Tales of Teaching 2003-2004

See also Kevin Sullivan on Teaching

By Paul E. Schindler, Jr.

August 11, 2003

I have a Job

Well, it happened. Just as my mother predicted, my failure to get the first job I applied for simply left me free to accept the job of my dreams. Well, almost. I will be teaching six periods a day of 8th grade social studies--U.S. History through World War I. I will be in the room across the hall from Mrs. S, my best friend and a veteran teacher of the same subject upon whom I can lean heavily as I get the ball rolling. I will be replacing a beloved teacher who has taken ill, which means it won't be easy. Plus, I wanted a half-time job and this is a full-time job. But at least, since I am teaching the same subject all day, it means just one prep. Of course, keeping six classes in synch will be a challenge in and of itself, but it's a challenge I think I am up to. We'll see as time goes on. My first day is Wednesday Aug. 27. Wish me luck! I have two weeks to prepare--which is actually MORE time than I expected.

I'm going to try and wait to have my nervous breakdown until Thanksgiving break so I have some time to recover from it. Just kidding. I think.

I know I can talk. Can I listen? Can I inspire? Can I assess fairly? These are the big questions. The world is full of mediocre teachers. If I can't be a great one, I'm not sure I want to be a teacher at all. Will I move some or all of my 180 students? Only time will tell.

If you have any materials or suggestions (including web sites, books, videos, plays, songs, posters and lesson plans) that will help make U.S. History through WWI accessible, send them along.

August 18, 2003


One of the reasons I got into teaching was friends who teach. Among them is Kent Peterman:

Congratulations! I'm thrilled and ecstatic. Welcome to the profession. You're now an official teacher type dude.

Of course you can talk and entertain and amuse. Vital skills in the profession. But you can also listen, guide, and inspire. One of my basic tenets of teaching is: sometimes you have to push, sometimes you have to pull, and sometimes you have to just get the hell out of the way. At any rate enjoy the ride.

There is nothing more wonderful, exciting, difficult, rewarding, frustrating, exhausting, and fun as teacher. Take a tip from this veteran...keep your social schedule very light for the first month or so. You will be more exhausted than you've ever been in your life.

I was a mentor to a second grade teacher whose husband is a middle school teacher. After the first week of school she told me that she was a rotten wife. I asked her why. She said that all of those years when she was in the corporate world and her husband was teaching she had no idea how exhausting the beginning of school was. You will do swell. Enjoy the ride. It's an "E" ticket.

Sept. 1, 2003

First Week Teaching

I am exhausted. I am baffled. I am confused, tired, scared and exhilarated. I don't know if I have the respect and love of my classes or the fear and loathing. I teach the same thing six periods a day and, despite my well-known love for repetition, I am not sure period 7 gets the same level of energy as period 1. I am sure they don't get the same level of spontaneity. On the other hand, all the rough edges have been polished off. I've made every possible mistake by the last period of the day, and I don't make them again at the end of the day.

Can I teach my students anything about US History? Too early to tell.

Sept. 8, 2003

Deliverance by Teaching

I'm almost like the man on the roof in the flood who prayed for delivery by god. While he was praying, a boat came, but he refused to get in. "God will deliver me." Then a helicopter came, but he declined a ride, saying, "God will deliver me." He was swept into the water and drowned. He asked St. Peter what happened. "We sent a boat and a helicopter, what more did you want?"

I had always fantasized I could work for the educational foundation established by the founders of my former employer. I never heard back from them. I though maybe a former supervisor of mine would pay me to gather audio of the 2002 gubernatorial race for a national audience. Didn't happen. I thought I'd be a journalism lecturer at USC. Never got called. I believed I might have a shot at being a liberal talk show host on the newly forming liberal talk network. No one called back. Then a local middle school where I had many friends and much substituting experience called and asked me to teach full time. I really only wanted to teach half time. But unlike the man praying on the roof, I recognized deliverance and opportunity when they knocked. Eight days of teaching later, I've had some frightening moments, thousands of dull ones, and a few wonderful ones--parents have already told me their students are enjoying the class. That warms me. If I finish the year beloved and respected, that's nice too. But can I teach? Will they choose to learn? Vicki scoffs when I ask these questions, but I think they're still open.

