Category Archives: Book Excerpts

Book Excerpt: If you’re worried that the kids are smarter than you, they probably are (and you should quit and work at Jamba Juice)

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY & JESSE SCACCIA

Here’s the thing. The kids are smarter than you.  They are brilliant, funny, creative, and perceptive. They will blow you away if you open yourself to it. I cannot say this enough: If you’re listening, they will teach you more than you will teach them.

It’s the reason why the student-teacher relationship is considered sacred in so many cultures. It’s why it’s possible to teach for thirty years and not burn out. This thing we call “teaching” (a conceit that negates the fact that we are also “learners”) should be life-giving, even if it achieves the opposite effect in many of our stressed-out, exhausted colleagues.

But you simply cannot, under any circumstances, worry about the students being smarter than you. This suggests that you are not okay with the very real possibility that they are. And that kind of insecurity will lead you to resist (on a conscious or subconscious level) any attempt by students to reach higher than you are able to reach. Which is cardiac arrest to a classroom.

Like with any leader unsure of himself, ego and self-image will start to come before results. Or as Marsellus Wallace said in Pulp Fiction, “That’s pride fucking with you. You’ve got to fight through that stuff.”

There is a reason that in our stories and myths the student inevitably surpasses the master. The best teachers don’t fight this – they facilitate it.

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Book Excerpt: The purpose-driven passing period

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY & JESSE SCACCIA

Some problems are just not meant to be dealt with in class. They are too delicate, too comprehensive, too charged, or too minor to be solved in a public forum. They require a more intimate dynamic, even if it’s just two minutes of alone time between classes. Check the following scenario:

It had been a mediocre class, one of those days when nothing seemed to liven the mood. Even my cool Shakespeare tie received a lukewarm response. Most distressing was the growing faction of students pulling the ol’ hand-over-the-headphone trick. Luis was among the guilty.

“Hey, Luis, can we talk for a second?” I asked.

“I didn’t do anything!” Luis shot back.

“You’re not in trouble. I just want to talk.”

Luis watched his friends flee to the freedom of the hallways. One gave a bemused “uh-oh” look. Another pointed and laughed. They knew what it meant when a teacher wanted to “talk.” Reluctantly, Luis hung back, his disposition as optimistic as a convict on his execution day.

Luis, bless his soul, placed my English class somewhere between washing the dishes and changing Grandma’s diaper on his list of least favorite things to do in the world. Which meant he was none too happy to be putting in overtime. Plus, the room was already filling up with next period’s students. I had to work fast.

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Book Excerpt: Over the river and through the woods to graduation we go

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY & JESSE SCACCIA

It’s no accident that we refer to it as the public school system. It’s exactly that: a system. And not a particularly kind or sensible one either.

At some point during your first year, you will feel screwed over by it. Possibly many times over.

Now meditate on this: you’re an educated, motivated, empowered individual, and you still feel this way. It’s a supremely frustrating experience to listen as some district bureaucrat justifies his latest boneheaded and mystifying decision with no more explanation than “It was a personnel decision” or “It’s district policy.” What can you say to that?

If you’re angry, downtrodden, and confused, imagine what a hot mess the system looks like to your students. They don’t have a voice yet, or at least they don’t feel like they have one. They don’t know how to advocate for themselves. They don’t know how to fight a system. Not only that, they might not have parents who know how to either.

In my experience, students have a remarkable ability to grin and bear it. They are more likely to passively accept the injustices dealt to them by the system than to fight back. Until they’ve had enough, that is, at which point they’ll drop out or become a real pain in the ass.

It is our job to catch them before they fall. We are the sealant in the proverbial cracks. No one else will do this. It must be us.

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Book Excerpt: Smile like you just got zerberted by Bill Cosby

By JESSE SCACCIA & ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY

Maybe the absolute worst advice an older teacher ever gave me was to not smile the entire fall term of my first year.

“You’re young,” she rasped, her menthol-coated lungs straining to push the words out. “You’ve got to show them that you’re tough. In the spring maybe, next year, then you can smile.”

