Okay so, my sisters and I, being three fair-skinned, quirky, blue-eyed brunettes, have varying opinions on Zooey Deschanel on partial account of being constantly compared to her and sort of also her target audience. Over winter break, Lindsey introduced me to New Girl, Zooey’s show on Fox. Personally, I don’t know how you can genuinely dislike her. My other sister, Brynna, thinks she’s just an over the top caricature of slightly nerdy, cute girls.. like us. You can find about a billion blog posts about how she is so over the top with her cute and quirk (an issue recently addressed by a tongue-in-cheek Ms. Deschanel both on New Girl and Saturday Night Live), but I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with that, any more than there was anything wrong with Marilyn Monroe being over the top glamorous and ditzy. As we caught up on the first few episodes of the season, I began to realize that no matter what we think of the character/caricature of Zooey Deschanel, the role she plays on New Girl, Jessica Day, is one thing for sure: a really awesome teacher. Here are some lessons I think we all can take from Ms. Day.
1. Give them a break.
Ms. Day’s student handbell group Ensembell is struggling through a rehearsal, feeling frustrated and annoyed. Then she does something unexpected that in a roundabout way, is proven to totally increase students productivity – she gives them a break. The moment I heard the phrase “TWO MINUTE TEXT BREAK!” leave her lips, I knew I’d be stealing the technique for my classroom. Now, you may find fault with this, depending on your feelings on kids and cell phones and your school’s policy on personal electronics. In my school district, students are allowed to possess and use personal technology during any non-instructional time. That includes lunch, before and after school, and in the hallways, and we can’t say a thing about it. So naturally, they make a lot of appearances during instructional time as well. I’ve found that by giving students some flexibility and free time to use their phones and pods and pads, I’m not only get the “cool teacher” points that you may think aren’t important, but I also get better participation. If I let them listen to music (in their earphones only!), they’re a lot less likely to make a bunch of noise, and are more focused on their tasks. And if they know that after a particularly long or difficult lecture or demonstration, they *might* get two minutes to play Fruit Ninja during a teacher-instituted “non-instructional moment”, I find that it’s easier for them to keep their toys away the rest of the time. The same technique can be used by giving kids a few minutes to stand up and stretch, letting them move their seats around, doing a few jumping jacks, or taking the group outside for a discussion. An ounce of “fun time” for them is worth a pound of “redirection to task” by you.
2. You ARE a professional – don’t let people belittle you.
“…And my checks have baby farm animals on them, BITCH.” I’m more a Julia in my personal life, but in my professional life I’m the teacher who rocks jeans and pearls and cute dresses with sweaters, is super young-looking, and doesn’t really teach a “real” subject, anyway, right? At least that’s how it feels, since my co-workers really don’t have a problem expressing it to me. “How old are you? Oh, wow, you look just like one of the kids!” “Hmm, you must not have been teaching for that long. Don’t worry, you’ll get tired of them.” “Yeah, but they actually LIKE coming to your class, so your job must be so easy!” You know what, ENOUGH. I’m 27 years old, this is my fourth year teaching. Every year I’ve spent at schools in low-income neighborhoods where there’s sometimes not a lot of time for beauty and creativity, taking over for teachers that didn’t give a crap. Before this, I spent time working at an after school program for homeless youth where I was chased with a piece or rebar and once had to coax a student down from the roof, and loved every day of it. I’ve earned my stripes. And my students respect me not because they just LOOOVE art (They don’t! They feel like they suck at it! It’s frustrating! They think electives are just an easy A and time to play Fruit Ninja!), it’s because I have badass classroom management skills. I help kids use creativity to solve problems, build their self-esteem, open their minds. And yes, it helps that I’m not burnt out to a crisp just yet. This is what I am constantly defending, and I know that if I hear it from fellow teachers, they’re hearing it themselves from other places too. Like their fancy lawyer siblings or spouses. Sure, we get summers and weekends off and have nice benefits, and get to talk to kids all day, but teaching is a craft that has to be honed, and good teachers need to start standing up and acting like professionals so the bad teachers can see that there’s no place for anything less.
