Woody Allen once said that 90 percent of being successful in life is showing up (I'm actually not sure if he coined the phrase or refurbished it from someone else). This saying applies to everything in life.
I teach high school English in Nyack, New York. I teach seniors and I teach electives, courses that run half a year, taken either out of interest or the need to finish credit requirements to pass.
The courses are designed for students to be challenged, engaged, but also meet them where they are: high school seniors in the spring of their final year are usually checked out. Many have already been accepted to colleges. Others know they will be going to work somewhere. Still others are unsure. Or don't care.
And who can blame them? After two years of being shut down, teenagers became used toi uncertainty. Uncertainty became the only thing they could be certain of.
So, you're a teenager, you're told you need to show up to class to get credit - you need to show up to work to get paid - you need to show up to practice to play.
And then the world flips on you. School shuts down. Work shuts down. So you think, why do I have to show up at all?
Make sense, doesn't it?
And here's where the advice of a less than stellar ethical figure comes in handy. If you don't show up, you're guaranteed nothing. Guaranteed. But if you do show up...?
Possibilities. You see?
Michael Jordan is often credited with the phrase "You miss 100% of the shot you DON'T take."
So, my advice to those of you out there debating the point of it all? You can do that, spend your days wallowing in an existential fog of doubt.
Or you can show up to learn...
show up to work...
show up to help a friend...
show up to be a part of...
You can always return to that existential fog of doubt when you are done. Chances are, if you show up, you will likely find less to be doubtful of.
Of that you can be certain.
On of the funniest things I ever heard. I was strolling along a snow-covered 7th Ave in Park Slope. New York was just out of a winter blizzard that dumped feet of snow all over the city. Walls of snow had been cleared off the streets by workers, pushed to the sidewalks where pedestrians carved their own paths.
Two street cleaning workers were standing by a plaw and a dump truck. One leaned on his shovel for support after a long day. The other was smoking, looking down the street at the snow they had yet to clear. They had the quickest conversation in pure Brooklynese:
The shovel leaner called out to the smoker: "Yo! Where's fat Tony?!"
The smoker called back, "He's ova dere! Bein' fat!"
Have you received your COVID-19 Vaccine yet? Have you been able to make an appointment? Many of my colleagues are taking selfies of their appointment confirmations on facebook and instagram. They post texts with the date. They take pictures of their vaccinated arm. theyt brag and dance and show it all off on social media while people like myself spent random periods of time updating the New York State Appointment sites hoping to get in.
no appointments available.
no appointments available
And then I give up until the next time my kids aren't calling me or I don't have an assignment to get in or a deadline to meet and i hit the update button again.
I receive a the text from Shaun - they're putting out new appointments at 4 o'clock!
It's 3:55. SHIT!
I plug in the url, race with my hunt and peck typing fingers to input the info they need. I've only typed in this info a thousand times already - the eligibility site, the Walgreens, the CVS, Walmart - I should have the info on a speed dial one-press key on the laptop at this point.
I'd even try the new Popeyes Chicken place that opened in our area. Maybe they had vaccination appointments with their 8-piece spicy chicken special!
Soon I'll be huddled in back of a dock-in-the-box, hiding behind a dumpster so I can steal the syringes they toss, shoot one into my arm and hope to get the last drops of vaccine into my veins. I'll probably get someone else's blood mixed in with it. Then I'll turn into some blood-poisoned raging monster, hungry for flesh or blood, wandering the landscape looking for my next fix - human blood.
It's the start of something - maybe a new horrific zombie pandemic. God knows we have enough examples of zombie scenarios on TV to imagine how anyone of them could possibly come true.
I'm thinking it could start from desperation - trying to get a vaccine that we are unable to sign up for.
No appointment available.
No appointment available.
The next zombie apocalypse will have to wait.
One student has been opening up about what it's like to be of color amidst a group of friends who are not. This student - I will call her "P" - is outspoken. P has no problem speaking her mind. She grew up in a community of mostly white people. Many of her friends were raised in families that supported the conservative rhetoric that diminishes black and brown voices. Her friends repeated things in her presence that were hurtful. They did not intend to say the "n*****" word around P. P's friends claimed that they did not mean to offend her. They claimed that they did not even know that it would offend her.
