Students Are Sharks

 

Students are sharks, no doubt about that. When they scent blood in the water, many will unite and attack. The object of that attack will be the teacher.

I saw some teachers destroyed by students when I was in high school. Even in Catholic schools, teachers were fair game if you could rip them to shreds and not get in trouble (or too much trouble). Few teachers wanted anyone in the school to know that their students swarmed them, sometimes daily, and made them tremble in the face of disdain or vicious attacks. Many teachers would just hold it all in and not share their torment with others. Some of these teachers broke down and quit the profession. That was a true victory for the sharks.

It didn’t matter if the teacher was a nice person; if he showed some fear, or lost his temper and yelled, or trembled; he was dead meat. As a student, I never joined the sharks in their blood-letting. It was too easy; a weak teacher, belittled, and getting his ass chewed; I didn’t want anything to do with that. But you only needed a few students to set up the shark attack. Three or four and the class could be thrown into chaos.

Dealing with Possible Destruction

As a young teacher, losing control scared the hell out of me. It terrified me. I did not want to show any weakness on any day that would open me up to attack.

In 1969, before I entered my first classroom to teach my very first class, I had nightmares of the students turning against me and making me bleed so much that the front of the room was bathed in red. After teaching for 33 years and being out of the game for the past 16 years – I still have nightmares (which I call schoolmares) about not being in control.

In my teaching career I have strong memories of the teachers who lost control; who would cry, females and males, weeping shamefully, after their sharks’ devoured their soft flesh with delight.

I remember a former Marine, a big, strong guy who could rip a student to pieces in a physical fight, brought to blubbering in the teachers’ lounge. He didn’t last a full year on the job. I remember one teacher who was being observed by our department chairman crying as the lesson unfolded because the students became uncontrollable. He lasted two years before he gave up the job. There were plenty more.

Now some teachers can maintain discipline by being bastards or being scary or being both. Students can be rightfully afraid of strong-willed, mean, unrelenting teachers. And many of these teachers actually taught well. A good teacher is a good teacher even if he is a prick or she is a—(well you can supply an accurate descriptor here).

I didn’t want to be a scary, nasty teacher; that’s not me. I wanted to enjoy the classroom and have a good relationship with my students. I wanted to like my students and I would prefer that they liked me. Admittedly there will always be kids you dislike and, yes, some kids would dislike you. That’s the human condition.

Just prior to entering the classroom at the age of 22, I wondered: How do I circumvent the possibility of ultimately facing a school of ravenous adolescent biters looking to chomp on me?

I recalled both good and bad teachers I had encountered when I was a student. One started the very first lesson on the very first day by saying, “People, people let’s begin.” Nothing happened then but he had unknowingly lumped all his students together into one grouping (“people, people”) and many of those “people” in a relatively short time had formed a school of sharks and ripped this guy apart.

Okay, lesson one, don’t let the students think of themselves as one group. Keep each one thinking of him or herself as an individual. They had to think of the relationship with you as a dual relationship – me and Scobe – between two distinct individuals. If a kid liked you that probably would stop that kid from kicking your ass in class.

So no kid represented a group. No kid was the leader of the classroom. No kid represented his race or religion or ethnicity. The kid was the kid and nothing more. It was the student and me, period. Easy to say but how do I put that into effect?

I would face close to 30 kids per class on that first day. I figured that I’d meet them at the door and try to say something personal to as many of them as I could. The administrators of the schools want you to stand at your door to make sure the kids in the hall are behaving. No, it would be better for me to set up the future conditions in my classroom on that first day at the door.

So I would stand in the doorway those first few days and say silly things. If the kid had a tan I’d say something such as “Well, at least we don’t have to go swimming and have fun anymore now that school has begun.” Or “I’ll bet you can’t wait to do a lot of homework.”

To kids who swaggered and looked tough, I might say, “Okay, you are in charge of protecting the nerds. They need someone like you or they are dead from… ” and I’d wave my hand at the students rushing through the halls to their classes. I think most students, like most adults, think other people are idiots. I’d play on that with the tougher kids.

I’ll admit that what I had to say was never all that clever. I just wanted a word with the kid; that’s all, just a lightning-fast personal word, one-to-one.

In class I could build a one-on-one relationship even if I hadn’t gotten to the kid at the doorway. If some student said something really stupid, I would look at another kid in the class and do a quick eye-roll that only he or she could see. We made a connection at that moment. Then I would tease the kid who said the stupid thing— never nasty, just in fun. A little humor and a quick one-to-one with an individual student during class could go a long way in establishing a personal relationship and a classroom tone.

I also knew never to do the same lines or actions over and over. That could get boring.

Okay, that was one idea to employ, a truly personal relationship.

