Posted in Teaching

3 Useful Things I Learned While Teaching Middle School

I had another teaching dream recently. I was back at my old school. A new teacher (I think his name was Kevin—he looked like a Kevin) asked me if I was new too. I told him no, that I had worked there from the day it opened until a couple of years ago. Then I left, and now I’m back. I said, “And I’ll be regretting it in 5… 4… 3…” (Yes, my dream self actually said this, while demonstrating the countdown on my fingers. The sad truth is that I’m just as dorky in my dreams as in real life.)

For a while, the dream continued down a fairly realistic path. He asked what I’d been doing while I wasn’t teaching. I told him about my writing and then gave him some advice about who to avoid in the hallways. After that, things got dream-weird. In this case, that meant teachers actually lived at school. We slept in sleeping bags in the common area between the main hallways. Coffee was something that had to be stirred like hot chocolate and was consumed lukewarm from tall pint glasses. (You know, dream-weird.)

Soon my brain woke up enough to disregard the sleeping bags, Kevin, and the whole idea of going back to work. Instead, I started trying to think of the most useful things I learned during my teaching career.

After ruling out unlimited patience, the ability to smile while being talked down to by a parent, and a high tolerance for Axe Body Spray, I came up with the following three things, all of which could also be helpful to people in other professions.

1. How to Remove Permanent Marker From a Dry Erase Board

In this video, my lovely assistant and I will demonstrate how to save a dry erase board from a Sharpie attack. Really. It works and it’s unbelievably easy.

2. How to Determine Whether or Not to Eat Food Given to You by a Student

It’s Valentine’s Day. Or your birthday. Or the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week. Little Ralphie walks up to you with a big grin on his face. He says, “This is for you,” and places a slightly melted chocolate chip cookie on your desk. WHAT DO YOU DO? This flow chart will help you figure out which edible gifts are safe and which ones should be discarded while wearing rubber gloves.

Assessing Edible Gifts Flow Chart

(For the record, I did teach a student who gave me bacon. I ate it. It was delicious.)

3. How to Teach Your Brain to Multitask When You’re Bored, Trapped, Going Crazy, or All of the Above

* Autopilot:

Teaching is a repetitive job. When you teach five classes a day, you say the same things over and over and over. By the fourth or fifth time, you can even anticipate the questions that will be asked, the jokes that will be made, and the clarifications that will be required. This is a good time to put your brain on autopilot and get some stuff done. I often chose to plan lessons in my head or make mental lists. However, you must be careful not to zone out completely. Once, when I was simultaneously reading The Outsiders to my class and making a grocery list in my head, one student interrupted me to ask, “Did you just say chicken?” I snapped back to attention and realized that twenty seventh graders were staring at me strangely. I looked down at the page and saw that the word I’d meant to say was cheerleader. Not chicken. Oops.

* Visualization:

When you’re stuck in a boring professional development seminar with no end in sight, I recommend using visualization to transport yourself out of that stuffy conference room and into a much more pleasurable locale, like the beach on a tropical island. Turn the steady drone of the air conditioner into a refreshing sea breeze. Picture the shuffling of papers as the rhythmic sound of waves. Convert the jingle of keys on lanyards and the dings of the PowerPoint presentation into insects and alter any annoying voices into the squawks of birds. Pretend the fluorescent lights are sun rays warming your face. Since actually closing your eyes is a bad idea, stare at the person speaking, but imagine them as a tour guide who only speaks in a language you don’t understand. Feel the stress slip away…

* Survival Mode:

Of course, the absolute worst scenario in which to place a brain is in the head of a teacher “actively monitoring” standardized testing. Nothing compares to that level of mind-numbing boredom and cognitive uselessness. But you have to try something. Otherwise, you spend six hours a day, four days in a row, contemplating the life choices that have brought you to this moment, and that’s not a good idea. For some suggestions on how to survive standardized testing, check out my tips in this post from last year—Brain on Lockdown: Why Standardized Testing Is As Hard On Teachers As It Is On Students. Coincidentally, that post also begins with a teacher stress dream. Apparently they never go away.

 *          *          *

To all my friends still in the classroom… hang in there!
You can do it! You’re in the home stretch! Summer’s just around the corner!
(Call me if you need a drink.)

Posted in Teaching

The Greatest Gifts, Part 3

If you’ve been following my blog this week, you know that I’ve been writing about gifts I’ve received from students, everything from Starbucks cards and candle holders to homemade pencil sharpeners and bacon. (If you haven’t been following along, feel free to start here and catch up. It won’t take long.)

Today’s post is the final installment of The Greatest Gifts, and this last one is a little different.

