Just checking in…

So the open call for questions didn’t work.  Small audiance, and I’m not really that interesting, anyway. So okay.

I finished the online Unit Design course I’ve been working on.  It required a lot of reading and prep, and then writing a four-week unit on Hamlet.  To begin with, I read Ben Crystal’s excellent Springboard Shakespeare: Hamlet and Shakespeare on Toast for ideas on how to get my teen students to realize Shakespeare wasn’t all high-brow, and the latter book was especially useful, having within it a lot of myth-busting stories and information.

I also refreshed my memory on designing units from my teacher education, by rereading my Understanding by Design textbook, some articles from the Globe Theatre Foundation on teaching Shakespeare via performance, and did a quick review of the California Common Core State Standards, marking which standards I could engage through teaching Hamlet.

I got an A on my unit design.  Well, technically I got 100/100; there aren’t any letter grades attached, but still.  That’s an A in my book.  Which gives me the units I needed to move over on the pay scale, so I’ll make more money next year, which is nice.

On the writing front, Seeking Home, book 1 of the Remembrance War, is still out to a couple of agents and one small press publisher I thought had already rejected it, but apparently hadn’t.  We’ll see how that all shakes out. In the meantime I’m working on a new project, which I’ve talked about a bit here, but which has changed in some pretty large ways since I first started talking about it.

I’m also working on an RPG world based on my WIP for a homebrew Traveler game I plan to run for wife and friends.  The story of the WIP will run in the background, the game characters will interact with it as they wish, but the novel will not be taking the game into account; the novel is already plotted.  No way am I changing that before the zeroth draft is done.

I’ve got a few other projects in various states of planning, including an epic fantasy and a one-shot Gaiman-esque fantasy that will stretch my abilities a fair bit.

Work is work.

Things I’m tired of: Teacher Edition

As an educator, I am really tired of both conservatives and liberals who try to tell me how to do my job, or who try to tell me what’s wrong in our schools.
Get your credential, spend a few years in the classroom, then you can tell me what’s going wrong. Until then, you’re just talking out your ass.
I’m also tired of people who want to generalize an entire profession based on one or two examples of their own past. It doesn’t work like that, Sparky. I’m sure Mr. Mosier was horrible to you, but that doesn’t mean all teachers are horrible. Stop assuming all teachers are like the worst examples you ever knew.
If you’ve never actually attended a public school, please just shut the hell up. You’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re not entitled to make me listen to it.
Finally, if you’re going to seriously try to tell me my job is “indoctrinating” kids in whatever direction you think is happening? Please, just save me the trouble and punch yourself in the face.

10 (mean) Things I Wish I Could Say In Essay Comments Today

Dear Students:

The following are the things I WISH I could say on your essays, but I can’t, because they are 1)mean and 2) not helpful.

  1. How is it that you’ve gotten through 11 years of education and you still can’t write a coherent sentence?
  2. You’re a senior.  Shouldn’t you have figured out commas by now?
  3. How can you be so arrogant when you make so many elementary errors?
  4. What is WRONG with you? What part of you thought that was okay to say in an essay for school?
  5. I feel like I could understand this sentence if I was drunk, but as I’m not, it makes no sense at all.
  6. When your professor next year asks who your English teacher was, please lie.
  7. Why do you hate me?
  8. I used to believe that most students were basically decent people.  Your story has convinced me I was wrong.
  9. You just crossed one of the “Things nobody has ever seen a student claim before” off my list.  That’s not a good thing.
  10. Your argument reads like a kindergarten fight.

Still Working; Still Hanging On to The Dream

The new school year has begun, and with it, a concomitant uptick in my stress levels. That said, I am continuing, in both my day job teaching and in my dream job writing, to continue the drafting of The Year of Rage.

When I was a college student, I referred to a lot of my posts on school and the goal of teaching as Secher Nbiw, the Golden Path of the Dune novels.  Now I apply that label to posts about writing.  I may have demoted “being a working writer” from “Definitely Going to Happen” to “I’m working towards it, but it’s still a pipe dream,” but I’m still working on it.

