Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I was helping an eighth grade student today as he was preparing for a test over a selection the class had been reading.  It was one of my favorite pieces in the literature books we use, one I had taught many time in my previous position as an eighth grade Language Arts teacher.

The selection was a condensed version of Flowers for Algernon  by Daniel Keye.  The students read journal entries of Charlie Gordon, who has experimental brain surgery that changes him from a developmentally disabled young man to a genius.  The surgery works for a time, but eventually he regresses back to the low cognitive state he began with.  Even very low performing students recognize the changes in Charlie’s writing abilities and his observations and understanding of those around him.  The selection generates great discussions about work ethic and motivation which students of all abilities can understand. 

            When teachers really enjoy a particular selection, they display a passion for the work that is not always immediately embraced by their students.  It is not easy to maintain a patient, enthusiastic demeanor when the kids moan and groan in the face of your enchantment.   On one particular day when I was teaching this selection, I kept pushing the phrase “pearls before swine” from my head as I was introducing the new reading passage.  I loved Flowers for Algernon.  I was pretty sure my students would love it after they got into it.  But it was hard getting them started.

            “What’s an Algernon?” Josh asked, mispronouncing the name with a hard “g” sound.

            “Is this about gardening?” David chimed in.  “I don’t like girly books.”

            Michael just slumped in the back, looking like he was having stomach cramps.

            “There’s a weird picture on page 297,” Jacob offered.  By now two of the girls were giggling.  It’s important for eighth grade girls to let the guys know how cool they think they are.  Giggling accomplishes this quite effectively.

            “Algernon,” I began, appropriately modeling the correct pronunciation of Algernon with a soft “g,” “Is the name of a laboratory mouse in the story.”

            “So it’s about Science?” Josh whined.  “Shouldn’t we be reading this in Science class?”

            “Mrs. Olsen would really love making us bring our lit book to Science,” David offered.  The kids were on notice about forgetting their textbooks in classes.  The teachers had implemented a three strikes rule for offenders.  I was pretty sure David had two strikes already.

            “No, this is not something you would read in Science,” I corrected.  “The setting involves a laboratory where a lot of the action takes place.”  “Setting” was on the state reading test, and I mentally congratulated myself for seamlessly fitting it into the conversation. 

“If you had the opportunity to become a genius,” I continued, “What would you like to accomplish?”  This was the standard “set the stage” question for this selection.

            “I’d get all A’s in my classes without doing any work,” Josh immediately offered.  I found Josh’s comment interesting.  Josh was probably the brightest student I had ever worked with.  He was also one of the laziest.  The first week of school he asked me if the district made a distinction between an A+, A, or A- when calculating the GPA for middle school.  I knew the school used a “4” for everything from 89.5 to 100, so I had told him no, there was no difference between a high and low “A” when calculating student GPA’s in middle school.   It was uncanny how he sat at a comfortable B most of the quarter and managed to move it to a “barely made it” A at the last minute.  Becoming a genius wouldn’t change Josh one bit.

            “I’d get A’s and sell my answers to the other kids and get rich,” Cory declared.

            “Way to go Cory.”

            “We’re with you man.”

            “I’d buy,” several kids called out.

            These were pretty typical eighth grade responses.  Every year I hoped for one student who’d take the moral high ground and declare he wanted to cure cancer or AIDS, or solve world hunger.  No saints this year.  But I did enjoy playing devil’s advocate.

            “Couldn’t you do those things without being a genius?” I asked.  “Most any of you can get A’s with hard work.” I couldn’t always say that about every class, but it was true for this particular group of kids.

            “We don’t want to work,” Josh insisted.  “What’s the point of being a genius if you have to work?”

            Pretty shallow pool this year, I thought.  “Well, maybe this selection will help you re-think your ideas of being a genius,” I offered.  “The main character learns some things he had no idea were out there.  Maybe having all the brains in the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I continued.  I was met with the “nooooo’s” and “brains are best” reaction I suspected would come.  But it was always fun to watch their thinking change as they read.

