Chapter Eleven / Country School
In 1981, after the confidence building administrative position was pulled from underneath, I sought temporary employment while the next job search began. Remaining in my area of academic training, I began substitute teaching in the Sioux Falls School System. It was difficult to enter a classroom that was not my own when several months earlier I was in a position of leadership for an entire school. But, "God's Got This," ran through my soul as I attempted my best effort in each classroom. It became a task of making a difference in a daily unfamiliar setting.
This was not my comfort zone. The need for approval and acceptance was a strong force which controlled my entire day. "What if the principal walks in and the class is noisy? What if a teacher walks by and hears disorder?" The constant obsession over "what if" moments ruled my actions in the class. I quickly developed tactics to bring the students to a frozen moment of silence if a "what if" ever occurred.
I began the day in each new classroom by introducing myself as one who also performs illusions. I would describe them as visual object lessons. Each has a message for the heart while giving a fun puzzle to the eye and mind. I would hold a book in one hand with fingers in front. Then the entire hand would be open with the book somehow "stuck" in the palm. When I removed the book the students would clearly see no tape, glue, or any item was used to keep the book solidly stuck to my open hand. The message . . . "Education will never let you down." Now, I had them.
"Show us another one!" someone would shout.
I couldn't have any "shout outs." I wanted students to quietly raise their hands before speaking. "Hmmm," I would comment. "I heard something, but couldn't make out the words. For some reason, I am only able to hear someone if their hand is up."
Hands would then go up from the front to the back waiting for me to call on them. "I'll tell you this," I would say. "At the end of the day I'll show you how I did that. But, during this day, I have other puzzles to share with you. Sometimes, I will need an assistant. If you want to help during this time, you will need to fold your hands, sit very still and put a huge smile on your face." I would demonstrate with the goofiest smile I could form. Laughs would follow.
After a lesson, if we had several moments, I would say, "I need a helper." Students smiled, sat up and froze with their hands folded. I would select a helper to do the trick with a message relating to the lesson we had just completed. After several opportunities for selecting helpers, I was always ready to have the class "freeze" in a "what if" situation. We'd be working on a lesson or possibly the children may have been all over the room with reading partners. Even acceptable noise was too much in a "what if." If a teacher walked in or the principal entered to check how the day was going, I would immediately say, "I need a helper." Instantly, all the students would get in their desks, smile, and fold their hands. Then I would "notice" the teacher or principal and say, "Hello."
"How are things going?" the principal might ask.
"This is a great class. We're having a fantastic day," I would say with a thumbs up to the class.
"I can see that," the principal might add who also had a big smile wondering how it was possible the class was so attentive at this unexpected moment of inspection.
It worked every time.
Even though the substitute teaching "gig" was dependable and a good source of income, I wanted my own class. It was a goal to secure a position in Sioux Falls. Since my subbing was successful, and the principals of various schools had an opportunity to form an opinion of my merit, I was confident I would be hired in the new school year. That was not going to happen.
Mid year I heard of an opening at Tri-Valley School. Fifth and sixth grade social studies was experiencing issues with the current teacher not being able to manage the classroom. She was quitting before the year was over. Even though social studies was not an immense interest, this would be my own class. I decided to go for an interview.
The school building was in Crooks, SD. It was a 30 minute commute. I was familiar with schools like this which were depicted in several movies. The scene opens on a dark night with a three story brick school house containing mysterious frights within. "Why would anyone willingly step foot in such a place?" I would wonder while watching the film from my safe spot with a bag of popcorn. Without a feeling of safety and leaving all comfort food behind, I stepped in and found my way up the stairs to visit with Dr. Herring.
The sign above the door read, "Superintendent."
"Hello, Dr. Herring," I said walking in.
"You must be Steve Treague. Have a seat," he gestured, while instructing a student he was visiting with, to head back to class. He asked the student to close the door.
"I've looked over your resume and have a few questions for you. First, I was wondering if you realized the position was for a social studies teacher?"
"Yes, I was aware of that," I responded.
"Um, hm. Well, in looking at your transcript from Sioux Falls College, I can see this was not your strongest subject. Can you explain why you received a 'D' in history, and want to teach this subject at Tri-Valley?"
Right then and there I knew I was not getting this job. I immediately felt relaxed, because I had nothing to lose. And then came my answer.
"I have never enjoyed that subject," I said. "It has always been filled with names and dates. I don't have a fantastic memory, so remembering lists of names and dates was not a possibility for me no matter how much I studied them. I also thought history should be more about the stories of struggle, accomplishment with persistence, people who, against all odds, still made a difference, and learning from positive experiences while avoiding choices that were not effective. It's literature. It's the stories of people's lives. But I have never had a teacher present it that way."