Paul Makes The NY Times, Again

August 31, 2003
It's Back to School, to Become a Teacher

Blame the weak job market. Or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Or the corporate accounting scandals that have left some workers disillusioned. Whatever the reason, as students head back to the classroom for the new school year, so are many executives who are aiming to become public school teachers, according to education experts and administrators of teacher training programs. ... Others are engineers who are accepting early-retirement buyouts from their companies. "Because jobs are not as readily available, people are coming to us and saying, 'Now I might as well do what I really wanted to do all along,' " she said.

That is what Paul Schindler, of Orinda, Calif., said he remembered feeling two years ago, after he was laid off as an editor at a publishing company where he had been working for more than 22 years. Mr. Schindler had always fancied himself a schoolteacher. So, with his 49th birthday approaching, he enrolled in an accelerated teacher certification program at Chapman University in Concord, Calif. He is now interviewing for English and history teaching positions in the Bay Area.

"I knew that if I ever was going to teach, this was the moment," said Mr. Schindler, the former editor in chief at CMP Media, a technology publisher.

Funny Teaching Stories (First in a series)

So, there's this stuff they teach you in education school. Like including an open invitation to parents to come by and visit your classroom, any time they like, without an appointment. I made that offer. I had a parent come by the next day. I was telling the other teachers about it. They were appalled. Mrs. S, my friend and mentor, told me to never do that again, and advised me, "The next time you think of doing something you learned in Ed school, check with me first." Which is also what my other master teacher (also a Mrs. S) told me a long time ago.

There's another idea I'm using; some books call it the bell-ringer. You post a list of things you want your students to do as soon as they enter the classroom, without being told. They are supposed to look at the board and do what it says. It gets things going right away. At first I called it "Do Me First." After two days, I noticed some boys chuckling in fifth period. That's when I remembered that you have to set your double-entendre filter very low when you are teaching 8th grade boys. If it can be taken as smutty, it will be taken as smutty. Smut, as we know, is in the mind of the beholder. There's lots of room in there at age 13.

The section of my whiteboard is now called "Before the Bell" or "B4 The Bell." Eventually, it will just be BTB.

Sept. 15, 2003

One Tired Teacher

As a matter of fact, the 8th graders ARE running me ragged. Or, probably, to be more precise, I am running myself ragged. I have to learn to relax. I had back spasms today after school--for the first time since my second week of student teaching. This too will pass.

So here's the problem. I have a job in which the costs are obvious, physical and short-term--exhaustion, insomnia, anxiety. Meanwhile, the benefits are subtle, psychological and long-term--doing some good in the world, helping young people learn, introducing them to history. How does one balance this? How do you push through the short-term so you can enjoy the long-term? After a few conversations with my mother, I am fairly certain these never balance. The dailyness of the job always outweighs the benefits. You just do what you have to.

One recurring thought I've had this week; I have to have some sort of job. The odds of my getting a work-at-home, set-my-own-hours journalism job again are zero. Less than zero. So, realistically, would I feel better and derive more satisfaction if I was selling stocks or real estate, or working on the copy desk of the local daily? I know for sure that in any of those jobs, I'd be doing less good for the world. I want to do good. Sometimes, doing good involves personal pain and sacrifice.

And yet, and yet... Vicki asked me earlier this week to tone down the griping. I was apparently coming home every day talking about my aches and pains and fears. I stopped talking about them--and some of them stopped. Boy howdy, isn't life a lot about your attitude? Everyone has commented on how much more positive I seem. It's really like the old Wizard of Id cartoon, "How are things?" "Can't complain." "So, things are good?" "No. It's illegal to complain."

A quick, final, anonymous note: both of my master teachers have stayed in touch and provided excellent advice on coping, as well as copious advice (and lesson plans) for teaching.

Sept. 22, 2003

Face Control

My mother could, famously, control her high school students with a single raised eyebrow. Alas, that is a recessive trait, and I did not inherit the ability to raise one eyebrow without raising the other, although I may be a carrier.

In the meantime, however, I am working on what my fellow teacher, Mrs. S., calls "the look." It's an "I mean business" scowl that will usually bring the class to attention.

I had hoped to leave my seating assignments in place until Oct. 1, but there was too much wrong with where students are sitting (what an art and science that turns out to be). So, despite my desire to leave people in place to help me learn their names, I am moving everyone around today. And this time, I am only printing a few copies of the seating chart, because I know there will be adjustments. Of course, requests for adjustment are like prayers. All of them are answered; some of them are answered "no."

