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.
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.