The Big Reboot: 5

Mr. Webb got to the south book room just in time. All the Economics books, regular and AP, were here, and those were the books Mr. Webb needed, in plenitude. The Government books were in the north book room, and Mr. Webb was glad he didn’t have to schlep over there this year.

Once upon a time, the athletes actually delivered the books to the classrooms. Oh, for those days. Once upon an earlier time, teachers had more than one day before classes started to get their rooms ready. That was over twenty years ago, back during Mr. Webb’s first stint as a teacher. Although his five years in the East Dallas Consolidated Independent School District were something of a hellride when it came to the administration, there were elements of teaching unique to that era that were better than what teachers had to deal with today.

Back then, in the five days prior to the first day of school, teachers spent all of two days in meetings. The meetings dealt with getting back to the campus, saying hello to the new staff members, and procedures for kicking off the start of school. The other three days all belonged to the teachers. With those three days, there was no crowd to get copies made, no line at the laminating machine, no teachers coming in a few days early to get their rooms in order because four of those five days before school started were killed with stupid meetings, with only a day or less to deal with the actual usefulness of going over the start of school procedures.

As Mr. Webb inched his book cart forward six inches closer to bookland, he reflected on all those meetings from the last four days.

Total waste of time. That was the short version.

Complete waste of time. That was the version with one additional syllable.

Those were the meetings, all day in an auditorium or a student desk, that made Mr. Webb hate auditoriums and student desks. They made Mr. Webb hate the politicians and administrators that were complicit in confining teachers to auditoriums and student desks. But worst of all were the staff development days in cafeterias. Those flat, backless seats were absolute torture. They always made Mr. Webb’s back go out, which was why, in recent years, he had taken to wheeling his own chair into the cafeteria whenever he had a staff development meeting there.

Cafeteria meetings tended to be ones about improving test scores. Social Studies teachers had it relatively easy: the State of Texas made sure that football coaches would keep their jobs by making the state-mandated Social Studies tests ridiculously easy to pass. The State of Texas had learned its lesson in the Texas Educator Competency Test fiasco of 1991. It’s not that all the coaches were bad teachers. Loads of coaches were totally awesome at teaching. It’s that there was no reason for a perfectly good offensive coordinator to have to be let go because he was a little weak on The Gilded Age.

So while other subject areas were being run through the wringer over passing percentages that were at or below state minimum standards, the Social Studies crew was sitting pretty with over a 90% pass rate. That meant they got a challenge goal. Increase the percentage of students passing with a commended score. All at once, that sent the message that it didn’t matter how well they did, they weren’t going to be rewarded for it. Did 99% of the students pass, with 89% of them commended? Way to go! Now go for 100% and 90%! Stretch yourselves! No, the lesson was clear: just muddle through the same as you did the year before.

Lately, the district had taken to killing time during these cafeteria meetings by having teachers collectively work on district-standard final exams. Mr. Webb liked to invite the Economics teachers to his classroom, where they could sit on a chair with an actual cushion and a back to it. Besides, they all taught seniors. Who cared if they passed or failed the test, so long as they passed for the semester and got to graduate? Nobody liked to fail a senior, least of all in a class like Economics or Government that wasn’t even subject to a state-mandated test.

At Teller High, there were three Economics teachers. Mrs. Steinway was for the kids that wanted to keep their GPAs up without any real effort. In 45 years of teaching, she had never changed her assignments or tests, so students would hand down her coursework to their buddies in the upcoming class. Just copy those papers to a T, and a 100 was guaranteed. Coach Walker focused a lot on microeconomics and running a personal business: he wasn’t hard at all, so long as you showed up sober and did your homework. If you were actually into the idea of running a business, he was a great teacher to have.

And then there was Mr. Webb. He never let his assignments or tests get cold. He made class participation 25% of his final grade. On the other hand, he never had homework. Kids that had a distaste for busy work and who were blessed with a gift of gab would sign up for his sections. Between them, the three Teller High Economics teachers covered the spectrum of the student body. None of them would ever teach the way the other did, but they also respected that each teacher got to run his classroom the way he wanted to.

So, when it came time to grind out the district-standard final, they each chipped in a few questions from finals they’d given in the past and let it go at that. Once the copy and paste job was done, they got to relax a little and complain about having to do staff development instead of something useful. The exercise of composing a final was, itself, a complete waste of time since the district always used an old version that some earlier central admin had cobbled together. Every year, the teachers would point out the spelling errors and other mistakes on the test. Every year, Marlene Holroyd would thank the teachers for their input and promised to make corrections. Every year, the same test, mistakes uncorrected, would show up in time for finals. What in the world did Holroyd do in her office all day, anyway?

