oh yeah, they suddenly have to figure out how to continue their kids’ education at home while also struggling to keep making money in our trainwreck of an economy at the moment.

And I think about my fellow teachers, whose plans for the end of the year are shattered, who now have to figure out how the heck to teach their courses at a distance (and a bang-up job they’re doing, despite everything).

I look at all that, and it’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s overwhelming. It’s too much to process at one whack; there’s too much pain and sadness and loss. We’re all sucker-punched, laid out on the mat, staring dazedly at the ceiling.

Good news is, everybody is laid out. Everybody is reeling. It’s okay to be messed up, blurry-eyed, exhausted, uncertain.

But we can’t stay there. We have to pick ourselves up off the mat, lace ourselves back up, and start swinging again. Even though it feels hopeless. Even though it feels like it doesn’t matter. Even if we’re just “going through the motions.”

At times like these, the motions matter. It matters that we get up at a decent hour. That we put some real clothes on. That we get a little bit of exercise, brush our teeth, shave, and put some work in. It matters that we set the standards for our students — for our children — not just in the form of expectations, that they still have work to do, but also that we set the standards in terms of how to act when things get rough.

Because, spoiler alert: we’re setting those standards anyway. When the kids see what we’re doing, we are setting the standard. When they see how we continue to put in work, continue to attack the day with energy, how we relate to each other with resolve and determination and hope (or how we don’t) — we are setting the standard.

We can’t forget that.

It’s okay to feel scared, to feel uncertain. It’s okay to take a moment while we’re down here on the mat to catch your breath, to reorient, to recalibrate. But even if we’re terrified, even if we give in to thinking that none of this matters, even if the best we can offer is to go through the motions, we have to go through the motions.

We have to get up off the mat. We have to keep punching. Even if we get knocked down again and again.

We have to set the standard.

The kids are counting on us.

Everybody in our lives is counting on us.


A Quick Monologue


I owe you something extra for my half-post last week — so here it is!

*****

A teacher finds their student at work in the library and approaches them.

Teacher: Chaucer, huh? Canterbury Tales. I remember reading that when I was your age. What, you don’t think I was young once? World’s full of surprises, huh? (Looking at the book.) You know, I never got The Canterbury Tales. I still don’t. And I have to teach it. (Beat.) But you get it. You’re smart. Good head on your shoulders. Which is why I know you’re going to come through for me. I know you’re dealing. (Student stands up.) Uh-uh. Don’t. Sit down. Nice and easy. We’re just talking. Don’t worry about how I know. Just know that I do know. Now, relax. I’m not here to turn you in. I’m here to help you. You’re good in English, but you’re struggling in math. You need a tutor. I need a new supplier. You take cash, right?

*****

I’m at a theater educators conference this week, and one of the workshops I took was in monologue writing for students. Part of the work was — you guessed it — writing monologues!

I wrote three over the course of the hour – this one in less than ten minutes – but this one was my favorite.

Needless to say, this is entirely fictional.

Use if you like.


The Blank Stage, The Blank Page


It’s as inevitable as the sunset when you work in the theater — for every show that opens, the show must close. As the curtain goes up, so must it eventually come down. And as the stage was once a hurly-burly mass of activity and energy and joy, so it must revert to a hollow, silent room.

We’ve just finished the run of our spring musical, and if you hadn’t noticed, I’m feeling a little empty. I’m a lot relieved and a lot satisfied and a heck of a lot tired, but with all of that comes a little bit empty. You give so much of your life and your time and your thoughts to this one endeavor until finally, over one whirlwind weekend, it’s over.

But that doesn’t sum it up entirely. Theater is this ephemeral thing, fleeting and fragile and magical and then, suddenly, gone. It’s not like most other art forms. You write a book, or a poem, or a story, and the words are there basically forever. Whether they’re scrawled on the page or stored in the digital guts of a computer, the words — the fruit of your effort — remain. Write and record a great song? You can play it back as many times as you want, record as many versions as you want. Draw? Paint? Sculpt? Those things persist. But with the theater, you’re building a moment, a moment in time that must by its nature pass and leave no trace. The only evidence that the thing was ever there is in memory (and in the admittedly massive cleanup afterward).

I’ve had students coming up to me all week saying they’re so sad the show is over, that they don’t know what to do with themselves now. Some of that is in jest — with all the extra time, what can’t you do with yourself now — but a lot of it is genuine. Logging all these extra hours with these people, in this place, working together on this project … it’s the quintessential example of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. So when it’s done, and the final bows have been taken, it’s no great shock that, for these kids especially, it’s a bit like losing a loved one. Even on the shows that are kind of a train wreck (and I’ve been involved in a few of those, let there be no doubt), the cast and crew become a family, develop a bond that’s a bit unlike anything else. And this show, to state it with humility, was far from a train wreck.

A colleague of mine when I was coaching soccer put it in perspective for me as we were bemoaning our near miss at the playoffs that year. The squad was all understandably disappointed, bordering on depression. And so was I. And he said,

“Sometimes you have great years, and sometimes you have not-so-great years. Every once in a great while you get the chance to catch lightning in a bottle, and those are the really great years. But what matters to the guys isn’t so much the win-loss record. It’s what they go through as a team. Are we teaching them the right things, win or lose? Are we making them better men? That’s what matters. And we’re teaching these guys the right things, coach.”

I left that job — and that coaching position — sooner than I would have liked for the sake of that team, in pursuit of another, deeper dream of mine — teaching theater. But I saw those guys again a few weeks ago, under some truly unfortunate circumstances.

One of our players from that season had died, passed away while on vacation. He was 22. And while the sadness and the hurt of that moment was still seeping in, I was greeted by his teammates — or, as they had taken to calling themselves, his brothers. In my grief, my players — my students — they comforted me. They reassured me that life goes on, that we have to live right and be strong for each other in the absence of those that have passed away.

My team of boys had grown into a crew of men, showing me exactly what we’d been trying to teach them back then. We did catch lightning in a bottle, then — I just didn’t know it at the time.

This show was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle experiences, but I think it became that — in part, at least — because of the culture we’re building at my school. We’re teaching the right things, forming the right kinds of relationships, showing these young people how to chase after what matters and how to be good brothers and sisters to one another in the process. And that’s what really matters, regardless of how good the show was or how many tickets we sold.

(Of course, it helps that the show was also excellent.)

So now, the blank stage, and the emotional vacuum that swirls in its wake. I’ve been telling my students that it’s okay — perfectly normal, in fact — to feel a bit sad. The set has come down, the costumes have gone home, the props are all back in storage. The stage is empty, and it’s not wrong to feel empty with it.

But I’m also pointing out to them how full of potential an empty theater is. All that space, just waiting to be claimed. All that energy, waiting to be tapped. The blank stage is just like the blank page — a world of possibility unsullied by past mistakes or fears of the future.

It’s there, an empty vessel, waiting to be filled.

Just like our hearts.


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:

20181102_070911.jpg

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.


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