Sunday, September 30, 2007

Advice For Those Who Would Work With Larvae

Almost 20 years ago, I stood on the dock at Fort Matanzas National Monument talking with a seasonal Ranger, Big Ed, who only worked for the NPS during his summers off from teaching eighth grade history in Palatka.

I was a full time Ranger considering changing careers. I shared with him that I was thinking about switching gears and becoming a middle school teacher.

He squinted at me in the bright Florida sun and asked, "Are you sure? I thought you loved the Park Service."

"I do, but I want to put down roots. I think it's time."

Big Ed took off his Park Service Stetson and stroked his goatee. "Well, if you're serious, I'm going to give you some advice."

I waited, expecting a long dissertation on the fine points of teaching. Big Ed the Teacher, Vietnam Vet and ex Raiford Prison Guard, was full of tales ... most of which I can't repeat here.

"NEVER give them free time. They can't handle it." He turned and watched the last tourists of the day step onto the park ferry moored next to us.

"That's it? Never give them free time? What else?"

He put his hat back on and boarded the little ferry to Fort Matanzas where about a dozen tourists sat waiting for him to give his Ranger talk. The captain started the engine and the Matanzas Queen slowly edged away from the dock.

"Ed, that can't be all of your advice. You've taught middle school for years. What else do I need to know?"

"That's it. You already know the other stuff." He turned away and I could hear him greeting the tourists as the boat headed across the intracoastal waterway towards the tiny stone fort.

That was quite possibly the best teaching advice anyone ever gave me.

The potential for mayhem contained within a single middle school kid is a wonder to behold. Multiply that by 29 kids in a classroom and you have a tiger by the tail every day.

If you let go of that tail, they will eat you alive.

No free time. Teach from bell to bell and they will learn and you will keep your sanity.
Big Ed was right.

Along the way, I've learned a few things about larval humans myself. Here's a few thoughts on these fascinating, funny, heartbreaking, struggling creatures ...

When a middle school girl looks you in the eye and announces, " If I don't make it as a rock star, I'm going to be a veterinarian" , whatever you do, don't laugh out loud.

She's serious.

In her reality, anything IS possible, and you must NOT, under any circumstances, ruin that for her.

In my experience, most seventh grade girls are either going to be pediatricians or veterinarians. That has not changed much through the years.

If they all followed through, our kids and dogs would each have exclusive personal physicians.

When that seventh grade boy who drives you crazy each day with his horseplay and offtask antics has pushed your last button, remember his Dad was beating him until he was legally removed from the house last week ... thanks to an observant teacher who questioned him about his black eyes.

Cut him a little slack, find something he can be successful at, and praise him for it.

When a seventh grade girl says to you, "I'm so stupid, I forgot my lunch money." She's really saying, "I'm hungry and I'm not going to get lunch today. Can you help?"

Resist the urge to reach into your wallet. Handing out cash to kids is not a road you want to go down. Besides, you're a teacher ... it's probably empty anyhow.

Instead, reach into your stash of healthy snacks and give her a granola bar or breakfast cookie. Tell her to explain her situation to the cafeteria ladies. They won't let her go hungry.

Remember that the angry screamer kid who's interpersonal skills make a wolverine seem cuddly is just mimicing his parents. In his house, everyone yells at everyone else over the slightest perceived wrong. That was made clear at the parent teacher meeting ... whew! When you meet the parents, you understand the kid. After all, apples don't fall far from the tree ... and neither do nuts.
Don't tolerate angry outbursts ... just understand that he thinks this is normal.
Show him the way.

Weave your own tales into the subject matter where appropriate, so the topic becomes real, and in so doing, you will become real to them also. There's a good chance that in their minds eye, you are an automaton who emerges from the classroom closet each morning and then returns in the afternoon. Show them you are real.
Show them they are real.

Never forget that you are on stage every second of the day. Even when you think you're not.
Never underestimate your influence, even though you may think it's nil. They are watching and listening. They know the teachers who say one thing, but do another. They know the teachers who belittle them, who are in the wrong job, who don't care. They know.

