A Handshake A Day…A Classroom Practice That Changed Everything

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During my 36 years of teaching English at the high school level, I attended many, many “professional development” workshops. I will let you in on a secret. By and large, teachers are terrible learners.

We demonstrate every bad behavior that we spend all day chastising our students about. We don’t pay attention. We pass notes. We ignore directions. We grade papers instead of attending to the presenter. Smartphones have made us even more inattentive, since now we can check email, Facebook, or chat with our friends across the room via text messages.

It is not our fault altogether. The workshops frequently do not meet our most critical or pressing needs. They are often planned by administrators who have lost touch with the classroom. And especially bad are the district-sponsored sessions that are designed to indoctrinate teachers into THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which they are convinced we must begin to implement immediately. Those of us who have been around feel a touch of cynicism about such roll-outs because we know it is likely to be just a couple of years before we are dragged back into the same room to hear about THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which not only replaces its predecessor, but likely undoes all of the work we just completed implementing for the previous program.

However, one spring afternoon our staff gathered for a half-day workshop with a focus on the importance of boosting students’ self-esteem. This was some time ago when caring about students as individuals was considered as important as producing good test-takers.

The woman presenter was earnest and sincere and I’m sure she gave us a lot of good ideas and strategies, all of which I have now forgotten—all except for one. She told us that she stood at the door of her classroom at the beginning of every period and shook hands with every entering student, greeting every student, every day.

She claimed it was the single most influential thing she had ever done in terms of creating a warmer and more welcoming classroom environment. She claimed that once she began, her problems with discipline were greatly reduced, her students felt better about her and about themselves and most remarkably, that she could wait until the end of the day to record her attendance because she could actually remember who had attended that day.

“Hmmm,” I thought. This actually sounded like something.

There were so many reasons NOT to try it. First of all, we were nearing the end of the year, with barely 6 weeks of school remaining. Introducing a new ritual, a new daily practice would be awkward, both for me and for them. My classroom had two entry doors, so I’d be unable to greet them coming in the door. I’d need to wait until they were seated and then circulate through the room killing more instructional time. Most of all though, the thought of it made me feel vulnerable. I imagined that the kids would think it strange, forced, artificial. I convinced myself several times to put it off to the beginning of the next year. After all, it would be so much easier to start off the year with a brand new group of kids who had no expectations, who would be less likely to see this new practice as being a weird departure from the norm.

But the idea gnawed at me all weekend. If it was really that good, if it really made that big a difference, why not take it on a test drive for 6 weeks and see if it really could have the kind of impact that the presenter had suggested?

I was nervous on Monday morning. The first period kids sat down at the bell, and I began circulating up and down the rows with my first official handshake of what would become a ritual that would endure throughout the rest of my career. Students were surprised, puzzled, skeptical, and amused as I went around greeting each kid briefly. Once I was done, I certainly had their attention because they all wanted to know what the heck that was all about. So, I told them the story of the workshop, of my decision to experiment with them until the end of the year. After we had given it a try, I told them, I’d let them tell me what they thought, whether it was something I should continue with or not.

Over the next couple of weeks, we all became used to the new ritual. I began to look forward to this way of beginning each class. I liked that I had a brief moment each day to acknowledge every student in my classes. If I had a concern with one of the kids, I could pause at his desk and consult with him for a moment. Likewise, the students discovered that this was a good time to stop me if they had a particular problem or question to which they wanted to alert me. I found myself giving impromptu handshake lessons when students would offer up what I called a “dead fish handshake”, letting their hand lie limply and passively in mine. I felt like I was performing a public service by preparing them for using the proper “business handshake” that they would need as they eventually made their way into college and job interviews.

As the year came to a close, I did not feel as though I had seen a huge transformation in the classroom atmosphere. I had, however, begun to feel a significant change in me. By spending that moment every day with every student, I began to be much more aware of the uniqueness of each kid. Especially important to me was that it gave me a chance to chat with and acknowledge those who were very quiet or shy. They couldn’t hide when I was standing over them with my hand outstretched and, over time, I think they appreciated the attention.

During finals I surveyed the class and asked them how they had felt about our little experiment. It had become so routine by then a lot of them shrugged their shoulders. “Fine” some of them mumbled. One brave soul raised his hand to comment, “What I noticed, Mr. Waldron, was that it was really hard to be mean to you when you took time to shake our hands every day.”

