Teaching the Teacher Teachers

I never want to be an administrator. I don’t like paperwork. I don’t like dealing with angry people. I don’t like solving people’s problems, unless their problem is, “How do you spell ‘necessary?'” I don’t really like making decisions that affect lots of other people, and I wouldn’t like listening to the bitching that would inevitably result. I know that sounds a little funny coming from a teacher, since I do all of those things; but all of them are less obnoxious for a teacher. I mean, yes, I have too much paperwork to do; but much of it is only seen by students, so the standards are not very high: what I write needs to be helpful, but it doesn’t need to be politic, nor even polite. My students laugh when I make fun of them in the comments. I don’t think the state department of education would chuckle if I put a troll-face meme on the Title I report. And yes, I do some problem solving, but really, most of it is related to my subject, which makes it easy for me to solve; when it isn’t related to my subject — and I have dealt with very different problems, romantic problems, job problems, serious personal issues like drugs and abuse and homelessness — then it is really just one person helping another, and has very little to do with my job. I mean, if a teenager came up to me while I was drinking coffee in a cafe and told me that he was being abused at home, I’d try to do all the same things I do as a teacher, so that doesn’t really feel like part of my job. And making decisions for other people, while also something I do, is something I can very easily dodge responsibility for — “We’re studying this because it’s in the curriculum.” Boom. Buck is passed.

By the same token, I wouldn’t want to be a teacher teacher. I wouldn’t want to teach teachers how to teach, not in a university setting, and not as an inservice trainer. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to follow the current trends, and that’s all those people do; and I certainly wouldn’t want to be that superficially chipper about it. I mean, if I ran an inservice about something that was total bullshit — say, integrating STEM into a literature class, to pick a completely random example — I’d want to be honest, as I am with my students: “I know, guys, this is complete horseshit. But the administrators are making us do this, so let’s try to get through it and then we can do something fun, okay? Like read a poem, or have a debate on a controversial issue.” And if I did that, I’d get fired after the second sentence. If not the first. (Somehow, even though they are adults talking to adults, teacher trainers never let themselves swear. I suppose it’s more professional, but I heard a man, for the first time in my life, use the word “chump” in earnest. And of course it’s because he couldn’t say “asshole.” Or, considering the particular bro I’m talking about, he probably would have said “bitch.” But I’d have more respect for him if he’d sucked it up and said “asshole.” Though less respect if he’d said “bitch.” A little less.)

But despite not wanting those jobs myself, I’m going to give some advice to both administrators and teacher teachers, right now. Because all of those people, despite their general lack of qualifications in my field — their lack of knowledge, and their lack of expertise, skill, or insight — have no trouble at all telling me how to do my job. They do it several times a year, in fact. So now it’s time for me to tell them how to do their jobs.

All right, first, for the teacher trainers: know how to teach. I mean, come on; you are standing in front of a whole room, sometimes a large room, full of teachers. And yeah, a number of them may be new — but some of us have been doing this for a long time. And even among the newbies, many of us are actually quite good at it, and know the way it should be done. So why is it that almost none of you know what I know?

For instance: understand your technology. I get it if you’re bad at technology; I struggle with it sometimes, too. But if you’re going to use a PowerPoint presentation, then use it. There’s nothing more ridiculous than to watch someone skip through slides, saying, “No, we don’t need to go over that.” So then why is the slide there? Or when people set up those cool effects, fades in and out, bullet points that pop up one at a time; and then they just click through all of that stuff to get the final overstuffed slide, which they go through piece by piece. If all you want to do is throw a bunch of information up there all at once, why do the effects? It’s distracting, and it makes you look incompetent.

For another thing, know that you shouldn’t lecture for three hours straight. Give people a break. Include audience participation, maybe some group work. (I mean, I hate that crap, but most teachers are more social than I, and they like it; if you knew your audience, you would include some group work.) Certainly ask some questions, and listen to the answers; maybe have a discussion. Oh — and ice breakers. Don’t do ice breakers. Most of the teachers know each other, and you will never, ever see us again; you don’t need to know our names and what we teach and one wacky thing about ourselves. Don’t make us think of wacky factoids early in the morning the first day back from vacation. Don’t do it. If you really think the ice needs to be broken, then listen to the wisdom of Ogden Nash: “Candy is dandy; but liquor is quicker.”