            I always read the first several “progris riports” in the selection out loud.  The story begins with Charlie Gordon having an IQ of 68.  His spelling is horrible and the punctuation is non-existent.  It’s very difficult for many kids to read.  I’m pretty good at “decoding” this kind of writing because – well, I do it for a living. 

The kids enjoy seeing the poor writing.  It makes them feel smart.  It’s like seeing something you wrote in second grade and realizing how much you’ve improved.  For some reason, however, I wasn’t getting the same responses this year.  I don’t know whether it was the advent of texting, the dynamics of this particular group, or how the stars were aligning.  I just wasn’t getting the chuckles to the very primitive writing in the beginning passages that I usually got.

            ???, the goofy part of my brain thought, Does anyone here see anything wrong with this?

            “What do you think of what Charlie has written so far?” I asked after the first two progress reports.

            “The dude can’t write,” Jacob said.

            Finally, I thought.  And it was so good coming from Jacob.   I knew Jacob struggled academically, but he was also the cutest guy in the class and the girls flocked to him.  Eighth grade girls haven’t quite focused in on high academic skills yet.  It’s all about how hot the guy is.  I suspected Jacob just might be able to get girls to do most of his homework through high school.

 The third progress report described several cognitive tests that were given to Charlie Gordon to establish a baseline.  One of the tests referred to was the Rorschach test.  I pulled up some inkblot examples I have gotten off the internet, put them on the overhead, and explained to the kids that different people saw different things in the designs.  This had never failed to pull in even the most disinterested student. 

            “This is something like Charlie Gordon might have been shown.  What does this inkblot look like to you?” I asked.  Past classes had described this particular inkblot as looking like everything from a weird butterfly to two dogs looking away from each other.

            “It looks like someone spilled ink,” moaned Michael.

            “What does it remind you of?” I probed.  “Think of it like looking for pictures in the clouds.”
            “It reminds me of a pen breaking and spilling ink,” Michael deadpanned.

            “How about this one?” I continued, putting up another picture.  Kids usually said this one looked like the monster from the movie Alien.

            “How does this test measure intelligence?” Josh asked.

            Good question, I thought.  “I’m not sure,” I said.  “Maybe it’s looking at your ability to imagine things.”  I had a vague memory of criminals seeing weird things in the pictures, but I wasn’t going there.  “I’ll continue reading,” I announced.  Things just weren’t picking up like they usually did.  Maybe we just needed to get more into the story.

            I read the next two progress reports and tried a different tack.  In the fourth report Charlie is writing down things he heard the doctors saying about him, but he didn’t understand most of what they said.  Many of the words were only partially written down.

            “OK guys,” I said, “See if you can figure out some of the words Charlie wasn’t able to get written down completely.  Dr. Nemur said Charlie was not what they had in mind as the first of their new breed of ‘intelek’.  What do you think he meant with ‘intelek’?”  I was waiting for someone to say “intellectual.”

            Sleepy, bored faces looked back at me.

            “Intelek guys!” I insisted.  “What word were they saying when Charlie wrote down ‘intelek’?”

            Now they weren’t even looking back at me.  Several were looking at the edge of their desk or at the clock.

            “Intellectual,” I belted out.  “Charlie Gordon was going to be the first in their new breed of intellectuals.”  I was beginning to lose patience with the lack of responses I was getting.  This was a great story and the kids didn’t seem to be giving it a chance.

            “How about the next sentences,” I continued.  “Most people of his low ment are host and uncoop they are usually dull apath and hard to reach.”

            No responses again.

            “Low ment.  What do you think low ment means?”  I wasn’t letting them off.

            Again, no responses.

            I abandoned even trying anymore.  “Low ment means low mentality.  Most people of his low mentality are hostile and uncooperative.  They are usually dull apathetic and hard to reach.  That’s what Charlie heard but couldn’t get written down.”

            I had raised my voice and delivered the last several sentences in a loud staccato.  Most of the kids had stopped gazing around and were at least looking back at me now.  “What do you think about that statement,” I asked.  “Is that a fair description of people with low mentality?  Do you think they are hostile, uncooperative, apathetic, or hard to reach?”

            The kids could tell I was losing patience and I saw a few furtive glances at the clock.  There would be no help there.  We still had 20 minutes of class left. 