3. Get involved.
I know. At the end of the day, the last thing you want to do is stick around school for another several hours. Sometimes all I feel I need to wake up the next day and do it all over again is to go home, binge drink, and pass out on the couch with my hand in a bag of popcorn. But the best thing to do is usually the opposite. It’s counter-intuitive, but to a certain extent, the more time I spend at school the more time I can stand to spend at school. I’m a huge fan of extracurriculars – drama club is probably one of the only things that kept me from being more than a super sulky teen, writing tortured poetry and plastering my walls with magazine clippings of Angelina Jolie. Not that I didn’t still do that, I just had a lot less time for it because I had somewhere to go after school that gave me a creative outlet and another group of peers and mentors to support me. So I’ve never been afraid to volunteer for these types of things at school, and they honestly give me the strength to trudge through difficult days when the floor is covered with spitty sunflower seeds and crushed up oil pastel and no one is paying attention or remembers who the hell Romare Bearden is anyway. Watching the rehearsal for this week’s Black History presentation almost brought me to tears, as did seeing a group of my kids at Art Club sitting together knitting, practicing drawing from Shonen Jump, painting, and just hanging out with like-minded people. We have to remember that we are sometimes their only social, creative, athletic and intellectual outlet; every kid, no matter how seemingly unmotivated, has abilities waiting to be developed.
4. Whatcha makin’?
After Jess gives Julia a piece of her mind, they settle things over some quality stitch and bitch time. However, Julia is a crochet virgin, and gets frustrated fast when she puts the fox in the cave and it doesn’t… and the yarn is broken. So Jess calmly asks one of the questions I think every art teacher needs to memorize and use at least 30 times a day: “Whatcha makin’?” As it turns out, Julia was trying to make a hat. Instead of taking hold of the project, ripping out about 45 minutes of work and starting her over again like I’d be tempted to do if I knew how to crochet, Jess tells her it’s fine how it is, if it’s a baby hat, it’s already done. And so, through a new perspective, she feels better about herself, and although the project didn’t come out exactly right, Julia is probably more willing to try crocheting again. In teacher-speak, we could say this is empowering students through giving them the responsibility to define their own learning goals. My friend Jessa is REALLY good at doing this. I remember stitch and bitch nights with my lady friends when we all lived in the same town, on the very crafty cutting edge doing t-shirt recons and poured-silicone magnets – I was, and remain, a really hopeless sewer, but Jessa never made me feel like an idiot. She’d just say something like, “Hmm, well, you can always make it into a skirt!” This is not to say we shouldn’t hold our students to high standards and benchmarks, and that there is never a right or wrong, but I think it’s always important to let students take charge of their education. What do you want to make? What do you like/dislike about it? What are you going to do with this when it’s done? How’s it going? What should we do next? What do you think you can do to make this better? Are you done? These are all questions that I have to hold my tongue to keep from answering for them, and you should too.
5. Give everyone a chance to do the right thing.
Okay, so this situation ended a little awkwardly. When the roommates were in desperate need of house repairs, Jess was willing to see the good in her grumpy landlord and open her mind and home to him. And although in the end Remy wanted more than Jess (and Nick!) were offering, they still came out ahead, and achieved the desired outcome.. and then some. She gave him a chance to do the right thing, and he did (mostly). A little bribe is okay, too, to sweeten the deal! And don’t think of asking for something if you don’t know the person’s name! This goes for students and your co-workers as well. Today in my classroom was one of those days. I was getting frustrated because my kids seemed totally off the wall, overly needy and lazy all rolled into one. I said my piece, made my expectations known in a slightly louder than normal voice, drew the line. And then went to the back of the room and washed some brushes. I gave them a chance to do the right thing, stepped back, and they did it. I was floored! A few of them called me out on it – “Miss, you thought we wouldn’t be able to finish this project today!” Word.
6…But don’t be afraid to see the bad as well.
“Your daughter sucks. She’s a demon seed, she is the spawn of Satan. And I do believe I speak for the entire human race when I say people like her should not be building robots.” Gosh, how many times do you just want to tell a parent what a total jerk their kid is being? Unfortunately, we would be in HUGE trouble if we or anyone associated with us ever said something like Winston did to Briana’s moms. But it’s true – sometimes, students are legitimately just… being nasty. Kids are people, too. Some of them are nice, some aren’t. They have good days and bad days. We can put a lot of labels and rationales on a bad attitude, find a myriad of sources to place the blame, and we certainly have a responsibility to try to nip these bad attitudes in the bud before they go on to become grown up sized grumpiness. But let’s call a spade a spade and hold our students responsible for bratty behavior. Case in point, a conference I had last week where a parent was convinced that his child did not have enough friends (sad!) to warrant the level of socialization I explained to be the cause of his missing assignments and consequent low grade. Parent bitched me out, administrator decided to call the student in to tell his side of the story. What happened to your grade in art? Oh, I didn’t turn in my work. Why? Because I was talking to my friends. BOOM. No big deal, no paperwork or legally mandated intervention steps – he was just screwing around, and that’s okay. No song and dance required, although I sure would love to institute mandatory duets as consequences, wouldn’t you?