The new EPA ain’t protecting anything

I had a conversation with my students today about the “politicization” of science. Specifically, we spoke about the EPA. The current U.S. administration has no respect for science and has made no secret of that fact. Scott Pruitt’s appointment as the head of the EPA is pathetic and would be laughable, if it weren’t so dangerous. The deletion of much of the climate change info from the EPA website is only the tip of the iceberg. EPA scientists getting fired or leaving out of disgust speaks volumes about what’s going on there. Pruitt’s just getting started, too.

If my 12-year old students can see through the lack of integrity and vile agenda of appointing someone like Pruitt to head an agency charged with protecting the environment, surely adults can figure it out, too. Even kids see how money and politics drives so much hypocrisy and corruption. It’s pretty sad that as adults, we can’t protect the next generation from the stupidity of people in power. All Trump has to lose is Mar-a-Lago. All these kids have to lose can’t even be calculated.

There’s little doubt in my mind that I will receive at least one email from a parent, telling me to keep my “liberal agenda” out of the classroom. Never mind that scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is being driven primarily by human activity. For people like these parents, science is “good” when it helps create shiny objects like cell phones and flat-screen TVs to distract them from reality. Science is “bad” when it tells them something they don’t want to hear, like the climate is changing, or that not vaccinating their kids is dangerous. These are people who never learned about or experienced terrible diseases like smallpox and polio, or breathed a sigh of relief when vaccines were developed. These are people who will continue to deny whatever they don’t want to believe, regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, most of my students’ parents are more intelligent than these unfortunate souls. I don’t need my own version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, believe me!

Denial is frightening. I wish climate change was a hoax. I’d jump for joy. But I’m not going to lie to my students. I just wish speaking the truth didn’t make me wonder what kind of nasty bullshit is going to wind up in my inbox.

Sleep-deprived teaching

Few days are as difficult to get through as teaching after a lousy night’s sleep. 3 AM is a dark time for both the bedroom and the brain. I’ve been known to quarter an Ambien tablet and take one quarter if I wake up in the wee hours and can’t fall back asleep. It’s that, or lie in bed, thinking about all the work lying in wait a few scant hours down the road. At 3 AM, my mind often turns to the idea of a career change.

On mornings after a night of sleep-deprivation, I envy adults who go off to an office job, I’d love to sit at a desk, in front of a computer. No spastic tweens dropping their books loudly on their desks and shouting at each other. Just me and a computer screen. I wouldn’t lose my temper and frighten the children with threats of emailing parents and trips to the office. I would just stare blankly at the monitor for hours.

Teaching is stressful. I don’t think people truly appreciate how on-the-ball we have to be on a minute-to-minute basis. There is no sleeping behind a newspaper as kids work quietly on dittos. A teacher is on-stage for hours at a time, and God help you if you’re exhausted when you arrive at school in the morning.

So, to all of the people who say, “Yeah, but you get the summers off,” let’s trade jobs for a day. You’ll figure it out quickly…

Slugboy (your tax dollars at work)

I’ve been in education twenty years. I’ve seen a lot of lazy kids. But NEVER have I seen a kid as lazy as Slugboy.

Slugboy is a portly, shabbily-dressed young man who attends my class each day. By “attends,” I mean that he shows up, sits down, and does nothing but breathe. Seriously. There is valuable classroom oxygen going to waste here!

Slugboy only exerts effort toward one goal: doing absolutely nothing. In fact, I would wager that if he took the effort he puts into doing nothing and applied it to doing something, he’d be an A student across the board.

Time and time again, I’ve been told by various co-workers that he is actually very smart. I beg to differ. He may have ability, but refusing to use that ability isn’t smart at all. Ability minus effort equals NOTHING. Zero. Zilch.

I half-jokingly think to myself that I should just start giving Slugboy money now, since he will be sucking up everyone’s tax dollars very soon, anyway. Buy him a Playstation, a couch, and a case of Cheetos, and he’ll be set! I wonder: if I prepay his welfare, can I get a discount later on?

I realize this may raise hackles for some, but let’s face it: there are those on welfare who shouldn’t be. Chances are good they are very much like Slugboy. They have ability, but they don’t have motivation. Why do they deserve my money?

I don’t doubt that Slugboy has some very serious issues at home. I’m sure it’s not a healthy situation. And, on some level, I do feel sorry for him. It’s just that I can’t stand seeing somebody so eager to let themselves fail, especially when he has so many supportive adults around him each day at school.