Mr. Webb moved his cart another four inches closer to the door of the book room. Any day now, it would be his turn. He thought about that one test-score meeting run by Holroyd’s predecessor, Shelly Ann Tewkesbury. It was her first time to be an administrator in a suburban district like Garson. She had come from Midland, where she had been a school secretary for a few years, got her Master’s in School Administration, and had run the night school there for a year and a half before coming to Garson. She had never spent a single day in a classroom as a teacher, and it was her job to try and tell the teachers how to do their jobs better. In that first meeting of hers, she showed a rah-rah flag-waving God-loving 100% Southern Baptist-approved video that had been put together by the First Baptist Church of her flatland prairie hometown.

Quite a few of the Jewish teachers wondered what to make of it. There were some Muslim teachers that were left scratching their heads. A majority of the Christian and unaffiliated teachers were also puzzled by that video. Wasn’t stuff like that supposed to be saved for spontaneous, student-led expressions of faith?

It wasn’t that anyone objected to Ms. Tewkesbury being a woman of strong faith. More power to her for it. The objections were more to do with the fact that she was using district time to apparently proselytize on behalf of her denomination. These objections were reinforced when she had some light and fluffy youth pastor from her denomination speak to the teachers about the role of faith in History and how to tell the good news and happy truth about Jesus Christ in the course of the day.

Visions of Supreme Court cases danced in Mr. Webb’s mind as he chose to ignore that speaker. Other teachers were sending texts. Some were working on handouts for the first day. There were those that were putting together their hardcopy gradebooks, due to their well-placed mistrust in the electronic grading system. Mr. Webb figured that if everyone else had checked out like that, it wouldn’t hurt if he read a book. He had Robert Fisk’s “The Great War for Civilisation”, a fascinatingly detailed history of North Africa and the Middle East. At least Fisk’s book was going to be relevant for his World History section that year.

He wasn’t more than three pages in when Shelly Ann Tewkesbury had parked herself next to where he was sitting and made an example of him. She cleared her throat and said, “Let’s all pay attention to the speaker. Be the kind of person you want your students to be.” Mr. Webb quietly closed the book and looked up at the speaker. A few other teachers followed suit. The older teachers kept at their tasks, pausing only long enough to smirk at how Mr. Webb got caught. They were within their rights: Mr. Webb would have been a smirker himself, there but for the grace of the First Baptist Church of Way Out in West Texas’ God.

But as Shelly Ann Tewkesbury walked away, Mr. Webb fired back with his bad back. He screwed his face up in deep pain and reached back to that lumbar region that is so faithless and inconstant, especially if it’s connected to a posterior that’s been stuck on a cafeteria seat for an hour. He gathered up his book and staggered deliberately out the door to the cafeteria. It wasn’t at his high school that year, so he couldn’t recuperate in his room. No matter, he had recourse to the men’s restroom, followed by a painful, grimaced easing into a plastic chair out in the foyer adjacent to the cafeteria.

Mrs. Steinway went out to check on Mr. Webb. “Are you all right?”

“Oh yeah, I’ll be fine. Thankfully, there’s a chair out here.”

“Well, thankfully, we can’t hear that unbearable presentation out here.”

“True, there’s that silver lining.” Mr. Webb grinned. “You can go back in there, if you want.”

“Not on your life, Webb. I’d sooner shoot myself. Where does she get off, preaching to us like that? This isn’t some homogeneous village out in the boonies. This is a district with a lot of diversity. You don’t get away with stuff like that. Who does she think she is?”

“Well, she’s our Supervisor of Secondary Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction. It’s her job to torment us. She just chose a religious theme, this year.”

Mrs. Steinway laughed. Then she straightened her face. “And where does she get off, embarrassing you like that in front of everyone? That’s not even good classroom discipline, let alone how you treat adults.” Mrs. Steinway was right about that. The US Army field manual was firm in its disapproval about public shaming like that. It either made people more regressive or more rebellious. The Chinese Army concurred: better to deal with the issue one-on-one, removed from the scene of the activity. How hard would it have been to tap Mr. Webb on the shoulder and then ask him to step outside for a word? Anyone with halfway decent classroom management skills or who had been a POW interrogator would know to do that. Clearly, Ms. Tewkesbury was neither of those types of people.

She didn’t last long in that role, either. After only two years, she was gone. She had been promoted one level higher, to Supervisor of District Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction.

And it wasn’t like all the administrators were clueless idiots. It just seemed to be a role in which clueless idiots could flourish, so long as they could create an environment of fear so that none would dare challenge them.

And so the staff development uselessness kept coming. There were years when the high school teachers were taught the difference between a hot dog fold and a hamburger fold and how to use that in making visual aids for their classes. There were years when everyone worked on document-based questions, even for courses that had no primary source documents in them.

There was one year when everyone was getting technology training on the PCs that would go into classrooms – which PCs lasted only 3 years before getting yanked. A presenter assured all the teachers there that the keyboards were kid-proof. Mr. Webb had to call BS on that claim. Within 10 seconds, he had used a pen cap as a lever to send the N key skyward.

What galled Mr. Webb the most was that the district made him apologize for the incident. That made it clear to him that some administrator had gotten a kickback on the hardware deal, and he didn’t want anyone to rock the boat by showing that the systems didn’t meet the criteria of being kid-proof. Kickbacks and shady deals were rife in administrative circles, particularly in the East Dallas CISD.

