Phony Baloney!

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Last night I learned that an opening in the sort of school I have always dreamed of teaching in is about to be posted. It’s a private prep school where the students have been raised to excel, where the artistic strictures are looser (the kids get to do musicals like “A Chorus Line” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), and the Arts are not treated like step children. Their Theatre faculty consists of one MS teacher and three HS teachers. A team! Their web page shows images of productions that look lively and innovative. I was so excited! I spent the evening imagining myself applying and interviewing, accepting the position, relocating…then I crashed to earth.

I think I am such a fraud in this profession! Sure, I started doing Theatre in high school, but I didn’t major in it in college, I didn’t step on a stage during my baby making years, I sort of fell into this position.

In 2000 I was seeing this brilliant therapist who was helping me get through some stuff. One of the questions she asked me that day (because I was, as always, expressing my dissatisfaction with my career- at that time I was a second grade teacher) was whether I wanted to teach at all. I answered that I did because I wanted my schedule to stay compatible with my kids’. So her next question was “If you’re going to stay in teaching, what’s the one thing you want to teach more than anything else?” My answer: “Theatre.” Where the heck did that come from? I had only renewed my love for theatrical performance within the last five years, performing in four musicals. I only had one college Theatre class, the only one that was offered, an appreciation and history class. I had not ever once had an acting class.

About a month later, I was interviewing for an English position at one of the district’s junior high campuses and the principal mentioned that he had just lost his Theatre teacher. I was hired for the position before I left that day.I commenced to study for the certification exam and passed it handily on the first try.

My friends Sylvia and Margy have long said that when one truly and deeply desires something, one must speak it aloud to the Universe, believing fully that the gift of your heart’s desire will come to you. I have always wondered about that. With no more than a valid teacher certificate and a verbal wish, I found myself plopped in the middle of a junior high Theatre classroom, complete with small stage, costume and prop storage, and pubescent students full of energy, wiggles, and attitude!

My early years in that Theatre classroom consisted of a lot of trial and error: I accidentally took two ineligible actors to my first UIL OAP because no one explained eligibility to me, I had seventh and eighth graders reading “The Crucible,” and I spent way too much time in the text book.

I have ended up being okay at what I do, but I always want to be better, so I went to UH and got a Master’s Degree in Theatre. What? I have an M.A in Theatre?

While I was getting my M.A. I just kept expecting the professors to look quizzically at me and remind me that the Education classes were in another building and would I please leave the Theatre classes for the real Theatre folks (for the record, none of my profs ever even hinted at such a thing). On the first day of class one of my classmates was asking people how many times they’d been to U.I.L.State One Act over the meet- and-greet pastry buffet, for goodness’ sake! I was just finishing year three of high school teaching, I had not even advanced out of Zone once yet!

Somehow, I still always feel like an impostor. I go to events where there are a lot of Theatre teachers and I wonder if they can see the sign that I feel like is flashing over my head: NOT ONE OF US! I wonder if my students sense that most of the time I feel like I am reaching for wisdom to share with them, hoping that what I ask them to do on stage will actually work, and expecting any one of them to lead a coup and assume responsibility for instruction.

When I get home, I have to try to sound like I know what’s up in Theatre with my husband and eldest daughter, who are so ridiculously talented I feel like an utter charlatan when I am with them. Their theatrical instincts are so good, and they know how to dig to get to the characters’ truths (my son is a rock musician and stage combatant, my younger daughter is more fitness and dance buff, I am none of those things so I feel less intimidated by them.)

Maybe one of the hallmarks of middle adulthood is that we realize how much we don’t know, how much we are just muddling through each day trying to do what we’re paid to do without screwing up too badly, how much we hope no one else realizes how clueless and lost we actually are. When I was a young adult in college and into my twenties, I was so sure that I knew what was best, that my contemporary and freshly minted knowledge trumped experience, and that the old folks over 40 had no clue. No that I am over 40, I absolutely know that I have no clue.

I don’t know if I will work up the nerve to apply for this position. It’s junior high, it means relocation to Austin, and it’s scary. I fear getting called for an interview, I fear not being called just as much.

What I do know is whatever I do, I will most likely be faking it until I make it, whether it’s teaching, designing, or working in an office.

Will the Real Theatre Teacher in the room please stand up? Oh wait, I think that’s me.

A Teacher Loses It.