            After a long, long pause, David asked, “What does apathetic mean?”

            “Why don’t you look it up in the dictionary,” I snapped back.  Why does this all have to be so hard? I thought.

            Now everyone had something else to do besides listen to me, so they all watched David get up and lumber over to the shelf where the dictionaries were kept.

            “How is it spelled?” he inquired.

            “A-pa-the-tic,” I replied exaggerating the syllables.  “It’s spelled just like it sounds.”

            David hunched over the dictionary mouthing “a-pa-the-tic” as he flipped through the pages.  He found it and began reading silently.

            “Read it out loud,” I instructed.

            “Apathetic,” David began.  “Having or showing little or no feeling or emotion.  Having little or no interest or concern.”   David finished and looked up at me, his lower jaw slack.  I stared back at him.  He stared dully back at me.  I held my stare back at him.  David dropped his head back down at the dictionary and read the definition again to himself.  Suddenly his head snapped up. 

            “Apathetic!” he suddenly announced.  “That’s us!  We’re apathetic!”  David closed the dictionary, replaced it on the shelf, and walked back to his desk, continuing to mouth “Apathetic.  We’re apathetic.”

            OK, I thought.  Maybe I didn’t get them thinking along the lines I usually took students down, but I had a sneaky suspicion David would never forget what “apathetic” meant for the rest of his life.

Monday, September 26, 2011


            I work in a district that has just announced that as part of their strategic five year plan, they want to develop new leaders for their future.  I’ve taught long enough to have seen a vast difference in the leadership qualities that are praised now compared with what a school leader looked like 25 years ago.

            Eight years ago I took a graduate class on school leadership, and one of the assignments was to interview our current administrator.  We were given several questions to ask the administrator and were to write up a report of our findings.  Many of the questions were about developing new teachers.  “Describe your mentoring program for new teachers,” or “What would be your first step in helping a new teacher develop classroom management skills?”  The administrator I was interviewing had been in education for almost 40 years, and he wasn’t the least bit shy in responding that it wasn’t his job to teach a teacher to teach.  That was the college’s job, and he would contact the college about sending them back if the teacher was having problems.

            It was amusing to report my interview to my class, but it really underscored how much educational leadership has changed in my lifetime.  The servant-leader is the model I most often hear about today, and I think it does have high merit.  I’ve been watching several younger teachers at my school and can see which ones are already “marked” or “chosen” for future development.  I think they seem to fit into one of two categories.

            The first of the “chosen” potential leaders is the one who can give a good speech.  This person speaks up in faculty meetings and is always referring back to meetings he or she has had with students.  Students love them in the classroom.  Their classes are exciting and fun.  There’s lots of discussion between the teacher and students and you can hear a lot of laughter when you pass in the hall.  Everyone wants to be in this teacher’s room.

            But sometimes the fun discussions get out of hand and the kids don’t know when to stop.  The teacher ends up yelling loudly to get the kids’ attention and bring everyone back under control.  If any other teacher yelled like that, there would be ramifications.  But this teacher is so well-loved by their students, it’s all part of the package.  There’s not a lot of structure to lesson plans and sometimes there are problems if this teacher is supposed to be aligning their lessons with other job-alikes.  But that weakness tends to be over-looked, because this teacher has such strong relationships with his students.  Yes, everyone agrees.  He will be a great leader someday because he makes such a good speech.

            The other potential leader on everyone’s radar is what I would call the OCD teacher – OCD as in obsessive compulsive disorder teacher.  They’re not really OCD, but they sure lean in that direction.  They have copies of everything.  They take the minutes at every meeting because they type them on their laptop as we speak.  They have fired copies to everyone by the time they get back to their room.  They have folders within folders within folders, and on and on.  Every activity is planned in writing in every minute detail.

            The OCD teacher can get on everyone’s nerves, though.  They are valuable when you’re looking for the copy of whatever you lost, but they are a headache if you’re planning something fairly complicated.  They raise every possible question that can be raised.  It takes ten times longer to get through any meeting because they are the ones who talk everything to death.   But everyone agrees that they will be a great leader someday because they have such vision to see all the possibilities of everything.

