“The elephants are dancing on the graves of squeeling mice.” Cream, Anyone for Tennis

Mandates make the job nearly impossible.
Contracts don’t help much either.
I’m in this job because I want to help children.
If I change one teacher,
Think of the number of students
I’ve made a difference for.
They say I’m an educational leader, but
I never taught under these conditions.
I never knew what it was like to answer
To the whims of politicians, parents, and even teachers.
Now they all call and I have to listen
Because I’m nothing more than a middleman in this job,
More manager that expert teacher.
Now I feel like I’m too far from the students
To make the kind of difference I once did.

The radar is a difficult place to be on. When a boss sets the authoritative sights on a pleb, there is not much that can be done to escape the inevitable destruction. Jack walked towards The Commanders office with a sinking feeling that he had done something wrong. In all of his years, Jack had never been summoned to the principal’s office for anything good. In fact, in all of his years of being in school he remembered nothing but negativity associated with any principal’s office. He trudged through the maze of the open concept school thinking what he might like for his last supper.

“Maybe I’ll have a cocktail or smoothie made from arugula,” he thought. “I hope they use a flat paddle and not a round piece of bamboo for my flogging.” Negative thoughts were swirling as he stepped into the office suite.

Sitting at her desk was the matronly secretary to the principal, Mrs. Bell. She had been at her post through the tenure’s of four principals and there was a ritual to gaining access to the boss. She saw the door to her superior’s office as a gate to be protected at all costs and each visitor was corralled in a row of vintage office chairs that deigned to mimic mid-century modern furniture. She ran her homestead with absolute authority and any violation of the routine was cause for a time out and restriction of prompt access to the real boss.

“Hello, Mrs. Bell,” said Jack.

She continued checking boxes on some form and never looked up. Jack noticed sprouts of gray sneaking into her mysteriously black hair. Just as he was about to forgo appropriate convention and ask this very old women if her hair was “starting” to gray, Mrs. Bell pointed to the empty chairs and said, “He’ll be with you in a moment.”

After about ten minutes the door clicked and opened. The Commander had installed an electronic door opener so he could let people in without greeting them at the door. The Commander was a master at schmoozing his bosses and parents, but he was even better at keeping a distance between those he should have been serving, the teachers and students. Jack expected The Commander to be sitting behind his average desk with the props of man who had risen to the mean of his profession hanging on the wall behind him. Instead, he was greeted by The Commandress.

“Jack, welcome. We were just talking about you,” she said with all of the transparency of a woman running for President of the United States.

“Well, I hope some of it was good. Should I have representation with me?”

The Commander and Commandress looked at each other and laughed like they were actors in a sit-com.

“Of course not, we would have advised you as to the need for such had we thought it necessary,” said The Commander.

“No, Jack,” started The Commandress, “We were impressed by your message to the students. You understand exactly what we are hoping to achieve with PIOUS and we have a proposition for you.”

The years of battle for Jack had taught him to be wary of good things coming from above. He was more surprised to be offered something that sounded positive by these two than he would have been if either of them had come out as a transvestite. As a student of The Godfather, Jack knew that favors and proposals come with traps and he knew that if he did not listen to their offer he would be on the wrong radar. Jack was ready to be off that screen.

“Let’s hear it.”

“First, Jack, we were talking and both noticed that you never use names with us. Perhaps the time has come to remove the formalities from our relationship. I would be happy if you called me by my first name, Betty.”

“Boop,” thought Jack. “Alright, Betty it is.”

The Commander followed her lead with the drool coming from his mouth like a dog waiting for a treat. He added to the conversation, “We have had an unfortunate history, but I have always respected your abilities as a teacher…”

“Bull,” thought Jack.

“…I’d like it if we could start over, so please feel free to call me by my first name as well.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I know it,” said Jack as he ran through the Rolodex of nicknames the faculty had for The Commander.

“It’s Allen.” The Commander looked over to Betty and said, “What a great sense of humor he has.” She gave him a courtesy laugh.

Betty said, “Jack, we would like you to come to my house out on the Chickahominy River this weekend. The administration and board are having a retreat to discuss major changes to the district’s five-year plan. We think that you would have a great deal to offer the discussion. Will you come?”

Bam! Betty sprung a trap that left Jack no place in the district to hide. He could go rogue and say, “No,” but that would leave him in a pool of muck no matter where the rest of his career would take him.

“I’d be honored,” he said.

Betty gave him the address and the each exchanged pleasant good-byes. As Jack left the office thoughts of doom were churning in his head. He felt like a beetle just before the “Tims” come down a smashing. He went up the ramp and back to the PE office where the other teachers were eating lunch.

“What’s wrong with you? You look like you got punched in the solar plexus,” said Oliver.

“I just got a butt flossing with alpaca fibers,” said Jack.

“What do you mean?” asked Oliver.

“It’s too much for me to explain right now. I’m not sure what is happening, but I’ve been invited into the sanctum. I’ll be a river rat this weekend.”

“Oh, no. That’s not good for you my friend.”