Image from
Image from

In my third year of teaching, I taught a really sweet boy who we’ll call Colton. He was on the small side for a seventh grader, but he had a lot of personality and a big grin and very light blond hair. He was in my last class of the day.

One day during the second semester, the math teacher on my team came to me after first period. She told me something was going on with Colton. “I’m not sure what it is, but I think it has to do with his hair. The kids are teasing him and he won’t take his sweatshirt hood off.” Hoods were considered hats at our school and were not permitted in the classroom. “I put an end to the teasing,” she said, “but he still wouldn’t take the hood off.” Ms. G, an extremely kind and compassionate teacher, had made an exception for Colton and suggested that the rest of us do the same until we knew what was going on.

By the end of the day, the seventh grade grapevine had supplied me with the story. Over the weekend, Colton had made a movie for a Texas history project in which he played the Mexican general Santa Anna. Going for maximum realism, he had dyed his hair for the role. Unfortunately, poor tow-headed Colton used permanent dye and now his hair (and his scalp and some of his forehead and probably the back of his neck) were black.

That may not sound a like big deal. So he dyed his hair? So what? It was middle school, that’s so what. The stakes are high when you’re thirteen, and anything kids can find to tease you about, they will, especially if it’s something you’re already embarrassed about yourself. To make matters worse, we had recently read The Outsiders in my class, so kids were calling Colton “Johnny Cade” and telling him to “Stay gold.” (Again, these are not insults in themselves, but any words can become weapons when wielded by the right tongues, and that day Colton was an easy target.)

When eighth period rolled around, Colton’s hood was still up. I couldn’t see his hair, but underneath the bulky black sweatshirt I could make out his hunched shoulders and bowed head. He was a withdrawn turtle huddling inside its shell. I followed Ms. G’s lead. I ignored the hood, put a quick stop to the teasing, and went on with my day.

Except, this was not a normal day. The day Colton came to school with his hood up was the day I came to school with a Grover puppet. Let me explain.

All you need to know is this:

  • A)   I love Grover.
  • B)   I have an awesome Grover puppet that’s older than I am, which I might have stolen from my brother.
  • C)   After teaching and writing, my third career choice would be puppeteering.
  • D)   The Friday before the hoodie incident, I had sort of lost it with one of my other classes when I found out they didn’t know who Grover was. It had gone something like this:  “You mean Gonzo?” No. Grover. He’s a monster that looks like this. (I draw a basic Grover on the board.) “That’s Elmo!” NO. It’s Grover. He’s blue. He talks like this. (I do an impeccable Grover impersonation.) “You mean Cookie Monster?” AAAAAAAAAAA!

It wasn’t pretty. So on Monday, I brought my Grover puppet to school to educate those ignorant kids.

Selfies with Grover

I didn’t have any sort of “performance” planned or anything. I basically just showed Grover to the class and said, “See? This is Grover. Not Elmo, not Gonzo, not Cookie Monster. GROVER. And, if he were wearing a cape, he’d be Super Grover.” There. Done. Educated.

But it turned out that I sort of liked teaching with a puppet on my hand, so I just went with it. I taught class while Grover looked on, nodding, gasping at my brilliance, and sometimes interjecting. It was the most fun I’ve had since, well, maybe ever. The kids liked it too. So when I say that I ignored Colton’s hood and kept teaching, what I really mean is that I ignored Colton’s hood and kept teaching with a Muppet.

By eighth period, Grover and I had our shtick down. We were a team. Our timing was perfect. We could anticipate each other’s thoughts and finish each other’s sentences. We… wait, this is getting weird, isn’t it? The point is, I was funny. You’re just going to have to trust me on this. My class loved it. All of them. It was one of those rare times where no one was too cool for school, no one was trying to ruin it for everybody else. All eyes were on me and Grover. Everyone was smiling.

Even Colton.

It happened about halfway through class. Colton sat up straight. He looked around the room. He saw that all of his classmates were focused on me, no eyes were on him. He looked at me, grinned a small grin, and took off his hood.

I smiled at him, but kept right on teaching. (Grover, on the other hand, might have gotten the tiniest bit choked up.)

Eventually, the other students noticed what had happened. There was a second small burst of teasing and pointing, quickly quelled. And then we talked about it. I asked, Colton told, I sympathized. And then Colton did what he needed to do to survive this middle school trauma. He laughed at himself. I’m pretty sure Grover laughed too.

That moment was a gift. It had some magic in it. The day Colton took off his hood in my class will always be one of my favorite days. Not just one of my favorite days as a teacher, but one of my favorite days ever.


Now that we’re at the end, you may think I’ve cheated a bit. After all, in the post that started this whole thing, I said that inspiring students and making a difference were all well and good but it was the “actual” gifts that I liked. Then I went and wrote about this intangible gift, told you this warm fuzzy of a story.