            So how will these two leaders work together?  I think the speechmaker will end up on top because he will be the face and voice of our school.  But the speechmaker cannot survive on his own.  Right below him will be the OCD leader organizing all the work and seeing that it’s being carried out exactly as it should be. 

            Who is below Mr. Speechmaker and Miss OCD on the totem pole?   The worker bees!  They are the teachers who are giving the small speeches every day, and struggling to organize the work, and hoping they prepared for most contingencies.  But as the worker bees do the daily work, the kids will always remind them of how much fun they had in Mr. Speechmaker’s room and how he was such a good friend.  And the worker bees will always remember that they will never be as organized and prepared as Miss OCD, who, incidentally, is even more organized and prepared now because she doesn’t have to worry about teaching kids anymore – just preparing and organizing.

            I can just hear you now.  You’re thinking -  sour grapes!  Hattie’s whining. 

            You.  Are.  Correct. 

            Today I heard Mr. Speechmaker give a stern but wonderful pep talk to one of my students who had been misbehaving.  I also got an email from Miss OCD asking for a summary of state testing procedures for all of my students that included their student ID’s and page number in their IEP’s supporting the outlined accommodations and modifications.  She needed it by the end of the school day.

            After Mr. Speechmaker left my room, I’m sure he was confident that Naomi knew how to behave in the hall and what would happen to her in the future if she didn’t behave appropriately.  Thirty seconds after the door closed behind him, however, Naomi turned to me and said she didn’t understand anything Mr. Speechmaker had said to her.  She wanted me to explain it all again.

            I told Naomi I couldn’t.  I was too busy looking up page numbers in IEP’s.  Happy Monday.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


I saw an old friend this weekend – someone I hadn’t seen in five years.  It was nice catching up on family and mutual friends.  The conversation turned, though, when I asked about Mary.  Mary was a close friend and neighbor of my friend who I had first met at our last meeting five years ago.  Mary had been diagnosed with cancer three years ago and been treated successfully.  But now her cancer was back.

            Upon learning of the return of her cancer Mary once again embarked on the vigorous rounds of chemotherapy, but this time things were not successful.  In fact, there was only one other treatment possibility left and her doctors were not eager for Mary to take it on.  There was a high possibility that Mary’s brain would bleed out during the course of the treatment. 

            My heart ached as I heard how Mary had collapsed into tears as she heard the doctor’s prognosis.  She and her husband just couldn’t accept that this was the end, and so they gathered all her records and went to another treatment center in another state.  The atmosphere at the second hospital was very different than her home hospital.  Hope was considered a critical part of treatment at this second hospital, but at the end of the evaluation, their news was the same as Mary’s original hospital.

            Mary and her husband were in the process of making one long trip to see all their children before entering the last treatment phase – the treatment that doctors had little hope of working – the treatment that very likely would end her life.

            Mary shared with my friend that she wasn’t fearful of death.  She was a believer and knew that she would spend eternity with God.  But her heart ached for her children.  She worried so much about how her death would affect them, how they would move on with the rest of their life.

            Hearing about Mary made me think of a conversation my husband and I had a long time ago.  My children were very young at the time, and we had dutifully seen a lawyer about a will.  I had shared with my husband how having everything in order with the will still didn’t relieve my anxiety about our children growing up without their mother.  I couldn’t imagine being happy in heaven knowing my young sons didn’t have a mom.

            My husband responded back with what I still consider one of his best personal sermons to me.  He had such a surprised look on his face that I could entertain the idea of being worried or anxious in heaven. 

            “Hattie, you’d be with God the Father.  You would have such a full understanding of God’s love and care for His children that you would have no room for worry about how God would be taking care of your family.  All shadow of doubt would be gone.  You’d know that God would be caring for them far better than you could.”

            So tonight I’m thinking about Mary and hope that someone can help remind her that she doesn’t need to worry about her family.  They have The Parent watching over them and loving them far beyond anything we can understand.

            But I’m still sad for Mary and her family.

