Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dr. Overworked or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Stress

I'm so busy.  Too busy.  I know we all feel that way, so I'm not trying to generate any pity.  In the past week, I've seen two young teachers in tears over stress at work.  I don't know why anyone would want to go into the profession anymore.  There are no incentives.  We have no support.  We're often vilified, even when we make decisions in the best interests of our students (like alerting authorities about a possible bomb threat).

This post is for me.  I need to write out everything I'm doing so when my head catches fire, I'll have an explanation.  Be warned; it's going to be very long.  If you don't make it all the way through, I'll understand and still love you.

Before I start my list; did you know that my school district wants to set up a page that defines the acronyms for all the initiatives they've implemented in recent years?  Do you realize how fucking scary that is?  There are so many initiatives that we now need a glossary.  When we've reached that point, I think we call can agree that the world has gone to ice (sorry Snow Miser - I've always been your brother's biggest fan).

By the way, I don't need any initiatives.  Not a single one.  This is the start of my 25th year as an educator.  Nothing the administration has provided me at any level wherever I've worked has ever helped me in any way be a better school teacher.  All I need are students and a classroom.  Why is that so hard for folks to figure out?  It's not always about the lack of funding.

I teach eight sections of theatre at the high school (four acting; four tech theatre classes) and creative writing.  These are fun.  I love being with the kids.  Their energy still inspires me after all these years.  But I hate that I now have to write lesson plans for every class using a district-mandated template.  The state is also implementing a merit pay program.  Fuck you.  That's all I can say to that.  What makes anyone think putting teachers in competition with one another will improve standardized test scores?   Do you see the smoke rising from my ears?   You want the scores to increase?  Teach parents how to parent.  Make them go through professional development.  Then maybe their kids will learn to read and write before they start school like mine did.  And there's the newly modified evaluation instrument for art teachers.  I now need to record and upload student performances as proof that they're learning what I'm teaching.  Wonderful.  We can't even get a strong enough wi-fi signal for gmail in our building.  Not to mention we've been given no assessment tool and have no evaluation process in place.  They're making it up as they go along.  What else should we expect from politicians?

Let me stop being so fucking negative.  This isn't supposed to be a rant.  I'm just making a list of everything I do so I can prioritize.

Deep breaths, Tommy.  Ease the burn.  A slow roast will cook you just the same.  Even better, perhaps.

I teach two sections of expository writing at the college.  I love this job.  I'll do anything my department chair asks.  She's wonderful.  I taught her daughter (who is now a high school drama teacher and also wonderful).

I produce the after-school drama program at the high school.  We are running four plays in repertory over consecutive weekends starting in early November.  We will produce a spring musical.  This tires me out but engages my creative desire.

I sponsor the drama club and Improv team.  Minimal work here.  The students run things, as well they should.  Both highly entertaining.

I supervise a study hall.  Always a solid, quiet place to work for my students and me; although, I'd rather have them in my theatre classes.  But I've given up that fight.

Choose your battles, Drago.  Choose them wisely.

I'm the Arts Department Chair.  I work with an amazing department.  They make this job very easy.

I've been selected as the Theatre PLC Leader (that's Professional Learning Community Leader - your first acronym; aren't you thrilled?) for our district.  I'm trying to get out of this.  I was volunteered.

I'm organizing my drama program's participation in the North Carolina Theatre Festival this fall.  We've won awards in the past.  I think this group has the potential to give us more.

I'm organizing a New York City trip for my advanced acting classes in the spring.  What's not to like here?  New York is my hometown.  I'd live there if I could afford to.  At least, I'll squeeze in John's Pizzeria and Rocco's Pastry Shop a couple of times, both on Bleecker Street.

I'm covering for the vacant theatre manager position at our high school.  Not fun.  Lots of stress.  This deserves a post all on its own, but I won't go there.  Hopefully will be resolved soon.

I'm revising my third novel and writing two short stories for submission into a local magazine.  Keeps my brain sharp.  And as Stephen King once wrote, "Keeps the gators fed."  Fellow horror writers should get that reference.

I'm adjudicating two separate categories for a professional writing competition.  So cool.  But I won't pick titles just because everyone says they're good.  I take Poe's stance on criticism.  I'm a bitch.

I'm performing in a musical production for a local community theatre this fall.  This is a blast.  I have a small part but love the work.  My son is in the show.  He sings and dances.  His dancing is hilarious (not on purpose).  He makes me smile.

I'm the Board Pesident for (a currently inactive) local community theatre.  This makes me sad.  My wife and I worked so hard to build this program, but we're defunct now because we couldn't generate consistent support from the locals.  A shame, really.

In addition to all those jobs, I try my best to be a loving husband, responsible father, respectful son, and supportive brother.  Still no friends, though.  I keep telling myself I don't have the time.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Where are you, New York?

We remember tragedies in great detail.  It's unfortunate.  I have a clearer image in my mind of those fucking planes than I do of my daughter taking her first steps.

I cry for the innocent people who lost their lives that day.  And for our fallen heroes.  The firefighters, the police officers, the paramedics, the pilots and flight crews, for anyone who did anything to help another human being on a day when humanity stopped being humanity.  The day the sirens wailed, and the dust fell, and the people screamed, and the buildings crashed, and the smoke billowed, and oh my God, look at those lost faces on TV, those beautiful child-like faces, covered in ash and scampering across the Brooklyn Bridge.  My home, the streets my parents ruled as teenagers, the city my grandparents and immigrant great-grandparents built.  Broadway.  The Harlem Globetrotters at Madison Square Garden.  Central Park.  The F Train.  Staten Island Little League.  The Mets, the Jets (the fucking jets), the Giants, the Yankees.  Babe Ruth.  The rides at Coney Island.  With my big brother watching me because that's what big brothers do.  They watch your back.  But who had our backs then?  Who protected us when the lights went out?  When the sun finally set?  Where's my daddy?  I want my daddy.  Where are you, New York?  Fucking New York.  I love you.