What a load of pigeon poo poo.

When the students see you smiling as they enter the room they believe they’re entering a happy place.

When the attendance sheet is late or the photocopy machine is broken, and you react with a smile, they’ll see that you’re not one to get lost in the details.

When that first piranha of a student nips at you, and you turn to him and smile, the kids will realize you’re different. You, you’re not one of the new teachers that they can break.

Slap me upside the head and call me Richard Simmons, but gosh darn if smiles aren’t actually contagious. As the center of gravity in the room, the power source of energy, you can physically lower the weight of the air just by smiling.

Try it. You’ll see.

As the man said, laugh and the world laughs with you.

I do admit that the cynical teacher has a point, to some degree. Discipline will be one of your biggest challenges your first year, and a stern face can mean business. But seriously. Life is hard enough without forcing a scowl from 7:30 am to 2:30 pm five days a week.

Smile, I say, and let the chips fall where they may.

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Book Excerpt: Pass the mic

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY & JESSE SCACCIA

The wonderful thing about class clowns is that you will know who they are on the very first day. They’ll be the ones alarmingly happy to see you. After a summer without an audience, they’ll be so excited for the opportunity to bask in the laughter of their peers, they’ll practically be wetting the bed.

They will give you a big Eddie Haskell grin. They will nudge their friends as if to say, “Watch this.” They will ask the dreaded question, “Are you a new teacher?”

Don’t panic. At this point, you just want to identify the clowns. In doing that, you’re identifying which kids you simply must win over.

The thing to remember is that the class clown is rarely a mean kid. Meanness isn’t funny, not even to teenagers. But that will be little consolation as you lose sleep over yet another hijacked lesson. After all, it’s your party they’re crashing.

So why not invite them to the party? They can’t crash it if they’re on the guest list, right?

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Book Excerpt: You are what you teach

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY & JESSE SCACCIA

There are a lot of people in this world who don’t love what they do. You can identify these poor saps by the resignation in their eyes, the frown lines around their mouths, and the stink of death that follows them like an anthrax cloud. They slither to and from work, go to great lengths to avoid real conversation, and are in bed by nine.

Here’s the scary part. Some of these people are teachers. I’ve seen them. One teaches down the hall from me now, a sloppy looking history teacher named Mr. Fish. He is one of the most miserable creatures I’ve ever shared a copy room with. He kicks at least three kids out of class per period. He mumbles when he speaks. He walks with his head down as if he’s scouring the ground for quarters or a sign that it’s time to return to the mother ship. The idea that he was once a human boy is unfathomable to me.  

When I see him I want to shout so loud the whole hallway can hear, “Let’s give this teacher the biggest group hug north of the Rio Grande!”

A problem bigger than Mr. Fish’s unhappiness is the way it affects his students’ view of history. When students say they hate a certain subject, more often than not, that is teenage code for hating the teacher. We are not just vessels for our subjects; to the kids, we are the subjects, personified.

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Book Excerpt: That’s custodial technician to you, big guy

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY & JESSE SCACCIA

You’ve got five minutes until class starts. You forgot your keys, and this being an inner-city school, the doors are always locked. Your kids need the whole class period to finish their standardized test. If you don’t get that door unlocked, your department head will be breathing fire.

What do you do?

And no, building a hobo fire and roasting marshmallows on the ends of number two pencils just won’t cut it. You need help. You need someone to unlock that door. Like, now.

Have you hugged a janitor lately?

Janitors are at the bottom of the school hierarchy. They break their backs day after day cleaning up after ungrateful students, dutifully following in the wake of self-absorbed a-holes who shamelessly leave their crap everywhere. And sometimes amongst all the crap students leave behind is—gross, I know—literally  crap.

So that’s one reason to be nice to your school’s maintenance staff.

The other reason is you need them. They will help you in a pinch. Like now, when the only thing that can save you from a formal incompetence write-up is your friendly neighborhood janitor.

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