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, however, were prepared. Nonetheless, 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.
See you int the fall!
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!
So, your child is in seventh grade.
I don't say that to frighten you - well, maybe I do. Seventh grade is one of the most significant times in a child's development, with physical, intellectual, social, family and academic challenges all happening at once. In other words, it's insane!
It's a buckle-up your seat belt kind of year.
So, buckle up, and let's discuss how you can best prepare your child and yourself for the strange and wonderful trip known as Grade 7!
YOUR CHILD WILL BE ABDUCTED BY ALIENS
When I was teaching 7th graders, my Back-To-School Night shpiel initially focused on the new level of skills the students would face. After all, this was their first year out of the coddling elementary grades, k - 6.
7th grade is the first year of secondary school. The work gets harder and more sophisticated. In English, kids are expected to infer deeper insights from their reading, make real world and bigger connections, and continue to use the text for their evidence while considering oppositional points of view.
They had to learn to cite their sources. That means they had to take notes as they read and researched. That means they had to be ORGANIZED!
Have you ever heard of a 7th grade boy that was organized? If so, point him towards the Guinness Book of World Records, because he is the first!
In math, kids went from adding, subtracting and multiplying fractions to algebra! ALGEBRA!! Negative integers and other crazy stuff. It blew their brains apart!
At the same time, boys are realizing that the girls have different body parts that start to look good to them and the girls blossom into full on bitches!
After two years of teaching 7th grade, I realized what I was dealing with. These weren't 12 and 13 year old boys; they were electrons, bouncing off the walls propelled by inner and outer forces that were completely beyond their comprehension.
Simply put, the 7th grade boy is abducted by aliens. Their body remains, but their mind is gone, controlled by forces unseen and undetectable. They're wild. But - and it's a key BUT - they can be controlled if you know what to look for.
The 7th grade girl is the horrific witnessing of the coming of age development from cute little girl to mean bitch. Sorry, Mom, sorry, Dad, but it's true. Girls in 7th grade learn that they have a power called 'mean' and they wield it like a new favorite toy. 7th grade girls are vicious. They move in packs. They attack anyone, anywhere.
They will eat their own!
Meanwhile, the 7th grade boys remain blissfully clueless, lost in their alien-controlled-silliness.
Consequently, that Back-To-School-Night talk changed. I stopped talking about the curriculum, stopped talking about secondary level work, about the homework, and the growing responsibility of the the students. Instead, I took a poll:
"Who here in the room has had a child in 7th grade before?" I asked. Usually about half the parents' hands went up.
"Okay, and who in the room has never had a child in 7th grade before?" The other half of the room's hands went up.
"Those of you who are new to being a seventh grade parent, meet your support group - those who have been down this road before. Pair up. Find a buddy, a sponsor, whatever you need to call it. You are going on a rough, and rocky ride."
All the parents who have had 7th graders before are nodding their heads vigorously, looking down at the newbie parents with both pity and empathy.
One of the best defenses you can have to prepare for the 7th grade year is to help your child be organized.
If they haven't before, 7th grade will be the first year that your child will have a different teacher for each subject. As a teacher, I can promise you that most teaching staff DO NOT communicate with each other about what they expect from their students to be prepared.
One teacher wants a 3-ring binder with pockets
Another teacher wants folders.
One teacher wants everything written in pen
The other only wants pencils
And still another will only deliver their lessons online, so kids have to type everything.
Highlighters, pencils, black pens, blue pens, loose-leaf paper, notebooks, journals, protractors, your own calculator, trig calculator's, backpacks, file folders, keep everything in your locker, store everything in the classroom, study every night, homework every night, reading every night.
It goes on and on. And it can be very overwhelming, especially for kids, like my own son, who find being organized a gigantic chore.
The solution: Find what works best for your child. This may take some trial and error. Go shopping for the right book bag together. Some kids love pockets and they help the child's mind compartmentalize what's in each pocket of their backpack.
I'm an adult, and I still love lots of pockets on my backpack (Yes, I have a backpack - don't judge me!). It helps me organize my mind.