            And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.   Romans 8:28

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives

            I teach a remedial language course for students who have reading and writing skills below grade level.  Part of the focus is on basic grammar that the students might not have mastered yet.  This past week we were discussing how a single word could be a noun, a verb, or an adjective, depending on how it was used in the sentence. 

            As we went over the examples in class, I knew we were leaving Naomi behind.  Grammar is foreign land for her.  After she had asked about the given examples several times and still not understood, I could tell the other students were getting exasperated waiting for her.  Naomi could see they were getting impatient too, but she was clearly lost.  I told her I would go over it with her during Study Skills Class when it was just her and another student.

            Two hours later I again went over the three examples:   There was a short in the TV that caused sparks to fly.  When they short me on my paycheck, I get angry.  I waited a short time for my mother.  For Naomi to understand a “short” in the TV and being “shorted” on a paycheck, I had to go into a long explanation of what they meant.  The other students in the earlier class had all apparently seen an appliance short out, and all understood being shorted on money.  I patiently began telling what was going on in each situation.  After each explanation I gave, Naomi tilted her head slightly and said, “I don’t get it.”

            I went over it again using even simpler language.  Naomi’s head tilted farther.  “I don’t get it.”

            By the third round, Naomi’s head was tilted almost to the point of resting on her shoulder.  After a lesson I thought a three-year-old could understand, I wondered if I would get another, “I don’t get it.” 

            Instead Naomi’s eyes bore in on me, and she said, “Mrs. Jones.  I have a question.  What makes you really happy in your life?” 

            Most of the time when I’m with Naomi, I feel like I’m working with a very, very, young student.  But every so often she asks something that makes me feel like she can see deep inside me.  I started to laugh.

            “Why is that funny?” she asked.

            “It’s not funny, Naomi,” I said.  “It’s so profound.”  Her face puzzled over the word, “profound”.  “It’s a good question,” I restated.  “I have to think about that a minute.” 

            This had been one of those days where other events had pulled the rug out from under me.  Consequently, this felt so much more important than nouns, verbs, and adjectives.   “Let’s all think about what makes us happy in our life,” I said.  There was one other student in the room and she immediately announced that she was happy when she didn’t have to think of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  In the next few minutes I learned that Naomi was most happy when she was walking her dog, Leon.  The other student was happiest when she and her mom were doing something together.  They learned that I was happiest when all my kids came home to visit me.

            “What makes you laugh, Mrs. Jones?” Naomi asked. 

            “Well . . .  you make me laugh, Naomi.”

            Her face lit up into a huge smile.  “Am I your favorite student?”

            I wasn’t going to ignore the other little girl, so I said, “No.  You’re all my favorite students.”  But the truth was, today Naomi was my favorite student.

Monday, September 19, 2011


            It’s important to me that I help kids understand where their grades come from.  I have access to the teachers’ grade book for each of my students, so I can review every assignment and grade with them.  Many students at 6th grade still think that a teacher gives a letter grade based on how much they like the student.  I’ve always thought showing them the points and percentages is a valuable lesson that can help them begin to understand how much power they actually have in determining their grades.  I think Naomi still thinks grades randomly fall out of the sky into a teacher’s grade book. 

            Before mid-9 week progress reports came out I had each student stand by me at my computer and go over all their grades.  Naomi loved this time.  I think she felt very powerful getting to look at the teacher’s computer.   When she came to class the day before progress reports came out, I announced we would be looking over everyone’s grades that day.  I gave the kids a math puzzle to be working on as I called each student up individually.  When Naomi’s turn came, she announced that she had been really busy after school and didn’t have a lot of time to do homework.  I knew her family was trying to prepare for a Bat Mizvah for Naomi, so I said, “I know you’re busy.  You go to Hebrew school don’t you?”
Her eyes widened.  “How did you know that?” 

            “Well, your dad told me you were going to Hebrew school,” I told her.

            “I can write my name in Hebrew,” she said.  I thought of all the things she was having trouble completing at school.  I remembered my husband agonizing through two years of Hebrew in seminary and marveled that Naomi was learning Hebrew. 

            “OK, Naomi,” I said, “Show me your name in Hebrew.”

