Monday, November 12, 2018

Oh, Oh, Mr Robertson!- A Weird Teacher Mailbag Post

I've wanted to do a Mailbag-type post for forever, but part of doing that is assuming that people have questions they want to send to you. In short, it depends even more on how important you think your opinions are than a normal blog post. But they're also a lot of fun if the questions are good and the answers are either funny or sharp. It was with trepidation that I posted the above tweet, hoping it wouldn't go unresponded to for three hours. Great for the ol' ego, that. But I should have trusted the community. It looks like I got a couple of pretty serious questions, so there's probably not going to be much tomfoolery. We'll see what happens.
 Absolutely! Especially because I don't see it as embracing my weirdness. To quote Frank Zappa, "I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird." I honestly still don't see it as being weird when I'm looking from the inside out, I only see it as weird when I'm trying to see it from the eyes of others. I'm just being me. Now, I want to be super duper clear here that I'm not drawing a straight line from "I'm kinda weird to other people" to "that prevents the bullying of gay students", nor am I calling being LGBTQ "weird" in any way. It's just the place I start when I think of things like this because it's where I get placed by others, and it's something I embraced. But it's pretty easy for me to embrace. Straight white guy, so yeah, call me weird, oh no, I'm so persecuted. You got me right in the privileges.

All of that said as kind of a preamble, I hope it does. I hope that in being comfortable in my own skin, and in talking about that with me kids, I am modelling a mindset that my students can take as their own. And part of that weirdness is decentering things that are "normal". Specifically, openly. Letting the kids say what they think and then talking about it. It starts as simply as when my boys come into the class and someone calls them my daughters, another kid will correct him and he'll say, "Well they've got long hair!" Then the whole room looks at me, then back at the kid, and he corrects himself. If there's time we chase that conversation a little longer. And hopefully that changed an attitude.

I think what really helps set the class tone of acceptance and tolerance is that I say, on the first day, and on the regular after that, that everyone is welcome in our class, everyone is cool, and anyone cutting someone down for being "different" will not be tolerated. It's the quickest way to have a Very Serious Talk In The Hall™. And then I back that up by being as who I am as I can be and encouraging the kids to do the same. Fourth and fifth grades are wonderful for that, they are learning who they really are.

I'm in a unique position with this question, which I think is a very important question that all teachers should think about. Because once you're settled in to a place it's hard to leave. And I don't mean that in a dismissive "You're too lazy to try to move" way, but in a "moving across on that pay scale is hard to give up because pay ain't great as it is" way.

I've taught in three states, four districts, five schools. I learned a ton from my time in Southern California, Hawaii, Southern Oregon, and Northern Oregon. I wouldn't trade any of it for anything, even the two truly awful years, one in Hawaii and one in Southern Oregon. Neither of those, it should be said, were because of the students. Hawaii was because of the team I was on (read more about it in He's the Weird Teacher), and Southern Oregon was because of the worst vice principal you've ever seen.

This much moving has given me an incredible view of the grass on the other side, and it's not any greener. Every school has issues, every district has issues. Some are worse than others, and they all have their own special weirdnesses that are more or less tolerable. But, after all that moving, I feel justified rolling my eyes when someone complains that the district is doing "the worst thing ever" because they've got no idea how good they have it. Seeing the world of teaching helps you see all the ways kids and teachers are the same yet different, how communities work with schools, and gives you, I think, a much deeper pool to fish from. Moving makes you more flexible. It forces creativity. It's also super hard. I've been the new kid five times.

And it's really cool to have kids excited to be in your class, to watch them move through the grades, to see them grow up. I'll never see the students I had my first year again, probably. Which sucks, because I really want to know how they ended up. I've got students in Hawaii graduating high school, going to college, and I don't get to be there when they come back and visit Kaleipouu and marvel at how small everything is now. I worked with a guy in Hawaii who purposefully changed schools every three to five years. Great teacher. But I also worked with people who'd been in their grade level, in their class, for fifteen years. As long as you're still growing and adapting, whether you move or not is up to you. I love moving around. But I'm also now a homeowner for the first time, my kids are entering school, and I absolutely love the school I'm at right now. I have no urge to move. Now, if my principal ever leaves that might change.

So my short answer to that question is- New teachers should move a bunch if they can. Teachers who feel themselves getting stale should move a bunch if they can. But I get why that isn't feasible.

Oh man, I'm getting easy questions, aren't I? Whew, this is a question I think all of us struggle with all the time. I have had this exact conversation with the brand new teacher on my team this year, because he's having a rough time with it to.

Here's my take- I think 90%+ of teachers are breaking their asses for their students. I think a lot of professional professional developers make it sound like a lot of teachers aren't working as hard as they can because it helps them justify what they do or how they talk down to us. I think some people are working harder, not smarter, but most teachers want what is best for every kid in their class. I hope. To tie this into the last question, I've worked with a LOT of teachers now and I have known very few who did got give half a care and were counting days. When most of us see the kid being asked about, we exhaust every avenue we can think of. Maybe it comes down to how many barrels you're willing to reach the bottom of? But they've all got a bottom.

I think teaching and learning is a two-way street. We, being the trained adults, are in the driver's seat. Most of the responsibility rests on us, but the kids gotta wanna. We have ways to help them wanna, to motivate, but, to quote Robert Heinlein, "You can lead a child to knowledge but you cannot make him think." When I have a student that I just can not reach I will not stop trying, but I will also try to accept in my head that I have done and am doing everything I know how. It's like being in a bad relationship. Before you've broken up with That Person, you run through what you have done, and if you decide that you have done everything in your power to help the relationship work and it still doesn't, it's time to break up. Like all metaphors, this falls apart on closer inspection because I wouldn't break up with a student, but I would try to know that it's not my fault. It's a reflection process. Have I done everything in my power to help this kid? Will I continue to? If those answers are yes, then it isn't your fault.

