Sunday, August 30, 2015

I Give Up! I Am Not a Miracle Worker

 The Cartwright School District is very short on teachers this school year. My teaching partners, Sue and Julie, and I were given the choice of have extra kids in our class or having a permanent sub. We were told we were at the “bottom of the barrel” for subs as frightening memories of bad subs flashed through my brain I convinced my partners that we couldn’t do that to our students. I gave them a pep talk and assured them that with all our capabilities that we could jump this hurdle together. RAH! RAH! SIS-BOOM-BAH! After three and a half weeks of forty-seven 7th graders crammed into a room larger enough for twenty-five, my RAH! RAH! SIS-BOOM-BAH! has turned into OMG! WHAT-WAS-I-THINKING!

This group of students is the best. I had half of them in fifth grade and they went on to have wonderful sixth grade teachers, and the other half had two amazing teachers that looped with them in the fifth and sixth grade. They are well trained and well behaved (well . . . most of them). I think that is why we didn’t want someone that was there just because. I wanted our fourth partner to be as dedicated as Sue, Julie and myself. I wanted our fourth member of our team to love these kids as much as we do. I felt we were doing these students a great service by making sure that they didn’t have to spend any part of 7th grade with a substitute teacher that was just “phoning it in”.

I thought we could do it, and I was sure I could do it. I thought wrong! I am not a miracle worker. Forty-seven students in one room is tough. First, there is not enough room for everyone and my wheelchair. I’m thinking of building a second story. Then students can’t work in groups because it just gets too loud. When I get observed my Kagan structures score is going to be zero. Also, all day long it’s crowd-control. It’s hard for 7th graders to self-monitor when they’re almost sitting in someone else’s lap. Finally, we are stacking them deep and teaching them very cheap because nothing ever works in our rooms. I try to show a video for social studies and the sound quits working, or the Smart Board dies ONE MORE TIME or the internet is too slow and we’re streaming and streaming and streaming. There goes my score on my observation for multi-media use. I give up! I can’t do it!

You know you’ve made a huge mistake when:
  • You can top anybody’s bad day at happy hour.
  • You spend eight hours on the weekend grading one set of writing papers.
  • You practically French kiss the tech guy for fixing your Smart Board one more time.
  • A student sadly tells you this is their last and you cheer quietly in your head while trying to keep a sad face.
  •  You don’t vigilantly pursue an absentee student because you are thankful you have a chair for the kid that has to wait and see where there is a seat available.
  • You giggle when teachers complain that they had to split a class due to no sub and now they have 34 students in their class FOR ONE DAY!
  • You are actually pondering about asking your administrator to hire “that” sub that makes you shudder whenever you see “that” sub lumbering down the hallway toward your grade level.
  •  Three grown women are quietly sobbing together while trying to write lesson plans, restructure a schedule (one more time), and dig up artifacts for a district meeting that they have to be at in twenty minutes because they feel like nobody cares.

I think the hardest part is that feeling that nobody cares. Last year I wrote a blog, No One Has Come, about the lack of district support with our 7th grade students and their lack of teachers. I know there are no teachers available. I hope the district is doing everything possible to solve the problem, but I feel like if Sue, Julie and I continue to trudge along and stay silent that the district will think that It’s okay to leave forty-seven students in a classroom, and that the district will continue to allow big numbers in classrooms in the future. It would be nice to know that the Human Resources department is doing everything they possible can. It would be nice to know that they are using ALL AVAILABLE personnel to fill all the open teaching positions across the district.  It would be nice to know that the ‘big wigs’ care. Actually, it would be nice to know that anybody cares.

Labor Day is coming! After Labor Day there is always an influx of new students. I guess I better go to Home Depot for lumber and get started on that loft for my classroom.

Paco’s Perspective

Suck it up, Cathy. You can do this. I have faith in Sue, Julie and you.


The Flip Side

Wow! You have more kids in your class than we have bunnies in the yard. Hey, there goes another one now! Gotta go!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

I Can't Believe It's Been 37 Years

Recently for a retirement party a friend asked me to make a top ten list of memories of my teaching career to use at a retirement party. Below is the letter I wrote to this dear friend:

Dear Mary,

At first when you asked me to give you my top ten memorable moments in my 37-year career, I thought, OMGoodness, I can barely remember my name let alone something that happened 37 years ago. But then when I was up at 2:22 a.m. thinking about it (because that’s when I do my best thinking) I started making a list (not in my mind but on my phone because I would forget it, if I didn’t write it down) and the list started to grow and then I thought, OmGoodness, how can Mary expect me to narrow this list down to ten.

First, I must confess, I never wanted to become a teacher until I was told I couldn’t be one. I was very artistic and I wanted to be an architect but the architecture classes were on the second floor of the gym and there was no elevator. Then I took a Children’s Lit class in junior college and I thought, where have these books been all my life? (I was not a reader as a child believe it or not.) I decided then that I was going to be a teacher because I fell in love with children’s literature. A counselor told me I shouldn’t waste my time because no one was going to hire a teacher in a wheelchair (remember this was in the early 70s). That comment motivated to become a teacher even more.

I believe God leads one where one needs to be and he lead me to teaching. The second I walked in that first classroom 37 years ago, I knew I was “home” and I have NEVER regretted my decision to be on educator.
Here comes my list! I definitely couldn’t get it down to ten and I am sure as I write this I will think of more.

