When the final bell rings at the end of each school day, I begin a Carl Lewis-like dash to my car, thus avoiding the 15-minute stressfest that is sitting behind 20 carcinogen-belching school buses as they make their way out onto the main road. I like to have my car zooming toward that first vodka martini while the kids are still dragging ass up the bus steps.
But I wasn’t always this way. Many years ago, when I was a fresh-faced eager beaver of a teacher (No, I really was … really!), I was so involved in so many school activities that I used to be asked to speak to all the county’s new hires each August. Since our county hires anywhere from 75-150 new teachers every year, the central office folk see fit to have a week-long orientation program for the newbies, and that week used to culminate in a panel of four teachers addressing this just-out-of-college, we’re-here-to-save-the-world group. One of those four teachers was a young Mr. Bitters, who wasn’t bitter at all in those days, and I would address this highly receptive crowd on the advantages of getting involved in as many extra-curricular activities as possible. Now, as when exactly Mr. Rah Rah Rah became Mr. Where’s the Goddamn Vermouth – It’s 2:45 and I Haven’t Had My First Drink Yet, well, I’m not sure.
I think back to the speech I used to give, and I wonder whether I told them anything helpful. Now that I’m pushing 20 years on this job, I know I could give a much more useful dose of info to all the new teachers we hire each summer. My talk now would be titled, “How To Survive and Even Thrive as a Teacher.” Here is a list of talking points for the speech I wish I could give.
Play Stupid. This probably works in most jobs, but it’s an especially effective ploy in the education business, because let’s face it, we’re not exactly knocking on Mensa’s door. Hell, we’re not even allowed on the driveway. So when you fuck up, and I mean really fuck up, just play dumb. For example, you get called into your principal’s office one afternoon to find him, the superintendent, a lawyer, two school board members and a cop waiting for you. The principal says something like, “Well, Mr. Bitters, we are here today about that little contretemps from last week when the head custodian walked into your room and found you ball-deep into the captain of the cheerleading squad. This is a rather serious offense and …”
At this point, you interrupt and, with a look of total bewilderment, say, “Oh my God, is that not allowed? Oh man, heh heh, I really had no idea. I thought because she was going to be 18 in just two short years that this sort of thing was okay. I thought it was only wrong if you exchanged student pussy for a higher grade. Is this rule spelled out in the teacher handbook? Oh man, you can bet THAT won’t happen again, heh heh …” In a real job that requires real brains, this “Who, Me?” defense would be laughable and you’d be fired and arrested on the spot. But in this job, you’d get a stern warning, maybe a formal written reprimand and a knowing congratulatory wink from the principal. And you’d learn next time to lock the goddamn door to your classroom.
Three Words – Agree, Agree, Agree. One way to get on any principal’s “Shit List” is to gain a reputation as the sneering malcontent who shoots a shitload of holes in every new proposal or idea. But the way to get on the “Golden Boy” list is to greet every new plan, no matter how appallingly stupid, as the greatest idea since the bagel bite. (Them’s some good eatin’, no?)
For example, the principal proposes a new incentive plan at the next School Improvement Team meeting. In an attempt to cut down on school violence and make students feel safe, he wants to pass out firearms to all the students as they enter the building each morning, then collect those guns at the end of the day. His logic? If everyone is armed, students would be too afraid to harm each other. Although your first instinct is to have him strapped into the bed next to John Hinckley’s, you instead tilt your head, rest your chin on your fist, squint your eyes, look pensive for a few seconds, then say something like, “You know, I like it! And we could set up a firing range in the auxiliary gym for target practice. And we could have police come in and do a training session for kids, showing them how to pistol whip a teacher who gives them an unfair grade.” Your level-headed colleagues will then shred the idea to bits, but the principal – batshit crazy though he may be – will remember that you were the only other person who shared his vision. You’ve just accrued some valuable capital for that next time the non-knocking motherfucker of a janitor finds a coed’s ankles up around your ears on the one day you actually stayed late to do some “planning.”
Join a Bullshit Committee or Two. Before the end of September, the principal will ask all new teachers to sponsor a club, coach a sport, sign up to be an after-school tutor or do something else that cuts into your much-needed happy hour time. As a new teacher, it’s almost impossible to say no, because you want to make a good impression. The trick to avoiding any ballbusting type of extra duty is to beat the principal to the punch. Sign up for a couple of committees that are all meeting, no real work. The School Improvement Team is a good bet. All they do is get together once or twice a month after school and bitch for the first half hour, then brainstorm some grandiose, pie-in-the-sky plans that will revolutionize education as we know it. These are promptly forgotten until the next meeting, when the process is repeated. You do virtually nothing, but your principal sees you there every third Wednesday. Toss out a cockamamie idea of your own now and then to create the illusion of involvement and – hold the laughter please – caring. Agree to take the official notes at the meeting, which will make you look even more diligent. Meanwhile, your colleagues are plugging away after school for five days a week coaching the field hockey team (zzzzz) or organizing that Key Club bake sale that will take place from 8:00 to goddamn 3 o’clock next Saturday.
Don’t Fail Kids/Don’t Write Up Kids. Your number one goal as a teacher is not to mold kids’ minds. It is to stay under the principal’s radar. Let the other teachers get in trouble and cause him grief. You want to be known as Mr. Whatsizzname to your boss, the reliable, agreeable, dependable boob in the back hallway who doesn’t cause any trouble. And one way to cause your boss trouble is to fail a lot of kids and to keep sending kids to the vice-principals for discipline. Your philosophy should be as follows. That dope-fiend in third period who hasn’t stayed awake since the day you showed because you yourself were too hungover to teach? Somehow he ended the year with a 59.51, good enough for a D and good enough to be promoted to be someone else’s problem next year. That stabbing in your eighth period? Just a little misunderstanding I’ll be glad to handle at the classroom level, sir.
While the principal is meeting almost daily with those hardass “real” teachers who stubbornly demand discipline and academic excellence, you get to go on your mediocre little way, passing every student, allowing classroom shenanigans and knowing you’ll be on drink number three by the time Oprah starts.
That is what I would tell my new teacher friends today, should the higher-ups ever ask me to return to the week-ending inspiration panel. Let’s see, did I forget anything else, some vital piece of information that could make or break a new teacher’s first year? Do I have any other suggestions before they dive into the ever-churning, stage five deadly rapids that are public education. Oh yeah, two more things, the greatest coping devices available to teachers.
Alcohol. You …
Weed. … betcha.
Ned Bitters teaches high school and dreams of one day seeing one of his former students on stage at a strip club. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.