That's why I started this answer by talking about how hard I believe most teachers work- I don't think there are many of us that would just give up and cut kids loose. I know I've got rose-colored glasses on when it comes to that, but I'd rather not think all of us are like that goddamn school where the teachers dressed up like The Wall, because you know they're cutting kids loose mentally left and right, and they were an outlier who should be fired and stripped of their licenses. I'm much more willing to declare an adult a lost cause than a child and cut them loose with no compunction.

Short answer- You know yourself, and I know it's not an easy conversation. Trust yourself, don't ever stop trying to help the kid, don't give up hope, but know sometimes other other person has to choose to open their hand.

I have a hard time with this, I'll be honest. I try to be intentional. The fact with my blog is that it's a one man show. Over 200+ chats, maybe ten or fifteen have been written/moderated by someone other than me, and all of those times have been because I invited the person or they volunteered. I take full responsibility for the chat topic, the questions, and how they run.

The audience I write chat for can be summed up as "people who think most chats are staid echo-chambers". They come, I assume, because they like what I've got to say and want to participate in the conversation. I don't shy away from hard topics. The ninth chat talked about guns and school safety. The nineteenth was about Ferguson. By not tying the chat to a grade level, a subject, or my books, I have the freedom to pivot to whatever I feel is important. When it's a topic I don't know if I should cover as a white man I'll reach out to a friend for their voice instead, not to be a Good White Man Helping Others, but because they know better than I do and I want to learn and listen. Sometimes that involves the other person writing a post and I write a post about the same thing and posting them together. And sometimes, like with the Kavanaugh post from a few weeks ago, I was intending to ask a woman to write about it and then realized they were doing all the talking and really it should be a conversation from a dude to dudes about the behavior of dudes. I need to be constantly intentional about what we're talking about.

I know my regular chat consists of white people, but that means I can have these conversations knowing they're here for it. They've stayed for "What If Narwhals Were Students In Your Class", they've played along to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", but they don't run when "Ferguson", "Stick To Teaching", "#MeToo", and "Charleston" come up. I think, and I'm not positive about this, it works because the fun ones help create a community of safety and trust, so that when things get heavy everyone knows everyone else. The chat has never been a quiz, and when someone tries to give an answer that would be acceptable in some other chats, I and others push them on it. We don't get to be safe be quoting other people and calling it good. I think it works like that in a classroom too. I can get things out of my students that are harder because they like being in the class. Part of the fun stuff built a foundation we can put harder things on top of securely. I will also listen to feedback about the chat without taking it personally. It's mine, and it's a community that has built up around it that I'm proud of, but I in no way think it's perfect. Valid criticism is valid. Disagreement isn't the opposite of positivity.

As far as ensuring people show up to the chat, I've got no idea how to do that. I just write about what's interesting and hope, after 200+ chats, others do too. And I'm proud of who comes, I think it speaks to what we're building. I won't tweet out specific invites because literally no one likes that except for people who are so self-important they think they should be invited to a chat, and no one needs that attitude mixing in.

Mostly, I pay attention to what I'm writing about and who is coming to talk about it, and try to push myself which often leads to pushing others. And if it has pushed some away because that's not their kind of chat, I will wave if I notice they've gone. Because there's a lot of chats out there that avoid anything that could damage The Brand and screw that to the moon.

One more, I think.
 Shut that nonsense down right away. This is a great question, because people will hide behind, "It was a joke man, lighten up". So it's all about point of view and the butt of the joke. It's actually a pretty good writing lesson if you spin it right, and an even better empathy lesson. "Why do you think this is funny? What was the purpose of the joke? Why do you think he didn't think it was funny? Now listen to his reason, and don't argue with him about it." It's amazing how many people will hear someone say "That joke was hurtful" and respond with "No it wasn't." This ain't a Python sketch.

My class humor has to boil down to Laughing With vs Laughing At. Which are we doing? How intentional is it? This is important, because a lot of my fourth graders just want to be funny, but funny is hard and they don't know how the machine works and a lot of people end up getting sprayed.  Kids have to be taught what's funny and when. We can't expect them to just know. That doesn't mean I'm the final arbiter of funny, nor does it mean the ways different cultures deal with humor has no value, but there are lines, and that first sentence in this paragraph draws them pretty plainly- Are we Laughing At or Laughing With and does everyone agree on your answer?

I've got to be aware of it myself because I am not above cracking a joke at someone's expense. It's probably gonna be someone who is so far up their own self-serious bottom end that a fart will clear their sinuses, or a Nazi. But I can't do that in front of my kids. A lot of my jokes in class are self-depreciating, or self-aggrandizing. Either way, I'm the punchline, and no one gets hurt. Until the kids think it's ok to mock Mr Robertson because he does it, and then we talk about tone and purpose and respect.

Like a few of the other questions here, this one really comes down to explicit conversations about respect and empathy. Humor in the classroom works only if everyone understands that we're all cool here, and being cool means not trying to hurt anyone else. We're all in this together. We can have a few laughs, get some learning done, get the serious work done, and mix it all up into a complicated classroom stew that probably smells a little funny, but what else do you expect when you cram 33 fourth graders into a room after PE?

Well that was fun. A low question count meant I could take time and go into them with some detail. And these were some heavy duty questions. If you, dear reader, have a response that differs from mine please throw it in the comments section and let's continue the conversation. Also, if you think this Oh, Oh, Mr Robertson! concept has some legs and you have a question you want answered in a blog post email it to me at with Oh Oh Mr Robertson in the subject line.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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