Teachers Tell All
Teachers Tell All
Being a teacher takes passion and compassion…but a sense of humor certainly helps. Educators become storytellers and open up about some of their most challenging (and sometimes hilarious) experiences, including stories about chaperones misbehaving, taking career advice from a psychic, chemistry experiments gone wrong, and more.
Guests: Chris Lundy, Marjorie Winther (pictured), George Dougherty, Anissa Weinraub, Jason Pittman, Dr. William Hite, Donald Deeley, Paul Arendt, Emma Hitchcock
Image: Jen Cleary
From Superbowl to Superintendent
It takes a tough teacher to rise to the level of superintendent. Dr. William Hite talks about his early dreams of football stardom, and the mentors, teachers and students who changed his course. In charge of 300 schools, 8,500 teachers and about 200,000 students, he still remembers his earliest school days, and shares them with us.
Teachers! Why Do They Do It?
Taking a cue from memories about the best and the worst teachers they had, these educators talk about the emotional costs and rewards of working with students - and the reasons they continue to do it.
Read the transcript
Jamie J: From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is Commonspace, and today we are all about education on Commonspace. And we have teachers who had a lot to say outside of the classroom. By the way, I’m Jamie J from First Person Arts and I’m here with WHYY’s Elisabeth Perez Luna.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Jamie I thought we would start with some facts: the Philadelphia School District has nearly 300 schools with a student population of 200 thousand. That’s between district, charter and private schools. To teach all those kids you need about 8,600 teachers - and there’s still a shortage of teachers. This is just to give you an idea of how important education is for all of us at every level of city life.
Jamie J: OK, let’s get right into our teacher tales. For students, the field trip is one of the most exciting school activities.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: I loved field trips when I was a kid.
Jamie J: Well Elisabeth, teachers may see it as a great opportunity to learn something new outside of the school, but for kids, it’s often a day to just cut loose and drive your teachers crazy. That’s why chaperones are so important on field trips. And you know, teachers rely on parents to chaperone these field trips. But what happens when the parents need chaperoning? Jason Pittman told us this story about taking his class to the zoo, which, in the end, became a bittersweet experience for him.
Jason Pittman: So I have just completed ten years as a public school teacher in Washington DC. Actually please don't clap - don't clap - actually, because I just quit. It was a difficult decision. I hated leaving a lot of my students. I had a student when I was a very young teacher - Ryan- in the middle of my lessons would conduct these very wild conversations between his thumbs - who spoke their own thumb language, like - memememeeeepmememeeep!!!
So when Ryan’s mother signed up to be the chaperone of our class field trip to the zoo, I was unhappy. She gets the kids - we get to the zoo - she walks twenty steps from the entrance, she sits down next to the ice cream vending machine, plops herself down, buys herself an ice-cream, announces to the three students that I have conservatively put in her chaperoning group, “It's too hot to walk around the zoo today,” and just eats ice cream in front of the children and won't buy them any.
I find out about this when I was summoned by the zoo staff to the petting area of the zoo, because my students from her group have decided to ride the goats in the petting zoo. Now look, I love my students, so I have to justify their behavior a little bit. They’re boys. These are boys who have eaten all of the soap in the soap dispenser in my classroom. So like, wanting to ride a totally awesome, miniature horse, double unicorn pony is like the most well behaved normal thing that they’ve done this year. Look, as a parent chaperone on a school field trip you have one job - and that is returning to the school with the same number of uninjured children that you started with!
We get on the subway - the Metro in DC - the doors close - and Mrs. Hannigan, Ryan's mother, says to me - “Mr. Pittman, I don't think I have all the kids in my class.” I know - I know I’m not supposed to make fun of the parents - but I just quit.
So, I said “Mrs. Hannigan, please count to three, and tell me that you have all the students in your group.” After she gets to two and pauses, I realize we are missing a child and of course - it's “Thumbs”! She left her own child in the subway station, on the last platform.
I pull the whole class off the subway, ride back to the other one, pick him up, bring him…we get to the end of the line at the subway, get our cars out of parking…DC Metro has just instituted the Smart Trip card and you have to pay for everything on the Smart Trip card, she's trying to get her car out of the parking lot. “Mr. Pittman, I don't have a Smart Trip card. I can’t get my car out.” I said - no problem Mrs. Hannigan, I'll give you mine and then you can get your car out with that. “But, Mr. Pittman, I don’t have a Smart Trip card.” Okay…thank you for restating the problem for me, now I understand much better, so how about this solution - I’ll give you mine, and then you can get out. And then she said “But, Mr. Pittman, it says I need a Smart Trip card, and I don’t have one.” DOES EVERYONE IN YOUR FAMILY ONLY SPEAK “THUMBS”!!! MEEP F***ING MEEP! I’LL MEEPING GIVE YOU MINE - AND THEN YOU’LL HAVE – f*** it, forget it. I bought her a Smart Trip card, I give it to her - get out.