Well, that was enough of an endorsement for me. I continued shaking hands for the next 15+ years, every kid, every day. Through it, I discovered not only the importance of creating a non-threatening physical connection, but the importance of having unique classroom rituals. The handshake made our classroom special because no one else (that they knew of) was doing it. Howls would go up if I mistakenly tried to begin class without handshakes first. Returning student might not remember a single thing I had taught them about reading or writing, but everyone remembered our daily routine.

One student who wrote to me on the occasion of my retirement in 2012 summarized it nicely: “I remember your daily handshakes (or fistbumps if we were sick) like it was yesterday. Taking those few minutes out of your day to talk to each student really made a difference, especially during a time where every teenager is struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in. It was nice to know that at least one teacher really cared enough to take those few seconds out of their day to treat each student like a real person, not just another face in a crowd.”

Just a few minutes a day. Such a simple thing. I’m so glad I was paying attention during that one afternoon workshop so many years ago.

Please, Please Don’t Make Me Think!!

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From time to time, I return to the high school where I spent most of my adult life, filling in as a substitute teacher for friends of mine. Having taught freshmen during the last year before my retirement, there is still one cluster of students who know me as a “regular teacher” and they are all now seniors, getting ready to graduate. For the past week, I have been substituting for a teacher who has mostly seniors, and I’ve been re-united with many of my former kids.

It was during some slack time in one of those classes that Luisa, one of my former freshmen, asked if she could do a brief interview with me for an assignment she was trying to complete for her psychology class. She had three questions that she had to ask of someone younger than her, someone older than her, and someone who was of “post-retirement” age. She laughed when I said, “That’s a nice way of saying that I’m the old person of the group.”

It would have been much easier if I had been inclined to give glib, easy answers, but each question hit me as being tough and thought provoking.

Question 1. “What has been the best age in your experience?”

I immediately assumed she was talking about “best decade” as opposed to “best year” and I found myself torn. I had six decades to choose from. I discounted the first two, eventually narrowing it down to either my 20’s or my 60’s (although I’m only two years in). These were/are decades where I have felt the greatest personal freedom, especially freedom from responsibility. I have always taken my responsibilities as a husband, a dad, and a teacher very seriously, but now, when I see a responsibility heading my way, I duck and hide and hope someone else will get stuck with it. I am both highly responsible and responsibility-averse at the same time.

After some thought, I settled on my 20’s. On the one hand, I had less money; on the other hand, I had many fewer aches and pains. I had the energy and enthusiasm of youth and was in the midst of finishing college and beginning a new career. Most especially, though, I remember those years as the long honeymoon of my now 40-year marriage. Married at 21 to a girl I had loved since high school, I’m sure those years are hazed with a golden glow of nostalgia, but for me they were a time of being young and free and in love. As we set up our first home together, a two-bedroom duplex, we worked at blending our different images of what “home” looked like and started to learn what it really meant to be partners. We learned how to have fights. Best of all, we learned how to make up. We could spend lazy hours together on a Sunday afternoon with nothing but each other’s company and feel utterly fulfilled. I remember watching her stand at the bedroom mirror, brushing her long, black hair in the evening, marveling at her beauty and at my good luck in having found her.

That decade was capped off with the birth of our son Nico, and the exciting, demanding, and immensely fulfilling beginnings of parenthood.

Question 2. “What age do you consider “old”?”

Ouch. The face I see in the mirror every morning says that I am old. Scrolling back to 1953 on my laptop whenever I have to record my birth date for some government form is certainly an eye-opener as decade after decade slips past. The constant aches, the more frequent doctor visits, the amount of time needed to maintain a body that once seemed to take care of itself all scream “OLD, OLD, OLD!”

But given all of that, I don’t FEEL old. And I am around OLD a lot. My mother resides in a board-and-care home, a residential facility that can house no more than 6 residents, all of whom need 24-hour attention. The oldest resident there is now 99 years old and until just recently was as spry and sharp as could be. He is my hero. My mother clocks in at 92 years of age, placed in this home due to her growing dementia and lack of mobility. I visit nearly every day, at least for a while, and doing so for the last three years is beginning to age me a bit, I think. Every day, I’m reminded of what the ravages of age can do no matter how hard one might try to fend them off.

It was these many visits that informed my answer to Luisa about what I considered to be old. I told her I could not pinpoint a particular year. For me, it seems that there will come a time when I start to feel that my body is beginning to rob me of my ability to be active in the way that I want to be, the way I am now.

