“One star? Are you serious? We’re assessing by stars now?” In my ten years of teaching, I had been given feedback in person, peer review, and quantitative test scores of my students but stars were new to me.
“Ginny prefers stars. We accept all forms of feedback here.” Tricia Patterson, the head of the parental board, said matter-of-factly. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I knew my last day as lead instructor at Sunnyvale Friends School would have its hiccups. I didn’t realize the hiccups would lead to a total career seizure.
And it started with finding a dead body on the playground.
I should back up, though, and explain. Sunnyvale Friends School was a private elementary school founded in the tradition of Quakerism. I know what you’re thinking, and no, they don’t drive buggies. They’re not Amish. You know the guy on the oatmeal tube? Yeah - same group. Fast forward a few hundred years, and you have a community of roughly one hundred neo-liberals who meet every week to come to a consensus on community issues and meditate silently in a chapel. Committees ran everything.
The students at Sunnyvale Friends were no different from other kids, except that their parents were able to pay the exorbitant tuition fees we charged. A typical school day included the basics, of course, math, reading, and language arts, but they were also exposed to weekly painting and craft classes, music, outdoor hikes, and orienteering challenges.
There were school gardening plots and in-session units that incorporated all students from Kindergarten to Sixth grade in science projects that ranged from rocket-building to lasers, and history units that had them recreate civil war dioramas or re-enact mythological gods and stories in full costume. It was a perfect place for embracing the multiple intelligences of every possible child on the planet. It was an ideal school, on paper.
But the stark reality of achieving this master’s class in education was different. It was lying face down under the school steps, wrapped in a tarp. It smelled of beer and piss.
I had only been on campus for five minutes when Kyle, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed first-grader that would give Dennis the Menace a run for his money, ran up to me.
“Teacher Jeff I found a dead body!”
“Uh-huh. Great Kyle, keep playing.” I said as I headed for my classroom, downing my mug’s last bit of coffee.
“No, Teacher Jeff! I’m for serious!” he insisted.
“Kyle’s telling the truth this time,” Briana, a waifish third-grader, nodded as she approached. “He smells pretty bad too. He’s under the steps by Teacher Tasha’s classroom.”
I paused. While Kyle would declare he had cancer to get out of taking a test, Briana never exaggerated anything. She was brutally honest, to the point where she even reported her mother for drinking too much wine when asked what a family holiday looks like in her home.
I followed the kids to the steps, and sure enough, they presented me with a guy curled in a fetal position, face turned to the wall. A crowd of children encircled us.
“Sir?” I tried but got no response. I leaned in closer, “Sir? Hello? Sir…are you with us?”
Kyle jammed a stick into his back. He lurched and cursed, and the rest of us jumped back, screaming.
“What the hell?” He spat.
The kids ran in all directions hollering, “zombie,” as I helped the fellow up, slipped him five bucks, and asked him to leave the property immediately.
“There are quite a few concerns about how you handle campus supervision of the students,” Tricia brought my attention back to the present. She had a scowl on her face.
“Well, I think hiring, you know, campus security might address that.” I offered. But I knew her response before she uttered it.
“We just don’t have the budget for that, and this is one of your action items,” She tapped her pencil on a long list she’d prepared for our meeting.
“I thought teaching was my action item.” I said with a laugh, but it wasn’t’ reciprocated.
“You have a lot of items,” She said flatly. “Now tell me how you think you’ve done with building community and inclusion in the classroom?”
I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. “Community and inclusion” were the latest educational buzzwords that sounded good in parenting articles and school fundraising events but didn’t actually amount to much in everyday instruction. I could have listed the annual school plays I wrote, directed, and produced that included diverse folk tales or the countless backstories of historical figures I wove into my social studies lessons that kept my students wide-eyed and begging to hear more. However, all that came to mind was “show and tell” - the Russian roulette of any school day.
My last morning was no different. I held a baby goat in my arms as Briana shared with the class.
“Her name is Princess and she makes little crying noises unless I let her into my room.”
The class cried “ooh” collectively. The goat kicked me in the spleen and I made a similar noise.
“She also eats everything!” Briana smiled, and the class burst into laughter. I looked down and realized Princess was eating my new Hermes tie. Before I could set her down, she had chewed through nearly half of it.
“Great, thank you, Briana. Let’s give her a hand, everybody.” I said, and the student eagerly applauded Briana as she sat down. Princess trotted over to a bookshelf and started devouring some Judy Blume readers.
“Briana honey, is your mom here to take Princess home?”