The Humor Trip

Some teachers don’t have much of a sense of humor in their classrooms. If a student got off a good line at your expense, how should you react? Get angry that a kid would dare say something funny about you, the paragon of education? No. For God’s sake, just laugh. What the hell? I enjoyed teasing my students, so why can’t they tease me? There were only a few times when I really wanted to kill the kid who said something mean to me, but I never let the #$%^&* know that.

Or come back with a funny remark of your own. But never nasty, “Timmy, your mother is a smelly ape!” That achieves nothing.

Okay, so have a sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoy what you are doing. If you like what you are doing, the kids should like it too. I called that emotional transference.

Classes didn’t have to be dry, dull and deadly. I would do the literature I liked, that I enjoyed, that I could get excited about when I taught it. I would teach writing the way I wanted to teach it.

So this was the plan I put into effect the very first day of my career. Did it work? I think so. In 33 years I never had to throw a student out of my class; or write a disciplinary referral on anyone. I never had to yell at a kid. Don’t get me wrong; there were times when I wanted to walk down the aisle and belt a kid in the nose. No teaching day is perfect even for the best teachers. That is something all teachers know. That’s why most days you see the teachers dragging their asses out of the school building.

Liking My Students

Did I like all of my students? Just about. I did have a few that I couldn’t stand and a couple I can honestly say I hated.

People might think it is wrong for me to say I had a couple of students I hated but I did. Why lie? Out of the approximately 6,000 kids I taught, I think hating two of them is pretty good. Some will say the word hate is too strong a word. If it is then feel free to change it to a word that means hate but doesn’t sound like hate. I’ll have a section about these two creeps in the future. You might hate them too.

And one seemingly weird thing, which will probably sound totally idiotic to many of you, but I remember from my little sister and my cousins when they were toddlers that they liked to have the same books read to them over and over; that they liked to eat the same food night after night. I remember an uncle who shaved his beard and his daughter cried as if he had died because she had never seen him clean shaven.

A certain sameness creates calm.

So I dressed basically the exact same way day after day after day. Each year I tended to have a different uniform (after all my uniform would wear out with such extensive use over one school year). I figured it would be easier for the students to basically see the same Scobe day after day. A leopard doesn’t change his spots and my clothes were my spots.

I remember one year when a PBS station was doing a show about my classroom and that year I wore a burgundy sweatshirt every day. So for the show every student wore a burgundy sweatshirt. It was fun to see all of us looking alike. And we did not give in to telling the producer of the show what we were doing. I just taught my regular class and the students were just great. It was a fun day!

The Attention Span Problem

Here is another situation that concerned me, the attention span of students. I found in my elementary and high school days, in college (even in high-level honors programs), in graduate school and in the mind-numbing education courses to which would-be teachers were subjected, that many students could not concentrate for prolonged periods of time. You could see legs beginning to vibrate; faces lost in dream-states, eyes drooping, and big yawns.

I knew you couldn’t teach a kid if that kid couldn’t pay attention. How do you solve that problem?

Over my years of teaching there have been many idiotic attempts by educators to find methods to engage students for prolonged periods of time. One such was called cooperative learning, where you put students in groups and they teach each other. The smart kids did all the work, achieved all the grades for the group, and the lazy kids did nothing, but they still achieved success through their hard-working peers. Of course that nonsense was not around in 1969.

So what did I do? I watched television. The kids I would teach had been brought up with television. So what held their interest for a half-hour or hour-long show? Something did because we had a nation of kids addicted to this form of entertainment. It took me a while but I got it. Commercials!

Every 10 minutes or so, the show was interrupted with a commercial that did two things; it introduced something new, maybe some product or food or cigarette brand and it gave a break from the program that the kid could get back into when the commercial was over.

How could I introduce the commercial aspect into my lessons? Every 10 minutes or so, I would interrupt the lesson and go on a short riff, something funny or unusual. Then I would get back to the lesson but first I’d say something such as, “Wait, wait, I’ve forgotten what we were talking about. Can anyone help me?” Of course, the kids would raise their hands and tell me what I had taught. Okay, that was a sneaky way to do a review and it also gave the kids the idea that I had a pretty poor memory.

The Students I Taught

In my career I taught every type of student—from advanced placement to regents to non-academic. I once had a class comprised of six felons who had taken someone’s life when they were in junior high school. I had some students who were—even at the young high school ages—far smarter than I would ever be. But a kid is a kid, no matter how brilliant. If a kid taught me something by something he said I had no problem saying, “Excellent. I never thought of that.”

I taught kids from all races and many ethnic groups. I treated them all the same—I’d tease, cajole and praise kids if what they had just accomplished was worth it. I was never overly-critical. I was not an easy grader.

My department chairman won a bet against a teacher who said my popularity was based on my giving out high grades. He told the guy to bring his grade book in and he’d compare the grades, especially when we taught the same students. This teacher’s grades were far higher than mine. My chairman won the bet.