Mrs. Martinez who understandably actually does not speak English sees this transaction and comes over and asks for her Smart Trip card to get her car out, I figure I can't do this conversation in English - fine, another ten dollars - here’s your Smart Trip card to get out. Mrs. Martinez is a responsible chaperone, so she gets ten dollars out of her wallet to repay me for the Smart Trip card. Unfortunately, hands it to Mrs. Hannigan - asks her to hand it back to me - and of course, Mrs. Hannigan pockets the money!
Mrs. Hannigan, however is not the criminal element of the story. Is not the worst chaperone of this story, because the worst parent chaperone this day got arrested. Mr. Jeffers shows up at the last minute asking to be a parent chaperone. I'm not sure we're going to let Dad who just got out of jail be the chaperone for a group of kids, but I tell him “sure, have a little father-son day with your kid” - decides it'll be super entertaining to encourage the monkeys to throw their poo at each other. Causes such a ruckus, that he is escorted out by the zoo security. Turns out, he has outstanding warrants and is arrested. His son has to walk by himself, ten miles from the police station home that night. It was situations and students like that that kept me in teaching and wanting to be a better teacher for kids like that. It was the adults, and the parents, and the administrators, and the legislators that drove me out.
Jamie J: Jason Pittman left teaching, but he’s now working for a not-for-profit aiding other teachers to achieve their missions.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Unless you’ve been a teacher, or are a teacher yourself, this is only a hint of what they go through every day. It’s never been an easy job, even in the best of times. Just think of the constant juggling of schedules, curricula, paper work, bureaucracy, discipline concerns - and persistent lack of funds.
Jamie J: And then you have new Education Secretary, Betsy De Vos, arriving at her first day at work at the office, and asking, “Where are the pencils?” A bunch of teachers in social media unison responded, “What pencils?”
Elisabeth Perez Luna: It’s become a sad cliché of how much of their own money teachers spend on supplies for their kids. It’s one of the many things they do to balance out shortcomings.
Jamie J: You know, humor helps…
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Ah, Jamie! Recess!
Jamie J: Have you ever wondered what teachers would say if they could? Well, you only need to go online to find out. We asked Producer Mike Villers and Associate Producer Jen Cleary to read some of these thoughts.
Elisabeth Perez Luna : And they enjoyed it…
Mike Villers: If I know a pair of students have crushes on each other, I play secret matchmaker and assign them as partners for projects, then sit back and watch the awkwardness unfold.
Jen Cleary: Every day I wonder if this will be the day I scream SHUT UP!!!
Mike Villers: I hate when students tell me about their lives because honestly I do not care.
Jen Cleary: I find it hard to be nice to the popular girls because I hated them when I was in school.
Mike Villers: I flip off my students when their backs are turned. I teach third grade.
Jen Cleary: My students are so bad this year that I’ve gone back to drinking…again.
Mike Villers: I’ve set my phone to record when I’ve left the room to hear what my students say about me.
Jen Cleary: My secret? None of my students realize my husband and I are fully bisexual - and nudists as well. Teachers have lives after the last bell rings you know.
Mike Villers: I’m a teacher and I smoke weed every day even though, you know, of course I tell my students it’s really bad for them.
Jen Cleary: I love most of the kids, but I hate f***in’ their parents.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: If you want to find out what it means to be a teacher, check this quote from American historian Donald D Quinn. I like this. He wrote, “If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in their office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn’t want to be there, and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then you might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job”
Jamie J: Well put. If I had forty people in the room that I was supposed to treat, and many of them didn’t wanna be there…you’d end up with 39 untreated people (laughs).
Elisabeth Perez Luna: But a teacher can’t do that. He can’t tell them, Ok, go home.
Jamie J: That’s right. And in spite of it all the obstacles, they keep on teaching…you gotta love them for that.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: I did. I went to so many schools here and abroad, that school was a refuge from all the instability at home. And teachers were my anchors to some sort of reality. You know, I remember a science teacher who made amoebas very cuddly under the microscope. Can you imagine? And I also had teachers that could turn you off to most wonderful of books.
Jamie J: And sometimes you meet teachers who you’re not too sure if they even like their students. Storyteller and teacher Emma Hitchcock, tells us about her experience teaching English in Russia at a First Person Arts story slam…
Emma Hitchcock: Children scare the crap out of me. I've really come to the conclusion that they're just really cute sociopaths. And if you don't believe me that's totally fine but that's been my point of view for a couple decades. So much to my chagrin, when I first moved to Russia, the very first class they handed me was a class of twelve 5 year olds. And I was supposed to teach them English.
Two problems with this construct: number one I'm not allowed to speak Russian to them because it's an immersion course. And number two their entire grasp of the English language is limited to the alphabet. So if someone were to craft a special level of hell just for me that was it. And they were learning, but it was pandemonium every single class, because like pack animals they could smell the fear. And the ringleader the alpha male of this, was this little kid, Sacha. And Sacha was one of those kids that was like, really bright and really beautiful, and you knew he was going to grow up to be a giant .