“No, she said she needed some self-care time and went to yoga.” Briana beamed. “She’ll be here at the end of the day.”
“Super,” I said, hoping our library was sufficient for Princess’s appetite. Evan was next. A fearless freckled-faced fourth-grader brought out a large plastic cube that contained two brown mice and plopped it onto my desk.
“This is Brownie and Holy-Moley. They’re mice. I had a third one, Peppy, but they ate him.”
“Cool!” the kids exclaimed.
I checked the wall clock. I had five more hours until freedom. As Evan re-enacted the crime, I wondered if I’d miss anything about these days. Choosing to leave teaching didn’t come lightly. I loved it when kids discovered concepts, life lessons, and wisdom as if they were the very first to pull it from the depths of history. Their understanding and smiles of confidence as they mastered a skill were the only anchors keeping me in education. But sometimes, anchors weren’t enough against the tidal forces of administrator oversight and parental overreach.
“Teacher Jeff!” Our new Kindergarten and first-grade instructor, Teacher Tasha, rapped on my classroom door. “Uh, I’m sorry, but I need to speak with you outside for a minute.” Tasha had a panicked look in her eyes.
“Okay, sure.” I turned to Evan. “I’ll be right back. Keep going and don’t let them out.”
“But Teacher Jeff they feel cool!” Evan begged.
I shook my head “no” and followed Tasha out the door. She turned to me and immediately apologized.
“God, I’m so sorry about this. I was watching my kids on the playground when Kyle got them all riled up, and I guess he’s putting on a performance behind the slides.”
“Okay, so?” I shrugged.
“He doesn’t have any pants on.” She sighed, “I wasn’t trained for this.”
I rushed toward the playground and found a queue of children waiting to see the ’Greatest Show on Earth.” As I rounded the bend, I found Kyle proudly standing half nude over a fresh pile of poop.
“It’s ginormous!” Kyle elated. “Ginormous, teacher Jeff. I remembered that word you taught me.”
“I didn’t teach you anything like this,” I snapped. “Pull up your pants Kyle. We have to go to the office and call your parents.” I turned to the onlookers. “Kids go see Teacher Tasha right now! Show’s over.”
Kyle pouted as he ran ahead of me to the office building. I waved over to Tasha. “Give me another five minutes, I’ve gotta make a phone call and see if I can find the janitor.”
“He only works on Saturday,” Tasha called back. “I gotta take my kids back to class.”
“Awesome,” I gave her a thumbs up and hurried to the office. I didn’t have time to explain the intricacies of instructor multi-tasking to her. As I reached the office door, I tried the knob and found it locked. I peered in through the office window and saw Kyle standing there, terrified, with a guilty look on his face.
“Kyle, did you lock the door? Where’s Mrs. Lassiter?” I asked as I scanned the room for the absent school secretary.
“She’s at lunch. You can’t call my parents Teacher Jeff.” Kyle insisted, “I can’t get in trouble again. I got my presentation today!”
“I think you already gave it,” I pounded on the door, “Let me in Kyle. You’re only making it worse for yourself.”
Kyle shook his head “no.” and tears welled in his eyes. “I got my art presentation today, teacher Jeff. My Dad said he was going to come watch me. He’s taking off work and everything!”
“Kyle!” I yelled, and I heard him crying. I softened my tone. “Kyle. It’s okay. I promise. It’s going to be okay.” I sat down and faced the door. I could hear Kyle draw closer on the other side.
“Teacher Jeff I suck at subtracting, and my Dad says I need to read better if I want to go camping with him. I fail at everything. He said if I do good today during my presentation, he’ll be proud of me.”
“Hey, now,” I replied, “You put on a hell of a playground scat show and your stick poking abilities are second to none.”
“Look Kyle, sometimes the grades don’t matter. Sometimes, you just have to know that you’re good enough, cause you are.”
The door lock clicked, and the knob turned. Kyle sniffed a little as he let me in the room. When I called his parents, I told them Kyle might need to have a change of underwear brought over due to a bathroom accident, and his mom was more than happy to oblige. I walked Kyle back to his classroom, and he paused before he went inside.
“I’m going to make you a picture today, Teacher Jeff.”
“Can’t wait, buddy,” I said and waved him in before turning. I could only guess how high the poop would be in his drawing or how many space aliens he might depict devouring me. As I opened the door to my classroom, I found utter chaos had ensued. The kids were screaming and chasing Evan’s mouse, Holey Moley, around a desk.