But I stand by my original comments because opening minds and imparting knowledge are all just part of the job. Seeing a child’s face light up with understanding may not happen as often as we’d like, but it is what we expect. The feeling when it happens is as much relief as reward.

For me, it is the unexpected gifts that mean the most, the things students choose to give us all on their own—the smiles, the stories, the encouragement when we’re having a bad day. The trust. It’s the pieces of their lives that they place in our hands that we treasure forever.

George E. Frasier said, “No one should teach who is not a bit awed by the profession.” I’m still in awe of teaching. Some days I’m awed by the fact that I did it for so long, and some days I’m awed that I’m not doing it still. I’m awed by every gift—tangible and intangible alike—ever given to me by a student. And I’m going to hang on to them all for as long as I can.


[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]

Posted in Teaching

The Greatest Gifts, Part 2

(Need to catch up? Click here for part 1 and here for the part that came before part 1.)


In 2010, a student who we’ll call Darry made me a pencil sharpener.

Back when I was in school  (which was slightly after the days of uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow, but still well before the internet) there were heavy duty, mechanical pencil sharpeners mounted in every classroom above the trash can. Most of them had that cool rotating wheel so that you could adjust for various pencil sizes. In my memory, they worked great.



I don’t know when those went away (or why) but by the time I became a teacher, electric pencil sharpeners were the thing. With a cheap plastic cover and a one-size-fits-all pencil hole, they were noisy annoyances that rarely lasted an entire school year.

I battled with those things my whole career. Some years, I tried to tune out the whirring buzz and teach over it. Some years I asked students to refrain from sharpening pencils except during breaks. Some years I told students to grow up and use a pen for goodness sakes. One year the pencil sharpener in the classroom next door broke, so the teacher started sending his kids over to use mine. The next year, I wised up, hid my fully-functioning sharpener in the closet and told my kids to go to his room. Nothing ever worked for very long.

Finally, during my eleventh year of teaching, I’d had enough. That year, none of the pencil sharpeners lasted more than a couple of months. They all died either by burn out (I felt for those) or from a student jamming something that was not a pencil into the opening. And even when they did work, they all did that annoying thing where they only sharpened the pencil on one side. (I am convinced there is an entire level of hell consisting only of pencil sharpeners that do that and rolls of tape that never peel off in one whole strip.)

That year, after three electric pencil sharpeners bit the dust, I gave up. I bought ten cheap plastic hand-held ones from Walgreens and put them in a bucket on the counter. There. Done.



Of course, I then had to listen to a nonstop stream of complaints. These don’t work. They’re messy. Why don’t you get a new electric one? But the whine of a pack of seventh graders was music to my ears compared to the dentist drill whine of a near-death pencil sharpener. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.

And then came Darry to the rescue.

Darry was not a good student. He struggled to turn in his work and his impulsive behaviors created frequent distractions in class. Despite his faults, I liked Darry a lot. I could tell that he wanted to do well, and in one-on-one conversations he could be very sweet.

Darry’s skills were in his hands. Though at school his fingers were often busy tearing something up—hardly a day went by when he didn’t leave a broken pen or shredded pencil or pile of ripped up papers at his desk—at home he used them to create. He put together motorbikes and fixed electronics.

One day, Darry walked into class with a suspicious-looking black box with a cord sticking out of it.  An electric pencil sharpener. He had made me an electric pencil sharpener.

It worked, and we used it.

I spent the last few months of the school year showing off my gift to half the people at work and hiding it from the other half. Despite its awesomeness, the homemade pencil sharpener did worry me a bit. I unplugged it every night before leaving and hid it in a cabinet during parent meetings, observations, and fire marshal visits. Sometimes it smelled a little funny, and more than once Darry had to tweak it to get it working again. The students respected this new addition to our classroom, never testing its powers on paper clips or crayons the way they did with the store-bought ones. And Darry was very humble about his creation—proud of it, sure, but quiet about it, never possessive or boastful.

PicMonkey CollagePencilSharpener

Toward the end of the year, I had to retire our new friend.  A couple of wires had become exposed and it had started to smell like a lawsuit. Darry offered to take it home and fix it, but I wouldn’t let him. Part of me feared he would fix it and then I’d be faced with the conundrum of deciding whether to use it or not. But part of me feared he wouldn’t fix it, and I’d never get it back. Darry’s electric pencil sharpener was the only one I’d ever loved and it was by far the coolest object any student had ever given me. I didn’t want to lose it.

I still have this gift. It sits in a box of teacher paraphernalia, but it doesn’t work anymore. Every time I sharpen a pencil I think about it. I guess I need to track down Darry, who’s a senior in high school now, and ask him to give it a tune-up.


[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]