He would interrupt every single lesson 5 or 6 times to show me pictures of his pet rabbit on his cell phone. He was 5. And he would torture the other kids he’d be like “you suck!” and “you can’t draw!” and “you smell like dookie!” and so while I’m over here trying to coax a sobbing puddle of child from under one desk, he’s over here ripping up some girl’s homework.
And that was my life. So I didn't know what to do. So I was going to teach them “I have” ‘cause I thought kids love to tell you stuff that they have, so this will be great. So I do and it is they love it they can’t wait to tell me everything they own. They’re like “I have a yubka!” and I’m like “skirt”. And they’re like “I have a skirt!”. So it’s okay, great.
And then there’s Sacha. Sacha does not like this game because he was hung up on the phrase “I am” which gives you a little window into his ego right? So, we’re like Sacha, what do you have? And he’s like “I am rabbit!” And I’m like “You have a rabbit.” And he’s like “I am rabbit!” “You have a rabbit” and we go back and forth forever. Until I'm finally so frustrated that I’m like I have a better idea. So, I draw two pictures on my whiteboard. One of him, with like, the ears and the tail and the teeth eating a carrot. And one of him holding a rabbit. So I’m like “I am a rabbit”, “I have a rabbit”, “I am a rabbit”, “I have a rabbit”.
And the other kids find this hysterically funny because they're five. But Sacha gets furious because I just embarrassed him. Right I know I felt bad, but I'm trying to help. So instead of learning the grammar he decides to dedicate the next hour of his life to cutting off a chunk of my hair. I hear him tell the other students in Russian. He’s like “I’m going to cut off some of teacher’s hair.” And they’re like “Why?” And he’s “‘Cause I like her!” (laughs) Dexter.
So every time I go to help a student, I’m like leaning over and I just look over, and this little Russian psycho with scissors aimed at my head. I kept taking them away, and he keep finding more. But I survive, and like a week later I have 5 minutes left in class, so I decide that I'm going to review “I have”. So I go around to each student. I’m like ”[Russian Name] What do you have?” And she’s like “I have a brother!” And I’m like Staš what do you have?” And he’s like “I have a pencil!” Staš was really enthusiastic. And I get to Sacha, and I’m like “Sacha, what do you have?” And he’s like “Nyet.” “Sacha, what do you have?”
So, in my head, I’m like “For the love of god and all things holy, tell me you have a f***ing rabbit!” But I don’t say that. I smile and I point to the cell phone on his desk And I’m like, “What do you have?” And he picks up the phone, with a picture of a rabbit on it, and goes [speaks Russian] he died. Okay, class over. Bye kids! And they leave.
And it’s just Sacha at his desk, like, wracked with tears. So I go sit next to him, and before I can even say anything, he just crawls in my lap and hooks his little arms around my neck like a baby monkey and face plants into my cleavage sobbing. So I'm like k And I have no idea what to do with this ‘cause, I'm not super wellequipped for it. So I’m just like and I break the cardinal rule of my class and I’m like “Sacha, [speaks Russian] Relax, everything is okay” And he pops out of my bra which is now a water bra and he’s like [speaks Russian] “You speak Russian!” You got me.
And this big smile comes over his face, and the tears dissolve, and we pinky swear that it’s our secret to the death and life is good, right? ‘Cause, like, I no longer think he’s the antichrist and he doesn’t seem to hate me so, this will be great. So, we kinda work this out, and he goes to pack his things, and I go to my desk to put my things away, humming “Eye of the Tiger” in my head.
And on his way out, he stops at my desk and he’s like “Can I have a hug?” “Sure, Buddy!” So, I go to give him a hug, and just when I should hear that sitcom “Awwh!” What I hear is “Shink!” and the sound of scissors clattering to the floor.
It takes me a second to process what has just happened. And in that split second, he’s gone. Like, I turned just in time to see him careening out my classroom door, brandishing a chunk of my hair like a fresh scalp. Screaming “The teacher speaks Russian!” “ The teacher speaks Russian!”
I don't know if the rabbit actually died, and this kid is just a genius opportunist…or if this little f***er set me up from the word go. But what I do know is that was one really cute sociopath.
Jamie J: You are listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY. It’s been supported by a grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. I’m your host Jamie J, and I’m here in the studio with Elisabeth Perez Luna, and this is our ode to teachers. Speaking of disruptive students – not that I would know anything about that! We all know who they are. They know just how to get on the teachers nerves, talking too loud and too much, or making too many jokes and mischief at the expense of classroom order. And then there are the kids who bring their problems from home to school. A teacher that knew his students like Chris Lundy did, realized he could use that knowledge to his advantage.
Chris Lundy: Ok, so I was a teacher, and I can't prove it, but I had the worst kids in the observable universe. I'm sure of it, I'm telling you. Every time other teachers try to tell me about their teaching nightmare stories, I always ask: “Did you have Ernest?” And if they didn't, obviously, then to me they had it easy. Now, I wasn't very good myself, so I'm sure some of it fell on me. Students were a reflection of their teacher, and put it like this – each classroom had a nickname. There were like “The Champions”, “The Winners”. My classroom was known as the “Hot Messes”, and we were quite proud of that.