This story is stubborn, though.  Seeking Home took about two years, post Viable Paradise, to complete–I attended VP in 2013, and the novel was completed in August of 2015.  This book is going much slower.  I’ve barely begun, and it’s not working.  I know what needs to happen, I just have a hard time making it work.  I think it’s because a ton of my energy this year has gone to mental and physical health, and not much has remained for creativity.

On the health front, I’m getting used to the new reality in which I have to take four pills every morning.  It’s not that bad, just a tiny bit demoralizing when I realize that this is the reality I live in now.  But since it comes with it a reduced risk of a heart attack, frankly, I’ll take it.

Still, there’s fallout from the scare of a few weeks back.  If I stub my toe and yell out, my family has a momentary panic and wants to make sure I’m okay.  I try to remember it’s just concern and deal with the annoyance, but I’m not always able to let it roll off.

Onward and upward!


My Wasted Day, and the Fury it Spawned

I am so completely and utterly furious at my school administration and the district.

At 9:15am, my classroom door was opened by security, who said we had to evacuate to the gym. The teachers of D wing did our best to ensure the students moved to the gym as orderly as possible.

Fifteen minutes later, a school monitor walked into the gym and, without saying anything to the teachers, told students on one end of the gym to move out to the main building. Since we didn’t see him, we tried to stop the students from moving until he finally told us what was going on.

We then sat in lockdown for four hours while Sac PD did their thing. We were told a “suspicious object” had been found.

For the next four hours, the only way teachers knew anything about what was going on was by checking the news on our phones. Three hours in we got an update on our “emergency text” system; it said only “Thanks for your patience; we’ll update as soon as possible.”

BULLSHIT. They’re telling me that in those three hours, there was NOTHING they could tell us? Do these people not get that it’s ridiculously hard to keep students calm when we don’t know anything? As one student asked me, “Why are teachers LESS informed about this than the Sacramento Bee?”

We should have been told the “suspicious package” was a possible bomb. We should have been told when SacPD arrived on scene, when they deployed their little robot, and when they decided to detonate the object on school grounds. We were told NOTHING.

This administrative team is constantly blowing smoke up our asses about how much they respect our professionalism. And yet they treat us little better than they treat students. They have little to no actual respect for us.

Not related to today, but related to the problem: A colleague in my department caught one of her classes cheating on their final exams. She had proof. The five ringleaders got five hours of community service rather than the prescribed consequences from our student handbook. Yesterday one of them called the teacher a “fucking bitch” (to her face, in front of an admin) and only got a one-day suspension.

Similar things have been happening to me. I’ve got a kid who attended 19 of the 90 days of school in semester 1. She’s still enrolled despite our policies saying she should not be. She’s also an attitude with legs who told me this morning to “go fuck yourself” because I told her to stop cussing at another student and posturing to fight. Nothing was done about it.

I’ve got another kid who hasn’t turned in a single page of work all semester; he walks in and out of all his classes at whim, and has cussed out not only me, but all his other teachers AND the administrator who tried to deal with him. And NOTHING is being done about it.

And people wonder why I’m stressed out.

Career Bullshit

I have given thought, in recent years, to leaving teaching.  It’s not that I hate working with teens, or hate the job itself, but I do hate a lot of the nonsense that goes with teaching:

  • Administrators who are more concerned with looking effective than they are with actually doing anything to improve the school.
  • The tendency these days to let kids get away with murder, but slam teachers for the slightest issue or mistake (hasn’t happened to me yet, but to colleagues, yes).
  • The social scapegoating of teachers as the problem in American Education, rather than focus on actual issues.  Do you have any idea how demoralizing it is to see people shit all over you and your coworkers day in and day out?
  • The relative low pay (sure, I get paid ok, but seriously, for the education I’m required to maintain, and the stress-level of the work, it’s not great).*

The last few years, I’ve had awful classes, which piled more and more stress on top of the usual job-related load.  This year, my classes aren’t so bad, but for other reasons I can’t get into in a public place with my name attached, the job isn’t going great for me.

So I’ve tried to look at other job possibilities, and you know what?  They’re terrible.