They do listen so pick your tales and words carefully. I once had a young woman stop me at a high school football game and say, " Hi Mr. FC! Remember me?"
Now she had only been in my 7th grade Life Science class for about half a year before moving and that had been years ago, but she had been such a bright sparkler that I actually did pull her name out of my memory.
I asked her how and what she was up to these days and she said, " I just got accepted to Dental School at UF. Remember that story you told us about your two root canals back in 7th grade?"
I nodded, surprised that she would mention that. The story was to illustrate how quickly things can change due to science and education. I had told the tale of a very painful root canal on a broken tooth when I was 12 (My child hood dentist was ancient and probably went to dental school in the 1920's. He didn't use anesthetics much) and a second painless one 6 years later at the age of 18. Different dentists, different training and technology. The whole story took 10 minutes of a class on teeth and bones ... years ago.

" That was the day I decided to become a dentist."

So you never know what sticks and what rolls off of them. Just keep in mind that the squirmy mass of middle school human larvae contains future doctors, lawyers, soldiers, cops, artists, builders, chefs, technicians, nurses, and murderers. All of these and more have passed through my class in the larval form. Some metamorphosed predictably and some surprised me.

Teach them well and the rest is up to them.

Keep Big Ed's advice in mind every day ...

"Never Give Them Free Time"

... Especially the murderers.


kevin said...

Kelly gives this post an A+. She has always said the same thing.

Tell Mrs. FC I feel her pain.

Anonymous said...

I can't speak from an adult perspective on this one, as I'm neither parent nor teacher, but I can say that throughout my life I've been fortunate to have a few teachers who would agree with you. They did make a difference, and I will always remember them. I know that sometimes the smallest seed of knowledge fell at just the right time to blossom, and to be remembered.

Hurricane Teen said...

Ah, so true. I remember every one of my middle school teachers, and at least one aspect of their respective classes sticks out to me. I remember which ones were interested in teaching, and which ones weren't...which ones cared and which ones didn't. Little larvae are surprisingly attentive. Also, your posts about teachers help me to understand what teachers do and do not like about students. I use that as a guide to fine-tine my donkey kissing skills :-D

life on the road said...

My mom has been teaching middle school for 25 years and she always has these stories to tell about running into past students and learning how far they have gone in life despite the obstacles. They never cease to amaze me. As someone who is an informal educator who has given some thoughts of going into the formal classroom, I appreciate this entry. For now, I'm going to stick with being the fun field trip kind of teacher but people like you keep giving me reasons to work in a school.

threecollie said...

My heavens FC, that last line was a cliff hanger....have you had many of those?
I will never forget 8th grade....getting kind words from a teacher I didn't even particularly like, Mrs. Garno, about writing a descriptive essay of those moments from the other side. A lot of other things intervened but it ended up being important.

pablo said...

When I was in Colby last weekend, walking through a grocery store I never before been in through my whole life, a young woman said "Hello, Mr. XXXXX." I thought to myself, how does this person know me at all?

It turns out she was talking to my son who is her teacher at the local high school. It came to me then how life keeps moving.

roger said...

a nice passing of wisdom, from big ed to you to the kids. i'll bet there was someone who dropped a few pearls of wisdom in front of big ed, and that some of your kids pass on bits too.

robin andrea said...

I wish every teacher everywhere could read this, fc. It's so rich and wise. Your students are lucky to have you because you really do deeply consider where they are and who they are at the moment. Big Ed's advice was smart, and it probably keeps you sane and available to your friends and families in the off-hours.

I always wanted to be a teacher. I ended up advising students at the university for fifteen years instead. Same rules hold true. The students were not middle-school age anymore, so they were on their way to some of their dreams. And yes, the nuts don't fall far from the tree.

rcwbiologist said...

Your students are lucky to have you, but your kids are even luckier to have you as a dad.

vicki said...

The head cold must have unleashed your creative juices. This is one of your best posts and reflects your no-nonsense compassionate approach to life. I laughed and sighed- and it's so tree about idle hands being the devil's workshop, when it comes to young people. Lucky for so many that you decided to put down roots.

Larry said...

A wonderful personal essay! This should be given out in printed form to every new middle school teacher. There is more substance in this post than in the majority of jargon-laden teaching tomes.