The first days of school have a lyrical quality. The students arrive with varying degrees of energy. There are those who are serious about school and have learned to play the game. There are others who have given up on the game and only come because they are compelled to attend. Still, there are others who think they are the game and do everything they can to make a mockery of what is happening. The first days are on homage to the frenetic pace with which learning must take place and a tribute to the every style of spoken word from socially conscious rap stylings to the laid back ballads of a country crooner.

Jack found that the best way to deal with the first few days was in embracing the energy and letting it take him wherever it went. He had learned that having an unassuming manner allowed the kids to find their place in his classes and gain the confidence they needed to fit into high school. All the while, though, he was a spy who was hacking their social status code and preparing to take them to places they probably did not want to go. Jack would go about his random storytelling creating the impression that his was a class that had little to do with actual learning. Just when the students would start to have a look of “where is this guy going,” Jack would drop a serious question on them that would require the students to relate the non-sense story to a concept that they had talked about in a lecture. The impact was predictable. The students would make faces and say that there was no connection, then Jack would lead them through a series of “What about” questions that guided students towards the realization that the story had a purpose.

The first few days of storytelling and questioning were often slow and combative. The students, who were not in school shape yet, had a hard time making connections to the stories. They would complain that the class did not matter or that they weren’t learning anything. Then, like every good song or poem, there would be a moment of insight. They would understand that the stories did relate to something. They would start to think about what they were hearing beyond the entertainment value and start looking for the messages of the stories. Before the end of the first marking period they would start asking for stories instead of PowerPoint lectures and canned educational instructional materials.

The beginning of the school year was no time for jamming the students with the prison like expectations of law and order learning. Jack had learned his lesson there. He had given up on the “my way” method of teaching and taken his classroom control to a different level of coercion. Instead of demanding that the students be the way he wanted, he taught them how the skills they were learning in class would help them be successful in all areas of their lives. He integrated the course expectations with course content so that the students could see the relevancy of his madness. He praised their successes and retaught whatever was necessary to help them understand that his class was about learning how to be successful and all the Health stuff was just a tool for their achieving success. There was no rush for all of this to happen because as Jack saw the calendar year, there was ample time for this methodical kind of learning.

Unfortunately, this year, Jack would not be afforded the freedom to teach as he had found was best for him. He was being given a program, PIOUS, that was marketed as a non-scripted design framework to improve student success. Fortunately, Jack was done resisting and trying to figure out what educational researchers and school power brokers were trying to do. He had become like the students who just come to school and get through it. His goal was to stay as true to himself as he could without ignoring the wants of the people who were developing the vision for the school district. The Commander was one of those people. His role as the principal seemed to be survival. He did that well, submissive to his superiors and aggressively dishonest to his subordinates. Perhaps the one thing that truly allowed him to stand out was his Trump-styled hair.

The Commander only answered to The Commandress. She was a longtime school administrator with a short time of teaching experience. Her background was in budgets, mostly spending the budget on canned programs with little relevancy to what students needed to learn. One year she spent thousands on math manipulatives so students could learn to do math in egg cartons. Another year she spent money on technology that did not have the ability to upgrade. There were few who questioned her judgement, though. She ruled with an iron will that was exercised through her principals and bevy of central office administrators. This year they were pushing PIOUS as the latest and greatest thing to hit education since real estate taxes.

The PIOUS model was a joke to many of the teachers at Wilnetsburg High School. They saw the program as dumbing down, an easing of standards, and a script that took away their professional judgment in the classroom. Jack listened to The Commander’s raggedy speech about demographics and achievement with the same survival instinct he could tell was being used to deliver the speech. He submitted to the will of The Commandress and a strange thing happened to Jack. He became happy and on the first days of school he felt no frustration as he spoke about the practical reasons for the students learning what they were. After all, PIOUS was no different than what he had been doing for nearly a quarter of a century. District policy was finally going to let Jack be Jack.

As usual, the students wrestled with the stories. They also complained that most of their teachers were practically teaching the same way and that school was really boring. Jack thought about how he would respond to his students’ concerns. As he was about to answer, The Commandress and her minion, The Commander, walked in for an informal observation.

“Ella, I’m not sure what the best way to answer your question is,” said Jack. He looked at his two bosses and continued, “Learning is a process. Let’s look at it this way, there are many ways to Richmond. Once you decide to go there, you have to figure out what you think is the best way. Hopefully, you’ll get there safely. The way were are teaching this year is one way to help you get wherever it is you want to go. However, you define success your success, whether it be AP tests, trade school, the military, or entering the workforce. That’s up to you. There are lots of ways to get there and we hope that this way will help you figure out where you are going. Your job is to take what we do and figure out how to make it make sense for you because without your acceptance, this program will not help you at all. But…there are many ways to Richmond, so don’t give up on learning because it takes many forms and is going to be important for wherever you decide to go.”

Jack looked at his bosses who had the expressionless look of administrators who walked into a class expecting to see one teacher and got someone totally different. He smiled with confidence and a puffy chested attitude that was true to himself, student centered, and educationally reasoned. The stone faced duo left and Jack continued with his class. Ten minutes later his computer dinged and let him know that he had a new email. It was from The Commander and all it said was, “Stop by my office after class.”

“Damn, back on the radar,” thought Jack.