HE'S BACK, AND HE WANTS AN AUDIENCE
“Hey, it’s Mike. Remember?"
My voice rang with a note of holiday cheer as I walked around the shopping mall in Leesburg, Florida, hunting traces of my old readership.
“I was Editor of the Leesburg Commercial, and l wrote columns for the Sentinel in Lake County. I probably spoke at your Kiwanis meeting or something…had more hair then.”
A wiry matron paused her mall walk to glance at me. Her eyes said “Wha?” but I heard her husband whisper “Don’t say anything, honey. He wants money. Poor guy.”
No, wait. I tried to explain, but they scurried away.
I drove up to The Villages, and found a couple coming out of the new health-food grocery store. He carried a cloth bag with organic salad mix sticking out of the top. She led him toward a vehicle that looked half-VW, half-golf cart. Aging hippies, retired to Florida. This tribe once dug me.
I asked if they recalled my newspaper columns about critter-friendly backyards, native wildflowers, songbirds and butterfly hosts. A hint of paranoia crept into his eyes while she reached for a phone.
Some guys know how to handle rejection. Not me. I went away, found a place to sit down and spent an hour watching people, imagining what they would be like as readers.
Maybe it took some time apart from them for the knowledge to sink in, but I realize now that readers meant something important to me. It wasn’t a huge relationship with a vast audience, but it was our relationship, and I miss it. My old newspaper column was something like a community bulletin board. We talked, we argued, we learned from each other. We were in it together.
My mugshot once graced billboards on the highway. Breakfast cooks sought my blessing for their cheese grits. Critics sent boots with bullet holes in the toe and 50-lb. bags of cow manure. Friends called with stories of scrub jays eating peanuts out of their hands, and alligators snatching poodles off the porch. I even liked it when readers blasted me with letters to the editor; you can learn from critics as well as friends.
Dear readers of yesteryear: What would it take to get you back? Would you read me on your computer or phone instead of the paper?
How about I tell you what happened and then you decide?
After I stopped writing in 2001, I rested a bit, took some classes at UCF and morphed into a school teacher.
Friends said “you’re nuts to do this.”
“Au contraire,” I replied in my fresh English teacher vocabulary. “I was nuts to wait so long.”
I’ve been teaching English at Mount Dora High six years now, glad to be spending my days with so many warm-hearted, dedicated people.
Colleagues, students, and parents supported and encouraged me. They kept telling me how much teachers matter, how they can make such a huge difference in a person’s life. The school community welcomed me.
My first big discovery was that our state government takes an entirely different view. State leaders use teachers as scapegoats for education problems caused by their own reluctance to provide normal funding the way other states do.
I trained like crazy and learned everything I could about my new profession. But somehow I couldn’t escape the feeling that as a teacher I was nothing but an annoying nuisance to the Governor and Legislature – and they didn’t even know me. How sad, I thought. All these people in classrooms working their hearts out for children, being maligned and disrespected by state leaders who should be supporting them.
I'm glad I joined the Lake County Education Association. My state may not think teaching is a worthy, valuable profession, but my union does. .
That first year in the classroom was like strong black coffee on the morning after one too many. What was I thinking? What did I get myself into?
Writing for a living and teaching writing to high school students are two planets that inhabit opposing corners of the English universe.
No Mike, you can’t bring a softball bat to school like that guy in the movie. Now get back out there and guard the parking lot.
Get used to it, Mike, the air-conditioning doesn’t work in anybody’s classroom. Get a fan.
I understand you consider lunch hour a mark of civilization, Mike, but the other teachers were not hazing you when they said you only have 30 minutes to eat and you can’t leave campus. Deal with it.
A word of advice for brave souls coming into the field from cozier professions – I hope you have a bladder of steel. You must wait for the bell, the bell that rings in 90 minutes, the bell that signals a wild dash to the bathroom, to lunch, or to the next class. Imagine the canon boom that released wagons and horses in The Great Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893.
While waiting, you learn to clamp down and talk at the same time. OK Tommy, grunt, where’s the metaphor in this passage, grunt, and why, grunt, did the author, grunt, use it? How does it serve her, grunt, grunt, purpose?
Everything you heard about low salaries is true. And if you gripe about it, the answer from Tallahassee goes something like this – Hurry up and quit so we can replace you with someone who gets even lower pay.
When former students come back and share success stories, though, it makes you want to move “Good-bye Mr. Chips” to the top of the Netflix queue. Get the 1939 version starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson, and have some tissues handy.
And when a top student publicly thanks you in a graduation speech, you're lucky if you make it to the parking lot before you start blubbering.
A second big discovery occurred after I had droned on and on to a colleague about my background.
“Yes, yes, that’s all fine,” she said. “But students don’t care what you know … until they know that you care.”
Hmm. I didn’t know what to make of that little slogan. I assumed she got it from one of those consultants hired to torture us.
The thought stuck, though, and I started noticing that students do respond better when you care enough to catch them doing something right. They try harder when they feel your concern about their progress.
The science of teaching requires study and reflection. For kids to learn, you must expect the best, and push for it. You have to know what you’re talking about. But you can’t just tell them what you know. You have to lead them to discover things on their own, and to think at the high end of the scale where people solve problems and generate creative ideas. Memorizing is for parrots, not humans.
We all have different ways of learning, a different mix of learning styles, and serious time must be spent planning and working those differences into lessons. Some people can read an idea and get it immediately. Others hear it and get it. Still others need to talk about it, or do something with it. You have to know who needs what, and provide it. That's not easy.
When they act up, or get bored, you want them to see why school is a smart option. The biggest lessons of all are teaching kids to love learning, and how to learn on their own. Then growth becomes a life-long pattern. This isn't easy, either - especially when they give you a room full of wild ones.
The state is always pushing merit pay based on bubble tests, which are about as reliable a measurement as a roulette wheel. Instead, Florida should offer hazard pay to the brave souls who teach society's violent, young rowdies in an era when you have almost no tools left to control them. Unless you have been in one of those rooms, you have no idea what it's like.
It takes physical and mental energy to factor in all these conditions and teach effectively. It also requires time to think, time to plan, and time to customize your approach to the needs of your current crop of students.
Only a fool, or a sadly uninformed Tallahassee politician who bashes teachers for a living, believes you can standardize the learning process and then measure it all with a bubble test.
When teachers have the time and freedom to approach these well-proven methods in their own creative ways, students stand a better chance of succeeding in life.
When schools follow Florida’s test-prep model, learning takes a back seat to accounting.
Marginal students get bored because they get tested every 15 minutes, top students get bored because money for electives went for test-prep, and students in the middle get bored because everybody else is bored. Top teachers get bored, too. They retire early or move away. And then everybody wonders what went wrong.
Becoming a teacher challenged me, and I have so much more to learn. However, I am finally able to pause long enough to reflect on these last few years.
It's time to share what I discovered about teaching. It's time to build a network of concerned people who support public education.
I believe we have all heard enough about schools from politicians. I’d rather hear from students, parents, teachers, and school leaders. Let them discuss education for a change.
Let’s get the conversation started. Here’s our first question for discussion.
Florida’s State Constitution requires a uniform and “high quality” public education system. What does “high-quality” mean to you? Do you think this requirement is now being met?
Please help build our network by forwarding this blog to teachers, parent groups, and school leaders throughout Central Florida. Please use private email addresses, not school email. Thanks!