And sometimes, teachers even save lives. This is one of those stories. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not about anything noble like taking a bullet or rushing into a burning building. Nope. Sorry. It’s not about the day to day influence we exert that comes back to us years later when a former student lovingly says, “You helped me.” No. This is a story of how dumb luck and my Captain Bligh routine literally saved a kid’s life!
I had accepted a job in Musicians’ Hell. I had just started working for the school district and was rather naive. The job was band/orchestra instructor at a performing arts magnet middle school. You’d think that such a job would be fun but… It was late in the spring semester and I was the third band instructor these students had that year and I was as welcome as an evil stepfather in a dysfunctional family.
I told you before, my boss told me I was being watched downtown because I’m so highly qualified, too highly paid and too much of a troublemaker! What this means is they could/might/will walk on campus at any time looking for some reason to overcrowd my classroom, transfer me, or worse. What made this particularly nerve-racking was knowing that many administrators erroneously believed that they were expert enough to judge any teacher in the blink of an eye.
Don’t judge teachers in the blink of an eye.
Unfortunately, this erroneous belief is supported by science! In his wonderful book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell explains the area of study known as rapid cognition or ‘thin slicing’, the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye. He makes a very convincing case and I agree with most of his well researched findings. When talking about evaluating teachers he refers to a study out of Harvard by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal in which they assert that students were reliably able to judge a teacher’s effectiveness by watching a ten second video! Wow!
I would not want to be judged that way, and yet I was. Rather than argue about the misuse of their science (I read Ambady & Rosenthal’s paper and would be happy to discuss details), let me share two stories of ‘thin slicing’ gone wrong and a masterpiece of classroom mischief that turned into a comedic thermonuclear meltdown which, thankfully, did not get ‘thin sliced’. Judge for yourself if you would like to be evaluated in the blink of an eye.
We all do stupid things.
One year, I left the water running in the sink and flooded my bathroom. That was stupid. I know better but I let myself get distracted. As a teacher I was regularly cautioned to never use the word ‘stupid’. But to be honest with you, we teachers regularly see behaviors (and policies) that can only be described as stupid. Some examples of stupidity we can fix. But there is one form of stupidity that we can’t fix; it is deadly and we need to be able to recognize it to protect our children. Now, before you get angry, let me do a little clarifying of terms. This is important because at the time of this writing (early 2015) there is a measles outbreak sweeping the nation and the word stupid is being used with abandon.
I have several techniques in my ‘Teacher’s Toolbox’ that I call my ‘Godfather Speeches’. They are quite effective in turning around unwanted or difficult behaviors in children. All children, yes, even normally well behaved ones, will test the boundaries of good conduct. They should! How else will they learn? And it’s our job, as adults, to steer them to the paths of effective good behavior. But what do you say to the bone-headed, hard guy/girl, wanna be who says, “I won’t!” or “I don’t want to!” or “I don’t have to!”? Time for a ‘Godfather Speech’.
Be honest now! Has anyone ever made you so angry that you had evil thoughts? My dad used to say, “I’m so mad I could spit nails!” I believe anyone who is or ever has been a parent or teacher has had that experience, troubling though it may be. The story that follows is definitely a tale from the dark side of ‘The Force’ and I probably don’t come off so well. But I offer it in a spirit of Socratic inquiry to test our preconceived notions and cherished assumptions. Or maybe I just feel like spittin’ nails! So work with me.
A district administrator had visited our school and toured the classrooms to keep tabs on how we ran our school. After the students left for the day, we had a faculty meeting during which the administrator gave us her evaluation which clearly demonstrated that she didn’t have a clue as to what modifications to standard procedures were necessary at an alternative (CDS) school. Through most of it we just bit our tongues and took it. Then she went too far.
“It’s not my fault my grades are bad. All my teachers are racist.” And his mom believed him. He was her little boy, her darling. He wouldn’t lie. And don’t try to tell her that sometimes parents who truly love their children can be their own child’s worst enemy. She had to learn from experience.
The weather in Southern California is mostly warm and mild, but even on the hottest day, the climate in the classroom can be mighty cold. Some days, the mean streets of L.A. seem to be right there in class with you. They tear at your heart and just when you wonder if it is possible to have your spirits sink any lower a miracle occurs. Suddenly your students don’t seem like the hateful, demon-spawn they were a minute ago and you are able to get through the day. I know. It happened to me.
“Hey Mr. D.! You were a hippie in college. You did drugs didn’t you?” Or… “Hey Mr. D.! You’re a musician. I heard you playing that jazz music. Come on Man, you smoked weed didn’t you?”
Boy! Those are some tough questions. Why? Because parents and teachers know we have a responsibility to point our kids in the direction of the law abiding way to health and happiness but we also remember our own more foolish or dangerous life choices. Parents have come to me and (in many varied forms) asked, “How do I talk to my kid about drugs (or sex) and not sound like a hypocrite when I think about some of the crazy stuff I did in my years of experimentation? How do I warn them of potential dangers without sounding foolish or hysterical? What do I say that will help me to gain or retain some respect or credibility?”
The Tightrope of Candor
Usually I’d have to speak to my kids after some whole school assembly warning our students about the dangers of drugs. The older kids would be talking about what was wrong with what had been said in the assembly and then it would dawn on the kids to ask me about my past. So I walked the tightrope of candor:
Maria had a large woven woolen bag that had Guatemala embroidered on it. I asked her if she was Guatemalan and she said, “I’m half Guatemalan and half Mexican.”
Remembering my own childhood being half Irish and half Italian and the crazy family arguments that condition seemed to generate I had to ask, “Does that ever cause any family arguments like, ‘The Mexican way is better,’ ‘No, the Guatemalan way is better,’ and things like that?”
Maria rolled her eyes, laughed and said, “All the time!”
I told her, “Yeah in my family too! All my dad’s Italian sisters married Irishmen (except for Aunt Teresa who married my Polish uncle Bob because he was such a sweetie) and it seemed like at every family gathering there was at least some debate about the merits of each family ethnicity.” I learned early on that these debates could get quite heated (loud) and acrimonious but I had no idea how far reaching this divide could be until my dad threw it on the police!