So I had my plan and I put it into effect from day one. I might still have schoolmares so long after retiring but I did accomplish what I set out to do—that was, being the best teacher I could be and to never lose control.

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

Only You

 

It was my first year of teaching at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, New York and I was finishing my first master’s degree. I would drive into the City to meet my advisor and this particular trip was to discuss my thesis on Ernest Hemingway titled “Hemingway Mystic.”

We met at a restaurant and got down to business. We discussed this, that and all the other things about Hemingway and I showed the professor point by point and line by line why I thought Hemingway had a strong mystic streak in his writing. When we were done my professor said, “Frank, is it true that every Italian has someone in his family in the Mafia?”

“What?”

“I heard that all Italians have at least one member of their family in the mob,” he said. “I just want you to confirm that.”

“No, no, my family doesn’t and none of the Italian families I know have Mafia guys in them,” I said.

“Ah,” he said. “But you really don’t know about them do you? You only know what you think you know or what people lead you to believe.”

“Doctor Carlson, I’m sorry, but give it some thought. There are so many Italians in America that if every family had at least one person in the mob, and maybe even more, there would be hundreds of thousands or a few million Mafia in America. It just isn’t so.”

“So you don’t know about the ones in your own family? You are not a good representative of your people” he laughed.

I shook my head. This guy was dense. Obviously I couldn’t change his mind, but the fact that his information was wrong, that I knew I didn’t have Mafia members in my family, didn’t seem to sway him in the least.

And what was this idea about me being a “representative” of my “people”? I didn’t speak for the Italians in America, nor the Germans nor Irish who also made up my heritage. I didn’t actually speak for anyone but myself.

“Italians get really offended when people make jokes about them don’t they?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Come on, you’re Italian, you should know.”

I learned something from this guy. No one represents his or her group, especially in the classroom. Yes, you might want to have fun with students, crack jokes at a kid’s expense as kids will cracks jokes at your expense; you do have to have a sense of humor about yourself, after all.

I realize that I can crack jokes about Jim and June and Bob and Jaime as Jim and June and Bob and Jaime – but not on what race, ethnicity, or religion they are.

Sometimes a stereotypical trait exists in the person with whom you are dealing. Fine. But that stereotype does not dictate all the traits of such an individual. And that stereotype is not that individual and, worse, that individual will feel slighted if he or she is made to feel you are stereotyping him or her. (“You people are all alike.”)

I am a man but I don’t represent men. (“All men are alike,” she says.)

Because she is a woman she does not represent women. (”All women are alike,” he says.)

Because a kid is Italian, he doesn’t represent Italians.

Because a kid is Jewish, she doesn’t represent Jews.

Because a kid is black, he doesn’t represent blacks.

And so on.

In the classroom; in the school; in professional or personal contact, then, it is just me and the other person, no matter who that person is.

Stand in front of your classroom; look at each and every student and say, “Only you.”

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

My Education as a Teacher

I graduated college in 1969. For three years I had three majors, literature, philosophy and history. In my senior year I stuck with literature and gave up the rest. I married that year.

So what would I do after I graduated? I could go into the Navy as was my first plan before I received a scholarship to college.

It was the time of the Vietnam War and I figured I would have to serve my country and the Navy seemed the part of the armed forces I’d like the best. After all, I was a strong swimmer. (Why I ever thought that had anything to do with the Navy is beyond me.) Also, I would continue my writing career while I sailed the seven seas. I knew I would become a famous writer as did everyone who put pen or typewriter to paper.

But this Navy plan changed when a friend of mine, Lucy Winiarski, suggested I become a teacher in Suffolk County on Long Island. She had already secured herself a position.

“All you have to do is go in for an interview and take twelve credits of education courses in the summer. They need teachers,” she said.

I never considered being a teacher. Essentially I thought of teachers as people who had the impossible job of controlling kids. As a kid I looked at other kids, I knew how hard it was to control us. Secondarily, these poor schnooks had to educate the students as well. That seemed like trying control a mob of monkeys.

Throughout my schooling, I did have some good teachers, no doubt about that, and many competent ones, no doubt about that either, but the majority were either passible or bad. College professors tended to be somewhat dull with a few exceptions, so joining the ranks of teachers didn’t exactly thrill me. Still I needed money to pay my living expenses.

I went for the interview, got the job on the condition that I get those 12 education credits over the summer, and that was that. I was to become a teacher. Would I even survive this? I’d be teaching seventh grade in an all-seventh-grade school. I figured those kids would probably kill me. But what the hell? Nothing ventured, nothing killed.

I could swim in the Navy or sink in the classroom. I’d try the classroom first and if I drowned there, I’d swim over to the Navy.