Nov. 10, 2003

Sore muscles, Four Day Weekend

My back is so sore I'm afraid it's going to spasm at any minute. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I'd done to injure it so badly, until several of my fellow teachers pointed out it was probably as much psychological (stress) as physical. That hadn't occurred to me.

I've gotten a few notes asking me to write more about teaching. Apparently, I'm pretty popular with the students. When I went with Vicki to the Matrix at 7pm Friday, the theater was filled with my students. Except for one wise guy who called me "Paul," most of them smiled, waved and said, "Hi Mr. Schindler." I take that as a compliment.

But in general, I'm not sure how to take my "popularity." This isn't a popularity contest. I don't mind being liked--I prefer it to the opposite--but I think the jury is still out on the important part of my job--am I helping the students learn? In part my popularity may be due to the fact that I massively overdid the extra credit first quarter. As a result, my students earned far more A+ grades than makes any sense. We'll see how things look at the semester.

I am more relaxed now, and in my district, this is a four-day weekend; we don't have to go back to school until Wednesday. Which means a three-day week, a regular week, then a week off for Thanksgiving, back for three weeks, then two weeks off for Christmas. This is one of my favorite times of the year. I need the time away, for sure.

I am still suffering from the fact that the costs of teaching are all short-term and the benefits are all long term. Given the perfectly natural human tendency to overvalue the immediate and undervalue the future, it is hard for me to keep all this in perspective.

If I could just get a good night's sleep and get my back to stop hurting...

Nov. 24, 2003

Teaching Update

Many of you have asked how teaching is going; I wrote out this description for a college friend of mine and decided to share it with all of you:

Teaching is the hardest thing I have ever done. I am constantly tired, constantly sore and frequently observed and judged. I was none of these things at any point in my journalism career... well, at least not in the last 25 years of it. I have idiot paperwork to do for the State of California. Thank goodness my school is a reasonable and peaceful place.

My former master teacher and friend of 25 years teaches across the hall and shares lesson plans and advice. I have only one prep per day since I teach the same thing to the same grade six times each day, and all I can say is thank God for that. My first year is so unlike hers, in which she had three preps, no help, and a teacher who actively undermined her. I am such a lucky guy. Possibly the world's luckiest.

Dec. 15, 2003

Sick and Tired, Yet Exhilarated

What a complainer! But really, there has been an outbreak of flu in California, and, for me, at least, the best way to fight it has been doubling up on my already high vitamin C and getting a lot more rest. My nutritionist told me last weekend that five hours a night sleep and an occasional one-hour nap was not cutting the mustard.

Then on Monday and Tuesday I was feeling faint and feverish. Tuesday, I came home, went to bed at 3:30 and slept for three hours. Then after two hours awake, I slept through until 5:30 the next morning. I did the same thing Thursday (Monday and Wednesday I have band rehearsals). I made it through the entire week! I may not have been at my best; in fact, on one or two occasions I was tired and cranky and interacted with my students in ways that did not meet my own standards. But no one is dead, no lawsuits have been or can be filed, and, in fact, I had a positive observation by my principal, who told me it is a joy to watch me teach. Gosh, I hope the students feel the same way!

Sleeping any time I am not in a classroom has made me a bit of a dull fellow, especially as Vicki continues to work nights (although she joined me in the sleep-a-thon Tuesday), but I always knew the first year of teaching would be difficult. Never in my life have I looked forward to a two-week vacation more than I am looking forward to winter break at my middle school this year.

There's still that delayed gratification thing. Right now, what I mostly see is hard work and a few unhappy students complaining. I know that, somewhere down the line, I will find I have lit the fire I am hoping to light in a student or two, but the wait is certain the be a long one. Still, I need to repeat my mantra--I know I am doing more good for the world in a classroom (even as a first-year teacher) than I ever was as a computer journalist (even with 30 years experience). I believe in public service--have my whole life. I haven't really put my money where my mouth is since I worked for Ron Pelosi's campaign in San Francisco in 1976. I am exhilarated to be back in public service. It's just that, sometimes, it is hard to remember I am exhilarated when I am so tired and everything hurts so much every day.