"Okay," Dr. Herring commented while leaning a little closer. "How would you teach it?"
"I come from an art and theater background. Stories could be acted out. The feelings and personalities of the characters would be more important than the date in which they happened. Projects could be made of pioneer and Indian homes. Dioramas could show specific historical moments. We would have open discussions of what was right and wrong with certain historical decisions. Were decisions based on heart or greed? It would come to life. It would not be about memorizing facts out of a book."
"Interesting," was his only response. After asking a few more common interview questions, I was thanked and told a decision would be made within the week. Dr. Herring offered a comment of consolation in that many had interviewed for the job.
"How did the interview go?" Faith asked when I returned home.
"I'm sure I didn't get it," I said. "He noticed the 'D' in history on my transcript and asked about it."
"What did you say?" she wondered.
I told her my response and she tossed a few encouragements my way. "You never know," she said.
I most definitely knew the job would not be mine. But, later in the week, I got a call.
"We'd like you to come and be our next social studies teacher," said Dr. Herring.
It was unimaginable. How could I have nabbed this job?
Dr. Herring explained my answer was exactly what these students needed. They had been "in the book" for the entire year with no enthusiasm or interest in the subject. A new method was needed and I was the only person interviewed that offered a "bring it to life" approach. Subbing was over and I had my own classroom again.
It wasn't easy. The students were accustomed to talking back, being silly, not paying attention, and some were disrespectful. I attempted my "need a helper" tactic, but that wasn't going to work for the rest of the year. I would have to gain their respect and attention one day at a time with interesting and engaging classes. Many came on board with the projects, but there were a few who didn't want to do any work outside the classroom. Some enjoyed the open discussions with several taking advantage gaining attention with silly remarks. I found taking a student away from the eyes of the class helped in gaining their cooperation.
"Matt," I would say. "Step out here with me a minute"
"Oh, Matt. Oh, oh. What did you do?" a classmate might snicker.
I would ignore it. Matt was my intention at the moment. In the hallway I would say, "Matt, do you know why you're out here?" They always do.
"Yeah," Matt would reply. "I'm not paying attention."
His power was immediately diffused when his friends weren't able to smile and fuel the fire.
"Okay," I'd add. "Are we good?"
"That's it?" Matt would ask not believing he wasn't going to the office.
"That's it. I just need you to be a positive leader. Can you do that for me?"
"I suppose," was his response. And most of the time, he would settle down and not give "face time" to his friends. The Bible says, "A quiet answer turns away wrath." Indeed it does.
I had a successful year. I enjoyed the opportunity to take students who were totally disinterested in history and help them see the mystery, drama, comedy, and fun to be found with the stories of the past.
But what about those bulletin boards? I noticed the other classrooms were totally void on anything on the walls. I asked Dr. Herring if there was a reason nothing was seen as a decoration, a statement of what was being learned, or any type of anything on the walls in the rooms.
"It's just not something the other teachers have done," he answered. "There's no rule against it. The art teacher has some supplies if you want to have a go at it."
I did have a go at it. I put student work up on the wall. Names of historical characters were connected with yarn to their contributions. "This Week's Current Event & Questions" was proudly displayed. A few teachers wondered what I was doing and why. I said it made the room a little more exciting and interesting. Was there a "teacher's agreement" to not bother with wall enhancements? I never knew if all the other teachers made such a commitment to each other. But I did see a few more items on the walls in other classrooms. Week by week, more things went up in their rooms. By the end of the year all the rooms were greatly, or at least minimally decorated. My intention was not to change the "unspoken policy," but the fact that I did made me smile.
I enjoyed the challenge of social studies, but I grabbed the English position the moment it became available. My classroom was now downstairs. I requested a stage be built toward the back of the room. Not only did we learn grammar , but our creative writing resulted in each student creating a book. Not a 300 page novel. But a book with a cover, synopsis of the author, a dedication, an interesting story all bound together to keep for life. I'm not sure how many students still have their books from my class, but it was an end result that made sense from learning the skills of English.
The stage brought a realism to one of my favorite activities: the demonstration speech. I would use the backdrop curtains from our VBS and camp shows to give a theatrical appearance. I even filmed the speeches to compile in a video with copies made available to the parents, grandparents, friends, and students. Some of these videos in VHS format may still be around today.
I'll never forget the student who demonstrated Rice Krispies Treats. After the marshmallow cream was added, the fun began. The stir stick came up with the entire batch all stuck to the spoon. The hand came by to put it back in the bowl with the mixture now stuck to the hand. Then a scratch was necessary on the nose. Now the nose was covered with Rice Krispies Treats. It went on and on without stopping, since the class knew no matter what . . . keep going as though it was all a part of the presentation.