So I had to get those education credits. I enrolled in four classes, two each summer session, and there I was the first day of the first class with my notebook opened on my desk awaiting the professor of education who would open the wonders of teaching to me and to all of the education students.

She didn’t. She was awful. She was the worst teacher I had ever had in a college course, or so I thought, until I met the next education teacher. He was worse. He was – in short – an idiot. He and the course had no substance, so I was left dreaming of the high seas. Every eye of just about every student in this guy’s class was droopy within a minute. The class was 90 minutes long!

I took almost no notes. There was no information in the courses, just silly theories about how students act and react. Hadn’t these professors ever gone to school? Were either of these professors ever kids?

And the students in their education classes? A few seemed intelligent and even more than a few seemed like nice people. The rest? Not too impressive. I figured they would be eaten alive when they got into a classroom. I also figured I’d be eaten alive. Perhaps cannibalism awaited all of us, the smart ones and the dumb ones. I didn’t kid myself into thinking that my students would welcome me with loving arms as I entered their classroom.

Their classroom? The professor droned on about their classroom. No, no; my classroom. Yes, the battle – the very first battle – would be in defining whose classroom this was. It had to belong to me, not the students, but if the students took control, they would be the main force in the room. I already knew that some teachers owned the classroom; some teachers were always teetering on the edge of doom and others were devoured by the school of sharks. Yes, I thought, as the professor droned on, a classroom of students could be a school of sharks.

I made it through the first two education courses. Actually, I think an ape could have done that. In my 33 years of teaching the worst level of education came in education courses, usually taught by people who couldn’t teach, offering scant information that at best belonged in comedy clubs. My first six credits instilled in me a disdain for my new profession.

The next six credits taught me a lot, not about education, but about one aspect of teaching that stayed with me for my whole career. One of my two professors was a master teacher, a true master. His curriculum, as with all education curricula, was a waste of time, talent and money, but this professor could teach a class!

He was energetic. He was pleasant. And he was funny. I enjoyed watching him as he taught. I enjoyed how he goaded and brought out ideas in the students – even if the ideas were silly. He could nudge but he was never mean even if he were teasing a student.

I quickly took a seat at the side of the class so that I could watch him teach and learn how he interacted with the students. The guy was no spring chicken; I’m guessing he was about 65 or so – an age I now consider young!

While I didn’t learn anything of merit in the curricula of those two classes, I did see a great teacher in action. His humor was a key ingredient. The students stayed awake because they didn’t want to miss what the guy would say. He also never took offense at anything a student said. He looked as if he enjoyed every minute in the classroom.

I left there knowing that I had to be funny, entertaining, energetic and engaging. Would I be able to do that? Only time would tell.

I also had to tame the sharks.

[Read Frank Scoblete’s books I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack, I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps and Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! All available from Amazon.com, on Kindle and electronic media, at Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]

The Making of a Teacher (1): Mr. Grillo

He sat in the top section of the Brooklyn to Staten Island ferry. We were halfway across the Narrows on our way to Bay Ridge’s 69th street pier. I should add that this particular ferry service no longer exists. When the Verrazano Bridge was completed there was no need for that particular ferry service.

This was my junior year of high school and Mr. Grillo was my social studies teacher.

On this day, a few days before Halloween, Mr. Grillo looked awful. There were dark spots under his eyes and he was quite pale. He looked sick.

“Good morning Mr. Grillo,” I said.

“Good morning Mr. Scoblete,” he said. Mr. Grillo always called his students “mister” followed by their last name.

He looked out at the skyline of Manhattan. His eyes were distant and a little dull.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m tired,” he said. “I have a long day ahead of me.”

A long day? It was just a regular work day.

“Can I ask you something Mr. Scoblete?”

“Yes, yes, sure,” I said.

“Why do the students hate me? I can’t even get a lesson going and all of a sudden there are spitballs thrown at my back and weird noises when I am not facing the class. Why?”

He was right. When his back was turned as he wrote notes on the board, chaos ensued behind him. Yes, spitballs flew across the room and some hit him and stuck to the back of his suit, and half the class raised their hands in the air with their middle finger prominently displayed.

There were sneezes that only slightly covered the word “fuck” and loads of derisive laughter. You could see the back of Mr. Grillo’s neck getting redder as the chaos behind him increased in intensity. (For your information, this was a Catholic high school— one of the very best in the city!)

Once in a while Mr. Grillo would whip around trying to catch someone doing something, anything, but he never nailed anyone. In fact, the pimply-faced Sullivan, the one I thought of as “Captain Disgusto,” once had the audacity to say, “Mr. Grillo, someone threw a spitball at me.” Sullivan held up the spitball – a dripping spitball he had just taken out of his own mouth.

“Oh, ho, that’s a wet one,” laughed Sullivan’s best buddy, a kid known as black head because of the number of black heads he had on his face.

