Schooled
Excerpt

Introduction

 

The truth is, I never planned on writing this book. Sure, publishing my word babies has always been a pipe dream, a bucket list item, but so has being invited to Tina Fey’s house for drinks, so there’s that. Without getting all sappy, I believe this book picked me. What’s weird is that’s exactly how I feel about teaching: The profession picked me, not the other way around. 

Schooled is the marriage of kismet and two decades steeped in education. 

I started teaching straight out of college, which meant I was 22 years old while many of my students were 18. And yes, my first year was the cluster you’re imagining. I punctuated nearly every school day with a good cry on the way home. But I stuck it out in the Pennsylvania public school system, where I worked as a high school English teacher, SAT preparation instructor and writing tutor before transitioning to the world of online learning, which is where I’ve been for the last ten years. Teaching remotely has given me opportunities I don’t know I would’ve otherwise had, most notably, being able to stay home with my kids. But this is a book about education, so let’s focus, people. Virtual networking opened doors for me to write for educational websites, such as We Are Teachers, various colleges and universities and ed-tech companies. Somewhere in there I started a blog, When Crazy Meets Exhaustion, which is probably blocked from your workplace because of the inadvertent inclusion of the word “sex” in its URL. Ooopsie. The blog birthed a Facebook page where today, more than 60,000 pals and educators laugh and learn, two things I think belong together.  

Look, I know there’s a lot wrong in our schools today, and many of us have been tempted to throw up deuces and run away. But ohmygoodness, there’s also so much about teaching that’s right and good and amazing. The very soul of our profession is helping kids believe in themselves; is there a better feeling than watching a child succeed? Dear educators, the work we do matters. It matters. I know it doesn’t always feel that way, but I promise you, teachers make an important difference. Bump into a former student at a baseball game or at the grocery store and watch her face light up when she sees you. Reread the thank-you notes you keep in the treasure box that is your bottom desk drawer. Remember the time that graduate came back to school just to tell you how much your class prepared him for college. I get it, you guys. Teaching is the best and worst profession all wrapped up in a job that resembles a lifestyle more than a career choice, and if you feel that in your bones, then you are my people. 

All teachers have enough material to fill their own book. Their pages, much like mine, would be wrought with stories of the otherworldly joy, unfathomable anguish and the laugh-’til-you-pee funnies our profession doles out in spades. This book is dedicated to those teachers and the hard stuff we do every damn day.

Thank you for reading. 

When You’re a 22-Year-Old Teacher and Your Students Are 18

Hall Duty, 2004. 

Because my colleague had to cover another class, I was canvassing the halls solo that day. It was eerily quiet, the usual suspects nowhere to be found. I’d grown accustomed to multiple trips around the building—front to back, up and down the steps—and learned that changing into comfortable sneakers was a necessity. Heels stashed under my desk back in the classroom, I was business on top and Nike runners on the bottom as I walked the halls of our high school that day.

In retrospect, it made sense: a young-looking female, tennis shoes, hair pulled back in a low ponytail. I should’ve seen it coming.

Rather, I should’ve seen her coming.

Passing the copy center, I continued down the long empty corridor, removed from the steady lineup of classroom doors. As I rounded the corner leading to the gym’s back entrance, the most remote part of the building, I heard a quick shuffling behind me. She grabbed me by the arm just above the elbow, spinning me around to face her. Stunned, I couldn’t find words; there was no time. Her hot breath flooded my face, our noses mere inches apart. “What do you think you’re doing? Get back to class!”

Sighing loudly, I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, hi. Barbara? We’ve been through this. I work here. I’m a first-year teacher.”

This was the eleventeenth time our school nurse had intercepted me in the hall with accusations of cutting class. I’d run out of fucks somewhere around our third confrontation. 