I’m no Stephen Hawking. I don’t expect to be heroic as age or disease begins to chip away at my well-being. I expect to be pretty pissed off about it and to rage a little against the dying of the light. I am just happy that I am not there yet.

Question 3. What is the most important life lesson that you have learned?

 “Is Your Love Enough? Or Can You Love Some More?”

Singer-Songwriter Michael Franti reels off these and other rhetorical questions in his song, “Is Love Enough?” I hate rhetorical questions. There are enough things in my life for which I have no answers. I don’t need more.

Man, where do I even start? I said it poorly to Luisa at the time, but essentially what I wanted to say was that I now knew that I needed to learn to love—more freely, more completely, more vulnerably, more fearlessly. I was raised in a family where we never actually talked about love, didn’t even use the word with each other that I can remember. I don’t think it was until my daughter moved away from home that I got trained in ending a conversation with the words “I love you” because she kind of insisted on it. In my own relationship I have always struggled to be demonstrative and, instead, have hoped that actions would show the love I felt. It is not enough; I know that now.

I believe now, that meaningful human connection may be the most critical element of happiness, and yet these relationships seem fraught with land mines to me. Families are complicated; friendships are complicated; I mean, people are just fucking complicated.

But, I do love the comfort of my family, where affection comes almost unconditionally and instantaneously. Outside of my family, I think I may have only said the words “I love you” to three people in all of these years, and in every case I feared I had said something I shouldn’t, revealed too much, invited an unwelcome response. Why am I so afraid? Is it really that hard to love? To claim a feeling that I know that I have?

On my final day as a teacher, the staff gathered together, as we do every year to honor retirees. The principal said nice things and gave out gifts and awards. Three of us were retiring that year and I ended up going last. The first two wept as they addressed our colleagues and there were tears all around. I didn’t get it. I mean I did, but I didn’t. And I said so. I told them that I could not be happier at this moment, and I hoped that they were all happy for me. I had had a wonderful career and was getting the chance to retire and experience a whole new life. I told them that especially in my final years I had come to love, yes love, the students that I taught. The kids had given me so much love and affection and support that it was easy to forgive their occasional transgressions and bursts of immaturity.

As the ceremony ended, I could hear the skeptics. “Love my kids? I’m not there yet!” I overheard one teacher say. I hope she gets “there.”

Three supposedly simple questions. Just another assignment for a kid (a really great kid), one more occasion for my brain to ache, for my mind to explode.

 

 

 

The Voices In My Head

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No, not the schizophrenic ones.   The medications seem to be working fine, thanks.

Having spent my adult life as an English teacher, I venerate authors. I view them as magicians, as possessing powers that regular people just don’t have. When I finish an epic novel by Marquez or Kingsolver, I’m stunned by the vision that allows for the elegant plotting of a story that consumes me for hours and then clouds my head for days with their characters, images, and elegant language.

I was staring up at my bookcase, trying to think of something to write, when I noticed how many really great authors I had met or had some kind of personal contact with.

After all, authors (the living ones anyway) want to sell books, so they are public people. Their publishers arrange book signings, speaking tours, appearances at English teacher conferences and book fairs around the country, and I have taken advantage of such events to get to see and listen to some of the best.

Maybe the most impressive author I ever had the chance to see was Maya Angelou—once at a teacher’s conference in Oakland and a second time at San Diego State University. I was shocked to hear when she passed away this year, just because after hearing her speak, it seemed as though she was one of those voices who would live forever. And what a voice—the most resonant, memorable, lyrical voice this side of James Earl Jones.

At SDSU, she did not just give a canned inspirational message, but it was as if it were a three-act play. She wove the story of her remarkable life—her difficult and abusive youth, her mastery of five languages, her time with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., her experiences living in Africa and the Middle East—with her message of hope and love. One moment she’d be telling of her time as San Francisco’s first African-American cable car conductor (at 14 years of age) and then break into a song. Before long she would be reciting the magnificent words of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Every bit of it was seamless. I feel sad for anyone who never had the chance to hear her speak.

One Saturday in the spring of 2009, I drove frantically from a workshop I had given in San Diego, arriving at UCLA just in time to hear Ray Bradbury speak at UCLA’s annual Festival of Books. He was quite frail by that time and in a wheelchair, but still full of the fire that lead him to write such wonders as Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451. He still decried what he perceived as the advance of the totalitarian state and yet charmed the crowd with stories of his life as a writer. He told the story of writing the bulk of Fahrenheit 451 in UCLA’s Powell Library, using their typewriters which they rented for 10 cents an hour. He managed to finish the book for $9.80.