P explained to her white friends that saying the "n" word - or any derogatory racial slur - around her was hurtful to her.
P was able to get his friends to listen. They understood that it hurt her. But most of them did not stop doing it. And that is where P is both confused and frustrated, bordering on angry.
I shared a story with P about my wife, who is a black woman. Together, she and I are raising our children in a community that is more white than black or brown My wife's friend - a blonde, blue-eyed white woman from a family of means - perpetually pumps out inciting posts on her facebook page. The posts are divisive and argumentative. They challenge any opposing argument.
And that's fine. It's a facebook page. It's a personal opinion page. Why a business owner would pump out divisive political rants that would only repel those who would disagree with them is their business - or lack thereof.
But when your friends tell you that the posts are hurtful to them, and you still do it... well, what message does that send? And how much do you value the friendship?
P agrees. And she is doing the hard work by voicing her complaints to the source: she lets her friends know how it makes her feel. And she lets them know that she will not tolerate it.
Will P change her friends' behavior? Will P awaken more empathy amongst her white friends who don't have to worry about ever being called a "n*****" in a way that it offends every ancestor in their family tree?
The word n****** hurts people who are aware of its power and its significance. Those who toss it around in their texts or posts where their 'aware' friends will see it and be offended, are either unaware, or don't care.
In this day and age, I'm not sure how anyone can be unaware of the power of words. especially the power of racially charged words.
I was in striking distance of a woman who said they didn't understand anything about the Black Lives Movement. She argued that the election was rigged and the riots in the capitol were less damaging than any Black Lives Matter protest over the summer.
Moreover, she claimed the Black Lives Matter movement had no message; that it was basically a bunch of angry people creating chaos with no clear purpose. in other words, just another bunch of angry black people - except of course, that the Black Lives Matter movement includes and is supported by people of all colors, all walks of life, traces and religions; and it's supported internationally.
Huh. No clear message?
When asked what she thought the Black Lives Matter "mission statement" should include, she threw her arms up in the air and shook her head, baffled. It was the physical gesture equivalent of how the fuck should I know?!
In this woman's defense, it must be difficult to know what a black person in the United States might want in today's society. Right? Yes, it would be difficult to know that... if you've been living under a fucking rock!
Having not sufficiently offended people in the room, she added the quip that the number of Jews and others killed in the holocaust was inflated.
Let me repeat the claim from a self-proclaimed intellectual: "The number of humans killed in the holocaust was over-inflated."
If the Nazi's were good at anything, it was efficiency and record keeping.
Eli Weisel, the author, activist and holocaust survivor, taught us that if we see injustice we must shout!
P, you keep shouting. And so will I.
Last March our schools shut down, teachers putting their courses online and students were learning from home. Or at least, that's what was supposed to happen.
In truth, most teachers panicked, because they (we) were suddenly thrown into a role we were not prepared for. Some of us were better prepared than others; the difference lay in our familiarity with technoligy, and the level and quality of support our district leaders and colleagues were able to offer. On this point, the differences remain vast and deep.
Nonetheless, we all tried, to the best of our ability.
And we all made mistakes.
1. TOO MUCH WORK
The most common complaint from parents and students was "there's too much work!". Teaching remotely is very different from teaching in a classroom where you can see the students in the room and react in real time to their needs.
Most teachers posted a ton of assignments for kids to do without communicating with their fellow grade teachers to see what they were also posting. As a result, Google Classroom, Schoology and other learning management systems (LMS) were exploding with assignments and alerts not just in the morning, but throughout the day as teachers got new ideas to share.
And why did this happen?
Nerves. Anxiety. The unknown.
We are so used to the brick and mortar classroom, students and a teacher in a room together, talking and collaborating and sharing their thoughts. It is so hard to do that online.
