Friday, December 24, 2010

First Year Teaching

First Year Teaching

This story begins with a letter from the President of the United States. “Greetings,... “ it began. Any young man between the ages of 18 and 26, and a low draft number during the Viet Nam conflict, can tell you the rest of the message. Actually, my message was that my student deferment had been canceled and I had one semester to finish my college degree. The D in Abstract Algebra did it. (You don't know what Abstract Algebra is? … neither do I)

The worse news was that in my seeking a degree in Secondary Education, Physics and Chemistry, I had all the Mathematics requirements and only part of the Physics and Chemistry. A serious discussion with my advisor showed that I could get a degree in Secondary Education, Mathematics, Biology, and General Science in one semester, by taking a full schedule of education courses. (This diploma in Mathematics grates on my pride every time I have to write it down on a resume)

If I finish the degree and get a teaching job in Mathematics or Science I will be eligible for a draft deferment for teaching a critical need. Which I did. All this needing to be settled before the end of the semester, I began a job search in the excellent job placement office at my college. I found a relatively high (for a teacher) paying job in the city of my birth. I was needed ASAP.

My parents co-signed a note to help me buy a brand new car to replace the ten year old, fire engine red, Chevy I normally drove. I took my last test in the afternoon and headed for City. On arrival I called School Board Member, who gave directions to School and promised to meet me in the parking lot next morning before school.

I arrive. I wait. Bell rings. Students go in. No School Board Member. I continue to wait. After several minutes, A car rushes into the lot and a young man dashes out. He is wearing a football jacket from my college, so I stop him. He seems startled by my approach but recovers as I introduce myself and describe my problem: I don't know what I am suppose to do, or where I am suppose to go... never having been a teacher before.

Oh, Mr. Watson!!” he exclaims brightly, “You are the new teacher. Come with me. I can take you to the office.” And, he does. In the Office the two secretaries spring to their feet on my introduction and exclaim “Mr. Watson, Principal has been wondering where you were... Go right in!” (My mama told me there would be days like this, and it is going to get worse.)

Principal rises authoritatively from his desk and offers a hand shake. He invites me to sit, perhaps anticipating my reaction to what he has to say next. “Your room number is 135. These are your text books,” handing me two. “Do you have any questions?” (That was not the dumbest question I had experienced, to date, in my life, [I should write about the first place sometime] but it was not far behind.)

I had spent my entire life in one school system. The first thing I noticed was that the bells rang at different times. From my ignorant and flabbergasted state, the only question I could form was: “Can you tell me when the bells ring and what they mean?” “Sure” and he rattled them off. (I found Coach later and he wrote them down for me.) Without further delay, Principal escorted me to my classroom, dismissed the adult there, Introduced me to the students, and left.

In many ways this was the worst of any school system I have ever been in. However, there are two good comments to be made. My fellow teachers recognized my distress, took me under their collective wing, and smoothed some of the rough places. This is not unusual, in my experience, as most all teachers are really great human beings. Secondly, the cafeteria staff, for the 10:00 break, everyday without fail, produced a 3ft by 3ft tray of steaming hot biscuits, with real butter, jelly, coffee, and juice, exclusively for us twelve or so teachers. Biscuit aficionados know there are variations in size, flavor, doneness, etc. These were a clear 9.5 out of ten, every day.

My own short comings as a teacher of the bored and uninterested, were a huge contributor to my troubles then, and in fact any time I was fool enough to try teaching the youth of our world. I never escaped the feeling of responsibility to teach. When I teach I focus on how to best present the subject. I frequently fail to comprehend the extraneous activities of the unengaged students. I can focus on maintaining order but not teach at the same time. Later in life, when I began teaching interested adults, I was able to soar.
One day, one of my larger students performed a credible imitation of a great ape. He bounded around the room, screeching like a chimpanzee, scratching, and making faces. In throwing him out of class, I told Assistant Principal he was “acting like a monkey” instead of my more accurate description above. That night I got a screaming, yelling father on the phone, exclaiming that he did appreciate my calling his child a monkey. The next day Assistant Principal called me to his office to face Father. Father repeated his rant several times, while Assistant Principal folded his hands before him and smiled. I was never given the chance to defend myself or explain “acting like a monkey” My angry, defiant face was highly compromised by the tears streaming down it. The story, spread by Chimp himself, was a huge hit with many of the students.

On another day, a girl came to me and asked if I had gotten a call from her father the previous night. She may have wished for some of the notoriety given to Chimp above. I truthfully reported that I had not spoken to any parent recently. “Well my father called somebody named Watson last night and gave him Hell!” I smiled and said it was not me.