At that same Festival of Books, I had the chance to see Mitch Albom (Tuesdays With Morey) interviewed by Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes, Tis, Teacher Man). If I die, I want to come back as Mitch Albom—I just wouldn’t spend as much time writing about dying and the afterlife. However, doing so has not hurt Mitch. His books have sold over 35 million copies. I love music, travel, and sports and Albom combined them all to advance his education, establish a career, and have the twenty-something experience of a lifetime.

He traveled across Europe, freelancing as a sportswriter and supporting himself by playing music along the way. At one point he settled for a time in a small, Greek village and became the town’s “piano man” at a favored local bar. I remember sitting and listening to this story and thinking “why would you ever leave?” Eventually though, he came home and in time became the lead sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Let’s see. Sportswriter in Detroit or musician in Greek village—and you picked Detroit??? On purpose??

He continued to play music, eventually forming a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders that included other notable writers such as Amy Tan, Stephen King, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Barbara Kingsolver, and others. The group did charity gigs at various locations including once at a book-sellers convention where they were so well received that they were surprised to find themselves being called out for an encore. They were startled when a stranger joined them on stage and grabbed an extra guitar, a guy who had been backstage and who Mitch thought was a janitor. Turns out the “janitor” was Bruce Springsteen, who sat in with them for their final song and offered the advice, “Your band’s not too bad. It’s not too good either. Don’t let it get any better, otherwise you’ll just be another lousy band.”

Throughout the discussion with McCourt, he had the crowd in stitches. The guy could tell a story. Novelist, sportswriter, musician, traveler, comic and guy who hung out for one night with Bruce Springsteen. I would take that life in a minute–as long as I didn’t have to live in Detroit.

I also have been surprised at how willing authors are to correspond with their readers. I got the idea to have my students write to their favorite authors and ask them five questions and see just how many responses we would get. This was in the early 90’s, pre-email and pre-Google, so contact information was much harder to come by. Most got either form letters (Stephen King sends out form post cards) or no response, but I scored.

I wrote to Thomas Boswell, sportswriter for the Washington Post, because I had just read his fine collection of baseball essays, Heart of the Order. It bothers me greatly that I cannot find that letter to this day, but I still remember that he took time on New Year’s Day of that year (91-2?) to pen a two-page letter to a baseball fan/teacher with his answers to my questions about the life and work of a sportswriter.

And, of course, an autographed book is gold. Both of my kids became admirers of Barbara Kingsolver so with a little trial and error, I found out the method for getting a book to her for her autograph. In both cases I wrote a letter describing my appreciation of her work and my use of her books and essays as a teacher. I included personal notes about my kids and why they were devoted to the particular works that I was sending her. I found a first edition Poisonwood Bible at a used-book store to give to my son, Nico, for a Christmas present. I got it back from her in time and while it was duly autographed, there was nothing of the personal touch that I had hoped for.

I tried again, several years later, sending Kingsolver a copy of the tenth anniversary edition of The Bean Trees, with a note about my daughter Emily who adored the book. Emily, a frequent worrier (not sure where she got that from), had trouble getting to sleep often as she made her way through the turbulent years of high school, and I described to Kingsolver that she would often pick up The Bean Trees, which she had already read several times, and simply pick a spot and start reading and let the beautiful words and tender characters wash over her until she could let her mind rest and fall asleep. This time Kingsolver came through. Inscribed on the title page of the book, in her careful script, was the note that read: “Emily, from one insomniac to another, best wishes, congratulations—and courage for the road ahead. Barbara Kingsolver”.

I guess what I learned, is that authors aren’t magicians. They are hard-working people, many of whom are quite humble and who appreciate their audiences. Like many gifted people, they are sometimes surprised at their own talent and by the response that they get to the work that they do. They are frequently insecure and scared to death that the wonderful idea upon which they are now working, may be their last (not unlike bloggers).

If you have a favorite author, find an email or an address and drop them a line. You might be surprised by the response that you get.

 

 

I Don’t Hate Poetry

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I really don’t.  But I don’t love it either.

As a retired English teacher this is practically heretical.  Through most of my 36 years of teaching, I used poetry sparingly, but during the last 10, when I began teaching Advanced Placement English for seniors, it needed to become a central part of my curriculum in order to prepare kids for the AP Literature and Composition Exam.