If you can fit more than one subject into a binder, do it. It saves so much time, and space. Carrying around four or six binders for all their subjects can get very heavy. Add the textbooks that teachers want shlepped home and back to school each day, and suddenly, your little boy is working like a hiking sherpa's pack mule.
I've seen little kids, walking half bent down the halls of school, just trying to carry their heavy backpacks. They look like little old men and women, bent and aging and rickety.
Some industrious kids used the carry-on size suitcases with roller wheels and the extendable handle. Of course, some schools ban the luggage option claiming that their hallways aren't big enough; but they're just fine letting kids strain their backs every day, during major growth periods. Just another example of how the business of education is retarded.
Fight the stupid systems that schools put into place to keep the flow of children through the hallways a priority over their physical health.
And here is a hint: any school that emphasizes traffic flow over physical health concerns is a school with poor behavior management. YOU DON'T HAVE TO MANAGE THE TRAFFIC FLOW OF HAPPY, PEACEFUL KIDS WHO AREN'T LUGGING TWICE THEIR WEIGHT IN MATERIALS LIKE DONKEYS.
There are many kinds. One of the best I ever saw was designed like a fishing tackle box, but small enough for a backpack.
Get one that works for your child.
Do not - I repeat - DO NOT let your child carry their pencils, pens and markers loosely. They will disappear quickly. I guarantee it.
IF YOUR CHILD'S SCHOOL ISSUES COMPUTERS AND CALCULATORS
You will receive a letter explaining your child's obligation to not misuse, damage or lose their loaned device. You will be forced to sign it before your child can obtain the loaned device. They will quote you costs for repair to damaged devices. DO NOT BELIEVE THE PRICE!
Something happens to that device on loan YOU go get it fixed somewhere for WAY LESS EXPENSE! Trust me on this. The schools will overprice repair. Probably someone's relative owns he repair company and is making a profit by aligning with the school.
I wish I was wrong but this happens.
ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Kids don't know what's mean or not yet. And 7th graders are right in the eye of the testing-the-waters-of-appropriateness shit-storm. So, just don't.
It goes something like this:
"Mom, can I have a snapchat account?"
Keep it simple. You can explain later.
More on 7th grade insights as the year progresses.
"7:30! Screens off!" I declared.
My son, who was in the middle of watching a basketball video, closed his laptop.
"You need to power it down," I said. "If you just close it, the laptop's still running. Your information is still active. people can hack in while you sleep." Granted, I made some things up. I wanted to make my point.
"But if I power it down, I'll lose information. I'll lose things I was working on."
"Well, you knew that you were shutting off at 7:30. So, you could have saved what you had before the deadline," I said, holding my children to a higher standard than myself. I've flipped down my own laptop tons of times.
"So, if you're in the middle of a job application, you just shut if off and lose all of your information?"
Now I'm wondering why my almost 12 year old is filling out job applications.
"You should complete the application, save it to your computer, in a word doc, or downloaded to your documents folder, and turn off your computer. That way, you're not leaving any cookies or threads from your personal work out there, running."
"Then why do all the other kids at school do it?"
"Son, do you want to be like everybody else or do you want to be smart?"
He held his head down, stared at the floor. "I wanna be smart," he mumbled.
"Good," I said. "Okay. Let's turn our devices off and get ready for bed."
My kids did as they were told. I wanted them to get to bed. I wanted to not have to think about what they needed any more this night. I wanted to get to my own work and fun distractions.
About an hour or so later, I came to a gigantic realization!
I thought I was trying to teach my son a lesson. In truth, I was really just trying to be right. By the end of the argument, my son felt defeated. His head was low. He was mumbling the words he knew I wanted to hear.
I had won. And he had lost.
I felt like absolute shit.
My mother was the household rule maker. My father was the 'This-is-how-you-do-it' guy. When I was turning into a teenager and arguing my points, I would raise counterpoints to my mother's rules. I would point out loopholes in the household law, just like my son was tryin to do. My mother shut that down. Quite frankly, my mother and my father do not know how to be wrong.
And guess what they passed down to me?
My father's way of doing things was always the 'right ' way: how to tie a knot. How to set up a camp. How to pack the car. How to fix a bicycle. How to open a jar of pickles.