I had sixty students divided into two classes of thirty. I had each of these twice a day for General Science and Mathematics. After a short time it became clear these were different. I had already been told, by my fellow teachers, that at the end of the year teachers were allowed to select their students for their classes. For these classes there had been no one to choose. Theoretically I had gotten the dregs. A careful examination of their records showed that not a single one of these sixty had made better than a D in Math or Science in the preceding nine years. Most had F most of the time.

On the lighter side, Coach enlisted my aid in various endeavors when he needed help with some after school activity. The most disastrous was when the time keeper at a basketball game got sick and had to leave. The other team was vastly better than ours and was way ahead when I allowed myself to be talked into replacing the timekeeper.

Timekeeper is a simple job in basketball. The ref blows the whistle, turn the clock on. The ref blows the whistle again, turn the clock off. A trained monkey could do it blindfolded. But, I wasn't blindfolded. I was interested in my students who were on the court. Whistle blows, clock keeps on doing what it was doing. It did not take long for the opposing fans to catch on to the irregularities in the operation of the clock. Being in the center of the room I could hear many of the shouted insults. When I forgot to turn the thing on there was yelling that I was trying to give our team time to catch up. When I forgot to turn it off. There was yelling that I was trying to cheat by shortening the game. There were even periods when the clock was doing the exact opposite of what it was supposed to be doing. Off at the on whistle, on at the off whistle. I have known some rabid fans in my life. I like to imagine those there that night being a confused, jiggling, out of control, mass of fury by the end of the game. From then on, Coach was more receptive to my saying “No, I probably won't do well at that.” when he wanted me to cover for an official of one kind or other.

Thinking of this incident always brings a smile to my face. In later years, when someone is nearly out of control, yelling abusive things at me, for some misunderstanding, it is not unusual for the smallest if smiles to creep across my face. (I usually do care that a person is upset, but the smile comes from looking into the future to when those people realize what an ass they have made of themselves.)

One night, while attending a basket ball game, the rear window of my car was broken out. I found a small rock imbedded in the remains. It could have been thrown by hand, or a spinning car tire. No one ever commented on it, though I expect every student knew the responsible party.

This, my first year of teaching, was the last year of all white (and all black) schools in Louisiana. In my parents store, about half the folks I served where black, and integration was never a real issue with me. The next year, when I had a high percentage of blacks in my classes, they were all just students to me. I seldom make notice of what race a person is unless they make an issue of it.

Toward the end of my year teaching at School in City, they were struggling with the plans to integrate. They quietly ask the teachers if they would give up their positions to allow places for the black teachers. I always assumed those with tenure either retired or were sent to a formerly Black school. I knew I would not be back. (Thought I was going to Michigan.) I told them to put me down as a volunteer.

The Boot Gang was a group of six or so of the poor students. They claimed credit for running off the two teachers before me. The leader said he would run me off as well. Technically speaking they did run me off. I just didn't leave until my contract was up. When final grades were in, more than half of these sixty poor students had less than 60% on all work, an F in my book. When I turned them in, Assistant Principal informed me that they graded on the curve and I had “failed entirely too many students”. If you go back a few paragraphs you will be reminded why that was news to me. Sooo, I went back to my grade book, altered the grades of those whom I felt had made some effort, and gave them Ds. The Boot Gang got to stay in Junior High and have another try at running off a teacher.

My last class of the day was General Science. This had a normal cross section of normal students. It has its own humorous tale. (Humorous to my perverse sense of humor) and begins with a rule passed down by the state school board. Any student who failed their final test in a subject, failed for the year. Also, Anyone caught cheating on any test failed for the year.

For the final I designed two tests The questions were all the same, just in different places. With the class arranged in rows, if a student copied from the person on either side, their answers were the same, just not correct for his test. I was careful to choreograph handing out the tests to avoid raising suspicion. Twelve A and B students were caught in the trap. Because their answers were wrong, there was no need to prove cheating. However, if one were to grade the cheaters test with the other master, they made much better grades. As Assistant Principal was the responsible party for explaining the twelve failures, I have always wondered if it wasn't all written off as a bad teacher. This leaves the question of how many other students copied off the guys that copied off the next row over and ended with the correct answer. The good news was, while some of the cheaters were a huge surprise to me, the students whom I regarded as my best, did well.

Our wedding was to be May 30. My last day there, May 28, was a work day and was mostly consumed with the manipulations described above. In the evening of May 26, my future bride called to say she had been laid off her job in Michigan. I immediately called my Dad and asked him to call the schools at home to see if there was an opening. I called him back a day later to see what he had found. Yep they had a job and would be happy to have me.

It was late afternoon when I shook the dust of that place from my shoes and drove off into my future. To give this tale a happy ending, I met my new principal a few days later. Then, I thought he would be a good man to work for. Today, forty years later, I am sure he is the finest boss for whom I have ever worked, anywhere! That is another whole story. I shall write it down soon.

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