25 February 2014

"Disrupting the Dharma of My Teaching " Part 13 of My Month Long Autobiographical Series - Countdown to 60

The last team that I coached.

“Teachers, let me tell you, are born deceivers of the lowest sort, since what they want from life is impossible -- time-freed existential youth forever. it commits them to terrible deceptions and departures from the truth”. - From The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

During my first year as a teacher I gave my classes a test that a higher percentage than I would have expected failed or barely passed. I was mystified. I thought it was a good fair test and that I had adequately prepared them. I spotted the principal in the hallways right after school and told her what had transpired. Her reply was as follows: “that’s a sign of bad teaching.” And she walked away.

And this ladies and gents was one of the better administrators I encountered. (She later went on to be the superintendent of a school district.) They got worse. Much.

After over 20 years in public schools it is my considered opinion that the average school administrator is a species best kept away from teachers students and schools in general. They are soulless bureaucrats whose primary talents lie in quoting the “latest research” avoiding law suits and going prostrate before any fellow administrator to whom they answer. They are of course all former teachers and they are generally people who have total amnesia when it comes to understanding what goes on in a classroom. I didn’t care for ‘em.

Part of their creation is the modern form of teacher evaluation. The following is absolutely true: in all the evaluations I had no one ever looked at the kind of tests I gave how I prepared students for them or how I graded them. No one ever looked at the kind of projects I assigned how I prepared students for them or how I graded them. Not once did anyone look into the homework I gave or how I related to students on a one-on-one basis -- an essential part of teaching. Here’s what was looked at: the arrangement of my desks the amount of student work on my walls and the allegation that I was once reading the newspaper during a district staff development meeting.

Suffice to say that administrators were the bane of my existence. Students could be difficult but they had the excuse of being 13 or so years old. Some parents were a bit eccentric nutty or abrasive but the vast majority were peaches. Fellow teachers -- with an exception or two -- were paragons. Indeed the average public school teacher is a saint and I was humbled and honored to be among their company.

My late great friend Grizz goofing with a student.
I made many friends during my public schools days and none was better than the multi named Grizz. Born Richard Brown and mostly known as Rick as a teen he got the nickname Grizzly or Grizz which is what most of us called him. He changed his named to Saad Muhammad when he became a Muslim. Grizz was a wrestler and a competitor in world’s strongest man competitions who traveled the globe displaying feats of strength and in the process meeting various bigwigs include her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Grizz was once in the Guinness book of world records for having the world’s largest biceps.

At our school he was one of a trio of student safety officers who protected our student body dealt with disciplinary issues and counseled wayward youth. In the latter area Grizz excelled. Here was a big mountain of man with a booming voice softly extolling the virtues of a getting an education and leading a disciplined life. Students loved him. He in turn loved students and loved life. He was an erudite chap who though lacking a formal education past high school was a well read man who could discuss all manner of topics be they current events sports history or crime lore. Grizz was a sensitive man who was easily moved to tears when we discussed our mutual hero Muhammad Ali. He was the best friend I ever had. We thought of one another as brothers. He called me -- most affectionally mind you -- a Finnish nigger.

Most of all Grizz loved his two step sons and his own natural son. This made his death in 2002 of liver and kidney failure especially tragic. The boys were two six and twelve years old. I miss the man still as I will for the remainder of my days.

If you want to go into the teaching profession you’ve got to have a real flaming passion burning like a wildfire. You can’t go in half assed. Teachers get knocked on their rears on a daily basis and have to be able to bounce back up without hesitation. Patience is not enough in fact I’m not so sure its a virtue for educators. You haven’t got time to be patient you’ve got to push pull and kick to get results. I was more than once told that I played soccer with reckless abandon. Well I taught that way too. Most students responded positively though I rubbed some the wrong way. I was at least successful at combatting the boredom that surrounds middle school students like a fog. Besides innovative lesson plans I was an effective lecturer because -- as even administrators had to admit -- I was a natural storyteller and what is history but stories.

The bests parts of my job were not actually when I was teaching history. One was as the faculty advisor to the school newspaper. We produced a terrific monthly paper for years on end filled with hard news charming features hilarious comedy pieces and thoughtful columns and editorials. My main function was to turn over the running of the paper to students and staying out of their way. I gave them suggestions guidance and my trust and they responded wonderfully. The other role I loved was as the school’s soccer coach. We had a dynasty and moreover our players (both boys and girls) represented the school admirably. While I was often frustrated with trying to teach hellions I loved coaching and mentoring young people who were eager to be there. I can objectively say that I was loved as a coach. My secrets were making sure players enjoyed themselves (“play hard have fun” I always said) and felt good about themselves. Simple really. I still miss coaching and likely always will.

Former student now a Golden Globe winner.
I was far happier in my work than I ever realized. It is hard to be self analytical when you are so thoroughly absorbed with what you’re doing. But in being so immersed in my work I was losing who I was and what I was doing. I had become something other than myself. I had ceased to be Richard or Rip or Riku or Ace or Rich the Finn or anything else I’d been or been called. I was so wrapped up in being Mr. Hourula I didn’t know who I had buried within myself.

Eventually I had enough. I could have dealt with students and all the attendant headaches for longer but the goddamned administrators...They didn’t like me and I didn’t like them. Once an administrator told me that I should never trust an administrator. I later discovered that he was one of the ones I couldn’t trust.

In August of 2008 I resigned. The expression “the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders” perfectly describes how I felt. I could have skipped down the street. Truth: I skipped down the street.

I was and am very proud of the service I gave to the school the community and of course the students who entered my classrooms. I could have been a better teacher but for a lot of students I was pretty damn good.

Now I could take on new adventures -- the most important of which was self discovery. This would be accompanied by a sudden and most personally welcome boom in my writing.

Before I move on from my public school teaching career I offer the following anecdotes each of which -- I swear to whatever deity you worship -- is true.
Once received a note from a tardy student written by her mother which said the following: “Please excuse Rochanda for being late she had a painful bowl movement.” You know what if you pass a bowl through your rectum it is bound to hurt.
On a test a student once identified Pearl Harbor as “the woman who dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.” I guess that’s why they named a naval base after her.
Asked to describe village life in West Africa during the time of the European Slave Trade one student wrote that “it would be hard cause you wouldn’t have no cable TV.” Truth.
During the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal a female student stood up for Clinton saying that it was his wife’s fault for not doing all the things she was supposed to then followed up by asking to me “Mr. Hourula don’t your wife regularly give you.....” I’ll leave the rest to your imagination suffice to say she used a graphic term for a certain sexual act. This query -- as inappropriate as it was in a middle school classroom -- produced one of the greatest laughs I’ve ever enjoyed.
I was once mystified because none of my students knew who James Naismith the inventor of basketball was. Finally I indicated a student named Sam and said: “he invented what Sam does after school everyday.” To which Maura replied (without missing a beat): “James Naismith invented mastrubation?” Ya can’t make this stuff up.

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