Every how-to lesson that he taught us was The Way to do that thing.
It's scary to be wrong. What if your child discovers that they have more power? What if they realize that you're not always right? That there is the possibility - the outside chance - that they are right and you just didn't realize it yet.
That can be scary for a parent. For anybody.
My mother fought for attention her whole life. She grew up in the shadow of an accomplished older brother who received the accolades for his achievements. Even before she set out on what would be a very accomplished career, her opinion was not to be questioned. She defended her reasoning, no matter how flawed, fiercely. No matter what kind of argument - logical or, as sometimes was the case, not - she made sure I saw that she was right. And I, too, admitted my defeat, by repeating the words she wanted me to say.
Since my parents did not know how to be wrong, I learned that feeling of defeat. And I suddenly recalled all the times throughout my life when I chose not to speak up, because I had been taught that my opinion was wrong. It was a feeling that carried into adulthood. I chose the sidelines as opposed to standing up for my ideas. I became more of an observer that a doer. I was taught to accept that I was probably wrong by parents who had to be right.
I was passing on that same lesson of defeat to my son. I was horrified. I was disgusted. And I was grateful that I was able to recognize the pattern I was repeating.
I raced upstairs to my son's room.
"May I come in?"
"Sure," he said. He was lying in bed, staring off. He looked sad.
"I need to apologize to you, son. I... when we were arguing about the computer, you were making a very good point about saving your work. But I needed to be right. So I tried to prove how right I was instead of recognizing that you had a good point. I wanted to teach you, but instead, I ended up needing to defeat you. I was doing something that my parents did to me. And it didn't make me feel good about myself. That's what I was doing to you. And I'm sorry. I am so sorry."
He smiled at me a little. "Thanks for apologizing."
"Son, it's better to speak up for what you believe and be wrong, than to never have spoken up at all. I was wrong."
"You were trying to teach me something, Dad. But you do the same thing. I've seen you. So, you can't teach something and then do it yourself. That makes you a hypocrite."
"That's a great word. Where did you learn that word?"
"I read it in a book."
"So, you do read?"
"Lots. Whattaya think - all I do is watch videos?" He smiled that smile, knowing that he put anoher one past me.
I was wrong again. I have never been so happy to be so wrong.
Our children will grow up and learn things that I never did. My sons will know things about the world I won't. Their world will be different and they will be experts in that world while I will be an observer. I will always have common sense lessons to pass on, but when it comes to the details - and especially to my hypocritical do as I say not as I do lessons, my sons will, hopefully, point out the flaw in my ethics.
We want to be teachers to our kids. The best teaching is modeling, teaching by doing, and passing on the practice. I like to think that we all want to be better parents to our kids. One of the best ways to do that, I believe, is to admit our faults whenever possible.
If I had left things as they were, my son would have gone to bed with a defeated, deflated feeling. he would have woken up with that feeling. And I would have totally succeeded in chipping away at his self-esteem.
By apologizing to my son and admitting my error, his confidence was rescued from being crushed underneath my own feet. I helped to build his self-esteem and in so doing, I helped to prepare him for the next obstacle in his life. Because confidence, and the right attitude, is everything.
"Dad, can I ask you a question?" my son asks.
"What's a tampon?"
I'm speeding down the Taconic State Parkway like many insane sports dads, focused on getting my son to his 6th grade basketball tournament game on time. We have a tendency to leave late for everything. Even after I give my son a half hour departure warning... then a 20, 10, and 5 minute departure update warning, at go time, he's still on the couch, playing on his tablet, in bare feet and shorts. And, of course, I feel responsible, like it's my fault that I allowed him to be late.
After a flurry of shouts and rushing, we're in the car, leaving two minutes later than I wanted to leave. Two minutes. And now I'm staring at the GPS like a madman, seeing if I can bring that arrival time down to the ideal time as suggested by our coach.
Like I said, insane.
My son's recovered from the push to leave. He turns those emotional corners quickly. I'm still obsessed with the GPS arrival time. He's watching the world go past, outside his window when he asks the question above.
"You don't need to know about that right now," I say, as I try to figure out if I should take the Taconic to the Bronx River or continue onto the Sprain Brook.