            By this time everyone had stopped working and was watching Naomi.  She had a huge grin on her face as she walked up to the whiteboard, chose a royal blue marker, and wrote her name in Hebrew, right to left.  I had forgotten that Hebrew is written right to left.  Sometimes Naomi takes my breath away.  She began giggling as she turned and proudly pointed to her name.  “That says Naomi,” she announced.

            “That’s really cool,” I said.  “Now come on over here so we can go over your grades.”  I knew some really low grades would come up on the screen, but I was in a knot about what to do about them.  Naomi very ceremoniously picked up a chair, set it down next to mine in front of the computer, and sat down.  This was serious business for her.   

            Before we started, she turned to me, smiled, and said “Shalom.” 

            Shalom.  That’s a pretty good way to start any hard discussion.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Gift of Work

John 3:27 – A man can receive nothing, unless it has been given him from Heaven.

            I’m in the full swing of the school year now.  One way I know things are chugging along is that the first mid-9 weeks progress reports were due last week already.  One-eighth of the school year is over!  Another way I know things are moving along is that I can already clearly see the challenges that are in front of me for the year.

            If I’m tired or taking the “glass half empty” approach, I begin to think about Clarice who has done no homework and has already been absent four days.  Or I’m wondering about Roberto and how he’s lying to his parents about his work, and will only look back at you with a dark, glum smolder if you try to talk to him about it.  Naomi failed her first test even though it was modified and she was given a study guide for it that had every single item on it.  These are not new or unique problems.  They’re the typical challenges I face every year.  Every. Single. Year.  And sometimes around this time I’ll have a day when it all seems so wearisome.  Nothing new.  Just the same challenges again and again.

            Why can’t I have a year with some miracles?  On TV and in the movies, there is always a dramatic turnaround.  The teacher gets through to the student.  They see the light.  Two years later they are taking AP classes and the teacher is writing a book or teaching seminars on how it’s done.  But it doesn’t happen that way for most teachers.  It’s a day to day working of what they know is right.  Coaxing, cajoling, encouraging, scolding, praising, and reminding.  Sure five years later you see a difference.  But day to day it sometimes feel like laying the same rails and driving the same spikes over and over again.

            But I was reminded in church today that whatever we have is a gift from God.  My family, my job, my home, my health, my ability to quickly notice problems, that (pesky) ability to project many possible consequences, my experience to know which solutions will probably work best – these are all gifts from God.  Even the way my mind works – gift from God.  Work, and the weariness that it sometimes brings is a gift from God.  It gives me an opportunity to see God’s lovingkindness in the morning when I know He’ll be with me going into the day.  It’s a gift because it helps me see His faithfulness when I lay my head down at night after a long day.

            Maybe it was after a long week of work the psalmist wrote:

            It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing praises to Thy name, O Most High; to declare Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness by night – Psalm 92:1-2

            So this coming week, my thanks go to Annie Johnson Flint for reminding me that when it comes to God’s grace,

                        He giveth,
                                                And giveth,
                                                                        And giveth again.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Teacher Evaluation

            I get evaluated this year.  Yay! (Why isn’t there an icon for sarcasm?)

            I really don’t mind.  Evaluations fall into one of two categories depending on the contract you’re working under.  The evaluation is either planned-formal or surprise.  The planned-formal requires the administrator to meet with you beforehand and you both set a date for the evaluation.  You tell the administrator what you’re objective is and what he/she should be looking for.  It’s basically a dog and pony show. 

            In contrast, the surprise evaluations are like answering the door on a Saturday you decided to sleep in and wear jammies until noon – except when you answer the door you have unexpected visitors – Surprise!  One day you’re teaching and all of a sudden the principal walks in with a clipboard.  Of course, being the wonderful teacher that I am, I’m always in the middle of a fantastic lesson.  (Where is that sarcasm icon?) 

            Under my current contract I will be putting on the dog and pony show, so no big deal.  No evaluation now or ever in my future will top the first evaluation I ever had.  It still makes me laugh.  I wrote it down in detail after it happened, and present it now for your amusement.

            My evaluation was scheduled for a class period when I was working with two fourth grade students in the Resource Room.