I’m 45 years old, and I’ve been a teacher for eleven years.  I’m qualified for a great deal of jobs who won’t even give me the time of day, because they don’t want to consider that eleven years of teaching writing is pretty much equivalent to three years of writing low-level brochure text.  Or they don’t want a middle-aged guy when what they’re really looking for is a twenty-something who will devote 99% of his time to the job.

Added to this, I can’t really take a job where my pay would be less than I earn now without causing my family a great deal of stress.  And we’d like to move in the next few years; upgrade to a better place in a better location.  Not going to happen if I leave for even worse pay.

So, option two: Sell some books.  Except that isn’t working out so well, and may never change.

Anyway, this is why I’m pretty unable to seem upbeat lately.  I feel like I’m carrying too many loads.

*If you’re tempted to get all high-and-mighty and inform me that I do get paid well considering I “only” work ten months, let me point out that I have a BA and three years of post-grad work, and I get paid half of what my wife makes with no college degree.  If it were just because I don’t work for two months of the year, I’d make more.  Also, quite frankly, what I do is much more important to our society than what most people do. Why are we paid so little?

The Good Side of Teaching: A Real Note From a Student

Most of the time, teaching in the US is one of those thankless jobs where everyone pretends to respect you, but the prevailing cultural attitude is one of derision and disrespect.  I’ve written about that side of it a lot.

But sometimes there’s the other side of it.

On Thursday, the last day of school, in the final moments of one of my classes, a student, Ethan (not his real name), slipped a sealed envelope addressed to me onto my desk as I was talking to a colleague, and then quickly scuttled out of the room.

Ethan’s one of those kids who is super quiet, but a smart kid.  He’s always been respectful, and we’ve only occasionally talked outside of lessons or when he needed something explained. A ton of my energy in that class went to trying to keep the peace; it was a very difficult class to teach thanks to behavioral issues–my 48 year old, nearly seven foot tall and very large instructional aide had to leave class often to rein in his anger, and he often asked me how I can cope with that level of disrespect.  So it’s a hard room to deal with.

Anyway, during fourth period, I had a chance to read Ethan’s note. Here’s what it said:

Hey Mr. Johnston!  I know you probably couldn’t care about this stupid, arrogant letter from me to you so I won’t make it long, you’ll probably just tear it up or throw it away anyways, but I just wanted to tell you that I really really appreciate what you did and what you taught us, especially me, throughout this tough year, and I’m sorry for it being tough, for the both of us.  But you helped me a lot through this year, and even though I didn’t, I want to let you know that I felt like I could tell you anything.

I’m choking up a little while I write this, because you’re the hardest teacher to say goodbye to, even though we didn’t talk to each other a lot.  I want to thank you for making my first year in public school so memorable and valuable to me!  I appreciate what you did and what you do so so much Mr. Johnston!  You taught me a lot and not just in the English academic field but in life.

You are the best English teacher and I wish with all my heart I can be your T.A. someday.  I don’t want to say goodbye but hopefully I’ll see you around next year.  I hope we can be friends someday!  😀

Oh, Ethan.  That note is going into my desk drawer–the one at home, not in the classroom–and whenever I need to remember why I am still teaching in these days of slashed budgets, disrespectful classes, and right-wing hatred of what we do, I’m going to pull that letter out, along with a few others like it I’ve received over the years, and I’m going to read it.

And “Ethan,” just in case you find this post: If you’d said all this to my face, here’s what I would have told you:

Thank you. That was one of the nicest notes I’ve ever gotten. Know that you are one of the kids in that class that I looked forward to seeing every day.  Your quiet, stoic demeanor in a class full of (let’s call it like it is) idiotic posturing was a breath of fresh air, and Mr. McLaren (the instructional aide) and I talked often about how you were one of the good ones.

If you ever find room in your schedule to be a TA, you will be more than welcome in my classroom.  For that matter, kid, you stop in any time if you need anything.  Even if you just want to say hi at lunch, or talk about things that are bugging you, you’ll always be welcome.

And despite what you wrote on the other side of the note, you were NOT a bad student.  You did your best, and it paid off: you earned a B in the class.  Now work that hard in your other classes; I can see you’re having trouble.  Come talk to me next year and I’ll help you out.