“You should control the class,” said Jimmy DiResta. “I’m here for an education.” DiResta was a moron of the first order and another of Sullivan’s followers.

Then Mr. Grillo would lose whatever reserves of calm remained and he’d start yelling at everyone and everyone he yelled at snickered and laughed at him.

“Why do they hate me so much?” Mr. Grillo said to me. I thought to myself that Catholic saints all supposedly experience the dark night of the soul. Perhaps that’s why Mr. Grillo looked so sick. He was experiencing the dark night of teaching. I wondered how many other of my teachers went through such a trial.

I tried to analyze Mr. Grillo’s problem. The very first day of class in September, Mr. Grillo had lost the students even before he knew he had lost them.

I came into the room and his back was towards me. That was fine by me. I took what I figured would be an area close to where he would seat me since the teachers tended to seat students in alphabetical order.

Then the mob came in, meaning Sullivan and his gang of eight, but Mr. Grillo did not turn to look at them, instead he wrote his name – Mr. James W. Grillo – on the board. Sullivan did an exaggerated middle finger behind Grillo’s back. His gang roared with laughter and Grillo turned around. “Yo, Mr. Brillo!” someone loudly whispered.

“What is going on here?” Mr. Grillo asked in what I took to be his disciplinary voice.

Sullivan’s gang remained silent but one of them finally said, “It was that kid over there. Balloon Head. He’s a troublemaker,” pointing to Lynch, a top student, the short, big-headed chain smoker whose only friend was me. Lynch’s face pulsed red. He was afraid to speak against Sullivan’s mob.

I wasn’t. Since I had bested Sullivan in a schoolyard fight two years before, he and I had an awkward truce. He left me alone; I left him alone. But on this one, with Lynch about to have a heart attack, I decided to take up his cause.

“Mr. Grill,” I said.

“Grillo, young man,” scolded Mr. Grillo.

“Sorry, Mr. Grillo,” I said. “Lynch here did not make any comments. He’s one of the top students in the school.”

Sullivan’s mob threw me looks. Then Sullivan said, “Naw, Balloon Head didn’t do nothing.”

So that took Lynch off the hook.

“Take seats young men,” said Mr. Grillo.

“But we don’t have assigned seats,” said Sullivan pretending to whine.

“I’ll assign seats when class begins,” said an irritated Mr. Grillo and just then the bell rang. Sullivan’s mob laughed as did most of the rest of the class who had come in during the Lynch episode.

The line had been drawn between students and teacher just like that. Grillo was the enemy and an easy one to torture and get a rise out of. Bringing blood from a teacher was fun and even “good” kids would join in the fun. With a few exceptions, Lynch and me being among them, the class had turned on Grillo. At first, Grillo didn’t have any idea but then he learned the sad news quickly.

What had he done wrong? He allowed the students to get him early by turning his back on them. You never turn your back on sharks, I thought. They are looking to devour you. These kids, none older than 17, had become man eaters and Grillo was their man. They knew they would be going at him before he could even introduce himself. He showed he was uptight from the very beginning. And his disciplinary voice carried no discipline in it.

Students don’t just go to school, they are schools—schools of predators. The Lynches of the world are exceptions. Students are sharks; that truth I had learned early in my student career. Even good kids often can’t resist the temptation of torturing a teacher.

Mr. Grillo awaited my answer. I was looking at Manhattan. I was looking at the water. Under that water might be real sharks. Sharks can smell blood. Students can smell the blood of teachers. Once they smell such blood they will often go after that teacher unmercifully.

“Mr. Grillo,” I ventured. “I don’t know what you did wrong.” I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Mr. Grillo left teaching after Christmas vacation. The sharks had eaten the bloody chum.

 

[Read Frank Scoblete’s Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! Available from amazon.com, kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores,]

 

How (not) to Stop a Fight

 

[At Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, New York.]

The girl was maybe 4’10”— if that; slightly built, but she was a tigress. I think she was a sophomore. She had gotten the bigger girl down on her back and she was pounding away, punch, punch, punch.

I knew I had to stop the fight, so I did. In those days, the early 1970’s, I was in great shape, running 10-mile races, boxing, doing amazing numbers of calisthenics. Today, sadly, I am Jabba the Hutt. But then? I was close to a god.

I went behind the tigress and grabbed her, thereby squeezing her back against my chest. I lifted her easily off the bigger girl. I had a tight hold on the tigress.

But tigress was kicking like crazy, trying to break my hold but being small, her feet were where a man doesn’t want someone’s kicking feet to be.

She did a backward kick, a backward kick and then – two feet, one after another, landed on an area I had treasured since I first discovered it — my balls, or in polite terms, my balls!

I can’t let go of her I thought. My other thought was that I’d never have sex again thanks to this tiny monster. I just hoped my private parts didn’t fall to the floor.

