What had I gotten myself into? Weeks before school started, the unorthodox teacher knew he needed help both from above and in the trenches. A growing sense of anxiety gnawed at his lack of teaching skills, knowledge, and experience. He had a Master’s Degree, but in Oceanography, not Education. His exposure to teaching was what he received as a student, and that didn’t always conjure up good memories. No, he needed a mentor, a confidant, a friend. Someone who would warn him of the common pitfalls new teachers make. A person who would happily share best ideas and practices, and be a phone call away to look over lesson plans or anything else used in the classroom. A master tactician who knew how to keep a potentially rambunctious group engaged, while maintaining good relations with parents. With but one week till classes at St. Mary’s Academy started, the unorthodox teacher had not found that much-needed mentor, and his sense of dread was approaching a calamitous level. And then he met Al.
Al was an older guy I met on the Saratoga Springs YMCA racquetball court. New to the area, and in my first week of school, I was hanging out at the courts hoping to find a game. In no time, I was invited to play doubles, and Al was my partner. I don’t remember whether we won or lost the game, but I knew I’d won a friend and mentor that afternoon when Al asked what I did for a living. Al was a veteran Advanced French teacher with 30+ years experience, and I felt a virtual arm drape across my shoulders when I told him I was a new teacher in my first week of teaching. Though 30+ years had elapsed since Al first started teaching, he understood my situation. Al and I would continue playing racquetball together, but we spent more time talking teaching. He was my lifeline. My mentor. My friend and confidant. He told me how to get students engaged in the lesson. The importance of having fun in class. Why relationships matter. How poor kids sometimes are disadvantaged. That not all students learn the same way. To forgive yourself for mistakes. To be honest and admit when you don’t know the answers. To play games embedded with content. To not take things students say or do personal. To enjoy the greatest career in the world.
Reflecting back 30 years, I remember my first mentor as if it were yesterday. The relationship and trust that developed between Al and me were indelible, and though I would find other mentors over the years, none were as that first new teacher-mentor experience. I would become a mentor myself, and do my best to cultivate what Al and I had. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) would eventually offer grant monies for districts to create mentor programs, responding to the tragically high attrition rate in teaching. I would participate as a professional developer in many of the NYSED funded mentoring programs, and would come to find the most successful programs were those that focused on relationships, trust, and coaching. Programs that focused on finding the right mentor. A mentor skilled in his or her craft, and who cared deeply about students, colleagues, and learning. One who would become the trustworthy confidant a new teacher could lean on. Al was such a person.
The unorthodox teacher was many things to many people, but for one 14-year-old boy, the unorthodox teacher was a “cook”. Yup, clearly etched into the top of his wooden oak desk read the line, “Mr. Danna is a cook”. To be honest, the engraved declaration was not as pedestrian as his Earth Science teacher working as a cook. Rather, the boy had creatively proclaimed in bold black number 2 pencil stained wood etchings, “Mr. Danna is a cock”. It was only through thoughtful editing by a colleague who chiseled the second “c” to an “o”, that the unorthodox teacher transformed from sexual organ (cock) to someone who could make a good burger (cook).
Kids scrawl into wooden desks the darnedest things, particularly when they are forced to be with an adult they detest one hour each and every day of a dreadfully long school year. Micah was one of those angry struggling students during my first year of public school teaching. He saw me as part of a rigid and uncompromising institution, and I saw him as a pain in the “bass”. Truth is we earned each other’s disdain for a lack of understanding and trust. I had set an unrealistically high bar for him, and he rightfully put me in the same box he had put most of his teachers. We didn’t click. We didn’t understand where the other was coming from, and since I was the one in charge, he was forced to communicate in more subtle, creative ways.
During my two prior years at a small Catholic school, students called me “Dr. Detention” for the amount of after school detention I doled out on a daily basis. I had no tolerance for students not doing homework or goofing off in class, and “punished” any rule breakers with an hour after school cleaning “dishes” (lab ware) and completing assigned work. Detention with me was, in my humble opinion, a pretty good deal. St. Mary’s Academy students liked soaping up Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers, and other glassware while I graded papers and made small talk with them, and they appreciated leaving with their class work done. Micah didn’t see things that way, and detention for him was a bad thing. He and I would have a bumpy relationship for most of the year, and eventually I grew to realize how little I knew of the boy’s difficult home life. And with that realization, I stopped assigning Micah detention, and Micah begrudgingly played the game as best he could. I would instead make calls home to chat with Micah’s mother, a woman who was rarely available to take my calls. The unorthodox teacher would learn a lot those first few years about poverty’s impacts on children, and he would become much more sensitive to the burdens of poverty on children.