I thought we were done? I thought it was over? I have four goddam shots in me and still, I get COVID. Why? 'Cause I teach in a school, packing twenty plus kids into classrooms, working in airless teacher prep areas, where we're surrounded by cinder blocks and each other, baking in our own germs under fluorescent lights.
My oldest son had Covid. Just this week. He stayed in his room, barely came out. He did the right thing. Me? I'm feeling impenetrable. Four vaccinations shots in me. How can I possibly get infected? I'm like a pure PVC-strength shield against Covid. Nothing can get through.
My son passes out the dishes he's been storing up in his quarantined room. He hands out two bowls, one had a spoon, both have food remnants swirling in the bottom of the bowls. He hands out another bowl, then a mug, then two plastic cups, then a ketchup-stained plate.
Did I wear gloves to carry the bowls and plates back to the kitchen where i washed them in the sink before placing them in the dishwasher? No gloves - I'm a four-time vaccinated guy. We don't need no stinkin' gloves.
I should have worn gloves.
I'm an idiot.
I come home to quarantine. I can't stay upstairs in our bed. That's out. The living room couch is out. Fortunately, my office has a futon bed in it. However, the office is in the basement which is being worked on. I'd placed every item in the basement out of the way in my office, which is now more like a storage unit. There are multiple contractor bags of linens taken from our Ikea closet that fell apart while being moved piled on the bed. Two storage shelving units holding everything from toxic cleaning products to ski equipment flank the bed. There's a standing punching bag, a foam box jump box, a collection of weights and kettlebells. And they're all on or around the bed.
Sick as a dog, desperate for sleep, I have to dive in and carve out a bed space amongst the storage items and new drywall dust. I settle in to sleep when the electrician walks in the back door. He's usually talking to himself about what needs moving and last minute fixes.
"Hey," I call out.
"What the fuck!!" The electrician peers through the office door panel. "What the heck you doin' in there?" I explain, and he busies himself with wires, sockets and faceplates while I collapse into a shallow sleep.
"You gonna choose anything else for the wall sconces?" he asks, jolting me awake.
"Well, need to square that away pronto. Another day in here and it adds up. Time is money, bro."
The next day, the contractors come to lay down floors and secure the drywall and dropped ceilings. I am captive inside my office-cage, living like a mole person in my own house.
"The hell're you doing in there?" Tim asks. he's a friend and the owner of the company.
"COVID," I manage.
"Fuck that shit," Ben says.
"Yeah. I know."
"My son. Students. Life." He laughs.
"We can't work here if you have covid," he says. "I can't expose my guys....."
"Please, just finish. I need this, man. I can't live like this."
Ben approaches the office doors and looks in. "Dude, I can't even see you in there. All I see is... stuff."
"Look towards the wall. There's a pile of blankets... my head's at the end of them." he looks. He looks.....
"Oh! There you are." He smiles. He has a kind face. "Well, listen, I can't stay. My guys can't stay. I wish you told me this earlier like last night so I could have planned to send my crew somewhere else."
"I'm locked in here, man. No one's getting infected."
"Steve, I gotta think of my guys. We'll come back in a few days when you're better."
I WANT MY OFFICE BACK!!
I WANT MY BASEMENT BACK!!!
I've been teaching mythology for a few years now. I am no expert, and working with the students in this fall's class has proven that to be true beyond an overcast stormfront of a doubt. The kids know more. than they let on. It's up to us to find out.
What do I mean by that?
Do the students come into the class knowing more than I can teach them? No. Well, maybe a couple have in the past.
But they do know what gets them interested.
For much of the first semester, I introduced students to myths from Greek, Roman, Norse, Native American, Asian and other global cultures. Many were fascinated by the stories of Zeus, Medusa, Aphrodite, Perseus, Psyche, Loki, Ragnarok, and more. And the benefit of teaching these stories was learning about them myself. I put hours and hours of research and study into preparing myself for a course that I felt fraudulent to teach. An imposter. In the teaching business, that's how it goes. The school has a list of courses that the students can sign up for. Once the students sign up, someone has to teach the course. Like I said, I'm no expert in mythology. So, I learned. My goal was to know enough to come across as an authority on the topic, at least to my students. I worried about every class - was I prepared enough? What if they ask follow up questions about related gods or parallel myths? Will I be able to answer them?