Some Things To Remember About “Bad Teacher” Stories

Some things to keep in mind when people are telling stories about their horrible teachers:
1. Some of them are true. Let’s just admit that–there are some people who are bad at this job. Some know the subject well but are terrible at working with kids. Some are GREAT with kids but bubble-heads with the subject matter. But there are bad teachers–not a majority, but some. And admin need to work harder to deal with that issue, within the law.
Also, even good teachers have bad days and can lose their self-control for a few minutes.
That said:
2) Students are rarely honest about the part they played in any conflict with a teacher. Sometimes students try to claim I’m just being a jerk to them for no reason, and they don’t mention the part where they called me an asshole because I asked them to put their phone away for the third time. I could give more examples, but you get the point, I trust.
3) Many of these stories are told years later, and time has altered the memory. We humans are terrible at remembering things correctly. I’ve experienced this myself; I have had terrible thoughts about my 12th grade English teacher, until I thought about it–and realized she was never mean to me, despite my thinking I remembered her being horrible more than once–she was trying so hard to help me, and I didn’t want her help because I had a bad reaction to her comments on an essay I wrote. I’ve found and read the essay in the years since, and the kicker is–she was right about it.
4) Try to remember every teacher you’ve ever had. Odds are, you can remember from K to 6th, and then it’s a blur of faces, with a few who stand out clearly. When I think of high school, I can remember a few of them clearly. The rest are faces, but not names. I know I adored my 9th grade history teacher, but I can’t remember what she looked like or what her name was–just what room she taught in.
We tend to remember the ones who helped us most, or who hurt us most. The rest are just lost to our memory, even if at the time, we enjoyed being in their class.
5) SOME of these stories are BS. Someone’s got an agenda; they hated school, or they hate their kids’ teacher, and they want you to hate it, too.  And there’s a rash of stories out there that are designed to make you think your kid’s school is losing it’s collective mind, but only show that the person posting it didn’t bother to ask the teacher about whatever it is they are railing about.
And I’m sure we’ve all seen the rash of anti-Common Core math memes going around, none of which actually show anything truly wrong-headed.
So the next time you see one of these stories, think about it before jumping on the anti-teacher bandwagon.  You may not be seeing the whole story.

10 Things I Probably Say Too Often (in my classroom)

  1. “That sound you hear?  That’s the sound of grades plummeting.”
  2. “How can you raise your grade?  Build yourself a Time Machine, go back in time, and slap the hell out of yourself for not turning in your work.”
  3. “Writing does not require the use of your mouth.”
  4. “Focus, young padawan.”
  5. “When I said ‘Times New Roman 12 point font,’ I did not in fact mean ‘Comic Sans 20 point.'”
  6. “I am arresting you for crimes against grammar.”
  7. “You do understand what teacher means, right?  I’m not just standing here for fun.”
  8. English does not mean reading.  There’s more than one skill I must teach you.”
  9. “Yes, you are writing an essay.  Welcome to high school.”
  10. “… yeeeeah. No.”

Students Then and Now

One of the things people say often when they find out I teach High School English is that they can’t imagine teaching “kids today.”

To some extent, that’s generational–in many ways, students today are very similar to the students of the past.  There were always disruptive clowns in class, and there were always arrogant students who thought they were smarter than the teacher, and there were always kiss-ass students and students who wouldn’t pay attention to the teacher if you paid them to.  But there are some differences between students of the 80s, when I was in school, and students today, and they can make the classroom fairly challenging to control.

To be fair, I also went to a nationally-recognized good school in an area that, at the time, was solidly middle class (we had poor students, and we had rich students, but most of us were in the middle to upper-middle of the socioeconomic strata), so my perceptions of then and now may be a bit off–but I’ve spoken to many other teachers who grew up in different circumstances about this over the last few years, and most of us are seeing the same things, regardless of where we came from.

When I was in school, we knew and accepted that it was our responsibility to bring paper, pencils, and our backpack with books.  Sure, sometimes we were out of paper, or we forgot a book, but for the most part, at least in the classes I was in, we all had our supplies.