I think I've answered his question adequately. But then my altruist parental mind takes over. He's asking the question, so he knows something about it. If he doesn't get the answer from me, he'll ask someone else. And that someone else might not offer as responsible an answer as I hope to.
"Why do you want to know?" I ask.
"When I was at summer camp, someone dared me to ask a girl what a period was."
I veer into the next lane, correct myself, and refocus.
"Did you ask the girl?"
"No!" he exclaims, like how dare I even question that. "But I think I know what a tampon is. Because when the kid asked me to ask about a girl's period, I knew what that was... it's like when a girl bleeds out of her... privates." He whispers the word 'privates' to me.
He doesn't ask if he's right, he just puts it out there. There's a confidence there that I admire.
"That's more or less what its purpose is," I say, feeling totally inadequate. "I mean, the purpose of a tampon is to absorb the blood that comes out. Like a huge bandaid."
'Huge' is the wrong word.
"Like a plug." Even a worse word choice. But it's been said and can't be unsaid.
"Oh," he says, getting his own image and I'm certain I'm failing miserably at this. "Dad, why does a girl bleed out of her privates?"
And now we're into it, the birds and the bees talk. Except he's less than a month away from twelve. Twelve! I thought this talk didn't happen until Fifteen or sixteen. Another example of how unprepared I really am as a parent. But here we are, and I'm about to explain how a girl's menstrual cycle works while driving 70 miles per hour down a New York State parkway.
"Each month a young woman's body prepares to make a baby. The body builds a... home inside the young woman, a place where the baby can be made and grow."
"And that happens every month?" he asks.
"So, why does it bleed?"
"Well, if a baby is not made, all the stuff that was made for the baby needs to get... tossed out. Or it goes bad if it's not used. So the body flushes it out. And that is what bleeds out."
"Does it hurt?" he asks. "It must hurt."
"It's very uncomfortable. They get cramps and it makes them very... moody."
"Oh." He goes quiet for a second. "Do they get a period if they're pregnant?"
"No," I say. "Once a girl gets pregnant..., Look, you're playing a good team today. This is the semi-finals. If you win, you'll be playing in the championships!"
"Don't change the subject, Dad. If you don't want to talk about it, that's okay. I can youtube it."
"Okay, so once a young woman gets pregnant, everything that her body made to make the baby gets used. So it's needed and the body keeps it. So nothing gets thrown out. You understand? The body keeps it all. And... the human body is an amazing thing. It's very complicated." I pause, check the GPS. "We're almost there. Can you tell me where to turn?"
"Up ahead, 0.6 miles, you're going to make a right."
"So, does a girl still bleed when she's pregnant?"
"Woman. A woman does not. Her body makes the baby. Then the baby comes out."
I do not dare get into all the details of the miracle of childbirth, and how many women and couples have suffered through miscarriages or one failed attempt after another to have a baby; I dare not mention the millions of young women who do get pregnant when they don't want to. I do not dare get into that with my 11 year old son. I keep the conversation as simple as possible. I am certain that I am failing in my explanation. I am worried as hell that I'm putting images in his head that he will obsess over. I am worried that he will be thinking about periods and pregnancy instead of remembering how to run the motion offense or know his position on defense. In about twenty minutes he's going to be standing on a basketball court and I envision him standing in the low-post, rebounds bouncing off his head as he scans the crowd for young women who might, at that very moment, be having their period. Because he would. He would wonder what that looks like and how to identify it.
"Dad, how do babies get made?"
"Oh, look! We're here!"
Middle school years are hell. And 7th grade is the middle year of the hell years. 7th grade is the middle child year of three hellish children.
Let me break it down:
6th graders are the youngest child. They're still eager to please, still listening to their parents and teachers. They're still love-able. An so we spoil them.
The 8th graders is the oldest child of the three. 8th graders are more independent creatures. These kids are finally asking the question: who am I and what makes me, well... me? It can be weird and awkward and painful. But a real conversation between parent and child is possible. A word of warning, there will be grunting and eye-rolling. Nonetheless, conversations that make sense with authentic give-and-take are achievable.