I prepared engaging presentations and lectures. I introduced concepts and characters. We looked at myth theory. We read. We discussed. No, actually we didn't discuss much. The students were not the discussing sort. What they wanted to do was learn the way they had been learning the last few years through pandemic zoom teaching (also known as talking into the silence). These kids wanted enough lead to go and learn the rest themselves. They wanted to discover. They wanted to research. Some just wanted to be left alone to do as much or as little as they needed to get away with passing grade. The kids who took myth were looking for something interesting. No one takes mythology as a blow off course, unless you know everything there is to know about mythology. but the kid who knows everything there is to know about mythology is a kid who likes to read and learn. Those who didn't already know were actually eager to find out. Still, what I was doing was 'presenting'. The students were intrigued. but they left the class as if they left a movie theatre, quietly thinking about the stories and the info. There was little discussion. I wanted discussion. I wanted dialogue. Questions. Action!
What I got instead was a maddening quiet.
Then... some hesitant comments. Some agreements. Some insights. They came in spurts, bubbling up as if from a slow-boiling pot. Blips of insight. Then stares. Then, a return to silence again.
That's when one of the students ( who DEFINITELY knows more than me) quietly suggested that I put the learning in their hands. Instead of giving them topics to learn about, offer a broad topic and let the kids choose their path.
Now, what's strange here is this: my tendency is to let kids learn on their own. I prefer to present learning goals and coach students as they wrestle through research and information on their way to being able to answer the big question. I like to guide. I prefer to encourage and facilitate learning. I do not lecture. I hate lecturing. I don't like to talk that much. I am not a fan of hearing my own voice. But here I was, leading too much, talking too much, and not letting go. As a result, I was worried about preparing for class when I could never prepare enough. What's more, I didn't have to.
How do you teach if you don't know more than your students? Good question.
I followed my students advice. I put the lead in his hands. He offered to write up the idea, which became a research project filled with choice and options. The class loved it. They dove in.
They did the discovery. They shared their ideas with each other. We all learned more as a result.
The success of letting the students run the show prompted another student to suggest a different unit idea which she drew up. Once again, the idea was placed in the hands of the class and they all dove in on it.
Notice I am not referring to the students as MY students. They are not mine. We learn together, and in many ways I learn more from them. That is the beauty of teaching.
There is enormous power in letting go. The students know how they want to learn. And if you build a trusting relationship with students, they will tell you. If you're lucky.
I am lucky.
Lenny cooked a brisket for Passover. Lenny is a friend. He is a writer. And intellectual. He reads. Lenny is a black man living in an upstate New York City with his Jewish wife. Lenny is not Jewish. But Lenny cooked a brisket.
It was passover. Lenny and his wife - we'll call her Rachel - were hosting.
Lenny the writer was working on a tough piece about local politics that reflected a national issue on race and equity. Lenny was on a deadline. Lenny hated deadlines. Lenny prefered to be a procrastinator. Procrastination, he could do. Meeting deadlines...? Did he have to?
Lenny liked his job. He wanted to keep the job.
He had to meet the deadline.
Rachel asked Lenny to cook the brisket. Lenny refused. "I don't know how," he said.
"It's like corned beef. You roast it," said Rachel with mild assurance, underlined by annoyance.
"I don't know how to cook corned beef."
"Honey." She always 'honeyed him when she started getting impatient. "Honey. It's no big deal."
"Then why can't you cook it?"
"Because! I am hosting!"
Passover Seder on the first night. Everyone knows the first night is the hardest to pull off. It's opening night. Nerves through the roof.
"You braise it with something and then you stick it in the oven," Rachel said
"Whattaya braise it with?""
"I dunno. Like barbeque sauce or something. Make it up. Figure it out. Just no pork!"
"Why would I braise beef with pork?"
"I'm telling you," his wife said, "you don't wanna do that!"
"And I'm asking, who would?"
Lenny stood in the kitchen, facing his opponent - a five pound brisket, There was a torn sheet of crumpled notepaper on the kitchen counter. Pepper. Salt. paprika. Garlic. Onlion. Cumin. Some other spices. Some other stuff.
Lenny went to work, following the steps, listening to Charlie Parker, dancing as he basted.
DING - the timer. For the deadline, not the brisket.
Lenny jumped to his standing desk where his article sat unfinished, midway through. The piece needed three thousand words. Lenny had typed twenty eight so far. But he felt the rhythm kicking in. he typed and sang.
DING! The brisket.
Back in the kitchen, the brisket sits like a bare man's ass in a pan, staring up at Lenny. he flips it into the oven. Time to write.
Three hundred and fifty words in, and he's humming. Witty, poignant, terse, cutting. He's on the mark, moving into the meat of the piece.
Turn the fleshy ass of beef in the pan, baste it, rub it, moisten it; Rachel says it has to be moist. MOIST! She said it like a commandment!
Fifteen hundred and twenty three words in. he's losing momentum, not sure how to beef up the point. Time for research. Go to the notes. Google.
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.
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a novelist, screenwriter, educator, and father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and optioned screenplays, articles, and this blog.