What made things worse was I had an old school principal – right – he was big on discipline. Dr. Panelle – that's all he cared about was class control. Discipline, that was all that mattered to him. Test scores were secondary. Discipline was all that mattered. And what was coming up was “Observation Day”. Now this was the one day a year where the big wigs - the executives – would come and observe the school, the classrooms, the teachers, the students – and I guess maybe graded – I'm not exactly sure what they did with it – but it was a big, big day.
As a matter of fact, Dr. Panelle had three meetings leading up to it. The first one was – control your classroom. The second one was – please control your classroom. The third was – if you sons-a-b****es don't control your class, you'll be filling out COBRA forms a week from now. So it was dead serious, everybody knew it, and your contract pretty much depended on it.
So that day came, and I was a nervous wreck because I knew what I had on my hands. I knew what my class was made of. And I was a nervous wreck. I'm doing things – I'm trying to buy the kids silence. I'm giving them candy, chips, DVDs – was the thing back then. Just trying to, like, you know, get us through the day.
And it was coming up on lunchtime, and no one had visited my classroom yet. And, you know, I'm sitting there, and I'm like, alright, alright, I'm trying to think of things to do because what lunchtime meant was, that I would have to walk my class of – my herd of wildlings – to the cafeteria. And they saw this an opportunity to just go buck wild, right, they saw their other friends in the hallway and I see other teachers nodding their head, absolutely. It was mayhem.
Now for me, this walk was “The Green Mile” - it was, you know – it was “Dead Man Walking”. And so - but I had an idea – I'm thinking, ya know what? If I can get these kids out maybe a little bit earlier while the executives are observing some other classroom, then - boom - maybe I can get to the cafeteria, scot-free.
So I open up the door to make sure that the coast was clear. I look to the left - I look to the right - and what do I see? Dr. Panelle with the whole executive team standing in the hallway! They weren't going anywhere, anytime soon. I was caught - we were caught.
My stomach dropped - I’m thinking about my contract - I'm thinking about the unemployment line - and I look down because the whole day I Ernest who was my absolute worst student. I had him right, right beside me the whole day. You know that saying - “Keep your enemies closer?” Ernest started that. That’s how all that got started.
And so I see Dr. Pannell in the hallway with all the big wigs. And I look down at Ernest - I'm like - oh my god - and he looks back at me like - God can't save you now. As soon as you open that door, I'm going full Ernest on your ass. And you’ve been giving me candy all day - so I knew what I was in for.
But just then an idea struck - And I closed the door - Turned into the classroom and started laughing hysterically. I mean busting out laughing - HAHAHAHA! - as loud as I could be. And this got the attention of my kids, and they are looking like - Mr. Lundy, what’s so funny? What are you laughing about? And I’m like - nah - you guys - you don’t wanna know, you wouldn’t believe me anyway, don’t even worry about it. And they’re like - c’mon - tell us please! – tell us what’s so funny?
I’m like - alright - well, you know, I was just in the hallway, and I heard Dr. Pannell say - he asked - “Who was the best class in the entire school?” And I'm like - hey - it's my class of course - it's you guys! And he said “No, I don't think so - I think it's Mr. Shepherd's class upstairs.” And I'm like no - trust me - my class can get from here all the way to the cafeteria - in a single file line - without making a single sound. And he was like - “Impossible!”. So I bust out laughing and well, that's when you guys saw me. So, you ready to go to lunch guys?
They took the bait! They start lining up quietly. Getting in line - I mean, a perfect little line. But I still had to account for the Anti-Christ, Ernest. So I kneel down with him. I get eye level. You know how you do. I'm sure everyone who has kids - you get that eye level down - to make sure they know - exactly - you're serious with them. And I go - Ernest, I need your help. I need you because you're the only one who can do this - because you're the only one who knows karate. And he pauses, and he ponders, and goes - “Yeah it’s true”. I'm like Ernest - I need you to lead this line. I need you to get them from here to the cafeteria as quickly and as quietly as possible - and only you can do it.
And the look in this kids face! I’m telling you - it was - he was determined. He immediately walked to the front of the line, shoved some kid out of the way - and took his rightful spot as the line leader. So the stage was set. I take a deep breath, I open the door, and I let them go. So they’re walking down the hall. And when I tell you guys, you've never seen a line this straight, this perfect - I mean even their posture - chest out - chins up high - you could balance books on their head. Now, they wouldn’t read these books, but they damn sure could balance them on their heads.
And it was so quiet, they walked past Dr. Panelle, walk past the executives, and then I’m following behind them. I get to Dr. Panelle, he shows me a little wink - I give him one of these numbers - keep on going - now we get to the cafeteria, and it was perfect - don’t get me wrong - as soon as we got there, everything went to s***. I mean, kids started fighting - Ernest vanished - I still don’t know where he ran off to. But the deed was already done, and we had done it, and I was proud of them to be honest with you.
So later that year - at review time - performance review time - the annual merit increase that year - faculty wide - was 2.3%. On my performance, it had discipline and class control as the only two things that were there - but - my merit increase was 2.9%.