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This morning, just as I was about to walk out the door into the dark predawn to head to school, I saw a news story that both surprised and yet did not surprise me. In California, a teacher beat up a 15 year old student who became aggressive in an attempt to get her makeup back. In the cell phone video, the student can be seen bumping up against the teacher, talking trash and bullying the teacher until the teacher snaps and advances on the student, fists flying . The teacher and student end up on the floor, rolling and kicking and pulling hair, all while another student records the action with a cell phone. I imagine most people would be shocked, dismayed, and indignant. I was, for about three seconds: “How could a teacher do that? Doesn’t she know that our job is to protect these students?” Then I remembered.

In 2009, I came upon a couple having an argument in the hallway. It was my conference period and I was on my way to the front office. These two were in the middle of what looked like a pretty ugly disagreement. It was in the middle of the class period, so the halls were empty and quite frankly, it looked like this young woman might be in physical danger if I didn’t get them separated. I told them to return to class, then watched until the young lady got back into her art class. At that point, her boyfriend pinned me into a corner, balled up his fists, and seethed threats and innuendos into my face. I was all alone, the halls were deserted, we were out of sight of the security camera, and this was a 17 year old kid who definitely had the physical strength and stature to do me harm. I managed to keep a poker face until he finally left me, then I got myself to the front office and fell apart.

On another occasion I had to break up a fight between two girls and ended up punched so hard I could not move my arm at all for about an hour and had bruises in the shape of knuckles on my bicep for weeks.

My husband works in a post secondary trade school, where a student cut the brake lines on a teacher’s car in retaliation for what the student believed was an unsatisfactory grade.

We have to practice drills with our students to protect ourselves in case someone goes rogue terrorist.

Acts of aggression against teachers are not just physical. Every day, teachers contend with insults and defiance. Social media is used to rake teachers over hot coals of insolence. Surely you have seen the video clip  of 68 year old bus aide Karen Klein being taunted for over ten minutes on a bus. The insults and language she endured are appalling.

We teachers are told over and over that we must rise above all of these unacceptable behaviors. We must be ever professional and calm, always responding to verbal or physical disrespect with cool detachment. Most of the time, in fact, nearly all of the time, we somehow manage to calmly walk away and fill out a discipline referral or call a parent, knowing that very little may be accomplished.

The mother of the young lady who threatened the teacher did not seem at all remorseful that her daughter had acted so inappropriately. She was full of righteous indignation that a teacher had defended herself. I just do not get that. If one of my kids advanced on a teacher like that, I think I would have some serious parenting issues to address.

This is from an article by Tim Walker in the National Education Association’s online publication:

“According to a recent article published by the American Psychological Association (APA), 80 percent of teachers surveyed were victimized at school at least once in the current school year or prior year. Teacher victimization is a “national crisis,” says Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who served as chair of the APA task force on Classroom Violence Directed at Teachers.  And yet, the issue is generally ignored or at least underreported by the media and given inadequate attention by scholars – a deficiency that has widespread implications for school safety, the teaching profession and student learning.”

The article goes on to explain the prevalence of harassment and violence against teachers, behaviors that are perpetrated primarily by both students and parents.

The American Psychological Association says:

“Each year, 253,100 (7 percent) teachers are threatened with injury…

  • 78,500 (31 percent) male teachers
  • 174,500 (69 percent) female teachers”

We teachers sometimes find ourselves in highly charged environments. The students significantly  outnumber us and we are, in truth, only protected from them by our trust in their adherence to the social contract and their reluctance to get in trouble.  Most of the students I encounter every day have absolutely no desire to harm me or anyone else. But all it takes is one simmering kid to boil over and hit, push, stab, or shoot.

Look, I am not saying that the teacher in California did right. What I am saying is that when big adolescents who outweigh us lift a hand and  threaten harm to us, we might respond like any reasonable human. We might just hit back.

When students smear us on social media, we might just want to frame our own social media responses in defense.

When students steal from us and trash our rooms and belongings, we might just wonder what life in another profession looks like.

According to both the NEA and APA, the first defense against this insidious problem is to make the public more aware of its existence. Teachers also need more training in realistic conflict resolution.

I am here to tell you that not all children are innocent angels. Sometimes they are mean and violent and ruthless. Even the most precious young people can be capable of hurting another human. Parents, students, administrators, and legislators owe it to teachers to listen and protect them, and to work cooperatively to ensure safe classrooms and hallways.

Sometimes, it’s not JUST about the students.

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