I was gasping in agony when the assistant principal came over and took the tigress out of my arms. That’s the first time in my life I wanted a female out of my arms.

I leaned against a desk, breathing deeply, when a female teacher said, “You look so pale Scobe. Are you all right?”

“I’m great; I’m fine,” I falsettoed.

My balls did recover. I did end up being able to produce children. But I will never forget that little tigress. I hope she comes back as a man in the next life. So I can kick her you-know-where.

[Read Frank’s latest book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! Available on Amazon.com., Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]

Bad Teachers

 

***They lit his tie on fire as he napped in class; they threw his desk and bookshelves out the window. The students did things such as this for 30 years. This teacher had tenure. His very first year of teaching saw the kids throw his overcoat out the window; put glue on his desk drawers, and cause him befuddlement when they asked questions he couldn’t answer. He kept sending kids to the administrators. Nothing helped. He never got any better. He stunk on his first day of teaching before tenure and he stunk on his last day of teaching with tenure. He stunk every day in between.

***She would take attendance and as she called the kid’s name, the kid would say “present” or “yo” or “here” and then get up and leave the class. She never noticed that but when she looked up there might have been 10 kids remaining out of 30. She had tenure. She’d been teaching for 20 years.

***Everyday, he would cry when he came into the teacher’s room. He’d complain that the kids were torturing him. Indeed, they were. He’d been teaching for two years. He did not have tenure yet. He had graduated from Columbia’s school of education.

***She screamed and yelled at her students every day; every damn day. You could hear her on the second floor although she taught on the third floor. She’d been teaching five years. She had tenure. She yelled from the second day of her first year on the job and never stopped.

***She’d been at the job for 32 years. She only taught honors classes. She couldn’t teach non-academic classes because the kids ate her alive. She couldn’t teach academic classes because those kids ate her alive. So to save her sanity, she was only given honors classes. They ate her alive because many of these kids were disdainful of her intellect. But they ate her alive without throwing stuff at her or throwing stuff (or her) out the window. She won Teacher of Excellence in some New York State competition.

The above are just some examples of bad teachers. Without exception they all had tenure. That one exception – the crier – received tenure after his third year. My understanding is that he became a principal. He was on his way to the top! For all I know he could be a superintendent of schools now.

The unknowledgeable in educational matters, meaning non-teachers, would think that those “old” pros had merely lost the ability to teach or just got bored and allowed the kids to run rampant.

Not so.

Teachers who were bad before tenure were bad after tenure. So I ask you this? How the hell did these bad teachers get tenure? You had good teachers before tenure who became great teachers after tenure, yes, that is true, because they gradually learned the secrets of success – but they were good to start with. The bad stayed bad. No bad teacher in my wealth of experience ever became a good teacher.

There was only one exception to my tenure rule (Scobe’s rule: bad stays bad) and that was one teacher at my high school who was a brilliant man, loved by students, who went stock-raving mad after 25 years of teaching. The teaching didn’t drive him mad; his divorce from his wife did; it sent him over the edge. He started taking everything out on his students. His classes became rants. He was fired after he poured ketchup and mustard on a student’s head after the student said something he didn’t like in the cafeteria. The student got drenched then beat up the teacher. The student was not thrown out of school; in fact he was a hero to some students for pounding the living shit out of this poor guy. The teacher was a nerdy type; not much of a fighter. Still the teacher was fired.

A second tenured teacher halfway through his 37th year – he was still a good teacher now mind you – reached out and grabbed a girl’s breasts while teaching his lesson. “These are nice,” he said squeezing them. He disappeared 10 minutes later and was never seen again. But he left when he was still a good teacher – although obviously something snapped inside his head (whichever head you think that was).

I have no idea why teachers who didn’t have it, got it – tenure I mean. I just don’t really recall teachers going from good to bad after tenure. The great teachers – and I did know some great teachers at Lawrence High School – never just became “okay.” They were great before tenure and great after tenure.

I am not a cheerleader for public education but I can say tenure is necessary – otherwise I would never have had a teaching career. You see, when I was a new teacher I was fired from my first job. I didn’t even finish my second year after having (dare I say this) a somewhat physical altercation with my principal. He thought I was a good teacher but he couldn’t stand me because I was – and this is the truth – an arrogant bastard. I also taught stuff he didn’t think I should teach. Even when he told me not to teach it; I taught it. As I said, I was arrogant and, yes, I know this now – I was stupid.

On my second job at Lawrence High School, once again I alienated some administrators who had the ear of some Board of Education members. My science fiction club did a comic book “Lawrenceman” that teachers and kids liked but that the administration hated. I made everyone who joined my club a “president” (they had to pay for the position) so it would look good on their college transcripts. We didn’t hide this fact. I had giant signs all over the school telling students to join and become the president. In fact, some of the major colleges wrote me little notes telling me how much fun it was to see a teacher enjoying his career and to keep sending them my presidents. I even allowed teachers, custodians, and secretaries to become members but they could only pay to be vice-presidents.