By contrast, today’s students often come without anything other than the clothes on their back, regardless of their socioeconomic status.  When they do have backpacks, they’ll refuse to put them on the “dirty” floor, but insist on keeping them on their desk.  Girls, I’ve noticed, often won’t put their purses down, but keep them on their desk, using up valuable space and then complaining they don’t have enough room for everything on their desk.

When I was in school, cell phones were virtually unknown, and mostly limited to car-phones.  My aunt had an early mobile phone in her car, and later one of the brick-shaped handhelds, but no students had one.  Some had pagers, but those weren’t generally allowed in school.

Today’s students are always on their phones.  The official school rule is that all electronics need to be shut off and put away, but kids will pull them out the second they have a spare moment, no matter how many times you’ve taken their phone from them.  If they get a text, they want to answer it NOW, and they use the phrase “It’s my mom” as if it’s some kind of magical passphrase that allows them to ignore rules.  I’ve caught kids playing games during activity times, sexting, taking pictures, and even watching movies–including porn.  And even though they were suspended, they do the same things when they return to class.

Very few of my peers read as much as I did, but many of them read, both for class and outside of it. If they didn’t read the assigned pages, they at least pretended to be ashamed that they’d blown the assignment.  Today’s students don’t read at all, and more worrying, they’re proud of that.  Where my friends might have said “This book is boring,” today’s students declare that all books are boring.  To be sure, I have a few bookworms in my classes, but very few compared to the classes I remembered in my own high school days. Getting them to read even the shortest of stories is a pain; novels are often excruciating, even if they claim to like the story.

This lack of reading shows itself in numerous ways.  Because they don’t read, their grasp of grammar is atrocious.  Many of my students are writing several grade levels below what they should be capable of based on their general intelligence.

Then there’s the laziness.  For example, this picture is 100% accurate, and I fight it all the time:


I mean, can you imagine?  I try to explain to them that studies have proven that we remember what we write down far better than things we’ve only looked at, but I might as well be telling them that my father was born in 1949.  They just don’t care.

And, finally, the most insidious change–and this one isn’t the fault of the students.

This one’s on their parents.

When I didn’t do my homework, or got in trouble in class, my teachers called my parents, and I caught merry hell.  Sure, it didn’t always work–teens are teens, after all–but my parents tried. 

Today’s parents–well, there’s a mixed bag.  About half of them are on their kids all the time–the other half either say they’ll deal with it and don’t, or they outright don’t bother.  I once had to call a mom to explain to her that her son had been clearly high in my class (don’t get me started on why I had to call; that should have been an admin job. Suffice to say the admin wasn’t doing their job).  Her response was “What do you want me to do about it?”  Other parents have told me their kids are my problem when they’re in school; one parent told me to never call him again and that if I couBad-Parentingldn’t handle his kid, I shouldn’t be a teacher.

Fortunately, that sort of thing is rare–but many teachers have the experience of parents blaming them for their kids’ terrible grades.  One of my colleagues just this week was accosted by a parent who came on campus without signing in to yell at her.  Parent drop their kids off in areas where there are huge signs asking them not to.  They bring their kids pizza or McDonald’s for lunch nearly daily.  They get them out of class because the kid texts them that they’re bored and want out.

In all fairness, however, I have to say that it’s not always the parents’ fault.  I’ve talked to parents who are at their wits’ end, desperately trying to help a child who doesn’t want their help.  I’ve had a student who was the son of a school district superintendent who wanted desperately to be a gang member, no matter how many times he got his ass kicked.  I’ve listened to a mother talk about how many times her son had been in jail and heard the quiet fear in her voice that he wasn’t going to live to adulthood if he didn’t get a clue.  I’ve sat there in impotent rage when a kid called his mother a “stupid bitch” to her face, and seen the tears in her eyes.*   I once called a father to talk to him about his daughter telling me to “fuck off,” and he laughed, then got very quiet and said “I’m sorry.  It’s just that that’s mild compared to what she says to her mom and I every day.  We’re trying, but we can’t get through to her.”

And that’s the last thing–respect seems to be a thing of the past in many of my students.

All in all, it’s an interesting job–sometimes it’s amazing and cool, sometimes it’s death.

* We did call him on that, but there was little we could do other than tell him that was unacceptable.