“Guys! Settle down. Evan!” I turned to Evan as he scooped the mouse into his hand. “What did I say?”
“They just got out, ’cept I can’t find Brownie.”
I strode forward to my desk until I heard a crunch underfoot. The class screamed in unison. Evan kneeled and studied my foot as I slowly lifted it.
“Wow. That’s worse than Peppy. Cool!”
I became known as the mouse murderer for the rest of the day.
As we finished our presentations, I wondered how Kyle was holding up with his in Tasha’s classroom. Then lunch came, the parents brought a host of potluck items to eat, and I didn’t have playground duty for the first time in a month. My break was spent with the head of the parental board in the office for my final assessment and exit interview.
“Some parents also have concerns that you’re not on board with curriculum changes we present.” Tricia continued as she noted another deficit in my performance. “You seemed especially closed off to presenting social issues in your history lessons - Mara Simpson offered you a whole education unit on sex trafficking and gender fluidity you’ve yet to take her up on.”
“These are kids right?” I asked, knowing my response would only elicit more indignation. “I mean we are still teaching young kids, right? So maybe that’s something their parents can cover. I think teaching history, and the mistakes people made in the past can be a lot more helpful.”
“And is it helpful to insult guest speakers during school planning meetings?” She eyed me, waiting to pounce on my reply.
Sunnyvale Friends’ monthly school planning meetings were five-hour marathons that ran late into the night, where countless measures were proposed to make the school more attractive to potential families. This usually meant more duties for the teaching staff. But when Marybeth Goodall, a child wellness advocate, came to speak, I had a hard time containing my disdain.
“You have to ask yourself, as an instructor, am I a giraffe or an aardvark?” Marybeth wore two hand puppets that looked more like deranged muppets than the animals they were supposed to represent. The parental board nodded in agreement as they took notes. I sat in the back, arms folded, dreaming of a burger and a beer.
“If you’re compassionate and always nurturing a child’s behavior, then you’re a giraffe,” Marybeth’s voice reminded me of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood if Mr. Rogers was high. “If you’re only interested in facts, figures, and boundaries, you may be teaching like an aardvark.” She noticed me and lowered her puppets a little, “Teacher Jeff, which one do you identify with?”
“I identify with a human being who needs to leave soon.” I packed up my briefcase, “I apologize, but I have to go. I have classes to teach tomorrow, and I’ve been here since six this morning.”
I stared at Tricia, “Okay, maybe that wasn’t my best moment.” I wanted to tell her I did care enough. I cared enough to work my summers away planning lessons the kids would need once they left the bubble their parents had built around them, but they didn’t want to hear that. They weren’t there to listen. They were there to critique.
Tricia droned on as she read off the parent reviews of my work, “Layla and Roger Stone wrote excellent work this year - our kids loved your lessons.”
“Great, some consensus there, right?” I asked.
“No, they were the outliers,” Tricia sighed. “Look I’m going to be honest with you, Jeff. You ranked thoroughly average with most of our parents. While the kids seem to like you, we just don’t feel that you did enough to meet our expectations.”
“Well, I guess it’s good I’m leaving.” I said, “I’m sure you’ll find someone who does real soon.”
“We have several candidates on the list,” Tricia smiled triumphantly and handed me a stack of feedback from the parents. “Good luck.” She gathered her things and left me to face a pile of my failures as a teacher.
As I gathered the forms, I wondered if she was right. I was leaving the profession. I had no actual plans afterward except to rest and recuperate, and maybe find something to replace the few moments of satisfaction I had when I connected with the kids. I knew reading each review would leave me feeling smaller. It would be death by a thousand paper cuts.
I tossed them in the trash as I headed back toward my classroom to finish my last lesson. Maybe it was all for the best; maybe I just wasn’t fit to be the instructor my students needed.
After the school bell rang, I carried a box with a few items to my car. Kyle ran up to me as I started the engine. I rolled down the window, and he shoved a folded paper into my face.
“Bye Teacher Jeff, and thanks!”
I watched him run to his Dad’s arms and laugh. His presentation must have been a hit, or maybe it wasn’t. But at that moment, he was happy, and that’s all that mattered.
I opened the folded sheet and found Kyle had used a crayon to draw two happy stick figures holding hands in front of a school. One was labeled “Kyle,” and one was “Techer Jef.” Underneath, he wrote:
“To tHe Bestest TeaChr Ever.”
Looking back on my teaching career, that final assessment is all I need to know.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Glen GabelWrite a Review