So for those of you who do have a drink, please raise it. To Ernest! Thank You!
JAMIE J: Chris Lundy is a published writer and a former host of First Person Arts slams. Chris was voted audience favorite at every First Person Arts story slam he ever attended as a contestant.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: So Jamie, I had the feeling that you were talking about disruptive students from experience.
Jamie J: ME?
Elisabeth Perez Luna: So…Chris Lundy had just ONE disruptive student. But what happens when you have a whole classroom full of them? Let’s hear from George Dougherty…
George Dougherty: So I am a first-year teacher. Any other teachers in the house? Okay relax, not everybody's a teacher. Now my whole story will revolve around the fact that I had ideals before being a teacher, basically based on different books I read, and nothing they taught me in college, ‘cause they really didn’t teach me anything.
But this idea of taking responsibility for your actions. So, this book I read called “Punished By Rewards” was like - don't give rewards, don't give consequences. The kid should make the right choices without that extra motivation. So, I’m like yes - and the other book I read was “Teaching Content Outrageously” which is like - the only reason kids misbehave - so I’m a Philadelphia public school teacher - the only reason why they misbehave - is because you're boring. You’re need to gonna really kind of “up up” the drama.
So I believe in that, I love that, so I'm a teacher. And just a setup before my first example - My classroom environment for the first 2 weeks, is to the point where - It's so chaotic - there's fights, there's throwing stuff, it's so loud that the good students which was just like - ya know - I mean the ones who were behaving at the moment - are crying and holding their ears, ‘cause they're so overwhelmed by the chaos. They cannot take it - there's tears, and it's horrible, and I feel like I'm a cause of that. So that's part of the environment.
Another part of that is - I'm getting hit in the head with s***. And the sad part is, I could not catch who was throwing the stuff. I would turn - to write stuff on the board - whatever. And erasers, pieces of crayon, whatever. I kept getting hit and I got so frustrated to the point where I threw a chair as hard as I could, as far as I could, against the corner and just said some curse words.
But you learn a lot about yourself - my fellow teachers - you learn a lot about yourself when you're a teacher and anger problems. But anyway, so that's the environment - what I'm like - my first opportunity to go outrageous were learning about “The Giving Tree” and I’m just gonna become a tree for this lesson. And if you're not familiar with the book, “The Giving Tree” it's basically about this boy and this tree, a talking tree who’s very giving…and the boys just kinda plays with it’s apples, eat the apples, hangs on it’s branches, and use of the branches to build a house. Eventually cuts the stump - the whole tree down - to make a boat to go away, because he’s depressed, he becomes an older man, and all that's left is this little stump.
So this tree's been used and abused and I’m starting to feel that way as a teacher. But anyway, I come dressed as a tree, and I've got branches from the park, and I've got branches all up the side of my body, and face paint - the whole deal - I'm talking like a tree - [Deep Tree Voice] Hey my name is “The Giving Tree”, okay. Stop pulling at my branches, stop hitting each other with the branches, hey what are you doing? [End Deep Tree Voice]
I think the kids were taking the book too literally, where in the book they're kind of used, and the tree is giving up the branches anyway. So eventually, I had to lose the tree voice and start yelling which doesn't work either. When your teacher, that does not work. So I should have learned that like the week before - where they locked me in the closet. And when you get locked in the closet as a teacher - when you actually bust out - like these kids did ’t know me and this is the second week of teaching. And I said to the kid, right to their face “You don't know who I am! You have no idea where I came from, or what I'm going to do to you right now. I could have been in jail for who knows what. You better be careful who you lock in a closet!”
It was that times ten. But you get the idea, so those experiences, but nonetheless, next week I'm like - okay - we’re learning about Indians and math lessons tied into India. [in “Indian” voice] Hello, I’m Mr. Shah from India. The whole outfit and everything. I’m like - In my country, we do not wear our shoes inside. Let me take off my shoes, okay. And we learn some math. And like, twenty minutes later, I’m like – “OK where are my shoes? Who has taken my shoes?” Okay, again, lose the Indian voice, I didn’t lose it enough, early enough, but any way, security guard got my shoes eventually.
Again, but these books taught me to make the child responsible for the actions. I’m like - that’s good, that’s good- and , so I’m talking to the kids one time - one of my little speeches. And, I’m like - ya know - it’s like sixth grade class, and ya’ll give in to peer pressure, you’re not owning up to your own situ - other people influence the decisions you make. At the same time, I was wearing very tight pants, and I heard one of the kids snicker - “There’s a lot of pressure going on in those pants right now.”
So, all these strategies aren’t working. But you know what, I’m starting to learn these kids are coming from these really tough backgrounds, and even today, this kid, who’s one of the hardest students I’m working with, I hear her scream and cursing out a teacher in the hallway - I’m on my break. She comes in my room, tears streaming down her face, and I just feel like, I’m glad she’s coming to me, and it’s amazing, they’ll tell you they hate you to your face, and literally twenty seconds later, they’ll hug you in that moment.
