The Repercussions Of Student Fights

I typically don’t discuss anything negative about my career as a high school English teacher.  Funny stuff?  You bet.  Inspirational topics?  No problem.  But those things that could be viewed as “airing dirty laundry?”  Nope–won’t write about it.

Until now.

I suspect the topic I’m about to address, however, is not unique to my place of work.  I’m willing to bet a lot of schools suffer the issue I’m about to explore.

We had a fight at the school today.  I’m sorry to say this is not all that unusual lately.  Though I wasn’t involved with it in any way, the effects of the fight were felt throughout the building.  I heard students talking about the fight gleefully, as though they watched some kind of live entertainment.  I saw students in the hall reenacting the fight as they smiled and laughed.

This upset me.

Look, kids get into fights.  Kids like watching fights.  It breaks up the monotony of the day, because no matter how fun we try to make school–school is school.  Anything exciting and dramatic is always welcomed by the students as respite.  None of this is new in the history of public education.

But when I see students taking joy in each other’s discord, when I see them celebrating their peers’ violence, it makes my heart ache.

Our school tries to teach social skills.  Some of our staff go above and beyond in working tirelessly to help kids bond and form communities.  Our entire staff buys into building relationships with the students.  We’re trying.  We’re all trying.  I bet your school is trying, too.

But try as we might, this is an issue that’s difficult to overcome.  I wish we could get the kids who like to fight–as well as the kids who like to watch fights–I wish we could get them to see the value in supporting each other, to realize that building each other up is so much more productive than tearing each other down.  I wish they knew that, once they leave our school, no one out there is going to do them any favors.  They’ll have to rely on themselves.

I wish they felt like they could also rely on each other.

Look, this is hard to write about.  I hope it’s coming across as intended.  I’m not trying to criticize my school, and I’m certainly not trying to belittle our students.  And most of our students do support one another.  But those kids who take pleasure in fighting, starting fights, and watching fights … I worry about those kids and what kind of a future they have in store for them.  I want the best for all of our students.

As teachers, we have to keep pushing social skills.  We have to keep building kids up.  We have to keep creating communities within our school.  We have to keep helping kids find their niche.

All I ask is that the community outside our school walls do the same.  Help us reinforce the power of education.  Help us show kids that love and kindness is always the answer.  Help us teach kids that we are always stronger when we stand together, not apart.

A better tomorrow can only begin when we work for a better today.

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s Dr. Nekros e-book series HERE)

 

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Something Awkward Happened To Me At Work Today

As a teacher, there are ample opportunities for one to embarrass oneself.  I’m in front of teenagers about five hours a day, every weekday, for ten months out of the year.  In the past, I’ve always been worried about unstoppable bodily functions.  I won’t go into specifics, but you get the idea.  That’s always been my biggest fear.  The point is, every moment is a minefield of possible mortification.

Today something happened that’s never happened to me in quite the degree it did.

Before I begin, though, let me provide a little bit of background information.  We’re trying something new this semester called an “advisory period.”  For old folks like me, it’s sort of like what we called “homeroom” back when we were kids.  Theoretically, we’ll keep this same group of teens for advisory period every year that they are in high school until they graduate.  It’s an interesting idea that I think could prove beneficial.  Luckily, I’ve got an amazing group of students.  They really are fantastic.  Here’s the thing, though: I only see them twice a week.

Allow me to share just a bit more to help put this story in context.  I’ve taught now for seventeen years.  I conservatively average about 120 new students each semester.  That’s 240 students a year, which means I’ve had to learn over 4,000 students’ names during my career so far.

That’s a lot of names.

Can you see where this is going?

So today I’m doing an activity with my advisory period kids.  I’m running through the room, calling on kid after kid–no issues.  And then I get to a particular student–a student I’ve spoken with on a regular basis since the semester started.

I drew a blank.

Now, this is not the first time I’ve struggled to remember a name during my time as a teacher, especially when so early in a semester.  Usually, a second or two goes by, and it hits me.

Not this time.

I stared at the student.

He stared at me.

It got awkward.

I didn’t have my seating chart within reach.  I wasn’t near my computer, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because I didn’t have attendance up on my screen.

I kept staring at him, smiling.

I saw the realization set in upon his face that I couldn’t remember his name.  A look of amusement in his eyes slowly turned to disbelief, then discomfort, then horror.