Deb said...

You almost had me in tears, FC. Great post and honest words of advice. My favorite teachers were the ones who made me feel like I was more than a student, and they were more than a teacher...were were all humans. I look at signs like my Calvin's teacher playing guitar in class and how Starflower's old kindergarten teacher had a good conversation with her the other day and think...I like these teachers!

Laura said...

"Never give them free time"
Ahhh Big Ed, that advice is good for middle and high school parents as well. :)

"Teach them well, and the rest is up to them." And from you, this one is so true!

FC, this was one of my favorite posts. As I read through each paragraph, various faces came to mind of the kids I've come across in all the years my girls have been in public school.

It is so hard to be a teenager these days. At times I think they have more peer pressure to deal with than we did as teenagers all those years ago.

And it is so challenging for those of us who care enough to want them to succeed despite all odds.

I'm so glad you do what you do.

kmoo said...

"Never give them free time. They can't handle it." Good advice for most adults as well.

SophieMae said...

Yeah, what they all said. 8-]

I'll never forget my first grade teacher (no compulsory kiddie garden back then). It's a wonder, after 9 months with her, that I absolutely loved school with a purple passion. Then again, I'll also never forget my 2nd grade teacher. Night and day those two were. I can still remember the effects each and every teacher had on me... positive as well as negative. And of course, there were those few who, sadly, made no impression at all.

Thunder Dave said...

Wow man, deep!

Cathy S. said...

Agreed one of your best posts ever. Those are some lucky students.

Danielle Blogging for Balance said...

This needs to be printed off and distributed at the next 'teacher day'. Awesome post...from an awesome teacher. Was psychology your favorite subject???? ;)

Mark said...

Well, FC, I have said before I wish I had had you as a teacher.

The influence thing is interesting. About 15 or 20 years ago I volunteered once a week as a tutor at an elementary school. For the most part what we did was simply provide an adult that paid attention for about 30 minutes a week. A couple of years after I "tutored" a young fellow, he saw me in the school hall and said, "You probably don't remember me ..." Of course I did, but I was surprised that he remembered me.

Sharon said...

If only every teacher had your outlook. :) I had a couple of teachers like that, it's truly a gift to BE a teacher, and not just have the JOB of teacher. I've been on that ferry boat. It was more like 17 years ago though. ;)

Rurality said...

Kewl! Did you ask her if she'd give you a discount?! :)

Cathy S. said...

I am thinking that the encounter with Big Ed would make a great beginning to a novel about a middle school science teacher who solves an ecological mystery and saves the small town he lives in.

Floridacracker said...

Tell her thanks for the high marks!
Mrs. FC was a knotted up nerve on the couch during that game.

Well said. I had one plant the Hemmingway seed and I am forever grateful to her.

We know when you're kissing up.

Life On The Road,
Don't go until you're ready. I don't know how these 22 year olds come out of college and start teaching.
I had to work in Law Enforcement for 8 years first.

I can think of two murderers without any effort. One was just arrested a month ago.
In your example, maybe Mrs. Garno saw the future writer before you did.

And so it begins. I hope he's enjoying it. The first year can be hell ... they should pay you double that year.

i am in debt to big ed. you are right about the kids. i learn much from them.

I try to be both sane and available, but sometimes I fail :)
I think you would have been a fascinating teacher. What would you have picked for a subject area?

We Dads are the lucky ones pal. Stay tuned, I have a post coming up this week that's right up your alley.

I'll take that compliment and run with it. ALL your posts seem so thoughtful and many of mine are pretty light.

Sadly all they get is testing data and how to teach the FCAT style.Thank you for the kind words.

I'm so glad your kids are working with good teachers. I think the teachers probably enjoy your kids immensely. They come with such a good background of talent, knowledge, and experiences.

You're right, it is hard to be a teen.
Reading Vitaminsea, it's clear you are that supportive parent that so many of our kids lack.
There's horrific parenting going on out there and it often becomes a repeating generational cycle.
Thank God for the good ones.

