Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Public Eye

It is one of the oddest volunteer gigs I have ever taken on, but today, as I have for about eighteen years, I walked up to the park a half-block from my house, and served as a judge for our annual stone skipping competition. I am not kidding. Every once in a while some media outlet comes to watch-- here's a piece from Bill Geist of CBS Sunday Morning from several years ago:

You can find me somewhere in the background, wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt, because that's what I always wear for this event.

Today we had competitors from Philly, South Carolina, Canada, and other not-nearby spots. We have regulars who come, including the two guys included in the clip. Russ Byers is in the middle of a battle with esophageal cancer, and Kurt Steiner has since set a world record with 88 skips (there's video on youtube if you want to see it.

Some of the competitors and crowd today

I do it because it's fun, because it's super-conveniently located, and because it pouts me, a teacher, out in a public event. I did not, frankly, get asked because I'm a teacher, but because I'm a local newspaper columnist and sometimes folks invite me to get involved in things in hopes I'll write some nice words.

And you should know this about me-- I am hugely introverted. Being in anything like a public eye is supremely awkward for me (my wife shares this trait-- at our baby shower, we were fully prepared to curl up and disappear). I've made a certain amount of peace with it-- I love to play music and audiences tend to be involved-- but I'm never super comfortable seeking out an audience and saying, "Hey, pay attention to me."

But greater than that is my belief that teachers have got to get out there in the public eye. We cannot be seen only in school. We must be seen in our communities, preferably contributing to them in whatever ay suits our particular talents and opportunities.

We owe it to the communities that pay our wages. It matters when they see us out there spending that same money to support local businesses and community activities.

It strengthens our position as teachers. When our students see us a real people who live in the real world, and not some kind of wind-up maniquens who only exist within the school walls-- well, that increases the possibility that they will believe that what we say and do in the classroom has some connection to their lives. There is nothing like the shock and surprise of students who meet you in the grocery store (You eat food!!??) or out wearing regular non-work clothes (You wear jeans??!!), and it always changes the way they see us in the classroom.

It also earns us the traction to advocate for ourselves and our work. People have been saying terrible things about us for years. We can say, "That's not true," but it's never as effective as when the people who have met us, spent non-school time with us, seen us in the world, speak up to say, "I know her, and she's not like that."

Some of us are too shy or retiring to get our lights out from under those bushels. That is no longer good enough. We are the experts. We are the professionals. And we are the friends and neighbors in the community. We can't afford not to be vocal and visible about all that; there are too many people out there willing to say that we are just money-grubbing lazy grifters.

And while I know not everyone can live where she teaches, for reasons of money, family, and circumstances, I also know that I have met teachers who swear they would never, ever live where they might run into their students outside of school, and I this day and age, that attitude is indefensible. If you are unwilling to meet your students outside of school, you probably shouldn't be meting them inside school, either.  This is one of my objections to Teach for America style programs-- no community needs drive-by do-gooders who stick around barely long enough to learn a couple of street names.

I'm a small town guy, and that undoubtedly colors my perspective on this issue-- I know it's far more complex in large urban systems. But I don't believe that you can be the most effective teacher you're capable of being without being an active, visible part of your school's community. Even if it just means singing in a church choir or volunteering with a local organization or being sure to eat in a community restaurant at least once a week, or being part of the staff of a stone skipping competition.

1 comment:

  1. Peter, I love your blog and generally agree with everything you write here (and have made several comments here in the past) but I have to say that I find the use of the word "indefensible" to indicate some teachers prefer not to live where they work very...strong, perhaps a bit insulting, given that you just posted a piece on the issues introverted students face. (And yes, like you, I'm of the small town life). The fact is, some of us very introverted teachers (myself included) can become quite anxious--and it can be severely nerve-wracking--to deal with issues in a stream-of-consciousness fashion "Welp, I need to be 'on,' and I can't relax because a student may see me!" Or "Who is this former student talking to me?! Oh lord, I don't remember their name!" Or "Man, I'm in a hurry, and hey, look at that, I'm off the clock and this parent/student/community member wants to discuss their kid's grades or what have you (and doesn't know what an appointment is) and doesn't understand that I want to go home and watch the game because it's Sunday for crying out loud and I don't want be rude to them, and yet, if I tell them that's what I want to do, they may think I'm an uncaring teacher." Not to mention, for introverts, it's very, very exhausting to cope with people...even if we like these people.
    I'm also going to stand up for the younger teachers here, who may be under extra scrutiny because of their age, dating habits, etc. When I was 24, I went out with a young lady from the community I taught in. At the restaurant, there was a current student there that I didn't see. But boy, did he see me and boy did I hear it on Monday. Nothing inappropriate was said by the students, more some teasing and curiosity (who of course all found out about it...I can just imagine how it would be now with social media), but wow, we both had a beer! My date had a cigarette! Wow, my date was attractive! Just, NO. Sorry. I value my privacy too much to be scrutinized by my 16 year-old students, while I do nothing that, you know, isn't expected and normal of adults at that age.