Sunday, February 17, 2013

Making a Difference in Untestable Ways

AS ALL OF MY AVID READERS know (yes, I’m talking about both of you), I was a junior high and middle school teacher for 33 years.

That’s right. I spent my life in the company of hormonal teens.

So I learned to use some “unconventional” methods to keep students interested. Not that my lectures weren’t scintillating, I don’t mean.

I hated wasting class time for any reason whatsoever; but if I thought I could keep kids engaged I was ready to try anything. One day, Susan -----, a lively, funny young lady, made the mistake of telling me class was boring. She was an exceptional student. If she said class was boring it probably was.

I said we needed to liven up.

Susan foolishly agreed.

So, I picked up her books and threw them out a window onto the school lawn.

That woke Susan and everyone else up, even me.

Another time, the homework paper of a top student floated off her desk and landed in the center of the room. (We had desks in a horseshoe arrangement.) I walked over to pick it up and had an inspiration. Saying, “Here, let me get that,” I placed one foot on the paper, grabbed to pick it up and ripped it in two. I stood there staring at half a paper in disbelief.

“That was my HOMEWORK,” the owner of the dismembered assignment exclaimed.“What am I going to do now?”

“I’ll give you an automatic A,” I replied, and the class roared and that’s what we did.

IF I EVER WONDERED WHETHER these kinds of tactics were effective, the first great letter I received from a former student resolved the question. It came in the mail one day, after I had been teaching seven or eight years.

Joey was bright and impossible not to like but his grades in my class and every other were terrible. He missed homework diligently. He missed five assignments. We talked. He missed seven more. We talked. He ran his string of missing assignments to twenty—thirty—headed towards forty, like Joe DiMaggio in reverse.

Around that time, I hit upon the idea of fishing in my pocket occasionally and saying to my class in a game show announcer’s voice: “You can win all the money (jingling sound) in this pocket if you answer the next question.” Sometimes I would pull out the coins and show them for effect.“This entire thirteen cents, one dime and three pennies, can be yours if you tell me who wrote the Declaration of Independence.”

Every so often I offered “big money.” In morning classes one day I gave a quarter to the first student who could name the first astronaut to walk on the moon. In every class someone could. So it took a few dimes to generate a little enthusiasm. I started offering fifty cents—a huge prize—if anyone could name the three astronauts who took part in the first moon landing mission. The letter I received explains what happened next and shows how much teaching can matter.

If you will, try and think back 5 or 6 years…In your history class I received the honor of having the most consecutive zeroes in your teaching career, I believe it was 32 or 37. In class I also received 50¢ for naming the two other astronauts that were with Neil Armstrong. And I will never forget your ability to throw erasers at pupils who were talking while you were conducting class, namely myself. I was one of the worst students in the junior high that year. Can you remember.

The reason I am writing you is... to say thanks. You made me realize that if I didn’t straighten my life out I would end up being a bum.

It took me 2 years after having you for history to realize you were right. After my freshman year at Loveland Hurst, which was a joke, I moved to Grant County, Kentucky. I figured I would start out with a clean slate and settle down. I started doing my homework, a first, right? Believe it or not I was well respected there. I found enjoyment in excelling in my school work. I almost majored in mathematics in high school. I received an award in my poetry class. Get this I Joey ----- was the only student to keep an “A” average in poetry class. I also got a couple of awards in Band. I have graduated high school this year and I am now attending the University of Kentucky. You will never believe what I plan to study, I am a pre-medicine student. You didn’t faint did you? I am doing fine in college and I want to repeat a humble thank you. It seemed that you knew I had the potential and tried to bring it out of me but I would not allow you. Thank you.

Your friend forever,
Joey -----

You see: teaching always matters.

P. S.: IF THERE IS ANY TEACHER OUT THERE who wants to copy my “big cash prize idea,” I say go ahead.

I would warn you, however. NEVER offer $5 to anyone who can answer some question you consider hopelessly abstruse. When they do you will end up poorer and wiser.

Where do we lead students?
We may never know.
Drawing by Matt Mouser, former student.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not certain, but your ability to do the most abstract things gave the class a sort of...flavor. It kept things fun. I developed the most intense love of history because of that....I have the library to prove it. As I contemplate returning to school to complete my JD, I have often wondered if I should move toward the "dusty studies" or history. I don't think so. History is one of my loves and hobbies. Thank you for taking the time to be different and break free from the mundane. It kept me interested. Dwane