And please, have basic competence. Speak audibly. Understand a microphone. Know how to make the image fullscreen. Understand how to make your movie clips work, and how to get sound out of them (And get an aux cord. Please don’t hold your microphone up to the laptop speakers, or even worse, crank the volume on the laptop and ask everyone to be real quiet.). Learn how to use the remote, OR DON’T USE IT. Grasp the physics of a whiteboard. Have your materials prepared ahead of time, and make sure they’re the right materials. (All of these, by the way, are things I have seen presenters fail to do, over the course of my 17 years in inservice — errr, I mean teaching. No — I mean Hell.)

Once you get past the same level of presentation competence that I expect from my students, let’s talk about what you’re talking about. Make sure that your presentation is relevant. I know you want the gig — I want to get paid, too! — but I would never take a job as a physics teacher and then show up and talk about poetry. If you are doing an inservice at a high school, don’t talk about elementary school techniques and concepts. Don’t present on English language learners to a school that has a grand total of four of them. I mean, that’s the administration’s fault, too, for hiring you to talk about something essentially irrelevant — but you’re the one that has to stand up there and waste the teachers’ time; I have to think that much hatred focused all on you at once has to be uncomfortable. And if a faculty has already learned everything you have to talk about, don’t go talk to them about it again. Think of something new to say, or cancel the inservice.

Once you know that your subject is relevant, the last key is: talk about your actual subject. Don’t talk about yourself. I’m sure you have fascinating stories about yourself, about your martial arts experience, or your motorcycle, or your world travels, or your penchant for organic gardening (All of those, by the way, were discussed by the same speaker. The only lie in that sentence is the word “fascinating.”), but now is not the time. Teachers, if you didn’t know, have shit to do, especially at the beginning of a semester. We don’t appreciate having our time taken up learning about you and how unbelievably macho you are (“I was doing MMA before MMA was a thing.” Actually, I swear to you, a direct quote. He also used the word “vicarious” when he meant “precarious,” in the sentence, “Now you have put them in a vicarious situation.” I don’t mean to nitpick, but this guy was actually a nit, and he should have been picked, squashed, and flicked at a garbage can. Too harsh? Hang on; there’s more.). Also, don’t insult your audience by saying that you are smarter than them because you got out of teaching (Same guy.), and don’t tell them that anyone who doesn’t sign up for your other, more extensive training is stupid (Yup: also the same guy. Want to guess what precipitated this particular blog?). And I know this is out there — the very idea that someone would actually do this is laughable! — but don’t compare teaching to slaughtering chickens, with the analogy showing how teachers get jaded — just like someone who has cut the heads off of too many chickens.

I really want to say that was a different guy. It wasn’t. Gave a three-hour talk, nonstop, no break, and at the end of it, asked if there were any questions. (By the way: this one is for the teachers in the audience. If, at the end of a multi-hour presentation, the presenter asks if there are any questions, then anyone who actually asks a question, thereby making us all sit there longer and listen to more inanity, is going to go straight to Hell, where they will be strapped into an Iron Maiden and forced to listen to presentations about the variations of Mahjongg, written in Sanskrit and then run through Google translate and read aloud by a drunk with no teeth. Keep your damn questions to yourself. Go up and ask them personally if you have to — AFTER THE REST OF US HAVE LEFT.) The question that was asked (And even though this was a good question, still: straight to Hell.) was basically, “So did you ever tell us the thing we actually need to know?”

To which the answer was, No. He did not. He proceeded to do so, taking about five minutes, which tells me that the entire presentation could have been done in about fifteen minutes, total. In fact, I could do the presentation more effectively in a series of haiku. (No, I won’t torment you with the actual haiku; this was still an education inservice, and nobody who isn’t a teacher should ever go through that, even as a joke.) But then we wouldn’t have heard about his experience pouring concrete, which is what led him into the world of education. Yes, I’m serious.

Administrators: I really only have one piece of advice. Don’t ever hire that guy. Everything else is relatively acceptable. Just. Not. Him.

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