An insight I have had before re-occurred to me as I wrote this. I cannot allow my satisfaction to be dependent on the feelings and opinions of 13-year-olds. I need to learn to be satisfied with a job well done by my own standards, and a feeling of accomplishment from knowing I am doing good, important work well. No more bylines. No more bonuses. Just the hope of occasional joy and insight, either on my part or the part of the students. If I can bring some joy into the room, their lives and my life, all the better. But we're on a journey, and it will be sad if we can't enjoy the process as well as the destination.

Jan. 19, 2004

Gradually Getting Back Into It

Second week back after the lovely, loonnngg winter break, and I am slowly readjusting.

I know every first year teacher has it tough, and nearly all of them are convinced they are uniquely snowed under. But I claim special status: from April 1979 to October 2001, I worked at home as a full-time journalist. I set my own hours, got up when I wanted to, napped when I needed to, and worked until the job was done, five, six or seven days a week. It was great, of course. I never missed a breakfast or dinner with my family (except during relatively rare business trips), I never missed a school play, or a basketball game, or a band concert. I coached both my daughters' basketball teams (which would come as a real surprise to anyone who played Gra-Y with me in Portland, Oregon back in the day).

In short, I haven't had an office job with regular hours in 25 years. It takes some getting used to, the fact that I have to be there by 7:30 (7:15 is better, 7:44:59 is absolutely mandatory--that's when the bell rings) and can't leave, by contract, until 3, with 40 minutes for lunch. Not when I'm hungry, but from 12:07 to 12:47. And I have to eat it on campus. That's not a rule, just good sense when you have a class right after lunch.

Now for many of you, this little soliloquy will provoke a huge, yawning, so-what. That's your life I'm describing. And that's fine, you're used to it. I'm not. And, frankly, it takes some getting used to. Add that to the normal tension and pressure of being a first year teacher, combine it with the fact that I'm undergoing a total mid-life career change (and empty nesting at the same time), and you can see where I might be... oh, how shall I put it.... a little frazzled.

January 26, 2004


So I was standing in the kitchen with Vicki, my wife of 24 years, Monday night, telling her what a great week it was going to be. "We got Monday off, Friday is a minimum day, so we're out at noon and we have next Monday off for in-service training."

"Wow," she said. "Do you spend all your time looking forward to your time off? What's that say about your attitude towards your job? Are you enjoying it at all?"

She had raised one of the most fundamental questions of all, boiled down by the Buddhists, among others, as the maxim "enjoy the journey as well as the destination."

I managed that in child-rearing, after being told by everyone whose opinion I respected that I should never spend my time yearning for the next stage of childhood, but rather enjoying each stage for what it offered. I am sure someone, at some point, offered me the same advice about teaching. I know my mother, for example, tried to make it clear to me that every day in the classroom was not going to be joyful and fulfilling. Then she reminded me that every day as a journalist was not joyful and fulfilling. It is hard to remember that now, three years after I left that field. She gave me, and I have tried to internalize, the message that teaching is one of those delayed gratification deals that we middle-class people are supposed to excel at: do the hard work now, make the tough choices, eat your spinach, and you'll get your payoff later. I know this is true. The hard work I did in high school and college, the experiences I sacrificed as a young man, improved the quality of my entire life a hundred-fold.

But when I look back on my three decades as a journalist, I do strongly remember waking up every day looking forward to doing my job. At least, that's what I thought I was feeling. Maybe I was waking up every day looking forward to a job that seldom involved leaving the house, and involved interacting with other people mostly by telephone, and long hours before a computer screen writing. I enjoyed the journey. Was that because the destination (the byline) was so close in--making the journey so short? Is journalism, as I have always suspected, a field for people with arrested development who require instant (byline, story published) gratification? Is teaching a more mature profession?

As I noted here a few weeks ago, since I have to do something, and can't, at the moment, imagine doing anything else, what are my alternatives? Does that mean dragging myself through every day, pining for the weekend, until spring when I can start pining for the summer and dreading the fall? Is that a life?

Mistake me not. I don't hate what I am doing. Yes, some of my students are more troublesome than others, and some are simply inert. But in the vast middle, they are engaged, and looking to me every day to provide them infotainment--information delivered in an entertaining way. I do enjoy that energy, and I try to fulfill their needs. It is good work. It is important work. It is God's work. It needs to be done by people of intelligence and good will--in short, by people like me. Does it need to be done by me? That is the question I am struggling with. I think the answer is probably yes.