The 7th grader is the middle child of the middle school family. They are the center of hell; they are the eye of the storm.
The 7th grade child is essentially insane. Out of their minds. And certainly, way too cool to listen to anything their parents have to say. Trust me, it's not you, it's them!
As my friend Franky so perfectly put it, "when she was 10 years old, I was still the hero of my daughter's life. She asked me all kinds of questions and she thought I knew everything. Then she turned 11 and I suddenly became an idiot."
Franky's daughter, like most girls, arrived at this 'hellish insanity' a little before 7th grade. What an 11 or 12 year old girl's friends say and do and think becomes more valid than anything their parents could ever say, do, or think. Once they hit that level, the hero-parent quickly fades to the back of their 'who matters to me' line up.
"Do you have any idea what it's like to be replaced by Chelsea, the know-it-all spoiled little bitch from my daughter's class? Seriously. It's all I hear - 'Chelsea said this and Chelsea said that. And Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.' Fuck Chelsea!"
- anonymous fed-up parent.
7th grade boys, on the other hand, have no clue what's going on. Their brains get sucked up into some intergalactic, alien-controlled, black hole in deep deep space. They become unbelievably ridiculous and silly, while also being unbelievably moody. They're like the morose and edgy Shrek combined with the high-spirited, ready-for-anything Donkey. And you will never know which personality is about to come out. Until it does.
In a classroom, the boys bond with the boys and the girls bind with the girls. Typically. Even if the boys like the girls or the girls like the boys there remains this allegiance to the pact.
That said, this is the year that the girls claim their affection for boys. The boys are not ready for it. They don't know what to do.
Once I had a bonafide couple in my class. A young 7th grade boy and a 7th grade girl. They both came from wrecked households and were clinging to each other like lifeboats. They remained together for at least two years. It was very sweet. They were ahead of their time, but through awful necessity.
I'll leave that for another post.
In summation, 7th grade is the year of the changeling. Your son or daughter will morph from whatever sweet 6th grade they once inhabited into a whirling dervish of emotion, grunts, moans, whines and potty mouth. It ain't pretty.
Boys will lose all control of their organizational abilities. DO NOT, I repeat, Do Not go into their back pack alone. It is dark and scary. There will be clumps of papers, some of them vitally important for their classes; there will be sticky things, old food, and unidentifiable objects. Power-washing their backpack is recommended at season's end.
For the love of god, do not go in there alone.
Girls become obsessed with the in-crowd and who is popular. And sadly, many will do whatever it takes to be accepted.
Warning: watch what your daughter wears to school. Chances are, the hoodie and sweater or long sleeve t-shirt they leave the house in is not what they will walk around the school wearing. They will have a spare wardrobe somewhere in their bag or beneath the clothes they leave the house in. And that spare wardrobe is carefully chosen to reveal whatever assets they choose to show off - midriff, cleavage, legs and/or derriere. They are seeking attention that will get them accepted or attention. This attempt sometimes backfires and they gain negative labels from their peers which can be devastating.
There was once an incident in which a 7th grade girl won the affection of a boy away from his previous 7th grade girlfriend. The previous girlfriend rounded up a group of her friends. They lured the other girl into an ambush and beat her badly enough to send her to the hospital. When she returned to school, the initial girl had to be escorted by security between classes for her safety.
That is how serious it can get.
Arm yourself with support from family and friends and possibly outside counseling; your daughter may need it. And so will you!
You can do a lot to prevent a bad experience for your child by monitoring what she is wearing when she is actually in school.
But do not worry. Millions of parents have navigated this dark valley before you. You are not alone. In fact, in my former "Back-to-School" nights as a 7th grade teacher, I stopped discussing curriculum at all and took a poll of which parents in the room had already gone through the 7th grade experience with an older child and which had not. Then I created a support group. I told the parents that their children were about to be abducted by aliens and may be returned by June. No promises. Sure enough, later in the year, many of those parents returned to thank me for the 'heads-up'. My little tip helped them prepare for the rocky road ahead. And hopefully it will help you, as well.
You are not alone. There is help. Reach out, ask questions, and seek-out support groups. You will need it. We all did. We are here to help.
More to come. Thanks for reading.
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.