Teaching was a tremendous joy and continues to bring smiles when former students stop me in the mall or store with, "Mr. Treague. How are you? You were my favorite teacher." But this joy came with a price when students and parents made this claim during the school year. I didn't need to be a favorite. I just taught the way I felt students would learn the best. For example: the reason for learning grammar is because we're going to write a book. The purpose of learning communication will be necessary when we give our speeches which will be filmed and saved in the library.
And if it's not fun it's not memorable. In creative writing, I would bring in an illusion where a pan of fire turns into a dove. The students could smell the thick sulphur of the match being lit. Or as one student described, "Like rotten eggs with expired orange juice." They would see the Ronsonal which was poured in the pan burst into flame. And the finale always amazed everyone when, after the lid was placed on the pan and then removed, a dove emerged unharmed from the fire.
But why the haters? Two teachers, known by many as "the sisters," were my nemesis. They weren't sisters, but were side by side every minute of the day.
"What is that smell?" Sister One said when going by the room.
"Mr. Treague," Sister Two announced entering my room. "We're wondering what that horrid smell is."
Sister One added, "Are you trying to burn down the school?"
"Just teaching creative writing," I'd explain. Then I showed the dove and several of the student's writings describing sight and smell in a description of the illusion I presented.
"I don't know how all that is going to help them on the English test. Does Mr. Yost know you are starting fires and are bringing animals into the school?" questioned Sister Two.
Not having time to answer, both headed to the office to see if my classroom strategy for teaching creative writing was acceptable. Mr. Yost, as with Dr. Herring, were both pleased and accepting of whatever creative means I developed to help my students learn. The two "sisters" would walk away disappointed by the support I received from the administration and the parents.
Even though the scores of my students were very high, I faced encounters with "the sisters" questioning my tactics and ability to teach week after week. One confrontation resulted from the test I gave to my class each Monday. Instead of calling it a test, which inspires fear, I gave it the name of "SWIK." "Showing What I Know" made sense to begin the week as a review of what was learned the week previous. The parents appreciated these "tests" since each Friday I sent home a study sheet which clarified the testing criteria. Parents would know that on the following Monday there would be a SWIK covering: What is an adjective, adverb, noun and pronoun. Examples would be given for students to work through with their parents to determine their level of understanding.
The "sisters" would approach the principal accusing me of "teaching to the test." I would explain the students do not see the test. They simply know what skill areas to study for with a few sample problems. It would be silly to surprise them with questions about past participles if we never studied it. Of course the students should know what they are to be prepared for.
"But why a 'SWIK?" Sister One would ask Mr. Yost as I sat present.
Mr. Yost would ask me, "Why a 'SWIK?"
"The word 'test' has a pre-programmed attachment of something negative," I would try to explain. "The students know it's a test, but have less anxiety when it's referred to as a 'SWIK' which means they are going to show me what they know from the last week's lessons."
Sister Two would add, "But why every week? We don't have tests every week."
"It is a test," I'd clarify. "But we don't think of it as a test. We think of it as a way to show what we've learned."
Sister One still trying to find fault, "But it's graded. Should we have graded tests every week?"
"The way he presents it," commented Mr. Yost, "seems to work as a method of review. I have had no complaints from students or parents. In fact, I have had parents wonder why more teachers don't do this very same thing. I think it's a great idea. It keeps the students accountable and they seem to enjoy doing them. He even puts pictures of students on the tests and develops questions around the talents and abilities of that student. It's kind of a 'student of the day' in the form of a test. It's very clever. And all of the students are selected before the year is over. It takes him a lot of time to develop these each week and I totally support it. Is there anything else?" There usually was nothing else. Their defeat would always inspire more spying and attempts to lessen my credentials and my joy in being creative.
After 16 years, and moving on to full time ministry, I had a final word with "the sisters," on the last day I taught at Tri-Valley. I stated all they had done in the name of jealousy. I was pleased this day had arrived where I would no longer be in constant conflict with their attempts to discredit my abilities. Neither said a thing in defense of their behavior. They apologized "IF" I had been hurt in any way.
The consistent hassle of their attacks did leave a minute scar. Emotional scars can be turned into a strength. Faith and I have continued to stand firm against teachers who shout, belittle, and bully their students. Empathy, understanding, a quiet voice, a bit of cleverness, and ultimate respect for the student should be evident in every classroom. I had a wonderful 16 years at Tri-Valley and will always have the upmost respect for the administrators, parents and students whom I have been privileged to know.
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