I peeked at the rest of the room and they all gaped at me.  No one would come to my rescue.  Though, to be honest, they might have thought I’d feel insulted if they did.

I told myself not to panic right before I panicked.

“Help me out,” I said to the young man.  “Give me the first initial.”

“P.”

Nothing.  I still had nothing.  I wanted to say “Nick.”  I wanted to say “Nick” so bad, but the kid just told me “P.”

“P!”

I briefly considered the possibility that he didn’t know his own name, that, in fact, I was right after all.  I abandoned that hope almost instantly.

I could feel myself grinning like an idiot, trying to play it off, but the awkwardness grew unbearable.  If you know me, you understand that’s quite a statement.  I exist in a perpetual state of awkward.  For the awkwardness to be so potent–so powerful–that it paralyzed me … well, that level of awkwardness might have killed a lesser man.

I had one more play.  Just as I was about to make it a game, to have the class offer me some hints, the student in question had had enough.  He called out his name to me–“Parker*.”

“Parker!”

How could I forget “Parker!”

I apologized profusely to both he and the rest of the class.  I joked about my age, how they can expect that sort of thing to happen more often from me.  On the inside, I was mortified.  I’ve never before experienced that level of forgetfulness in a pressure situation.  I absolutely feel like if I’d stood there for an hour looking at him, I still wouldn’t have come up with his name.

The class laughed it off with me, but I could see it on their faces–as far as they were concerned, I’d aged decades to them in that moment.

I’m barely over halfway through my career, people.

By the time I reach retirement age, I’m going to be lucky to remember my own name.

 

*The students real name has been altered in the interest of protecting his identity.

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s e-book series HERE)

The Polar Vortex Has Created a Unique E-Learning Opportunity

With the polar vortex hitting Central Illinois tomorrow, many schools have wisely closed for the day.  In some cases, some schools have actually preemptively closed for several days.

Incidentally, a new Illinois law now allows for “snow days” to be counted as actual “school days” as long as e-learning occurs.  This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for both educators and families.

It’s thrilling for several reasons.  The most universal and obvious reason is because it solidifies the school calendar.  If “make-up days” are now taken out of the equation, families can count on their kids getting out for the summer on a certain date, which will allow for summer plans to commence even sooner.  Of course, while that’s probably the sole reason we can all agree on, it’s not all that beneficial in terms of education.

Another reason that I’m fired up for this is because it keeps learning consistent.  Look, we all understand that students are not going to engage at home like they do in the classroom, and we recognize that teachers are not going to give work to do at home that requires their immediate presence in order to provide explanation, but as long as some kind of learning occurs, that’s a good thing.  My biggest gripe about summer vacation is that so much learning is lost.  Students come back from summer and take weeks to get back into the groove of things and remember what they learned from the previous year.  It doesn’t sound like it should happen, but trust me–it does.  On a much smaller scale, the same thing happens with “snow days.”  So much of education is routine and structure.  By asking students to initiate their education while at home, it keeps them focused, on task, and exercising their minds.

Furthermore, many schools, including my workplace, are now one-to-one.  This means that students in junior high and high school are provided a laptop.  Our district even provides internet services to families who can’t afford it.  We’ve been a one-to-one school for several years now.  I’m exhilarated by the fact that we are moving forward with our technology and encouraging students to use their laptops for explicit educational purposes at home.  Laptops mean that we no longer have to lose out on a day due to inclement weather.

I must admit, though, that I’m being a little selfish.  When our school initiated one-to-one, I created a website for each class that I teach which updates daily.  I particularly did this so that homebound students or students absent due to illness, field trips, college visits, etc., could keep up with us on a day-to-day basis.  Every audio we listen to has a link, every video we watch has a link, every activity sheet we do has a download, every website we visit has a link.  And my class site continues to evolve.  I now take advantage of the District’s educational resources such as BrainPop! and Microsoft Forms to provide even more learning opportunities.  Does it take a ton of work to update three different class websites on a daily basis?  You bet it does.  But it provides the chance for absent students to keep up and learn along with the present students, which is the whole point.  My practice is tailor made for “e-learning days,” and I’m selfishly happy that my efforts are proving fruitful.

This “alternate learning” will take time to perfect, though.  For example, the elementary teachers do not have the benefit of students with laptops.  They cannot contact their students directly via the internet.  They will have to work through their students’ parents or guardians, which complicates matters for everyone, to be sure.  As is often the case, they will have greater demands to meet.

Taking attendance is also an imperfect enterprise at this point.  I won’t go into our district’s plan, but it relies heavily on the “honor code.”  I wish I could tell you that 100% of our students, students’ families, and even educators are honor-bound, but we all know that’s not true.  It’s hard for anything to be 100%.

I also understand that it could prove burdensome for families in terms of childcare.  With this option now legally viable, more and more districts are going to utilize it.  This could result in families having to figure out childcare more often.  I recognize that for some, this is a serious issue and not one to be taken lightly.

Consequently, I’ve heard some educators say that this begins the end of our profession as we know it.  To that I say … maybe?

On the one hand, I don’t believe that “brick and mortar” schools will ever disappear.  As stated above, we provide an invaluable service.  Look, I’m a career educator.  I take this field very seriously.  I take education and learning very seriously.  I have two college degrees.  But, if I’m being perfectly honest, if nothing else, we provide a safe, structured, stable environment where people can send their children while they go to work.  People need “brick and mortar” schools so they have somewhere to send their kids during their shift.  I’m loathe to admit that, but it’s true.  Heck, I praised God the day both of my kids were out of daycare and at the local public school because it freed up a LOT of money that could go elsewhere.

Will our profession change as a result of e-learning at home?  Yes, it probably will.  While common sense dictates smaller classes are better, and while no one should argue against the benefit of an actual, present human being teaching impressionable youth, e-learning could result in larger classrooms with fewer teachers.  Research leads us to believe this would be detrimental to kids, but it’s a likely scenario.

Truthfully, though, I’m a big believer in necessity driving innovation.  We often don’t come up with new ideas unless we have to.  While our district’s educators didn’t get much notice that this would be enacted, and that rightfully proved stressful for some, I personally would much prefer that we dive into the deep end rather than endlessly discuss it for years and years.  Oftentimes, when lives and livelihoods are not at stake, the best way to start something is to simply do it and figure it out as you go.

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 (Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

 

 

No Bad Days Allowed

Yesterday a student asked me if I ever get in a bad mood.  She told me she had trouble imagining me being angry or upset.

I laughed and told her that I’m just like everyone else–I have good days and bad.  I then explained to her that when you’re a teacher, you adopt something similar to a stage persona.

It’s understood in our profession that teachers become almost archetypes to their students and even the general public.  For example, it was always weird for me to see my teachers out and about when I was in high school.  It was definitely strange to see them in regular clothes on a walk or something–kind of like spotting a Sasquatch in the wild.  I used to joke with my students that I kept a cot in my classroom’s closet and that’s what I slept on at night.  Some of them didn’t think twice about it.

Look, we all have bad days.  I understand that.

But as a teacher, I’m not really afforded the luxury of hiding out for the day.  I can’t put in my earbuds, ignore everything around me, and just get my paperwork done.  Like a prize fighter, when that bell sounds, I’ve got to move to the center of the ring whether I want to or not.  If I’m not engaged with the students, if I’m not enthusiastic about what I’m teaching, my day will only get worse.

That’s when the persona takes over.  That’s when “Mr. Foley” comes into full effect.  That’s when the show starts.

I bet you’re thinking, “Why don’t you just tell the students you’re having a rough day and need to relax at your desk.”  Funny.  Have you ever had to manage twenty to thirty teenagers an hour at a time, five times a day?  That’s just not the way it works.  Most don’t necessarily care if you’re having a bad day, nor should they.  I’m there to do a job, and if I’m there, I better be doing that job to the best of my ability.  Most of them have their own problems to think about.  I’m the adult in the room, after all.

Some teachers call in sick if they know they are not up to facing a total of 150 students throughout the day.  Some people call it a “mental health day.”  Let me tell you, it’s a pain to call in sick.  You have to leave sub plans for each and every class period, and they better be detailed.  Some kid invariably decides to test the sub’s mettle and so that has to be dealt with upon returning.  There’s also grading from that day to complete.  It’s easier just to go to work, honestly.  That’s why most of us go in even if we’re at Death’s door–it’s simpler to grind it out than to make sub plans.  Don’t even get me going on elementary teachers.  Can you imagine writing an entire day’s worth of plans for a sub?  At least at the high school level you only have to leave plans for two or three courses spread out over the day.  At the elementary level, they’re doing something different all day long.

I’m not looking for pity.  It’s just that I think we are often seen as a service or resource and not as actual people.  Like you, we have families, bills, victories, losses, dreams, and tragedies.  Like you, we have good days, and we have bad ones.  However, if we’re having a bad day, our job is to make sure no one ever knows.

The show must go on.

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  (Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Words Have Power – Choose Wisely

I learned early on in my teaching career that words have an incredible amount of power.  I could say the simplest thing and absolutely make a student’s day.  However, the opposite also rang true.  I could say something without thinking that had the ability to severely upset a student as well.

We are taught: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  I don’t know about you, but my friends and I would use this as a mantra in grade school.  It served as almost a spell that warded off  insults.  We teach this to children because we know the cruelty that exists in childhood.  Kids say hurtful things to each other.  Sometimes on purpose with an intent to harm, but usually due to a lack of maturity.

As we get older and wiser, most of us learn to wield are words with caution.  We gain empathy.  We acquire the ability to consider the consequences of our words.  We understand that once a string of words is uttered, it can never be taken back.  We choose our words carefully.

Whether I like it or not, I am an authority figure when in my classroom.  I watch every single word I say because I know that my voice has the most power within those four walls.  My voice sets the tone of the room.  My words influence the actions of my students.  If I am calm, kind, encouraging, and articulate, my students’ mirror that.

During the first few years of my career, when I was barely past twenty-five, I enjoyed zinging my students.  We liked to banter with each other.  Typically, the insults were playful and harmless — I thought I was being funny.  However, sometimes a student would take it too far, and I would get upset.  I eventually realized that I had nothing to get upset about — the students were following my lead.  I set that tone.  My words dictated their actions.

In my early thirties, I stopped zinging kids.  I kept the jokes goofy and innocent — “dad jokes,” as my students call them.  Since then, I’ve found that the environment in my classroom has become far more relaxed, far more tolerant, and far more supportive.

Authority figures must be careful with their words.  I disagree with the notion that leaders have to “tell it like it is” because “like it is” is often a matter of perspective, and “like it is” is typically rooted in an agenda of some sort.  My “like it is” is not the same as your “like it is.”

There’s nothing wrong with considering others’ feelings.  There’s wisdom in predicting the potential ramifications of words.  There’s decency in showing restraint.

Choosing words that inform, inspire, and invigorate — that’s true leadership.

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Cougars Care: Prairieland Elementary Donates To the Red Cross

I’m so proud of our Prairieland Cougars!  Thanks to their donations, the American Red Cross can provide 100 blankets to those suffering after a disaster.

In the midst of Hurricane Florence, our daughters grew extremely concerned about their cousin, aunt, and uncle who live in North Carolina.  To help appease our six-year-old’s worries, my ten-year-old came up with the idea to hold a fundraiser in order to help the victims of the hurricane.  Her logic was that instead of being afraid, they should try to take helpful action.

After discussing it as a family, we decided that our oldest should ask her teacher and principal if she could initiate a school-wide fundraiser.  The staff and administration at Prairieland are excellent, so it came as no surprise when they fully embraced the venture.

Our daughter really wanted to see the entire project through to the end, therefore she asked permission to handle the creation of the fundraising jar, the announcement to the student body, the counting of the money, and the actual deliverance of the donations to our local American Red Cross chapter.

Again, to Prairieland’s credit, they allowed her full autonomy in this endeavor.  We are so thankful they trusted our daughter to handle this responsibitliy.

The Prairieland Cougars really came through!  In just one week’s time, with another fundraiser going as well, the students donated $487!  That amount of money astounded our daughter, and me, too, frankly.

Today we drove her to the Bloomington, Illinois, Red Cross building to deliver the cashier’s check in person.  The friendly staff at the Red Cross treated her like gold!  I’m sure they get much bigger donations on a regular basis, but they absolutely made my daughter’s efforts and Prairieland’s donations feel just as important as any other donation.  Coleen particularly made a point to give our daughter so much of her time, showed great interest in both our daughter and Prairieland, and truly made our daughter feel appreciated.  Coleen and the wonderful team at the Red Cross made it an incredibly personal, authentic experience, which provided the perfect conclusion to this adventure.

The personnel at Prairieland Elementary and the Red Cross serving Central Illinois went above and beyond in helping our daughter achieve this goal.  But none of it could have been possible without Prairieland’s student generosity.  Children’s capacity for good never fails to impress me.

Principal Scott Peters always says it’s a great day to be a Cougar, and that’s because Cougars always care about others!  Thanks so much to everyone involved!

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Is Our School System Better Than Sliced Bread?

I’ve taught high school English since the year 2000.  During that time, we’ve seen the advent of smartphones, automated cars, even artificially intelligent grocery stores.  Our technology has grown exponentially in just eighteen years, and I don’t see that trend slowing down.

Consider the following advancements that happened within the last 100 years: the Internet, space travel, computers, video game consoles, compact discs, printers, cassette tapes, television, microwave ovens, bagless vacuum cleaners, and even sliced bread.

Yes, sliced bread did not exist in an automated, widespread manner until 1928.

Now I’d like to share with you the year most agree our modern system of schooling arrived: 1837.  There are those who will argue against that particular year, but most will agree children have been sitting in desks for regimented amounts of time listening to teachers for well over one hundred years — the way we still do it to this very day.

Please allow me to point out that I am in no way, shape, or form trying to destroy our school system.  I enjoy my profession and it’s provided a wonderful life for my family and me.  I played school well as a student, and I continue to do so as a teacher.  Obviously, I like school.

However, when I look at the world around me, and then when I look at the way our modern school system functions … the two don’t match up very well with one another.  That’s just my observation.

I don’t need to remind you how school works because it’s pretty much the same as when you were a kid.

And it’s pretty much the same as when your parents were kids.

And it’s pretty much the same as when their parents were kids.

Obviously, schools are not keeping up with the times.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have the answer.  I barely have any suggestions.  I have no idea how we would even go about changing our school system.  It’s so ingrained in our society that I think it’s hard for us to consider an alternate method.

I realize a popular argument against what I’m saying is that students need to learn how to sit and listen.  They need to get used to people telling them what to do.  They need to know how to follow instructions.  Well, yes, okay, those are skills we all need to have at our disposal, but do they really need thirteen years of it, day after day, week after week, year after year?  Let me tell you, they have it mastered by sixth grade, and then they start to realize they’ve got six more years of the same, and most of them decide they’re in store for a miserable existence until graduation.  Some react to this realization by acting out, checking out, faking us out, or just plain getting out.

Let me tell you, we have GREAT teachers. I guarantee you we are trying our hardest to create engaging lessons.  The truth is, though, that I’m not sure we’re all wired to sit and do one thing for fifty straight minutes any more.

And before you say it, let me stop you.  When I say “do one thing,” I mean that from a student’s perspective.  I try to vary the activities as much as I can within fifty minutes, but to the student, an English class is an English class no matter what the various activities are within that block of time.

I’m told that people who work in business are often allowed to get up when they want, use the bathroom when they want, chat with coworkers when they want, and chip away at the project of the moment little by little as they see fit as long as they meet their deadline.  This is a generalization, of course, but from my conversations, it seems to be the gist of how things go.

Why shouldn’t our schools reflect this same environment?

Ah, again, I can guess the counterargument.  High school students can’t be allowed to wander around!  They can’t be trusted to independently do their work!  They can’t be allowed to just talk whenever they feel like it!

Under our current system, that’s true.  In the modern era, just like the last one hundred years, the teacher is the authoritative figure, the taskmaster, the issuer of grades, and the the ultimate assessor.  As a result, many students must enter a subservient relationship with the teacher.  Some teachers inflate this relationship more than others, but it’s there nonetheless by merit of the system.

I’m not sure our model is the best way to engage high school students in this day and age.  During the last several years, my students seem to thrive when they are allowed a lot of freedom, the chance to choose certain aspects of a lesson, and the opportunity to actually do something.  Trust me, kids still like to work with their hands, they enjoy making things, and they find happiness in creating a product.

Don’t we all?

Keep in mind, I’m in no way suggesting that we do away with school.  I don’t want a future where students all sit at home on a screen learning through modules or virtual reality.  There are many benefits to school beyond academic achievement.  The skills they learn through social interaction are vital to their success as an adult.  Kids need to be around other kids.

Again, I don’t have the answer to this issue.  It would take an absolute restructuring of our model at every level.  But I’m invested in trying.  I want to create a system more suited to our modern society.

I know we can be better than sliced bread.

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)