Barbara released her death grip and took a few steps back, studying me. Her eyes widened in surprised amusement to find me on the receiving end of her mistake once again. “I just keep thinking you’re one of the students!” I fought the urge to roundhouse her. This level of stupidity was ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that she put her hands on me—again. She’s lucky I wasn’t one of the students, because I’d seen enough of them throw down with one another in those very hallways and one even try to fight our principal. Either our nurse was unaware of her handsy repercussions or she just didn’t care. I was leaning toward the latter. 

So many bizarre and blatantly inappropriate things happened during my first year of teaching, most of them simply because I was a young woman. Beginning a career at the age of 22 is a daunting task for anyone, but when your subordinates are only a couple years younger, and when those subordinates are actually juniors and seniors in your English class, situation and circumstance are complicated in a way I never learned about in college.

Like the day my students were working in pods. To accommodate the desks, I had to move a cluster of them close to the door. The move was against my better judgment, as I was all too familiar with the risks of desk-to-door proximity. No teacher in America can compete with the temptation that is The Hallway. I’ve seen students break their necks for just a quick peek into the enticing abyss outside the classroom. Voices, footsteps, the bang of a locker—teachers don’t stand a chance. And if someone knocks on the door? Mayhem. 

Unfortunately, I had no choice that day; the pods were a necessary evil. I ran interference as best I could by physically standing between the students and the door, but because it was approximately 105°F that September, the door and windows had to remain open if there was any chance of survival.

P.S. Ms. DeVos, please do something useful like equipping schools all over America with air-conditioning. Or resigning. Thank you.

Moving on.

One of the usual hall wanderers was in full effect that day. I didn’t realize it, but he was lingering just outside my classroom and any time I stood in front of the door, specifically when I bent over a desk to help students, this young man was . . . how do I put this delicately?

He simulated . . . no.

He pretended to . . . not quite right.

He . . . okay, fine. I’m just gonna say it.

He air-humped me. And I was completely oblivious, chatting up students about the author’s purpose in the text. Not until one of my female students quietly motioned toward the door did I catch him in the act. 

Lesson #80,023 we do not learn in college: the proper way to handle a student simulating a sex act on us.

I’m generally quick-witted and rely on humor to diffuse uncomfortable situations (shoulda seen me at my grandmother’s funeral! I was a riot, I tell ya!), but even I couldn’t find the funny in a student sexually harassing me. I was livid! My anger didn’t stem from the fact that I was the teacher; I was a person, one who had shown those kids nothing but kindness and respect, and this is how they repaid me? Many of my students were only a few years younger than me, making it super difficult to establish my authority in the first place. I was quickly meeting my limit for bullshit. Between the school nurse’s antics and parents not realizing (or believing!) I was their kids’ teacher, and now this student’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad decision, I was ready to snap.

I stood in the doorway, watching the air humper book it down the hallway, and said nothing. There was no joke appropriate for the situation, and it wasn’t just me who felt it. The whole atmosphere in the class had shifted; students who had been snickering got right with the Lord real quick and sat quietly, eyes down. That sense of powerlessness made me feel, in a word, worthless. I had no control, and that was not the proper pecking order—I was supposed to be in charge. My students were looking to me to fix it, or at least react, and I couldn’t. As they filed out of class, their looks of pity brought me to tears. They felt bad for me, and it was humiliating. I had worked so hard to create a safe, mutually respectful culture in my classroom, and one stupid act erased it.

So, during my planning period, I decided to do something I rarely did: I went to see my assistant principal. Seldom did I defer behavioral issues to administration; I preferred handling problems with students on my own, mindful that it was part of what helped create my classroom’s culture. Me showing up red-faced in Mr. Pickmen’s office was rare, and therefore enough to get his attention. Once I explained what had happened, we talked about the possible consequences. Three days’ out-of-school suspension was a given for the student’s behavior, but how did I want to handle the rest? I had every right to file a police report, Mr. Pickmen told me. He didn’t sway me one way or the other; he simply informed me of my options. I paced his tiny office, wearing holes through the carpet. 

“I don’t think I want to involve the police.” I sat down.