            Mr. Squirmy our principal (yes, of course I changed his name, but his real name was just as goofy sounding) arrived before the students and sat at the back of my room.  He was in his early 60’s, had white hair and a white mustache, was of medium height, and carried about 100 extra pounds.  When Paul and Sarah walked in, they immediately noticed the visitor.  Paul more than noticed.  When he saw the principal, his eyes widened and he gasped.  Paul’s gasp came out like a long last draw of air from a dying man!  He froze in the doorway, and I could see he was desperately searching his memory for what he had done to incur a visit from the principal. 

            “Come on in guys,” I said.  “Mr. Squirmy is just going to watch class today.”  Paul remained planted at the door, eyes wide, mouth open.  “It’s OK guys,” I reassured them, “Just come sit down.”  Sarah took Paul’s hand and pulled him over to the two desks in front.  Even though Paul was walking to the desk, he never took his eyes off the principal.
            We began every math class by running through a routine involving calendar, temperature, money, and skip counting.  The kids knew the drill well, and I quickly led them through the review.  Paul had a hard time staying focused, though.  He kept turning and looking back at the principal.  It didn’t help that the principal began writing things down.  It suddenly occurred to me that Paul thought the principal was assessing him. 

            “Paul,” I explained, “Mr. Squirmy is here to watch me teach you.  He’s not writing down things about you.  He’s checking to see if I’m teaching you guys the right way.  He’s writing down things I do to make sure I’m being a good teacher.”  This took a minute to sink in to Paul’s brain.  It had never occurred to him that teachers get graded too.  We continued our review, but I could tell that Paul was still trying to process the idea that the principal was watching me and not him.

            Paul eventually stopped turning around and settled into the review.  We all forgot about the elephant in the room and concentrated on skip counting until we heard a strange sound.  Watching someone working with just two students can apparently get pretty boring.  We had just begun skip counting by sevens when we heard the low rumble of someone snoring.  I looked to the back of the room and noticed Mr. Squirmy’s head was slumped down on his chest.  With each intake of air, his head and shoulders would rise, and we heard a low motor sound from the back of his throat.  As he exhaled, the sound changed to a higher whizzing from the front of his nose.  They didn’t teach us about this in teacher’s college, I thought.
            Both Paul and Sarah were awestruck by the idea of the principal sleeping at the back of the room during their math class.  They kept turning around as they counted, looking at the sleeping walrus, and then pivoting back to me, searching for the correct response to it all. 

“Seven, fourteen,” they chanted looking back, “twenty-one, twenty-eight” looking at me,  “Thirty-five, forty-two,” looking back, “Forty-nine, fifty-six,” looking at me. 

I slowly put my finger up to my lips and signaled, “Shhhhh.”  They understood shushing and being quiet.  They immediately switched to a whisper.

“Sixty-three, seventy,” they hissed.  We continued skip counting eights and nines in whispers.  The kids were eventually assured that their softer voices would not wake the giant, and they stopped looking back every second or third count.  We worked the entire math lesson in whispers.  It was odd how the whispering kept them both more focused than usual. 

            About thirty minutes into the class the rhythmic buzzing from the back abruptly changed to several small snorts.    I glanced back and noticed the principal suddenly sitting up, searching around, and eventually looking at me.   I discretely ignored him and continued working with the kids, but changed my whispering to a normal voice.  Without even acknowledging the change, both Paul and Sarah began speaking in normal tones. 

            I finished the math lesson and gave both kids the problems they were to take home to work on their own.  Paul was particularly pleased that no trouble or scolding had come his way.  “See you tomorrow,” I called as they walked to the door.  Paul, however, paused.  He had important business to handle first. He turned, bravely walked to the back of the room, and stood stiffly in front of the principal.

            “I think Mrs. Jones is a good teacher, and you should give her at least a B,” he fearlessly declared.  The principal looked at me.  I tilted my head and smiled smugly back at him.  Paul, having done his duty, turned and strode out of the room.

            No other words were exchanged between the principal and me.  He gathered his papers, mumbled something about having a lot of other evaluations to get to, and left the room. 
A week later I received my written appraisal.  Paul wanted to know what grade I got, and I was happy to tell him I got an A.