Monthly Archives: January 2010


At the beginning of the year, I gave my yearbook staff a very simple syllabus.  It said something along the lines of:

50 points will be deducted from any any pages turned in late.

It’s quite a threat, and it worked…for a while.  If I ever had any intentions of enforcing it, though, they’ve evaporated now that reality has presented itself.  My kids are dropping the ball.  They deserve those 50s, but I just can’t bring myself to give them out.  Here’s why:

1. Retention

I need these kids next year.  Yearbook’s an elective, and electives are supposed to be GPA-padding easy A’s.  Shelling out even one 50 for an assignment doesn’t guarantee failure, but it does make getting an A impossible and the chances of me getting them back next year slim.

2. Morale

 Yearbook only has 14  students.  And four of them deserve that 50.  When almost 30% of staff is hit with a failing grade, I can only see mutiny on the horizon.  When we made our first deadline, I bought the gang some candy and sodas; we took a day to celebrate.  When we missed our second by a few days, there was no celebration.  Lesson learned, I thought.  Our third deadline showed up two weeks ago, and I’m still short 8 pages.  I feel like someone owes me candy (and 8 pages).

3. It’s Gotta Be My Fault

I’m not a long-term thinker.  I can’t plan months in advance.  I’ve gotta take some of the blame for these kids dropping the ball.  They had no daily accountability.  I saw them just sitting there a few times and said nothing.  One kid simply didn’t know she was assigned to one spread.  I could have easily solved that with a What Pages Are You Responsible For Quiz two months ago.

So I’m not sure what to do.  I can dole out those 50’s–be the bad guy and suffer the consequences.  I can play the sucker and keep letting dire mistakes slip by unpunished until the consequences become financial.  Or I can search out a more reasonable middle ground.  Any ideas?

The Stages of Customer Service Development

Weeks ago, I patiently stood in front of a Zaxby’s counter, while a manager walked a very new, very timid employee through her first transaction.  I started thinking about my first customer service job and how the progress one makes in these jobs isn’t too different from teaching.  There are just a few steps:

1. “Sorry, I’m New”

I’m useless.  I can’t work a register.  The simplest questions baffle me.  I’m essentially a burden on both the customers and your employer.  My first day at Blockbuster Video, I could only stock the shelves with movies, and even that took me too long.

2. Rising Confidence

So long as nothing weird comes up, I’m good.  I can remember renting movies to customers.  As long as they had their cards, had no dispute with their late fees, and didn’t have a coupon, we were in business.

3. Everybody’s Stupid but Me

This is where things get hairy.  I learned to deal with any situation but not without some sort of attitude.  Seasoned customer service people know their business, but it makes them cocky and annoying.  In the feudal kingdom of Blockbuster Video, they are lords, and customers are the dirty, ungrateful serfs.

Unforunately, this is where a lot of customer service dudes stay.  They get overly stressed and narcissistic about their menial job.  I don’t think it’s an intentional superiority complex–just an inability to get all Atticus Finch-y and see the other side of the equation.

4. Peace/Acceptance

I’d like to think, by the end of my days in customer service, I matured to higher understanding of my role.  I could work swiftly without getting mad at an unprepared customer.  I could take a breath when someone protested a late fee.  In short, I could do my job well.

I’m making similar progress as a teacher.  Two years ago, I was back at step one: an idiot without a clue, a burden to my students and administrators.  As I grow and find my way, I’m starting to see the process, handling more and more difficult taks without needing help.

The tricky area, of course, is that third step.  Gaining confidence also means recognizing the multiple ways that others (coworkers and students) are holding you back.  It leads to resentment, and I think it’s where a lot of teachers quit on us.  I’m certainly starting to feel the frustrations caused by:

    -teaching students way behind grade level

    -an often infuriating beauracracy

    -infectious complaining of fellow teachers

The trick might be to take a deep breath and focus on  that next step of peace and acceptance.  I can keep working hard to improve the things I can and make peace with the things that aren’t going away.  Acting like a snarky video store nerd isn’t going to solve anything.  It never did.

Talk to the Kids


Student: I have triple-checked the senior section.  Do you want me to submit them?

Me: We’ll have someone check them over tomorrow.  A fresh set of eyeballs can’t hurt.


Student: No one changed the Beta Club deadline.

Me: I’m on it.  Thanks.


Student: Hey, Mr. Harding.  I was wondering if you could be a reference for me.  I’m trying to get a job at Dunkin Donuts.

Me: Put me down.

A handful of recent events have had  me considering the relationship I have with my students and, more specifically, the means in which I interact with them.  The above evidence is harmless.  The first two are clearly instances of yearbook business getting handled.  The third is a former student coming to me for professional help, which I’m happy to provide.


Exhibit A is a series of text messages.

Exhibit B is from my personal email account.

Exhibit C is from  Facebook.

I’ve been advised, from various sources, against all three of these means of communication with students, but I just don’t see the big deal.

The yearbook business simply has to get done, and there have been dozens of instances where my students and I needed to communicate instantly outside of school.  Texting makes this happen.  Last year’s adviser had every kid’s cell phone number, so I did the same.  It’s been helpful.

Facebook’s different for a lot of reasons, and I’ve been slow and reluctant to add any students still enrolled in my school.  But it’s ignorant to deny the benefits of social networking with students.  I’m happy to provide a reference for a decent kid, and sharing that through Facebook probably got his job application turned in that much more quickly.  On the other hand, I don’t want access to whatever he does on spring break, you know?

So where’s the line between using technology to communicate professionally with students and being a pervy creep?  How thick of a line are we talking about here?

On the Subject I Like Most

My first year, I had my students do a good bit of personal writing.  Throught that, I got to know them pretty well: their troubled home lives, the sound of their voices, their hopes for the future.  By the end of the year, I could look at every kid and be confident that I knew him.

It takes a lot of energy to respond to writing like that, and it’s hard to work into the rigid 9th grade curriculum.  I haven’t done personal writing at all this semester, and I’m looking around my room with only vague ideas of each kid’s personality and dreams.  Sure, I know everyone’s first and last names (can even spell the tricky ones), and I’ve had the occasional eye-opening conversation, but I can’t say I know my kids the same way I did two years ago.


So maybe I’ll start.  A new semester starts next Wednesday, an opportunity to dig into fresh ground.  We’ve got to handle poetry, and I’m thinking of trying something like McSweeny’s Essays on Favorite Songs to get them struggling with the way a song can impact their lives.  It’s better than a find-the-personification worksheet, I think.  I also just might learn a few things about these kids with whom I spend every day.