I have to agree :)

It's scary the teachers I can't remember. I feel sorry for them.
How terrible to have a bad first grade teacher. First impressions and all that ...
No kinder for me either :)

It percolated for awhile dude. Came to a boil yesterday while I was mowing.

Cathy S,
Thanks!What's that old writer's advice? "Write what you know."
Hey, how about the Valentine House getting moved? I saw a photo in the Gainesville Sun.

I only took one psychology course. It was at SJRCC and the instructor was only a few years older than us and cute as a button.
I did find enjoy the class though.

Mentoring is so important. Some of these kids have no good role models once they leave school.

Well, you just missed me.

I fear dentists.
My childhood dentist made sure of that.

Floridacracker said...

Cathy S,
He's an exFish and Wildlife Special Agent who ...

Cathy S. said...

We win some, we loose some. The Valentine House was a big win this week. Balanced out the some of the losses. I am impressed the news made it all the way to the Gainesville Sun!

anonymous me said...

late to the party, but great post. very great.

i suspect that if you asked guys in prison which teachers mattered to them, which ones cared about them -- many would be lucky to come up with one or two.

for some, the deep lessons of those one or two might be reaping benefits years or decades later, as they try to make good, thoughtful, caring lives in the worst of all places. [this isn't actually a hypothetical. i work with guys on death row, who tend to have a lot of bad stories in their backgrounds, and also, thankfully, a few rays of light.]

there are many kids who do not have quite such bad circumstances, and use every drop of the good stuff good teachers give them. i know that, because it is true for me. there was abuse going on in my house all during the time i was growing up, but nobody could know about it.

i'm all anonymous today because i don't talk about my work much in the blog world. or, much about my own past. but i cannot say enough about caring, straightforward, keep-everyone-busy, and isn't this wonderful! teachers.

Floridacracker said...

Cathy S,
I think the fact that it was on a barge made it newsworthy beyond TC.

Thank you for that perspective. It's painful to think of what some kids go through at "home".
I would bet that most of our prisoners grew up in either neglectful or downright abusive homes.

robin andrea said...

FC-- At the time, when I was in 7th grade, I would have answered that I wanted to teach English. If I could have answered when I was in my 30s I would have said Biology. My two loves.

Anonymous said...

So what's this about Hemingway? Do tell!

Floridacracker said...

I could have guessed.

I love Papa H's writing, but would never have thought to read him as a teen if Mrs. Simpson (my Lit teacher) had not assigned "For Whom The Bell Tolls" to me.
She started a fire.

Cathy S. said...

That is actually the third one we have had moved by barge in the last year. With so much development, we are fighting as hard as we can to save what we can. A whole neighborhood was demolished while I was on vacation in July. It was the site of our county's first settlement. The timing was probably a coincidence but I was glad I wasn't here to see it. We will probably lose more before we are done. But, we are restoring an 1890 store building right now and getting ready to move an 1880 house next month. We're trying to do more with less these days.

Floridacracker said...

Cathy S,
More with less.
Sounds very familiar.

bluebird of paradise said...

you must be an extraordinary teacher. i'm sending this one to my daughter who teaches high school drama and has decided to step out for a year to rethink her career choice. it may help

Anonymous said...

Well, speaking of what sticks and what may not, I was once a student in your class several years ago, and you inspired me to become a teacher. Prior to your class I wanted to be a cop or lawyer, but after I experienced your class I knew exactly what I wanted to be. So thanks, Mr. FC! Great post from a great guy.

Anonymous said...

This was a fabulous post, albeit, for me, topically disappointing in a small way.

You hoodwinked me.

Leslie said...

The bit about not laughing at the girl's career choices (rock star or vet) made me chuckle. One of my daughters came home from kindergarten with some drawings once; they'd been asked to depict what they wanted to be when they grew up.

"I want to be a ballerina and then a whale, Mommy!"

I told her that it was a respectable career path followed by more than a few women. Did I do okay?

Cathy said...

FC - time to create a book proposal, get an agent, get published.

Kimberlee said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes to everything you said. I've taught for twenty-one years in rural, urban, and now "bush" schools...the only real difference has been geography. The realities of the classroom (as it is and as it should be) are the same everywhere. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I think Cathy is right about starting a book! :)