I barely squeaked by to get tenure – and if I didn’t get tenure at Lawrence, I would never get another teaching job. I’d be blackballed.

You see, before I was hired at Lawrence I went on six interviews and as soon as I told the principal the fact that I had been fired – I never hid that – I didn’t get the job. At Lawrence, four people became my strong supporters after I taught a sample lesson: Greg Monahan, chairman; Edwin Krawitz, principal; Lenore Israel, great teacher; Gabe Uhlar, great teacher and also the kids of the class I taught. The school – and the students – took a chance on me, and thanks to them I actually had a career.

Still, I only got tenure by one vote. Over my career tenure protected me.

Tenure protected other controversial teachers too. We had teachers who were socialists; ultra-conservatives, libertarians, religious nut cases, but all damn good in a classroom. Our school thrived because of these people; it certainly didn’t thrive because of the bad teachers. These were great teachers – before and after tenure – but some of them were outspoken; they were fighters. Certainly, those bad teachers never had to worry about being fired; but the firebrands did. Tenure protected them. It protected me. And it gave students great teachers from which to learn.

Bottom line, I whole-heartedly believe in tenure but, come on, teachers have three years to show their stuff – their teaching stuff – and if they just don’t have it then they shouldn’t get tenure.

Tenure is great because it is a method of protecting those who should be protected; but it is a disgrace to give someone tenure who is not now and will never be a competent teacher.

[Read my new book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!]

Thirty-Three Years Before the Class

Teachers are going back to school now and on the Facebook pages so many of them are expressing great joy about going back and great joy about meeting their students. What is wrong with these people?

Now I taught for 33 years. Since I’ve started posting on Facebook, many of my former students have written or emailed me saying that I was a good teacher (actually “great” is the word many of them used but I am a humble man; kind of like Moses who was the “humblest man in the world” so I won’t brag).

One former student mentioned that I really never had discipline problems in my class.

Well, that is true and not true. In 33 years, I never had to send a kid to the Dean of Students; I never wrote a disciplinary referral on a kid; and I don’t think I ever yelled at a kid. Of course, I did have some kids that were not easy to handle; two of whom I must say honestly I despised; a Neanderthal beast of a girl and a jittery, demented, poisonous snake of a boy.

The monstrous brute of a girl always tried to take the class away from me.

If you think of your class as a string orchestra, then I was the lead string instrument. I wanted everyone to follow my rhythm. A disruptive student, your average, everyday shit head in other words, would try to take that rhythm from you. If such a ploppy did that, you would lose control of the class and, perhaps, have a battle on your hands all year. No teacher wants to battle students though many feel as if they are forced into such battles.

I always felt that my problem students were my problems and I never wanted any administrators to ever (ever, ever) be involved with me. For two reasons, if I couldn’t handle a student, how could someone who fled the classroom handle that student? I also felt it was a sign of defeat to allow a student to defeat me. Two simple reasons.

So this bulbous female barbarian would always make comments and try to take the classroom rhythm from me and bring it to her. Keep this in mind. I never worried about a kid who cracked a joke at my expense. If the joke were funny I laughed. If it weren’t funny I just rolled my eyes, looked at a few other kids in the class as if to say, “God is he an idiot!” (That, of course, connected me to those particular students; gave us a bond so to speak.)

She — S-H-E — was hard to contain. I didn’t crush her until February. That was a long, long time. I was teaching something or other and she just shouted out, “Scobe, you’re a dick!” I could feel the tension shoot through the students. Would this be the moment I sent a disciplinary referral for being so insulted by such a hellhound? Hell no. When she said, “Scobe, you’re a dick!” I just turned to her and said casually, “Use my first name, Big!” The class exploded in laughter and this beast was finished for the rest of the year. (These were seniors, not little kids.) She could find no one who wanted to listen to her after that slaughter.

You can read more about her in my book “The Virgin Kiss” as well as some other interesting (and insane) students I taught.

The boy was off the wall. The brute of a girl picked her shots to go after me, but this guy was wired at all times. Tall and skinny, eyes blazing, he had no control over himself. Luckily, his string instrument was broken so he could not even attempt to dominate the class. In addition, not only did I despise him but so did every student in the class. Usually students enjoy watching maniacs acting like maniacs but no one enjoyed this creep.

Finally one day just before the Christmas holiday one of the football players in my class – a big and I mean a really BIG kid – turned to slinky and said, “You open your fucking mouth again and I am going to rip your fucking heart out of your fucking chest.” He meant it too because this football player had a reputation for being violent. He and I got along great. And what happened to wired-up slinky? He started cutting and finally never showed his face. No loss.