Which leads to the other question I am struggling with; how can I enjoy the journey as well as the destination? I remember last fall, when I came home every day complaining, and Vicki asked me to stop. I stopped, and then suddenly I didn't feel like complaining any more. The wish became parent of the behavior. By the same token, perhaps if I approach each day looking for the joy and not the drudgery, I can make the time I spend with my students more enjoyable for me--and perhaps for them as well. It may be as simple as "lightening up." As my colleague likes to say, "This isn't brain surgery, and you're unlikely to kill any of them no matter what you do." Or it may involve no change in teaching style at all, simply an internal attitude adjustment that then becomes reflected in my behavior.

Feb. 9, 2004

To Be Or Not To Be... Sick

Turns out there's another aspect of teaching--any year, not just your first year--that is highly controversial: whether to take a sick day if you can still stand up without falling over. There's a teacher at my school with 66 accumulated sick days. My best friend at school, a woman I've known for decades, toughs it out. If her voice is gone, she has a quiet day. I was hoping, by asking several teachers, to reach a consensus. There was no consensus. It is clear to me that leaving my class in the hands of a substitute for a day basically costs me a day. I was going to show the Thomas Jefferson movie anyway, and now my students have seen it and I haven't. Surely, I could have stood (or sat) in front of the class for six periods and toughed it out. But I'm coughing up brown phlegm, I'm exhausted, and I don't feel mentally clear. That' can't be good.

I'm not, as a rule, a whiner. In 30 years as a journalist, I missed less than a week of work because of illness. I missed two days in grade school, one week in high school, two days in college (I skipped a lot of classes, but not because I was ill).

In the end, I went with an approach that appeals to me, my BTSA advisor and my former-teacher mother: if you don't take the time off, the illness will only drag out. It may not be true, but that's the way I feel. In fact, I went to a homeopath, who gave me Echinacea, some acupuncture and a homeopathic remedy. I skipped band so I could go to bed at 9 Wednesday, and tried to run my classes for a day

March 15, 2004

Teaching Update

I haven't had much to say lately about the most important new thing in my life, my job as a teacher. The joy quotient remains low and the stress quotient remains high, which, I have been told, is typical for a first year teacher.

Harry Wong, a seminar-giving super-teacher defines the phases of teaching as Fantasy, Survival, Mastery, and Impact. Fantasy was where I was before I started, survival is where I am now. I am told I can reach mastery if I stick with it a year or two. That will be hard, especially if I keep gaining weight instead of losing it.

Repeat after me: it isn't brain surgery, and I haven't permanently damaged anyone yet. It is a low standard, but I have met it.

March 22, 2004

Teaching Aphorisms

Words to live by (thank you Peggy Coquet)

He who opens a school door, closes a prison. -Victor Hugo, poet, novelist,
and dramatist (1802-1885)

And an accurate description of teaching from Kevin Sullivan:

We used to say,
"in a teacher's first year, the teacher learns"
"in a teacher's second year, the student learns"

And the cynical added
"after that no one learns"

Let me add one of couple of my own: teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. It's a baseball season, not a football season. It's a ground game, not a passing game--you grind out the yardage inch by inch on the way to the goal line. Don't swing for the fences every day--take a single if you can hit one.

April 12, 2004

Stories of Teaching

From my friend and classmate Kevin Sullivan

Teaching is a tough job where the rewards come from directions that are difficult to anticipate. I have one particular recollection on how emotionally draining public school teaching is. Having accomplished what I wanted in teaching I left the field after five years in the classroom. My transition job was being a teacher in a cad/cam computer company. The new job had its own challenge in that it meant learning a new field of study quickly, creating a curriculum, learning what these state of the art computers could do, figuring out how they were applied in industry solutions, and actually teaching a series of five day classes to computer programmers from customer companies.

I had been working non-stop and under intense pressure for several months when my manager came to me and told me I had to schedule my two weeks vacation. On initially taking the job, I had thought two weeks was a sorry step-down from my previous school calendar. My reply to the manager was, "Vacation? Now? Why? I'm not tired!"

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