And it teaches me what they need, and what they are missing at home. And “The Giving Tree”, and the end if you know the story, it’s a stump, and the little boy’s like - he’s an old man now - says “I just need a place to rest” and the tree’s like – “Ok, just come sit and rest.” And I want to be that, I don’t want to say to the kids, come sit and rest - ‘cause that’s weird. But, I do wanna say - ya know - if you need a hug - if you need love - I wanna give that for you even though I cannot control this classroom, so I hope I can give that to you.
Jamie J: You are listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY. I’m your host Jamie J, and I’m here in the studio with Elisabeth Perez Luna, and this is our ode to teachers. You know Elisabeth when we talk about teachers that had an influence, I think the most influential teacher for me was Miss Isherwood. I was in elementary school, and I was the kid who didn’t have a mommy or daddy. And Miss Isherwood, she really embraced me and took an interest in me. She would give me special attention at school to make sure I did well, and after school Miss Isherwood would come and get me and take me to her house…show me books, and really introduce me to a love of education. And on holidays she’d give me presents, and that kind of love and care above and beyond the job really made a difference for me.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: What a great teacher you had! You know, I really think that like you, most kids and parents have special memories. Especially, you know, that first day of school. Our first step towards independence, when each of us embarks on this endless voyage filled with adventures, pitfalls, and moments of inspiration and light, and love…
Jamie J: Speaking of pitfalls, here’s a story Philadelphia School Superintend William Hite told us about one of his early school days.
Dr. William Hite: I was just like your typical boy in elementary school and it was West End Elementary School, the West End part of Richmond. And we were going out to recess and recess was on an asphalt playground and the school was one of these old schools like a lot of them here in Philadelphia. And there was about 25, 30 steps. And so I chose to go flying out the door, trying to jump all of the steps to the bottom and if there were 20 steps, I jumped 19. [JJ Laughs] I hit the last step, and broke my ankle. And I remember my dad showing up, and putting me on his shoulders, and he walked me home on his shoulders and so that was my memory about school, and West End is no longer a school now. The school closed, and it’s become a retirement facility and they still have that beautiful set of stairs on the front. And every time I ride by that school, on Idlewood Ave, I see those stairs and I remember that incident when I wanted to jump all of the stairs. And I remember my teacher at the time, just looking at me going “What were you thinking?! So, that’s my memory about elementary school. And that was the one time you know pain has this way of reminding you of stupid things you’ve done, and that was one of the first stupid things that I can recall doing and as a result I had a fractured ankle and [Laughter] had to go home on my dad’s shoulders.
Jamie J: That was Dr. William Hite, Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: You know, when you speak of the people that carried us, really carried us through this journey, there were dozens of teachers who guided us. And just as some students find school to be a difficult and endless grind, there are also teachers who figured out along the way that it might be a little bit too much to bear…it might be.
Marjorie Winther: I sometimes felt that I couldn’t set good boundaries, that kids were sort of hanging around all the time and telling me about things about their personal lives that I didn’t always know how to respond to.
Elisabeth Perez Luna : That’s Marjorie Winther. We’ll here her story in a minute. She was one of the teachers and storytellers in a roundtable conversation about the world of teaching, and we included it in a companion podcast. She spoke of the emotional challenges teachers face when they confront the limitations of how much they can do for their students.
Marjorie Winther: I think the struggle for me was not compassion, but to harden my heart a little bit…because I remember this one kid, I was student teaching, it was my first year, and it was in the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, which is very poor and this kid, 7th grade, he had this sneakers where the top had separated from the bottom, and Chicago is very cold and snowy and slushy and, and he never missed a day, and you would always hear sort of flopping down the hall with his shoe coming off and snow and ice getting in his shoe, and I was a new teacher and I was trying a lot of different activities, and my last day I gave the kids an evaluation, what did you like, and I listed everything, and this little boy, he wrote in just big letters, “I liked everything. I liked everything we did.” And just the thought of this little boy with his cold, cold shoes, like, I cried for days…I cried for days…and I don’t know how to be in that situation and have the right amount of compassion, I just don’t.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: you mean you want to reduce your level of compassion?
Marjorie Winther: Toughen up…you know, ‘cause, ’cause what could I do? I could show him how to make an egg in the jar, you know, these Mr. Wizard science secrets, but…but I couldn’t get him out of poverty.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Yet nothing could stop Marjorie from teaching for more than twenty years. As she tells it in her story from the First Person Arts stage, she goes from a disaster with fire, to a revelation also born in fire.
Marjorie Winther: So 50% of all teachers burnout in the first year. It turns out - 50% - and when you ask them why, it's not because the kids are bad, and it's not because of the low pay, it's because you're on your own, you're all alone, and you don't know what to do. There's no support, you don't know what to do. My first year teaching, I had somebody set a little boy on fire.