I will say that I did like most of my students – and I taught around 6,000 of them. There were only a few I truly disliked. I never let them know it. But in the car on the way to school I would act out scenarios so I wouldn’t act them out in class. “Timmy, you are the stupidest fucking jerk I have ever seen. Is your mother an ape or something?”

Of course, I never said this to Timmy. I never “looked it” to Timmy. As far as Timmy was concerned, I liked him. Generally the Timmys liked me or, at least, they were neutral towards me.

I do not deny that I now feel I had a meaningful teaching career thanks to my former students who have written to me. I didn’t always feel that way. Often I thought, “What the hell am I doing here? I’m throwing sand into the wind. I’m supposed to be a famous writer; not some teacher slogging through a mundane career.” Well, that sand seems to have had an effect.

But let’s be serious. Only a teacher knows the truth of the following statement: Teaching is a bitch! It is really, really hard work. It is draining. You are on the line every minute of every class – every second of every class.

One of my teacher friends, the late Gene Brown (who died way too young) used to say, “We are selling a product they don’t want.” For most kids that would be true. The kids on their way to Harvard often think of their teachers as stepping stones to good grades. The kids on the way to the streets thought of their teachers as idiots suppressing the students’ enjoyment of causing chaos.

The others? Just wandering through their teenage years which can indeed be very tough years.

I saw many people come from other professions into teaching; from business, law, nursing, law enforcement and then get their asses kicked. Kids can be sharks. They smell blood and the teacher gets eaten. It was not unusual to see some teachers – and some of these new teachers were prized at their former jobs – come into the teachers’ lounge and cry. Don’t think just women; mind you, men too – often real man’s man types of men.

You had to be damned good at teaching just to be competent. So those teachers expressing rapture at the thought of going back to the classroom also know, “Christ it is going to be some haul.” The best of the best teachers think this. Those who get daily buffets know this in a really, really profound way. Why? Because they can be torn apart and have been torn apart. They can be crushed by students just as I had crushed that brute of a girl.

So I do salute the teachers who are going back to one of the toughest jobs imaginable. I also know that many people who have never taught in a public school think what teachers do is easy. Well, come on folks, step into the lions’ den and see how you do.

I’ve spoken before audiences of 1,500 people. No sweat. I’ve written 35 books. No sweat. I’ve been on television plenty of times. No sweat. But I have also sat up on Labor Day weekend, knowing that the next week I would face young men and women that I had to teach; that I had to control; that I had to try to make their high school experiences worth their while. In short, I had some of their life in my hands. You bet I sweated.

So I salute all our teachers’ courage and dedication.

[Read my book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!]

Teacher Hiring

I am not sure if Lawrence High School still does it this way but here is what I had to do.

There were hundreds of applications during that time period (1971) and the Department Chairmen Greg Monahan (a great teacher by the way) selected about 10 applicants to come in to be interviewed by him and the Principal Edwin Krawitz.

I lucked out because I attended the same high school and Monahan taught there before I went there. He saw that and decided to interview me. More as a lark I think because I had been fired from my first teaching job and I never hid that. (I wrote the full story of my epic fight with the principal of that school in The Virgin Kiss.)

So I was interviewed. I evidently did okay and I was told I’d have to teach a lesson to Lenore Israel’s junior honors class (she was a great teacher). The night before my lesson I was called and given a poem to teach, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” — a bitch of a poem at first sight.

I read it; thought about it a little and went to bed early to let my “sleeping mind” figure out what the hell the poem meant and why it was structured as it was structured. (I write that way too. Later today I have a 2,000 word article to write for one magazine and a 1,000 worder for another. I’ll sleep on those and when I wake up those articles will be more or less written although right now I have no idea what the heck I will write about.)

So I taught the lesson. Principal Edwin Krawitz, Monahan, Israel and social studies teacher Gabe Uhlar (genius) watched it. The students obviously watched it. When I was done I was told they would be in touch with me one way or the other. Then Krawitz, the teachers and the students discussed my lesson. The students, a very bright group, had a strong impact on the discussion.

Monahan was a little hesitant to hire me. Hell, I had been booted from my first job. Did he really want to handle a firebrand? That’s when Israel and Uhlar told Monahan, a brand new chairman, to take a chance on me. They thought that the firing was actually a good thing and that (and I quote Israel) “we need teachers like him here.” Monahan took the chance; called me and gave me the job.

Thirty-one years of my life I spent teaching at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, New York. Yes, I wrote during that time; I acted during that time; I ran a youth center during that time. But I was (and am) “Scobe the teacher.” It defined me.

This section will be the stories from my teaching career and, perhaps, some commentary on today’s teaching profession.