For the countless schoolteachers, like me, locked in classrooms with students who wanted answers but were given none.

That fall, I started teaching English at the local high school.  I'd spent the previous year cursing fate at the neighboring middle school.  I knocked on the principal's door that summer and inquired about starting up an after-school theatre program.  I loved that woman.  What a champion of women's rights!  To my knowledge, the first female principal in the state of Tennessee (long before my time as an educator and prior to our relocation to North Carolina).  She accepted my offer (I told her I'd kindly repay the $500 she put up for my production of Frankenstein out of ticket sales) and I spent most of the first month of school cleaning out backstage.  The chorus teacher, a crotchety woman working on her doctorate, found me in the bowels of the auditorium (where theatre guys spend all their waking hours, it seems) and told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  I'd heard stories of the prop that hit the Empire State Building in the 1940s or whenever, so I didn't think much of it.  I continued shifting scenery and organizing props until first period ended.  Then, I turned on the classroom TV, shocked into truth with the rest of our nation.

We cried and clung to one another but remained strong for the children entrusted to our custody.  That's what teachers do, and mine is ultimately a teacher's story, after all.

The only thing I can compare it to is when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and my high school calculus teacher held our hands as we watched events unfold on live TV.  That's probably the first time I ever realized how important the surrogate relationship is for teachers.  We answer the call as best we can, pinned on our backs with our hearts in the dirt.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Does It Take To Be A Good Actor?


A better topic for this post might be, "How many words in this title should have the first letter capitalized?"  I capitalized every one just to cover my bases.  Wouldn't want the alphabet pissed off at me.  I swear by my letters.

Last night, my wife and I sat in front of a rerun of The Big Bang Theory (this after we each had a long day at work and then spent the evening at rehearsal (me)/doing everything that it takes to make our home the perfect home that it is (my wife - I love her!)).  Can you embed parentheses?  I just did.  Similar concerns here about discriminating against punctuation marks, I guess.  See previous paragraph re: letters.

I relaxed in my recliner half-asleep, keeping my eye on the Mets via ESPN online (I love my Kindle for everything but reading books).  They won.  If they make the playoffs, I do believe my son and I will be New York bound.  My wife scrolled through her phone and found some stupid rate your teacher website.  I say stupid because only two kinds of people go on those sites.  Those who love you and those who hate you.  You can't get an honest read from the masses.  My marks aren't stellar (naturally).  They're strikingly average (go figure).  Most of the shit comes from about 8-10 years ago after I transferred from a school where the students worshiped me (but I got paid shit) to a school where the students rarely appreciate me (but I get paid well - yes, even as a teacher).  You give and take in the educating business.  Well, actually you just give.

Anyhoo, the one-star ratings that offer no comments don't help.  Pure assholes, really.  But the one with responses do, actually.  Purely for entertainment.  I especially enjoyed the one about my not knowing anything about acting.  Or how I frequently break my own rules when I perform scenes.

I love when students think they know more than their teachers.  Makes me wonder how miserable their parents must be raising them.  I'm proud my children respect their parents and teachers because they understand their worth.  We've already lived more and experienced some shit.  They can learn from us.  This is not rocket science.

Have I answered the question I posted?  I gave you a word, didn't I?  I didn't say go fuck yourself.  You figure it out.  When you find the truth, let me know.  I'll probably catch you on a Broadway stage while I'm in New York cheering my beloved Mets to a World Series victory (or on the big screen if you can get endorsed by Entertainment Weekly - that's the ticket to Hollywood).

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

On Your Mark, Get Set, Teach!

The school year started abruptly last week, but I find myself enjoying my return to the classroom for what begins my 25th year as an educator (23rd full-time teaching).  How in the world can the time have passed so quickly?  Seems like yesterday that I graduated from college and had my whole life ahead of me.  Now, I have my own child in one of my classes!  And another knocking on the door.  Crazy.  But I wouldn't trade any of it.

We all know teachers get shit on regularly.  We're the fucking toilet bowls of society.  But I've made a promise to myself (and to my wife and children) that I would stay positive this year.  So, despite the myriad of initiatives (which aren't new - only a rehash of what we've already been made to do a hundred times over), the lack of funding, the feeble pay and horrible benefits, the administrative indecisiveness and kowtowing, I plan to kick some serious ass in the classroom this year and enjoy myself along the way.

How?  It all starts with the kids.  They are why I became a teacher, and why I still push myself every year to keep on chooglin.  I love their spirit, their innocence, their smiles, their individual journeys.  Do I have the same energy I had when I first started out?  Not even close.  Am I all-knowing now that I have all these years of experience?  Not a chance.  One of the best things about being a teacher is that you're always learning.  You have to love school.  You get high off clean notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils.

Do I make mistakes?  You bet your ass.  I'm not perfect.  But I still have the Drago factor (as an apt pupil put it many years ago when I reluctantly said goodbye).  If you know me, you know how passionate I am.  How committed I am to fairness and honesty.  How genuine (yes, I like to say shit and fuck and balls a lot).

If you've had me as a teacher, you should get that.  That's what I hope I'm remembered for.  Forget all the acting I've done and characters I've played, I never wear a mask.  Above all, that's what I want my students to learn from me.  Be yourself.  Don't be ashamed or afraid of who you are.  Life is too short to be an image.

Thank you to all the teachers who shaped me into who I am today, especially Mr. Martin, Mr. Ferrell, Mr. Rogers, Dr. Campbell, Dr. Farness, and Dr. Woodman.  I carry the torch for everything you believed and inspired.  You are important to your students.  You make the world a better place.