And I did that - I didn't actually set him on fire - he caught fire - is – more accurate. Let me back up. This was 1981. I taught seventh-grade science to firecracker throwing, little doofy kids and I had the right philosophy. I knew that kids could achieve, and I had the right theories that you had to keep them engaged, you had to do hands on science. So I ran through every hands-on science experiment that I knew, which was great until the 3rd week when I was out of ideas and they were still there.
So I told them that they were the gifted class and that they had to design their own activities. They had - I gave them my copy of “Mr. Wizard Science Secrets” and they decided to make a spontaneous combustion chamber. Now, if you're imagining a science lab with, like, beakers and a fume hood, like, get that picture out of your mind right now. This was public education in the Reagan era. You know - we had egg cartons, string, and imagination. So the kids made the chamber out of a coffee can, and some all-purpose flour, and a candle. Now again, remember this was the eighties and this is when America had waged a war on hair. Do you remember, like, if you were white, you sprayed it and gel it, and it and make stick up like Bananarama. And if you were black, you would have to goo it up in these drippy little ringlets - like Michael Jackson. So my point is, in the eighties people were flammable.
So, little Robert Rydell comes up - he's got this hair and blows through the tube and was supposed to happen was the lid was supposed to pop off, and a lot of noise – yay, fun - science. But what did happen is that a lick of flame shot out and touched him and he went up like an oily rag on a stick. But he looked like the townspeople in the monster movies with the torches. So I was like - they didn't cover this in N315. So I’m running out and banging it out and…and the good thing was it was actually a low temperature fire. Like Robert didn't even know he was on fire.
Because I looked up later, and the flash point of Jheri curl goo is like 58 degrees. It's a wonder people weren’t bursting into flames on crisp, autumn mornings. So I was worried that I would get in trouble, but I didn't, because the kids didn't tell anybody - because they all wanted to do it again.
So, let me get you prepared, because the second fire of my first year of teaching was a little more serious. And what had happened was that the principal called me in and said would you take the 7th graders on a weeklong field trip to an archaeological dig site in Southern Illinois? Because by this time, she had heard they were the gifted class.
So, I'm like - yeah of course - I will that's a week I won’t have figure out what to do with them. So, off we go to Southern Illinois - little tiny town - and I’ve got these African American kids - nice Jewish teacher and we’re all listening to “Rock Lobster” - having a good time - until we got up in the morning and found someone had burned a cross on our lawn. Oh, it got quiet didn't it? It's all fun and games until somebody burns a cross.
So, the mayor of the town comes by and he goes “I want to reassure you, that we’re going to do an investigation.” I’m like - really? An investigation? There's 328 people in this town. I don't think you need to call in Mr. Tibbs
I was thinking it was kids - it was a prank - you know, prank… hate crime. Ya know - fine line - but whatever. So, the kids are freaking out and I'm trying to keep it together. And I’m like - we're going to have a good time and I don’t think you realize this is going on - we’re there for a week, and they're freaking out, they’re screaming and huddling with me and I’m like - look we're not going to do this. We're going to learn some archeology, we’re going to have a good time, we are not going to put up with this. So, I put them in a room. I said look - who here is ready to rise above their fear? And the kids were kind of quiet, and I waited and finally, somebody - little Melanie McClain - raised her hand and then another kid raised their hand, another kid, we’re gonna rise above our fear. And we start walking through the town, to the little dining hall and it starts to drizzle and this little 7th grade girl starts singing the song from Carousel, “You'll Never Walk Alone” do you know that song? “When you walk through a storm, keep your head up high and don't be afraid of the dark”, and then all the kids joined in. They knew the song from assembly, and they're walking through this town and they're singing and the people in the town started coming out of their houses and when the kids walked by, they’re clapping and I'm so proud, and I realize then that they were the gifted class. And I realized that I wasn't in it alone, and that I wasn't going to burn out. Thank you.
Jamie J: After teaching for more than twenty years, Marjorie has gone to use her skills at the Philadelphia Gas Works Company, where she does corporate training.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: What most teachers know is that kids are resilient, and if you do your job well you can help them thrive in spite of adversity. Teachers use their creativity and ingenuity to solve problems. And they are really, really aware of time passing, and what could be lost if the students don’t learn enough to get ahead.
Jamie J: Yeah you’re right. You know for me education was always a way to control my life after I finished school. So it’s really a race against time, and against a sort of neglect fueled by budget limitations and administrative changes. It’s easy for politicians and policy makers to say education is at the top of their priorities. That’s a no brainer, but you know, we all know there are different ways of defining priorities, don’t you think?
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Oh, yeah, I agree with you.
Jamie J: So let’s go back to another teacher, Anissa Weinraub. Anissa gets her inspiration from, let’s say, a non-traditional career counselor. Here’s Anissa Weinraub.
Anissa Weinraub: So, I am a Philly Public High School English teacher. Holler, thank you, appreciate it. And you know I have been accused of using some rather unconventional teaching methods in my day. One of my very favorites is dream interpretation. I have my students kind of journal their dreams to me and then dreamdictionary.com and I interpret them for them. And I don't know how many of you kind of engage in dream interpretation with adolescents, but they kind of run into three general categories - identity crisis, emotional upheaval, and wet. Um…and yeah, so you know as an English teacher, I'm always like “No, your imagery always is so vivid and sticky” - but honestly be glad I take that one for the team and you guys don't have to read those.