Early on, I went to every AP Lit workshop I could find and tried to glean an approach, a unit, a set list of poems or literary terms that would lead me to a greater comfort level, and I discovered many wonderful plans created by lit teachers much smarter than me.  But none of them were a fit for me and my understanding of how 17-year-olds think.  Some of the literary terms were so obscure that even if I could force a kid to memorize the definitions, the chances of the student actually recognizing the technique or being able to comment on its relevance seemed iffy at best.  When it came to teaching meter (the metric rhythm of a poem), which some of my colleagues would spend hours on with great relish, I was a total failure.  Beyond iambic pentameter, I couldn’t recognize a line that was trochaic, spondaic, or anapestic if you held a gun to my head.

So, I shortened and simplified my list of lit terms, focusing on ones that kids could actually remember and that seemed most often applicable to the kinds of poems that showed up on the test.  I abandoned meter entirely with nary a feeling of guilt, and I created Poetry Day.

I decided that I needed to provide opportunities for kids to sit together, look at dozens of poems, struggle through them, and come to some kind of meaning. I wanted them to become a poetry salon, one day a week, and to begin to look to each other for understanding with as little help from me as possible.

Poetry Day was a risk for me, and I firmly expected it to be a failure. My idea was that once a week, four students would sign up ahead of time and be tasked with the responsibility of choosing a poem from our anthology for discussion. The class would form a circle and each of the chosen students would be the discussion leader for the poem that he or she had selected.  My role (I hoped) would simply be to sit in back and keep track of participation and try to keep my mouth shut.

The discussion leaders’ job was simply to read the poem, maybe take a minute to tell why they had chosen it, and then direct the traffic of the hoped-for participation that would then follow.  The shock to me was that the participation came.   The kids seemed to like the new approach–the freedom to explore, no teacher to tell them the “right” answer, how the more they looked at the poem, the more that they began to see.  What excited me the most was seeing how the students would throw out an assertion, listen to the response of their classmates, and then reconsider and revise their thinking. On an exceptional day, I might say nothing more during the entire hour than, “Good job.  Let’s move on to the next poem.” Those days felt like great successes to me.  I had created an opportunity where kids were learning, questioning, thinking, cooperating with the gentlest bit of direction from me.  Those days felt like good teaching.

Not every Poetry Day went that well.  The ebb and flow of the semester, the ebb and flow student enthusiasm, the absence of caffeine, the approach of more important things like prom, all made for good and bad days.  My role evolved also.  I found that it helped to ask clarifying questions and force students to refine their thinking when they were oh-so-close to a gem of an idea, but might be missing a critical element.  Then there were the times when, despite their best efforts, they simply missed the meaning entirely, and I’d have to force them, as a class, to go back to the poem, look more closely, think again.  We jokingly established a part of the classroom that we labeled as “left field” where we figuratively sent students whose interpretations had flown so far off track that I had to call them on it.  In fact, it became part of our lexicon.  Students would sometimes begin their explanation of a difficult passage with, “This may be out in left field, but I think…”  I absolutely loved them for that.

My most memorable Poetry Day moment came when one of my student’s had chosen Deborah Pope’s agonizingly painful and beautiful poem, “Getting Through.”

Like a car stuck in gear,

a chicken too stupid to tell

its head is gone,

or sound ratcheting on

long after the film

has jumped the reel,

or a phone

ringing and ringing

in the house they have all

moved away from,

through rooms where dust

is a deepening skin,

and the locks unneeded,

so I go on loving you,

my heart blundering on,

a muscle spilling out

what is no longer wanted

and my words hurtling past,

like a train off its track

toward a boarded-up station,

closed for years,

like some last speaker

of a beautiful language

no one else can hear.

I remember the discussion leader reading the poem aloud and nearly 40 kids staring at the text with no idea of what to say.  I suggested the leader read it aloud once more, which we did quite often when confronted with a challenging poem.

The silence continued until suddenly Sarah, a thoughtful and sensitive young woman, gasped as she internalized the sadness and the pain of the poem.  In that one moment, she had grasped the whole poem with it’s string of vivid similes, each becoming more detailed, that described the speaker’s devastating sense of loss and hopelessness.  Once she gave the class the key, the images suddenly made sense, and the class piled on with an appreciation of the beauty of the language and the universality of the experience of loss.