Zoom is an effective way to gather a group of people together but it is not the same. Every teacher and kid will tell you, it not the same as being there, with your friends, sharing a laugh and a smile or a gesture in the midst of a learning moment. Zoom does not capture the nuances of interpersonal communication. Neither does Google Meet or any of the live-streaming meeting platforms. People behave differently when they know they are on camera. And the connectivity, the interpersonal, non-verbal communication is lost.
2. TEACHERS CAN'T TOUCH STUDENTS
First of all - bullshit.
Teacher's reach kids all the time through touch: a pat on the back; a fist bump for a great job well-done or a 'you got this' moment of encouragement. Slapping hands, and hugs - yes, for the little one's those warm teacher hugs can go a long way in instilling confidence and a safe space to learn.
Learning means failing and trying again. And kids don't like to fail. Having a teacher there to give you that look of encouragement, bending down on their knees, getting to the students level sitting at their desk, that's when teachers can be at their best, zoning in, being totally present for one student only.
Those private moments don't happen in a zoom session unless you use a private breakout room, which means zooming yourself into a private chat with one or more students; it also means leaving a hole bunch of other kids unsupervised in the main zoom session.
You can imagine the myriad of wrongs that can happen in that situation.
Teachers communicate with their students all the time through some kind of human touch - it's natural and it builds so much confidence in a kid it's amazing.
3. SOCIAL EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
Online learning removes the social emotional learning (SEL) and support that naturally occurs when people are together in a room. Like the above mentioned points, we thrive on non-verbal social cues and communication: a smile, a wink, a silly face, passing notes, doodling and showing our buddy what we drew. All this 'living together' stuff is what builds social-emotional learning, the willingness to share, and feed off of each other.
We can do ice-breakers on zoom. We can use Jamboard or Google Slides or Kahoot or Peardeck or Screencastify or youtubing-ourselves or whatever app you want, but it's all an attempt to recreate the power of natural communication.
4. THE REAL DEAL
Let's face it, come August or September, depending on the state or province, students will be meeting their teachers for the first time, and teachers will be meeting 100 or more new students.
Last year, the relationships between students and their teachers was already established after being together since September, or at least since late January in the case of semester classes.
This coming fall, we're very likely all going into a new world of online learning from the get-go. So what should we do?
Here's the deal - there is nothing more important than creating a trusting relationship between teachers and students. Kids have to be willing to let their teachers know who they are, and teachers need to try their damndest to get to know the person in their classroom - not the student, but the kid, and who they are.
In a world where we are all nervous and guarded about how close we get to someone, or where they have been before we encountered them, we all need to be willing to be a little less guarded when it comes to learning.
We have to learn to trust each other again.
We have to learn to trust that learning and being in school with friends - even remotely - is a good place to be and better than being alone.
trust yourself to know that you are good enough, and help shine your light for others to be guided and inspired. This is a time to shine, not go dim. This is a time to share your superpowers of love and laughter and kindness; we all need to bring our best, and be open to the process.
nobody is an expert on tomorrow, so be the best you that you can be today.
I've been screaming it for years now - effective teaching that reaches children is based on trust. Trust. It's the most important thing a teacher establishes in their classes and with their students.
Every year in public schools around the country, and I am sure, around the world, teachers welcome new students into their classrooms. In larger schools, the teachers don't know their new students. And the kids don't always know each other. They may have never been in a class together before.
The most important thing a teacher can do to start their school year is begin to establish trust in their classroom:
- Trust between teacher and the whole class
- Trust between the teacher and each individual student
- and trust between and amongst the students. The kids have to learn to trust each other if they're going to work and grow together.
Sounds like a lofty goal, right? It is. And it's not easy to establish. It does not happen on the first day. But it starts on the first day.
Establishing trust begins from the moment your students enter the room.
HOW DO I BUILD TRUST?
A good question. The answer is not that difficult. Trust, after all, is subjective. Different people have different levels of trust. Some are more trusting than others. Much of that has to do with the family or home dynamic they are coming from.
What makes you trust someone?
Again the answer differs from person to person but if you gathered data from multiple sources, you'd probably find some common themes.