Whaaaaaaaaaaat?! I silently screamed at myself. A student pretends to hump you while you’re teaching, and you don’t want to file charges? You were clearly targeted because you’re a woman and young and new, and you don’t want to teach the kid a lesson? What will your inaction tell the other females in the building?

“That is your decision,” Mr. Pickmen said evenly. He called the student to his office. 

When the student saw me, he wouldn’t even look at me. He knew why he was there and offered an apology right away. 

“Are you sorry for your behavior or that you got caught?” Mr. Pickmen’s previously calm demeanor disappeared; he turned into an investigator grilling a suspect, enunciating every syllable as though they were the last the student would ever hear. “This woman has shown you nothing but respect. She gives her time and her energy to this school every single day, and this is how you treat her? You were new to our district a few years ago. Do you remember how hard it was to be new? It’s no different for an adult, new to a job.”

Damn. No wonder his name was on a plaque and stuff.

The student apologized again.

“Why? Why are you sorry?” my assistant principal pressed. I was sweating and I wasn’t even the one in trouble.

“I’m sorry for doing what I did. It was wrong.” 

“Tell me what you did,” Mr. Pickmen kept at him. “What did you do?”

I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut and evaporate into thin air; instead, I stared at the wall. I didn’t want to hear the kid say it. Turns out, he couldn’t. Either the gravity of the situation or his conscience kicked in, and he couldn’t say the words.

Mr. Pickmen lowered his voice. “Do you know why you can’t say it? I do. Because it feels wrong saying those things in front of a teacher, doesn’t it? If it feels wrong to say it, you know it’s wrong to do it. Now,” he said, turning to me, “do you want to press charges?”

The student looked like he was going to vomit. I straightened my shoulders and pretended I wasn’t about to do the same. I forced eye contact with the kid: “I know it’s my right to press charges; what you did is sexual harassment and it’s absolutely unacceptable. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Even though it’s my right, I’m not going to.”

The kid exhaled.

Mr. Pickmen continued, “Even though it’s her right, she’s not going to involve the police. Do you understand there are other teachers in this building who would gladly have you kicked out for doing what you did?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’d say you’re pretty lucky.”

“Yes, sir.”

“After your three-day suspension, I will be escorting you back to that class and you will apologize to everyone. You disrespected and embarrassed all those students, not just their teacher. Now get your things from your locker and get out.”

I wanted to kiss Mr. Pickmen’s shiny bald head in that moment. I’d been afraid to ask for his help, and assumed deferring to him would compromise the authority I had tried so hard to establish, but as I walked back to my classroom that day, I felt strangely empowered. Mr. Pickmen had given me choices and supported whatever I chose. He put the ball in my court and let me be a part of the solution. I wasn’t deferring; I was deciding, and that is the epitome of authority.

While it was frustrating to engage in the same conversations over and over with the nurse, parents and students because of my age, I began to recognize the value in them. Each conversation helped build a new relationship, and it was through those relationships that I was able to solidify a reputation for being hard but fair, a reputation I certainly needed if I wanted any chance of effectively teaching people only a couple years younger than me. Finally, I stopped viewing my age as a detriment and understood how it had been helping me the whole time: Being such a young teacher gave me a unique perspective, one that allowed me to better empathize with students. After all, it wasn’t that long ago I was the kid doing dumb things, praying some kind soul would grant me a second chance. Thank the maker social media wasn’t all the rage when I was a teenager, that’s all I’m sayin’.

Even though a bunch of my colleagues were aghast I hadn’t pushed for stronger consequences to address such foul behavior, I stood by my decision. Passing the buck never works when dealing with kids, and that is what our students are: kids. Kids learn from their mistakes and since I’m in the business of teaching, it makes sense not to write them off for making one.

Stephanie Jankowski is the founder of popular parenting and teaching blog When Crazy Meets Exhaustion. A former public-school teacher, she is currently a virtual high school English instructor. She writes for sites such as Scary Mommy, BlogHer, Huffington Post and Mamapedia. She lives with her husband and three children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can learn more about Stephanie by visiting https://whencrazymeetsexhaustion.com/.

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