Sensei here. Today was an interesting day. I guess I should start with some confessions really. So, yes, I may have just a little bit of hero complex going on about these middle school students I am teaching for the next three weeks. And yes, I have this crackpot idea in my head that, someday, just one or two (or you know, as many as say half), might look back and see their brief time with me as the most influential academic experience of their lives. And you got me! Alright! I spent the first 20 minutes along in the room whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture visa vi “Dead Poets Society”. However, I didn’t realize that my private little quest would stir the waters quite as deeply as it did today.
For those of you who don’t know, I am currently on an indefinite substitute teaching assignment as an middle school language arts teacher. I walked into this job, not knowing what it would bring, but it turns out the former teacher literally walked out on the job and left nothing: no plans, no grades, no records of any sort. I got a half-full box of broken pencils, a single overhead marker with no accompanying eraser, and 60 hormonal cranky middle schoolers.
Some people might have thought, “Pfft. Not my problem. I’ll babysit for a few weeks and call it done”. Some people might have just requested a different assignment. But is that what Sensei does? Hell no! Sensei stays up till 4 AM the night after the first class reading two novels and making lesson plans. He researches classroom management strategies, creates handout and log sheets, he schedules conferences with the curriculum team, meetings with the principal, and hits the classroom that second day like the German Blitzkrieg hits Poland.
The children are at once awed and terrified. The classroom functions so well, teachers from all of the surrounding rooms comment that they haven’t been able to teach that easily this entire semester because the kids in my class are finally at volume levels not measured in decibels. I’m flying high. The kids love me, they are asking questions, learning all about the basics of argumentation (in a single day!) and the trouble makers do nothing but stare sullen and defeated from their newly assigned seats.
Day Three hits. Today. And I’m putting up homework, bellwork, and definitions on the board for the lessons, when I hear a key in my classroom door and turn to find the Principal and two Vice-Principals flanking her. I am sufficiently surprised. She is a smallish woman but has an angry pent-up ferocity in her which gives her an eerie quality about the eyes like a college campus squirrel inching closer to your french fries. I approach, confused, and wary.
“Mr. Daniel”, she says motioning for me to sit down, “We need to talk. It seems that your particular teaching style has caused some unease among the parents. I’ve been receiving calls all morning asking me questions like, why is my child doing an hour of homework for one class a night, and why does that teacher make my child bow to him? So, what is the deal with that?”
“Well”, I reply, “I don’t have the children bow to me…I have us bow to one another as a traditional sign of respect for the learning environment and everyone in it. It is entirely optional…I made that…”
“Ain’t gonna work.”, she interrupts me with one of her rodent-like hands to my face, “Not here. And did I hear correctly that you assigned 40 pages of reading AND a two page personal narrative to your 8th graders in one night?”
“Er, yes I did”, I try to shift gears, “The reading was the only required homework. The essay was bonus homework that normally doesn’t count against them, but the 8th grade was having serious behavior issues, which calmed down when I made bonus homework mand…”
“Well Mr. Daniel, that clearly sounds like the kind of work we would expect from them all week. Started on a Monday, due on a Friday”, I watch the two cronies nod beside her. Though she is sitting, they are not.
“Ah, I understand”, except I don’t, “But…you wanted me to teach both classes a novel in three weeks…I just…based the reading on dividing the number of pages to the number of days…”
“Well obviously we need to make adjustments. Also, your student, Bobby, the one who we discussed had the discipline issue?” Her eyes take on a hard look.
I nod once, “Yes, what about him?”
“Today, when he was brought into the office for fighting, he told Ms. Primplepriss” she indicates the larger and meaner looking of her two female colleagues (whose names have been amusingly altered to preserve anonymity), “Do you know what he told her? He told her that she was trying to persuade him to alter his behavior using only an “ethical” argument, and that she might try some emotions or logic to make it more persuasive…according to Sensei.”
I try not to laugh, realizing now that this poor innocent Principal has been deluged by students, parents, and staff, each upended and furious with the changes Sensei has brought to their campus in 48 hours. I bow my head, and clear my throat, “Oh well, I am very sorry of course. I’ll try and cut down the homework…and I’ll make sure the kids know they don’t have to bow…and…you know…I’ll…stop teaching them the basics of rhetoric?”
I look up, and see her lips tighten, “Well of course we don’t want that. This just seems like the sort of thing that they should be eased into. They have to understand the context of it all. Now, I trust you’ll be sticking with the text?”
I smile, “Yes ma’am.”
She and her cronies turn as a single creature, “Well good. I’d hate to have to field anymore messy parent phone calls.”
She leaves and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Now, I know I’m new to this, and I certainly get that students can’t go from 0 to 60 in six seconds on language arts, but as I popped in the Miles Davis to teach them the liberating poetry of jazz, and put up the next six chapters of reading for tonight, I can’t help wondering what new trouble Sensei will have wrought by tomorrow?