I trust when someone does what they say they will do.
I trust when someone is consistent with their rules and when the rules are applied to everyone fairly.
I trust people who are willing to be open and honest with me.
WHAT DOES TRUST LOOK LIKE?
When my students walk into my class they know that they are getting Mr. Tesher. They know that they will hear honest feedback from me. They know that I will be fair. They know that I will challenge them, make them think, give them the courage and the freedom to use their imagination, take risks, and share their voice.
Do they challenge me? Of course.
Do they push the envelope? Hey - they're teens. Pushing the envelope is their default setting.
Did you test boundaries when you were a teenager? I blew up the friggin' boundaries and plowed through others. I got in trouble, paid a price, lost credibility, lost my way.
I share this with all of my students. By being honest with them, by being open and truthful and no BS they know that I understand them.
I earn their trust.
I earn it.
LIVE OR REMOTE
Come September, whether you are teaching live in a classroom with students or remotely from a home office through Google and Zoom, start earning your kids trust from day one, minute one.
Get to the know them.
Follow through on your promises.
When kids trust their teacher, they will do anything for them. And that teacher can take their students to new heights of learning.
Have fun, stay healthy and be true to yourself.
A student emailed me to discuss some possible career options, and writing was on their mind. Coming from a family of writers, and being one myself, I was able to offer some advice.
We talked about journalism, blog writing, and other writing - how to find ideas, how to start writing, how to research, and how and where to pitch.
But then... the student kept talking. They talked about their friends, their family, what they were thinking about. It was the longest conversation I had ever had with a student.
Part of me was thinking, 'wouldn't you rather be talking to your friends instead of me?' And then it hit me: they need this. I need this.
In schools, trusted relationships are developed between the adults and the students. We, the staff, offer a myriad of guidance, advice and insight into a world that we've simply lived in longer than the students. They crave the experience. They crave our perspective because, after all, they're just starting to figure it out.
Social distancing has creating a major gap in the personal growth of young people and in all of us.
A friend recently shared that, in his work day - because he is an essential worker - he was having 30 minute conversation with people he hasn't spoken to in years. Just to connect. That's how starved we are for social interaction.
So, if your teenager is at home with you (and they should be), don't assume that just because they are sleeping in until noon and not leaving their rooms that they don't want to interact with you. They do. They need to! And they need to talk to the adults in their lives - the one's they used to see every day.
Encourage your teens to reach out to their teachers and the staff from their schools. It's the magical connection that is the secret behind teaching. It's not just about instruction. Good teaching is about building trust. It's that trust that brings students back to the classroom day after day.
So encourage your teens to talk. Get them to reach out to the adults in their lives and just... share what's going on. Because we all need that now.
I was recently asked why I chose to be a teacher. And it caused me to reflect... because it wasn't so much a choice. Life has a way of directing you to where you are supposed to be. Turns out I was supposed to teach writing.
I was living in Astoria, Queens. New York City, recently married and stuck in a dead-end job to support a writing career that hadn't happened yet.
A sad sack friend, who was always depressed and lamenting his lifestyle and his job, one that he was very good at and afforded him a lifestyle many would envy. I asked him, if he could do anything, income not being an issue, what would that be?
Being a sad sack he didn't know. So, he bounced the question back to me.
"Teach. I'd like to teach," I said.
The New York City Teaching Fellows was in its early years, still. They recruited people from all walks of life. The New York City teaching Fellows Program offered someone like me a deal: the city would provide me with a Masters Degree in Education and a career placement. All I had to do was teach in failing schools, hardest to staff districts, and the worst neighborhoods in the city.
I.S. 218 stood at the corner of Broadway and Nagle Streets, just south of Dyckman, and steps away from the 190th street stop on the A train. It was down the hill from Fort Tryon park to the West and Fort George to the east. I.S. 218 was in a gulch. Cars were double and sometimes triple parked. Musc blared out of shops and apartment windows. People shouted greetings to each other on the street.