In the meantime, the teachers suffered through steaming piles of uselessness in those first four days. Over his 15 years of teaching, Mr. Webb had taken a personality inventory no less than six times. Starting with his second time, he decided to place in a different quadrant than his first time. Having succeeded with that, he got each of the other two quadrants on his third and fourth tries. For his fifth try, he totally nailed having his answers cancel each other out completely so that he had no discernable personality whatsoever, according to the test. The sixth testing was just depressing, since he’d already done as much as he could with it in the five previous tests. And so, being depressed and all, he answered the questions as depressingly as possible. The consultant running the session had him stand with the other “introverted” people and blithely ignored the gothic prose that went into Mr. Webb’s answers. Seriously, stuff like that would have gotten a kid sent to the counselor for a page folded into thirds with “Dealing with Depression” on the front. Another BS artist getting paid big bucks to sling sunshine to teachers…

The motivational speakers were depressing, too. They praised the teachers for their role in society, even though Mr. Webb knew that, statistically, at least one of his fellow-teachers was going engaging in sex with his or her students. Every year, one of them would be asked to leave and not come back. In return for that teacher not suing over wrongful dismissal, the district wouldn’t give the teacher a bad reference. That was known as passing the trash. Mr. Webb was always suspicious of teachers that had covered a lot of ground in their career. Rare was the teacher actually caught in the act and then criminally charged. This year, though, one of Teller’s own was in the county jail. He had been careful, though, and only had sex with students 17 and older. In Texas, that was a felony, but not a statutory rape charge. He had a good chance of just getting probation after a few years of going in and out of the courts. That was why Teller welcomed a new coach that year right before the training on appropriate behavior and relations with students.

That appropriate behavior class got dusted off every year a teacher actually got arrested in the district. If it was at another campus, the principal got to conduct the training. This year, the Teller teachers got to have a local policeman provide the staff development session. Honestly, it was so simple: always keep your door open if there’s one student in the room with you. Never ask for or accept physical contact, like back or neck rubs. Don’t party with your students. Simple enough rules to follow, but there were always teachers that taught for all the wrong reasons.

Team-building events worked at making teams, but usually because the teachers would identify a common enemy in the form of the consultant presenting the team-building exercise. At least the consultants were slick in their presentations: when budgets were tight, the central office staff had to do the presentations, and they were awkward, at best. They nevertheless succeeded, since it was quite easy to identify them as common enemies, as well.

Classroom discipline refresher courses were actually fun if they led to some role-playing. Mr. Webb really liked to test the mettle of a presenter by getting completely into character. Most of the time, presenters would have the teachers portray minor misbehaviors, but one year, a presenter painted himself into a corner. “OK, I need someone to be really angry and rebellious. Any volunteers? OK, Mr. Webb, why don’t you step up.”

Yeah, that led to another apology, but he had it coming with his “student whisperer” attitude. There are times where you just drop the discussion and write the kid up, then call the office to let them know he’s on his way up so that if he takes to wandering the halls, he gets further discipline for that. And it wasn’t like Mr. Webb was being unrealistic. He was only drawing on his past experience with a particularly angry and rebellious young man. If the presenter didn’t want a ten thousand-mile stare and a cold, hard, “I will kill you and your entire family”, he shouldn’t have asked for angry and rebellious.

As it was, he shouldn’t have started crying. In real life, Mr. Webb had handled that situation by making crazy eyes of his own and then saying, “You kill me, and I will go mad dog all up one side and down the other on you. You do not know what I’m capable of when I’m dead.”

“When you’re dead, you’re dead. What are you talking about?”

“What, you think you’re so smart, you know what happens after I’m dead? If I’m alive, I keep my limits, but when I’m dead, it’s on!”

A few more minutes of that, and the kid had nothing left to say. Mr. Webb kept the crazy eyes for ten seconds more, then went totally normal and said, “OK, back to the Spanish-American War.” The class laughed when the tension receded, the kid skipped the next two days, then came back and apologized for being out of line. Mr. Webb gave him some make-up work and everything was smooth for the rest of the semester. Kid got a C+ and got along great with Mr. Webb.

But instead of being able to do something useful, teachers had to sit through useless staff development courses that were state-mandated by politicians in the back pockets of educational consulting companies. The politicians were also in the back pockets of the state tourism industry, which had successfully gotten legislation passed to push forward the school start date so that teenagers would be able to work more days during the tourist season. Educational law was full of little nuggets like that.

And, say, how long was it going to take to get some books around here? Mr. Webb noticed that the book room guy didn’t have any helpers this year, so it was just him and the teacher getting the books. Already, the people that had signed up for the next half hour after lunch were queueing up with their library surplus book carts.

Finally, Mr. Webb got his turn to go into the book room to see if he had enough books for every student, or if there were only enough for a class set. Fearlessly, he made his way to the back shelves, where the Economics books were kept.

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