I truly loved poetry on that particular day.  Sarah’s gasp, her identification with the pain of the speaker, spoke to everything that I find to be important about poetry.  The poet that can distill the human experience, can craft the perfect metaphor, provides a human connection that helps us to defy loneliness and isolation.  They are magicians. They create the connection that tells us that, even in our worst moments, we are not alone.

“I Am The Eggman”

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When asked what led me into teaching high-school English as a career, I have several ready answers–I wanted to dedicate myself to helping young people; I loved reading and writing and was happy that I could make a career out of it; I liked the idea of having summers off—the usual.  And while all of those things were true, I always left out one key factor because I didn’t want to admit it.  I wanted to go back to high school.  I wanted to go back to high school to see if I could achieve a level of “coolness” that had always eluded me as a student.  I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

There were two teachers that most influenced my thinking about this because they provided models for how someone could be well liked and also be a powerful teacher.

Vic Player, geography teacher at Saint Augustine High School, was a man with a bold and playful sense of humor.  I was a painfully shy freshman who just wanted hide behind a large person in class and go unnoticed.  As he was taking roll one day early in the semester, he called out “Waldron?  Waldron?  You mean like walrus?  You are the eggman, you are the walrus?”  I sat in silent horror as I raised my hand to acknowledge my presence and my new connection to the popular Beatles’ song of the time.  “Yeah, Waldron,” he said smiling, “from now on, you are the Eggman.”

And from then on, I was the Eggman.  All of a sudden, I had an identity in the class.  I was someone, and I could no longer hide, no longer wanted to hide.  This man, with one silly nickname, transformed my first year experience in high school by giving me an identity that I could never have carved out for myself.  He refused to call me by any other name from that point on, and I marveled as I watched his easy confidence in the classroom, how he teased, and taught, and cajoled, and nurtured his ninth grade class.  He was by far, the coolest person in the room.  I wanted to be like that.

Three years later I faced the terrors inflicted by John Bowman, my senior English teacher.  The year before I had been in a class next door to his, and we frequently heard pounding, yelling, and then laughter coming from the class.  We were terrified.  All we could imagine was that someone in his class had said something stupid and had been thrown up against the wall, maybe pinned to a cork-board like an impaled butterfly, to be ridiculed by the entire class.  We entered his room, already cowed by the legend and his fierce reputation, the knowledge that he did not suffer fools, and that he did not spare criticism.

To our relief, we quickly discovered that the pounding came from Mr. Bowman slamming his hand on his desk for emphasis, as frequently in praise for a good comment as in disgust for one that didn’t please him.  Our written work was treated with contempt for most of the first quarter, but we quickly learned how to write and how to please the great man.  There was no better day, no greater compliment, than the moment when he called on me and I ventured an answer to a question and he slammed his hand on his desk with satisfaction.  “Mr. Waldron!” he shouted. “Say that again!”

It took most of the year to figure out how much he loved his class.  We knew he loved literature.  His passion swept us away—Sophocles, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Hemingway—all of them were heroes, giants.  However, he was a consummate actor and hid his affection for us as long as he could.  By the end of the year, when he handed out his own home-made awards for excellence, we were allies with him in his secret.   The incoming juniors would never know.  But I knew.  And I wanted to be like that.

As it turned out, I could never “be” either one of those two exemplary teachers.  However, I learned some of my key values from them—passion, humor, a dedication to excellence, and a commitment to making every student feel included, honored, respected.

If students remember anything from my classroom it will be the fact that for the last 15 years or so, I greeted every student, every day, with a handshake.  It provided a short, personal moment of acknowledgement for every one of my kids.  It became so ingrained as a classroom ritual that if I forgot and started class without having made the rounds, students would cry out in protest. One student described it this way in an end-of-the-year note to me: “Taking those few minutes out of your day to talk to each student, really made a difference especially during a time where every teenager is struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in.  It was nice to know that at least one teacher cared enough to take those few seconds out of their day to treat each student like a real person, not just another face in the crowd.”

So, did my 36 year-high-school do-over achieve its purpose of giving me a status I couldn’t quite grasp the first time around?  Not exactly.  While I gained a certain amount of notoriety for my classroom traditions such as the handshake, loud music to begin each day, Barry White Fridays, movie nights, and the year-end scrapbook, I pretty quickly realized that I was there to make my kids feel special as they tried to survive high school; to make them feel accepted, and cool, and as if they were in a place where they belonged.  It was when I had a really good day in helping a student, that the Eggman felt cool once again.