New York City had been my home for years. The East Village, the West Village, Upper East Side. I had lived in Park Slope, Alphabet City and most recently, Astoria, but Washington Heights was a foreign land to me.
The students at I.S.218 were mostly Dominican and African American. Some were Puerto-Rican and some Cuban. The staff reflected the same demographic.
I was raised in an upper-middle class family in Toronto. We had privilege. I went to private school. Went snow-skiing every winter weekend, spent my summers at camps and lakes. My parents hired housekeepers and nannies. Someone else made my bed every day. When and if I worked it was because I wanted to, not because I had to.
I spent the first few months watching amazing teachers motivate these kids. They were pros - confident, strict, intelligent, organized. They did not play, and the kids knew it. Those kids who decided to test these teachers found out quickly who was in charge.
I had none of these qualities. What I did know was how to write. And as it turns out, I knew how to spot writing talent in others.
When notice of a city-wide playwriting contest came to my attention, I invited a handful of students to join a playwriting class. We walked through the how-to's of writing a play. I taught them what had been taught to me:
"Write from your own back yard; write what you know. Know what your characters want, why they want it and what they're willing to do to get it."
These kids wrote about their lives - parents and relatives in jail, one parent at home, often a father with another family down the block. They wrote about growing up without and making do. They wrote about being kids and having fun the way they knew how. They wrote about their plans to get out to a better life for themselves and their kids. They wrote from their heart.
16 students wrote 10 scripts together. We mailed the scripts off to the Playwriting Competition which was held by a well-known New York City theatre. The kids went back to their classes and their live and we waited.
About a month later, the results came in: 8 of the students won awards for their plays. They won over countless other New York City student playwrights. We travelled to the mid-town theatre for the awards ceremony and readings of the winning plays. Some of these kids had never seen the inside of a theatre - and here they were, winning for writing a play. It was nothing less than miraculous.
I knew then that, as much as I loved writing, teaching was a calling. The smiles on those kids faces was the proof. The children showed me why I need to teach.
Kids are stronger than they think they are.
I'm going to use various pronouns - he, she, and they - in an effort to maintain their anonymity.
A young person that I work with approached me for advice; a friend had cut ties with him. The friend said as much - that they wanted space.
The person sharing this with me was devastated. Hearing 'No' from a friend hurts. But it's normal. People get busy. our lives get taken down different and new paths. We have to give our friends space. Crowding them does not help and can create resentment. On the other hand, the friends that grow distant from us don't always intend to do that. People can get sidetracked by the shiny things in life, sometimes.
When I was in 11th grade, I found myself being accepted into a shiny new group of friends. They were beautiful and had nice things and money and they were shiny and did I mention they were beautiful? I was mollified by them and spent every chance I could with them. Until one day, my very best friend asked me why I wasn't talking to him. I had no answer, but the question pissed me off. Later, in a water-polo gym class (Yeah, we actually had a pool in our school and we had water polo!! ) I was scoring more than he was content with. My friend, who was on the swim team, and a way better swimmer than I, decided to put an end to it and pulled me under water, holding me down. We ended up punching and fighting in the deep end.
Yeah, we were literally fist-fighting while swimming in deep water. And yes, that's as stupid and dangerous as it sounds.
While sitting on the edge of the pool in 'penalty', we somehow ended up talking about it. He was hurt because I was spending time with the shiny new people for the wrong reasons - because I wanted their acceptance. But I was shutting him out. .
The guy punching me was a better and true friend. If your friend punches you because they're upset, it's like a sign that they truly care about you. Fake friends don't punch you. They don't care enough about you to expend the effort. Instead, they humiliate you from a distance, usually through technology, and often anonymously.
That's what cowards do.
Friends who truly care about you give you a bloody nose, or knock your teeth out or give you a black eye. Friends who care leave a mark.
The shiny new friends had something I had never had before. Or rather, they gave me something I never had before - a feeling of belonging. So much of high school and teenage life is about fitting in. But to what? They didn't have anything I didn't already have except access to a perceived status. In chasing that mythical status, I rejected my old friends.