I had a conversation with him today. I tried to emphasize that if he behaves the way he does in class on the job, he will be fired. I told him I think it’s sad that he isn’t willing to help himself, and that it will backfire on him later in life. I said a number of other things. I had remote hope that we might have a “come to Jesus moment,” so to speak. Slugboy would magically see the error of his ways, try harder, and eventually grow up to be of some use to society. That was not the case. Slugboy continually inflated and deflated a balloon he had in his pocket during the entire “conversation.” See what I mean about my precious oxygen?

It will be the last conversation I have with him. I have close to 30 other students in my class who are willing to try, and I will focus on them. It’s no fun when I have to give up on somebody, but like Spock said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Healthy cynicism and other stuff

Cynicism can be destructive, especially in the workplace. However, with the right approach, it can also be cathartic and entertaining. The trick is figuring out where that fine line is. I intend to stay on the cathartic/entertaining side of the line, but from time to time, I will probably mess up and step over it. Forgive me in advance.

I will attempt to refrain from using profanity. Sometimes, I will have no choice but to drop the F-bomb. I apologize in advance. Rest assured that I don’t use profanity in front of children, whether they are my students or my own kids.

When I was a rookie teacher, I was on a mission to help kids. I still am. I still like kids and I like teaching. However, a few things have changed over the past twenty years. The following is only a partial list of those changes.

  • I no longer define myself as a teacher first, before anything else.
  • I have learned to say “no” to extra responsibility.
  • I refuse to sell my soul to the job.
  • I’m much less self-conscious.
  • I am much more self-deprecating and have learned to laugh at myself.
  • I take sick days when I get fed up my students. Mental-health days, I call them.
  • I don’t gossip about any coworker to any other coworker. I take that stuff home to my wife!
  • I only grade some student work, not every last little assignment.
  • When 3:15 strikes, I go home as fast as possible. There is no overtime in education.
  • I don’t buy beer anywhere near where I teach.

Perhaps most importantly… I have learned how to laugh at some of the infuriating aspects of my job.

Where did all this change come from? How about three nervous breakdowns in twenty years, all of which occurred during the months of either October or November? All of which were initiated by the stresses of my job? And no, I’m not joking about this. When you have a nervous breakdown, you’re forced to reevaluate what is truly important in life, and I discovered that my job isn’t nearly as important as my sanity is!

Why did I break down? Obviously, I’m predisposed to it, because there are plenty of teachers who never do. Still… if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have a lousy classroom environment, bad curriculum, no classroom budget, aggressive parents, overbearing administrators, backstabbing coworkers, and/or poorly-behaved students, you know how easy it is for stress to snowball.

Changes in my outlook are also due to more mundane things, like learning the inner workings of a complicated educational system. Figuring out who you can trust. Identifying and placating lousy administrators. Realizing that you don’t have to take the first job offered to you. Pacing yourself and taking it one-day-at-a-time. Staying calm in the face of the two or three (or ten) misbehaving mouth-breathers taking up oxygen in your room. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

Later…

I had a fantastic 6th period today. My students were engaged: asking questions, laughing at my lame jokes, etc. There is no buzz quite like teaching a lesson like that. Knowing that you’ve just taught an informative and engaging lesson that the kids truly enjoyed is the main reason I stay in this career. At the end of the day, after all the b.s. politics and flavor-of-the-month flash-in-the-pan pedagogy have been shaken off, it’s really just about my students and me. Everything else is superfluous.

Trouble is, it’s the superfluous stuff that winds up taking away a lot of a teacher’s energy from where it is needed most: the classroom. It seems to me that the people who come up with all the latest-and-greatest stuff (yes, I’m being sarcastic) are the ones who don’t teach. They’re the ones who have time and energy to generate a whole bunch more work for those of us actually in the trenches!

I’ve always wondered just how many employees in a school district never have any meaningful contact with students. We have giant class sizes, but also employ plenty of adults who don’t work with kids. The whole thing is backwards and top-heavy. The bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians have more contact on a daily basis than a lot of people at the district office!

I’m not saying that the district administrators don’t care about kids. I believe most of them do. I simply mean that if you aren’t interacting with kids on a frequent basis, you quickly lose touch with the realities of education. Ivory-tower pedagogical “innovations” look great on paper, but in reality, many of them WILL NOT WORK in the average classroom. Drop class size by half and provide two more para-educators, and maybe a teacher could accomplish some of what they fantasize about.

The takeaway is that at the end of the day, it’s all about you and your students. That is what matters. I’ve learned to nod my head and later laugh at much of the other fluff that I used to take WAY too seriously.