Monday, August 24, 2015

What's in a Word?

I knew a stitting AP back when she was just a lowly teacher like me. I don't remember why, but I observed her class a few times. She had a great way with the kids. She was endlessly patient, and always uttering terms of endearment. The kids responded. They loved her. You could feel it.

Another teacher I know, when she was brand new, was having trouble with her classes. The kids were walking in whenever they felt like it. They were acting like they owned the place. A group of ESL students, in particular, were strolling in 15 minutes late and chatting in their native language the entire period. I happened to know the ringleader, and she didn't behave that way in my class. I spoke her language and called her home. I told the teacher to call homes every day they were late. I also told the teacher to separate the social group.

"Can I do that?" she asked.

"Of course you can," I told her. It's amazing the things people don't know. She was a quick study. She followed up with phone calls, took no guff, and the kids took to calling her a Nazi. I was proud of her.

But she changed. She turned into a "honey, sweetie" teacher, mothering the kids and finding them responsive. She texted me messages the kids would write her on the board. She told me stories about her kids and how she helped them. In essence, she used my suggestions when she needed them, but found her own voice. There are a lot of definitions of teacher voice, but to me it's a teacher's unique approach to kids.

I can't do the "honey, sweetie" thing. I fear if I were to do that, I'd be some teacher jail somewhere twiddling my thumbs, or shuffling papers, or whatever they have you do nowadays. It's sexist, truth be told. Women can say stuff like that to anyone, but it's suspect coming from a man.

My persona is different. I am a crazy person, losing my temper completely whenever someone makes a subject-verb agreement error. I will scream, cry, bang my head against the wall, whatever. Kids will not forget that. But I'm always deliberate. When I'm really mad, I'm quiet. I never want kids to know they have power over my moods. I think about how to react to things that really irritate me, and don't act on impulse. But like everyone, I make mistakes.

One day, a girl in my class, a girl who very much reminded me of my daughter, asked me a question. I answered her, "No, sweetie," as I would my daughter. As the words exited my mouth, I thought, "Oh my God. This is it. I'm going to the rubber room for sure." But as it happens, the girl took it in exactly the spirit I meant it and there was no problem at all.

It's a tough call for teachers. Chancellor's Regulation A-421 basically says anything that makes a kid feel embarrassed or makes it tough to function in class is verbal abuse. (Fortunately for Eva, with kids pissing their pants left and right, neither this reg nor A-421, corporal punishment, applies to her.) What if the girl felt awkward by my comment, or that of one of my colleagues?

In fact I know people who've faced 3020a for the offense of making careless but in no way malicious remarks. A lot depends on whether or not your supervisor is insane, and on whether or not said supervisor hates you and everything you stand for. Really, the best you can hope for is that a supervisor be reasonable, and it's sad but demonstrable, particularly if you read Susan Edelman in the Sunday Post, that a whole lot of them should be upping their Prozac.

Anyway, dear readers, be very careful how you speak to the children. Because it's not so much what you say as what they hear, or how your supervisor interprets it. And if it gets to the unparalleled experts at OSI, you'd better get out your prayer beads right away.

On the positive side, it's great to see what many of us have known for years reported in the papers. I've been a chapter leader for six years. Every time a DOE genius gives what I consider a bad contractual interpretation to a principal, I run it by UFT. And thus far, every time without exception, the UFT interpretation has prevailed.

What can you say about an organization that hires lawyers who can't interpret a contract better than a lowly English teacher like yours truly? If you feel like saying it, that's what the comment section is for.
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