So yeah, whatever, okay, I have some “out there” teaching techniques. But, I think it’s because I have some “out there” teachers of my own. My favorite of which is my psychic, Cosmic Jackie. She's like four feet tall, like, old school South Philly Italian, she has piercing guttural guffaw of a laugh and speaks primarily in metaphor. She can read your chart, access your aura, talk to your spirit guides, talk to other people’s spirit guides, that just kind of randomly are in the room - and as a psychic she's always on point. Basically, what I'm saying is I love her and I will follow her till the end of time.
So a few years ago, I was in a really miserable place, I was teaching at a school and I just didn't like it - I went for a reading. She said “You need to break a contract, dig up the carpet, find a path where there is no path, and find a back door. She said when I go through that back door she sees me surrounded with Danishes and brownies. Baked goods is like a metaphor she uses with me a lot and I just interpret it to mean really good curriculum, or something.
She said she saw me with a really big smile on my face, and there was music and lights everywhere and gleeful marching band of students filling the space. So I interpreted this all to mean that I should definitely quit my job and I'd be fine. And so I did, and literally three days later - I’m saying - in the dead of winter - in the middle of the school year, I got called into a new school that I was much better fit for. My psychic is on point. I guess that's why she's a psychic. I hope she knows I'm talking about her right now.
So, first day I’m there - I’m signing paperwork in the principal's office and she kinda gives me a little once over, looks me up and down and says “You’ll do…yeah, you’ll do just fine. You seem like a real creative type.” And I was like – “ooh! how validating, she really sees me!” And she says “Yeah… the band teacher quit today, figure something out.” I was like - “Will do, Boss!”
Enter the band kids.
“Hi everyone! I'm your new teacher Miss Weinraub, and this is now expressive arts class. We're going to be expressing ourselves.” We started with some theater improv games - which they were so good at. We moved on to some storytelling exercises – which, you know, they were a little less enthusiastic for. And then - it's time for poetry slam! And they were like - no more. One kid was like – “I don't want to do this anymore, I just want my flute!”
Now, I don't know about you, but when a six-foot tall teenage boy from Southwest Philly says he just wants his flute, you better go find his flute. So when the band teacher quit, they went into hyper survival mode at the school and they locked everything away. So they told me I just had to find the guy with the key to get the instruments…so I wound my way through a labyrinth which is an old Philly public high school until I found the guy with the key. And then I used one of my many tools in my teacher toolkit - my short skirt - to get him to open the door for me and get the instruments. Please don't judge - I have also dated someone for months longer than I really wanted to because just because they could get me free reams of office paper. And don't even get me started about what I pull at Staples. You know what I’m saying? It's public education and we're in budget cuts - so you gotta do what you gotta do.
So my students are reunited with their long-lost bassoons and alto saxophones and they run upstairs to the auditorium to get situated. They sort of set up in an orchestral formation - I assume - and they start kind of tuning to an E or something, I don't - I don't really know - I don't know how to play any instruments. And I stand before them - my band - I say guys before we start I just have a few words to say - so they look up at me, expectantly.
“I could definitely be your Drama teacher. I could probably even be your choir teacher. But I stand before you today, your band teacher. Now my psychic told me that this was going to happen, but at the time I figured it was just a metaphor. But as I see all of you before me, I realize she was telling me the truth.” And they look up at me like, “what is this white lady talking about?” So what I'm saying is, I'm going to need a lot of leadership from you. Can you do that? And they all kind of - boop, boop, boop - with their ascent. I said, alright - Zayshawn give us a count, or whatever… A five, a six, a five, six, seven, eight! And miraculously, The Saints Came Marching In and the biggest smile spread out across my face, just like Cosmic Jackie said it would, thank you.
Jamie J: Anissa Weinraub is an educator, organizer, performer, and clearly a full time pep rally, in her 11th year teaching in the Philadelphia School District.
Jamie J: You’ve been listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY. It’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Commonspace includes this broadcast, live events, and additional audio available online. Commonspace airs on WHYY the last Sunday of each month. Don’t’ forget to check us out - remember to tune in. It’s also available any time online at A-Commonspace-Dot-Org, that’s A-Commonspace-Dot-Org, where you’ll also find two monthly podcasts that dive deeper into the topics presented here, show transcripts, live event schedules, and ways to share your stories with us.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Commonspace is produced by Mike Villers. The Commonspace team includes Sreedevi Sripathy, Dan Gasiewski, Becca Jennings, Jen Cleary, Ali L’Esperance and Neil Bardhan. Our studio engineers were Al Banks and Diana Martinez. Jamie Brunson is the host and co-writer and I’m Elisabeth Perez-Luna, Executive Producer and lead writer.
Jamie J: So from all of us at Commonspace, we salute teachers and storytellers, those people who, as Dr. Hite says, show both passion and compassion in their work.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Thanks for listening!