Another friend stopped me in the hallway and said 'Hey, Tesh, do I smell? Why are you avoiding me?' I had been unintentionally rejecting him, too. I didn't mean to. In my mind, I was just putting certain friendships on pause while I pursued other friends. But I never thought about how my real and true friends felt about that. I was being an ass.
By fighting with me and getting in my face in the halls of our high school, my friends were telling me that I was being an asshole.
I was being an asshole. The fact that I didn't mean to be an asshole doesn't matter.
After being beaten up underwater and scolded in the hallways, I came back to my old, true friends and was much happier for it; they were my true friends - and still are today. The shiny ones faded into their own lives. I haven't seen most of them since high school.
Bringing it all back to the issue at hand:
The person who shared with me was super hurt by their friend cutting off from them. To compound it, the student was fragile, having dealt with a lot of rejection in their lives. So when a friend rejects you, it hurts triple, because it brings up so much old pain. The thing is, they took it as their fault, as if they had done something to incite this rejection.
The friend who was cutting off had their own issues to deal with and probably doesn't even know what they are. Just like I chose to pursue a higher-priced friend group, my friends didn't do anything to cause it. It was my own choice. Stupid, immature, and shortsighted, maybe; but it was still my choice, and no one else's.
I told the person sharing with me that the cut-off wasn't forever. Teenagers toss words like 'forever' and 'never' around like today's divorce rate. Friendships are complicated, just like any relationship. They go through challenging times. Best friends who spend every minute together can't go on like that indefinitely. People get busy with different interests, work, projects, or personal goals.
But if you find a friend drifting away, maybe you just need to remind them that you're there. And you might not have to punch them in the face to do it. (although that's what certainly worked for me.)
It's 6 in the morning on a Saturday. The galumph of large, pre-teen feet shake the floorboards of the living room. Seconds later I hear the sing-song melody of the television turning on followed by the high-pitched screeching of cartoon characters. My 7th and 4th grader can barely make it to their school buses in the morning during the week, but come the weekend, they're up before the sun, in front of that television, and they will stay there until their toenails grow fungus roots into the couch cushions and the floor, which is progressively littered with the spray from whatever the hell they're eating.
That's the other part - they never stop eating. But they don't eat meals. You can cook them a healthy, nutritious and filling meal, they nibble at it. But in the middle of nowhere, one of them grabs a bagel and just starts to chew on it - too lazy to toast it, or butter it or apply cream cheese or even jelly. Just gnawing on a plain damn bagel.
These can't be my kids! I was raised, you don't eat a bagel without a schmeer of something! Veggie cream cheese, hummus, something!
7am: the dog's still not walked and the cat's still not fed. My sons are staring at the screen. One of them is drooling - spittle literally hanging off his bottom lip like un-chewed spaghetti. They'll live like this, in their pajamas, teeth unbrushed, breath smelling like rot, until moved.
"Walk the dog!" First words out of my mouth. before 'Good Morning!'
"Feed the cat?"
"Who wants eggs?"
Nothing. No response.
But if I switch that television off... oh my god! The whining! screaming!
"That's not fair!" Moaning.
Then they walk the dog. They get outside and re-enter... different people. They breathed fresh air. They moved their bodies.
But man, the thousand and twelve programs between Netflix and Youtube, Gumball and Bob's Burgers... my kids have a ton of fascinating things to watch.
"Why don't our kids read?" I lament to my wife.
"It's a different generation," she shrugs. Does she understand something I don't? Or does she not get it?
I know they read. They read at school, and they read at night in their beds. That's their wind-down, reading time. So, okay, they read. But sure as the sun will rise, Sunday morning, they'll be up bright and early again, watching like zombies until they're pushed out into the world again and awaken to the fact that there is tactile life - sticks to throw, balls to kick and chase, and possessions to fight over - things they will miss while drooling in front of the blue light of a screen.
Wait, I have to go. My show is on!
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a writer and an educator. Most importantly, I am a father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and written screenplays, articles, and this blog.
Buy my books on Amazon and stay in touch!
Black Ice, by Stephen Tesher: