Beginning Yet Another School Year
Sometimes there are lines in movies that hit the mark. These words say so much you never, ever forget them. More rarely, there are those lines that reveal a hidden truth to the viewer, something he or she never really thought of until the line is uttered.
For me the movie “As Good As It Gets” has just such a line. It is a line that makes me understand so much about how I view working with children. It was true when I first began working with children as a teacher and coach 31 years ago. It was just as true when I became a father, remained true as I became a grandfather, and stuck with me during my years as a school administrator.
To best explain the line I want to begin with a couple of my memorable educational experiences, situations that I will never forget, no matter how long I live. These are not my most favorite and they certainly do not paint me in a great light. But they certainly have been memorable.
Unfortunately, both of these stories will show that when you become a superintendent you quickly become out of touch with kids. Whereas once you actually thought you could connect with your students you can now begin to see the handwriting on the wall, that as an educator you are becoming a ‘has been’, that you are not just old, you perhaps are actually beginning to lose it.
These two stories are two of my rather sheepish moments, those times when I didn’t see the potential trouble that lay ahead of me. Times when I found myself in the middle of you know what with nothing but the same you know what on my face.
Hey Mister, What’s Up With Your Tie?
One day, shortly after beginning my first superintendency position, I stopped by the elementary school to pay a visit to the classrooms and the teachers there. Unfortunately, I still have this habit, especially on mornings that are warm, to loosely tie my tie around my neck. Then just before arriving at work I snug it up so that I can look the professional part, using the mirror of my truck to be sure it is relatively straight.
Well this day that I stopped by the elementary school, I managed to forget to snug up the tie before going in. Once in the corridor of the second and third grade wing, a little boy came right up to me. I said hi but he just looked at me kind of funny, pointed his finger at my chest and said, “Something is wrong with your tie.” I looked down and realized that it was not just hanging loosely, it was quite twisted as well – ultimately, it was not exactly professional looking for the new superintendent so I said something like “oh … my …, you’re right, I think I better go fix it.”
So I went into the bathroom at the school, one that is set up just like bathrooms at many elementary schools. There were a couple of sinks and a water fountain outside the doorway but the actual rest room facilities were inside. I went in and in front of the mirror straightened up my tie, taking time to make sure it was really snug, and straight. Satisfied that I was now reasonably presentable, I went back out into the corridor once again.
The little boy that talked to me about my tie was no longer in the corridor but a classroom of students was beginning to line up at the request of their teacher. Trying to get my mojo back, I walked over to them to say hi and to shake hands with the teacher, a Mr. Gilbert. As timing would have it, while I was saying hi and shaking his hand, another staff member in the building was emerging from another classroom as well so I turned to say hi to her as well. However, another little boy at the back of line was talking about me again, but instead of talking to me about my tie he was in fact talking about my behavior.
As he spoke, I was stunned to hear the famous sound that seems to always accompany poor sanitation habits, you know, when a kid goes, “eeeeeeuuuuuuuu.”
“Mrs. Smith,” he said, “that man just used the bathroom and when he came out he didn’t wash his hands.”
Now I know that sounds kind of funny now, but that day I was nothing short of traumatized. I had always thought working with high school kids that they could say some things you didn’t want to hear. However, I quickly learned that at elementary schools, kids also could say some things you really did not want to hear either. Actually, once I became Superintendent I learned that elementary kids were even more likely than high school kids to say what they thought. The only difference was that the younger ones used fewer curse words when they talked to you, notice I said fewer.
Now, being a role model for kids is important to me so I decided I better explain to him why I hadn’t washed my hands when I came out of the bathroom. Walking towards him, I began to explain the situation with my tie, how I had gone into the bathroom to use the mirror to fix it, then had just come out to see them.
The boy looked at me totally non-plussed, sighed deeply as if he was simply talking to some idiot, and then instructed me on the need to improve my washroom habits. He said, “You can never be sure how clean a bathroom is. That is why you should always wash your hands.”
Would everyone understand if I said that it was at least three months before I worked up enough courage to make my next visit to that elementary school.
Hey Mister, Don’t You Know the Rules?
My second story is far less traumatizing, perhaps that it is because I now am more able to accept my weaknesses, because I now completely understand that I am becoming hopeless, that I am indeed both old and losing it. This happened a year ago in a first grade classroom.
