Teachers, Do You Know Your Limitations? Let Me Tell You Some Of Mine!

“You want me to do what?!” I said with mock disbelief.

Some of my students were helping to plan our school’s annual spring break college tour where they visit universities up and down the east coast during their Easter vacation. They asked me if I would help chaperone their trip.

I responded, “let me make sure I understand this. You want me to spend six days and five nights on an overnight trip with a bunch of teenage girls?! That is so not happening.”

My colleague Ms. Long coordinates this informative and motivational experience every school year. From time to time I’ve received this request and while I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of the trip and make a small financial contribution towards it each year, my response is essentially the same. Ms. Long thankfully knows not to go there. I will do almost anything for my students, the operative word being “almost.”

I know my limitations, and this one was out of bounds for me. I’m willing to go the extra mile but my rule is that it has to be within the confines of our school building or some other local brick and mortar setting. A deluxe motor coach and I-95 accommodations is not part of the program.

Do I ever chaperone trips? Yes. You can count on me to help escort a trip to a Broadway performance. Count me in for a special motion picture screening for our kids. I’ve even been a last minute chaperone for an 8th grade graduation trip to a local indoor amusement gallery. There I was, parked at a table in the concession area for most of the day grumbling about a far too expensive hotdog and soda, reading a book, and listening to music on my IPod.

To me, going the additional mile usually reveals itself in teaching extra classes. Teachers are generally required to instruct five classes within an eight period school day with two additional periods devoted to other professional activities. From my very first year of teaching I was asked to pitch in and do a bit more. In addition to my regular class load that year, I taught what was known at the time as PM school – afterschool classes – as well as a program we called Saturday School. I was happy to help out. These extra efforts allowed students who were behind in credits to catch up, and for students who were in danger of failing to receive additional instruction in order to make up work and to improve their grades.

Let me be clear. I receive additional compensation for these extra duties. Doing this in my early years of teaching allowed me to make ends meet without dipping into my savings. But that soon became a secondary consideration. When teachers step up – not just me – it’s not about the money, it’s truly all about helping our students.

In order for students to graduate from high school they need to accumulate specific credits. In addition, students must also pass a combination of Regents Examinations across subject areas. One of my teaching strengths is getting boys and girls to be successful on the Global History & Geography and U.S. History & Government Regents Examinations. Other schools have become aware of this knack over the years and have asked me to come to their students to teach what we call a prep class in these subjects. The first time I did this was for another high school located on our school campus. They created a class for me to teach on my lunch period. I simply went upstairs to accomplish this task.

But a complication that soon arose: As the year progressed we lost a history teacher at my school due to an unforeseen medical leave and I was asked to pick up one of this teacher’s classes as well. I agreed but insisted on keeping the class with the other school. I would not consider abandoning them. This meant that I was teaching seven out of eight periods a day. I cannot begin to describe for you the level of exhaustion I experienced. Teaching teenagers all day with virtually no break was grueling. I got through it though – successfully I might add. Almost every one of the students at the school upstairs passed their Regents examination and graduated that spring.

But I was beyond exhausted. I vowed never to try that again. I put the students’ educational well-being at risk by trying to do too much. Know your limitations, or at least recognize them when they show up.

I recall as well the year that I was asked to teach a ninth grade English class until a new teacher could be hired. A teacher left unexpectedly for another school as the school year began and we were in a bind. Although I was a draftee and not a volunteer, I went into it with an abundance of energy. I found a book I thought the students might enjoy – To Sir With Love by E.R. Braithwait that also allowed me to show clips of the movie as we progressed along with the reading. (Full disclosure here – I am Sidney Poitier’s #1 fan!) The students became engaged in this memoir and activity.

Yet as the marking period progressed my shortcomings came to light. When history teachers evaluate history writings we assess them based upon the students’ completion of the task, relevant supporting facts and details, a logical plan of organization, and analysis of the subject. But an English class requires that a teacher also has to evaluate student work based upon usage of proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, etc.… Oh, and what exactly is a dangling participle? (“A participle intended to modify a noun that is not actually present in the text” – Huh??!! W-W-What???!!!!!.)

Thankfully a new teacher was hired within about six weeks. But years later these very same freshmen students thanked me for my efforts in their senior year. I’d sort of hoped they’d forgotten the experience; I know I tried to. But what stayed with them was I tried to help them in their time of need.

I recall as well a moment that I recognized my limitations early on and did something about it. I don’t remember the circumstances, but we were in need of a music teacher. I said, “I got this!” I studied piano as a child for twelve long years (or should I say I was forced to by my parents Vertelle and Dennis Mason). I can play from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms, and add in a little Ragtime and Boogie-Woogie as well. I played trombone or clarinet in my school bands from fourth grade through high school and was confident I could teach a music appreciation class. I’d introduce the students to tones, notes, chords, the bass & treble clefs. I’d present the different genres of music – classical, ragtime, the blues, jazz, pop, rhythm and blues — just anything but Rap/Hip-Hop.

How many ways exactly is there to say boring? The kids did not connect to what I was putting down, as they say, and I found myself needing to shift gears. I began to focus on showing clips of musical performance instead: Paul Robeson singing Ol’ Man River; The Nicholas Brothers stunning tap dance sequence in the film Stormy Weather; The Temptations; The Supremes; Stevie Wonder; Earth Wind & Fire. Oh, and of course The Beatles. I was getting through to them. We then transitioned to their writing about artists that they were connected to (yes, Rap/Hip-Hop was allowed here). Seldom were students so eager to write essays. By recognizing my limitations I was able to shift to something more meaningful to the students. Teachers can’t always do this, but we need to take advantage of the opportunities when and where we can.

My most recent fun experience of going the extra mile was temporarily taking over a gym class for a teacher who was on jury duty. I didn’t want the kids to be unattached to the rhythm of things for an extended period of time, so I volunteered. There I was every day third period with my sneakers, knee braces for my aging joints, and loose-fitting pants. The girls and boys played spirited games of indoor soccer, kickball and whiffle ball. I wasn’t just a spectator. Except for soccer I was an active participant.

But I had no idea that my reflexes had slowed so much. My mind was telling me to move in one direction, but my feet and arms wouldn’t listen. There was a time delay that allowed runners to advance and balls to be dropped. The former athlete in me found this march of time maddening. But the kids found it hilarious,

“Mister! You’re supposed to catch the ball, not just look at it!”



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