From Mr. Killstudent’s Lethal Bag of Teaching Tricks: Quotations. (What would Mr. Christ do?)
It’s an ordinary Tuesday in the second week of June, and that means the kids aren’t doing shit. And it means I – the sub – am not doing much to change that.
It’s the first time all year it’s not pitch black during 1st hour. Instead of being at the mercy of a furnace that doesn’t work well – or works far too well – the windows are open, scaring off the dank shadows of winter. There’s a playful breeze gently flicking the pages of their math book, resuscitating their senses; it is the devil on their shoulder, whispering to them to bust out of there. The kids can taste the freedom of summer break, and are proportionately emboldened when confronted with the Lesson 10-6: Graphing Parabolas worksheet I just handed out.
“Oh my GAAAW!… (tsk) I ain’t doin’ nothin’! What kind of crazy teacher give homework the last week of school?”
A completely batty one, I guess. Doesn’t Mrs. F. know this is the part of the year where the teachers finally surrender to the students’ hard-earned, foot-dragging inertia? I shrug at them, lean back in my chair, and stare at nothing in particular. The wind ripples all the crap taped to the walls. I look at a poster right above the door. It’s a picture of a mountain, with a quote.
I look around the room. According to the students, the world does not eat enough Doritos, idly play with their phones enough, or vengefully gossip about backstabbing hos or the different types of bitches enough. The world does not sleep on top of curled up forearms on desktops enough. And it asks to go to the bathroom far, far too little. Is this the change they wish to see? By my observations, the movement has been very successful.
I think back to when I was still in college, telling people that I’d decided to be a teacher. I spoke hopefully of being a different kind of teacher than the ones I’d had. One that would wake the kids up, not put them to sleep! One that helped them locate thrilling epiphanies, instead of following the lockstep of lesson plans! One that would honor the students as humans rather than training them like dogs. One that would teach the kids to channel their precious energy to change the world in constructive endeavors, instead of defaulting into destructive habits.
After such a speech, my older brother simply told me: “Yeah, I guess either the school system’s going to change, or you’re going to change. Gee, I wonder which one it’s going to be.”
I sit in the teacher’s chair, picturing my brother’s quote as the new caption to the motivational poster. The mountain image becomes more appropriate, actually – perhaps completed with the starved skeleton of a backpacked climber, 1/4 way up the mountain.
They call it burnout. But I think sometimes there is a weary wisdom in burnout. In my case at least, it was asking the dangerous question of why: Why do the kids – day after day – resist? Don’t they know I’m on their side, trying to help them?
In the teachers’ lounge, over fatty, cheese-laden salads, the Real Teachers reached a consensus:
They don’t know any better. You have to be firm. You have to make them do it. Otherwise they’ll walk all over you.
Thanks for the insight. Actually, I liked the days when the students and I would just talk and not do any schoolwork. If I’d known they were walking all over me, I never would have stood for it.
In the spirit of professional development and skill-sharing, why don’t they put that quote on a poster?
You have to make them do it, they don’t know any better - captioning a picture of a deer drinking in a meadow.
Inevitably, my brother was right: this mentality did creep in, and it was only on the drive home certain days that I noticed that I hadn’t been myself. Rather, I had been Mr. So-and-so, a mutated, teacherized version of myself, a medium through which the age-old platitudes “sit down” and “be quiet” echoed without my permission. This encroaching teacher-within scared the shit out of me, and I resigned before I got to the point of filling my wall with inspirational Garfield posters. Sure enough, Mrs. F. has one right above my head:
Is it Friday yet?
The last straw. Time to inspire with the ancient wisdom of the great philosophers. I get up out of the teacher’s chair, walk to the chalkboard and start writing:
Inspirational quote of the day:
As I write, the students watch, their chatter overpowered by suspenseful silence. What is this sub doing?
“What made me the great leader I am today? Math worksheets.”
A few students laugh. “This teacher’s cool.” One girl turns to her friend, “I don’t think Gandhi said that.”
No, I don’t think Gandhi would. He was not a fan of the cultural aggression of traditional schools. In fact, he said “India’s salvation lies in unlearning what she has learnt in the past 50 years.”
But Mr. Gandhi, on the other hand – the paunchy one with the ill-fitting button shirt and the giant coffee mug, hired as an English teacher by the British imperialists – might say something like that. Or perhaps he would order some Garfield posters to do it for him. Next door, Mr. Christ the Social Studies teacher would be haranguing his class: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for you all to pay attention!”
After lunch, I began writing a new Inspirational Quote of the Day:
Why learn math in 10th grade? So you can do math in 11th grade.
The students began to look up. I kept going.
Why learn math in 11th grade? So you can do math in 12th grade.
They start to giggle.
Why learn math in 12th grade? So you can do math in college.
“What are you writing! When does it end?!” The bold ones yell out.
Why learn math in college? So you can be a substitute teacher some day, my brothers!
-Martin Luther King
They laugh, but it’s tempered. I should have given them a spoiler alert. “That’s horrrr-ible!” one girl said.
I don’t much anymore ask myself why the students resist their worksheets – or why they didn’t want to be like me, and know the things I know, and think the way I think. I now tend to trust that they have their own collective wisdom within that resistance; that, much like Gandhi, they know something the imperialists do not.