When I walked into Ms. Vyr’s classroom, everyone was diligently working very quietly that day. The only sounds I could hear were of shuffling and restless feet and of pencils carving out words on paper.
As I walked in Mrs. Vyr was helping another student far across the room so I stopped by the desk of a little girl who appeared to be deeply engrossed in thought. She had a little card in front of her and she was staring at it. As I leaned down next to her, she lifted her head to look up at the board then turned to look at me.
I whispered quietly to her, asking her what she was doing. She hesitated before speaking – I figured at first she was just being shy – with a troubled look on her face she said, “I am trying to spell the word everybody and I don’t know how.”
So I glanced at her card and pointed to a word on it and said to her, do you know what that word is. She nodded, not sure if she should speak or not. So I asked her what word it was and she whispered very quietly, “every.” That’s right I whispered, that word spells every, now lets see if we can find the word body. We both then looked down at her card then up at the board to see if we could find the word some place.
Just as I looked up to the board I felt this tapping on my shoulder. I turned around and there was another little girl standing quite close to me looking me right in the eye. I smiled at her but she didn’t return my smile.
Instead, the little girl said to me, very emphatically mind you, “This is an assessment. You’re not supposed to be helping her.”
Suddenly I felt like I was back discussing my bathroom behavior with that second grader – yes traumatized at yet another elementary school. But this time I knew better than to try to explain myself, knew better than to try to out talk an elementary school kid. This time I also had an easy way out, I said, “oh, I am sorry, I did not know you were doing an assessment.”
However, she just kind of rolled her eyes and gave me a look of disgust that I didn’t know the expectations, again, the only thing I could honestly sat to myself was “Hanson you are an idiot.”
Now as I share these two stories I am also compelled to ask a couple of questions. In the elementary school hallway of the first school and later in the second classroom, would it be safe to say that school expectations had been made abundantly clear for the kids? I do not know how anyone could come to any other conclusion than these children unequivocally knew what was expected of them.
Second, does it sound like our kids are being intellectually shortchanged by attending public school these days? I don’t think so. In fact, I am not sure when I first learned to use the word assessment in a sentence but I sure as heck know it wasn’t part of my first grade vocabulary.
Teaching – A Very Special Responsibility
In thirty-one years of education I have learned a lot. But there is one thing that stands out for me from when I first began working with kids, especially the day I first stepped in front of a classroom as a teacher.
Now I know I may be getting old and more and more out of touch, but there was one thing that never changed for me. That one thing was my desire to use every opportunity I could to guide and inspire kids. My desire was always to share my enthusiasm for both the value of learning and the sheer enjoyment learning new things could bring.
In the movie, “As Good As It Gets,” the character played by Jack Nicholson is stumbling around trying to find the right thing to say to express his feelings about the character played by Helen Hunt. After blundering about, saying several quite stupid things, Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, finally gets off a gem of line.
He says to Hunt, “You make me want to be a better man.”
It’s funny, but after becoming a teacher, from the very first day I stepped in front of a classroom to today, I found very simply that I wanted one thing – I wanted my students to look up to me, to respect me. I didn’t want them to necessarily like me. But I did want to be an example for them.
In fact, in becoming an educator, I found that working with kids did the same thing for me as it did for Nicholson’s character in “As Good As it Gets.” I found that working in education, specifically the chance to work with children, actually made me want to be a better man and person.
When that little girl looked me in the eyes and informed me that what I was doing was wrong, I truly winced. When the little boy informed me of my indiscretion I was truly embarrassed. Oh the macho guy on the outside laughed, but the inner guy swore to himself, as that day, well I had to have a six-year-old kid tell me what was right.
But I have learned that if you work with children sometimes you do the teaching, but there are many, many other times, when you actually do the learning. That’s how it works with kids, if you pay attention you do a lot of learning.
But I have also come to realize that if you keep learning, well then you have a chance to be truly someone special, someone who makes the difference in the lives of children.
It is my hope that each and every teacher understands that working with children is an honor and privilege. It is imperative that each and every day we educators desire to be a role model for students. That somehow, someway, children will have the same profound effect on teachers as Helen Hunt had on Jack Nicholson, the effect that makes them want to become a better person.
America’s students do not just need that from us educators, they deserve as much.