My first year of teaching I taught a self-contained Learning Disabilities class. At that time self-contained classes were a dumping ground for poorly behaved misfits. Everyone in the school had beautiful welcome signs on their door but the sign on my door read, ”Please leave all weapons at the door with the guard.” My class had a nine to one ratio of boys. I had many horrible human-male-children in my room but I had some sweeties also. One day one of the “evil ones” said, “Nobody in a wheelchair is going to tell me what to do.” I went to put my hand out to calm him down and talk with him and my sleeve got caught on steering knob of my chair and I rammed that kid up against the chalkboard. In my head I was thinking, Oh, my God, oh, my God, I am going to be fired but while I had him pinned against the chalkboard I calmly said, “I would suggest you do everything I tell you to do when I tell you to do it.” And then I spun around and eyed my other trouble-makers, as they gawked at me, and said, “And that goes for you, too.”  And then I spent the next entire year praying that I wouldn’t get fired for the incident.

That same year a parent thanked me for finding her son’s sense of humor. She said they didn’t know Charlie was funny nor had they ever seen him smile. He was eleven.

A parent from my first year class ran into me several years later in the grocery store. She said she had to thank me for all I had done for her child. She continued to say, “You told my son that it was okay that he didn’t become a doctor or lawyer. That it was okay to be a mechanic as long as he became the best mechanic possible. My son is a mechanic and I want you to know that he is the BEST mechanic there is.”  Mary, teachers don’t get validated enough and some rarely at all. Those moments of true heart-felt validation are some of my most memorable. I have a note from a parent that I have stuck on my bulletin board every year for the past 20 years. I had a note from a student that I carried in my purse for a very long time. Two of my proudest moments were having a student nominate me for the Silver Apple Award and receiving runner up for the Arizona Teacher of the Year. Mary, don’t wait to validate others or yourself.

Now, time for some funny moments:

I once was having a conversation with a kindergartener. That was my first mistake. (Don’t try to talk to a kindergartener. I would suggest not even making eye contact with them, if you don’t have to. If you have to make contact, just smile and shake your head. Don’t wake the sleeping lion!) I don’t know how the conversation started but it ended with her sticking her tiny finger in my Pillsbury-Doughboy stomach and saying, ”Yea, Miss C, but you’re comfortable like a big, over-stuffed chair.”

Once I had this bad boy in my class, by the way, Mary, once one is known for their disciplinary procedures one gets all the “bad boys” put in one’s room. One day I was talking to Stanley’s mother and informing her of the difficulties I was having with him. She told me that she spanks him with a spatula and maybe I should get one. The next day Stanley’s brother came to my room and handed me a grocery bag and inside was a spatula. I hung it on my wall and every time Stanley started acting up I would look at the spatula and look at Stanley and look at the spatula and look at Stanley and Stanley would stop whatever he was doing instantaneously. That spatula saved my life that year. Hail to the spatula!

Once I went from teaching upper grade to second. Those darn little thangs cried, every time someone looked at them. It was my fault because I talked to the little thangs the same way I talked to upper grade students, not a good idea. I had just finished explaining to the little thangs that when I say jump they should respond how high? I was in the process of calling up reading groups, that was before I found my true reading philosophy, the name of each group was whatever the title of the basal book they were reading (I was so creative.). I was writing on the chalkboard (remember those?) so I had my back to the group and I said, “Okay, Stand Tall!” implying that I wanted that group to come to my reading table and when I turned around all 28 of those little thangs were standing straight as a lightening rod, next to their desks with their arms at their sides. My initial lecture worked.

That same year I taught next to Lynn Barela. She always had an interesting group. We had an opening between our rooms so I could hear everything that was going on in her room and one day it was during recess (Do you remember recess?) and I heard one of her African-American boys shouting, “Mib Umbrella, Mib Umbrella, I can’t suhee! I can’t suhee!” I zoomed over to her class to assist her with the blind little boy. I found her at her sink washing his face. He had had so much afro-sheen in his hair that it had melted in the heat and had run down his face into his eyes.

One year I had two boys named Robert. One was Robert Montijo and the other was Robert Mountino so it was hard to distinguish to whom I was speaking. One sat in the front of the room and one sat in the back of the room, so I called them This Robert and That Robert. Well, This Robert became sweet, kind This Robert and then there was THAT ROBERT. Every day the kids would come in from the playground with complaints about That Robert. Poor boy, Mary, be careful when using nicknames.

Here’s a “you know you’ve been teaching a long time when” story. One day I was at a cowboy bar and a young cowboy sitting at the bar kept turning around on his stool and staring at me. I couldn’t imagine why he kept staring at me. He started walking towards me and I knew he wasn’t going to say, “I think you’re purrty, do you wanna dance?” As he got closer, he asked, “Miss C, is that you?”

“Yes it is, Marvin (another bad boy),” I replied.

“Hell, Could I buy you a drink? I think it would be damn cool to buy my fifth grade teacher a drink.”
Not being one to turn down a free drink and not being one that has had many cowboys want to buy me drinks I said in my best fifth-grade-teacher voice, “Watch your language, Marvin, and yes, you may buy me a drink.”
“Yes, ma’am.”

Some of my greatest accomplishments were: getting students to love reading that said they hated reading and there was nothing I could do to make them read, doing inclusion with the special ed students long before the word inclusion was invented, gender splitting way before permission had to be sought, Read-to-Me Nights, Literacy Parade, Early Morning Reading and Silent Fridays (best days ever) just to name a few.

Ready for some advice? There was a time in my career when I was struggling with the way I was “expected” to teach reading. I hated basal readers and I thought all reading “programs” were a scam. I read a book by Debbie Miller called Reading with Meaning and in the book she wrote about helping a young teacher and what she told that teacher was an epiphany for me. She said, “First, pick a philosophy and then read every book possible on that philosophy and become an expert on that philosophy.” I did what she said and I have never looked back and it was the best decision I ever made. No matter what you do pick a philosophy that you believe in and run with it and don’t look back.

Teachers must build relationships with students. I don’t mean be their friend. They have friends. They don’t need friends. They need someone to look up to and respect. One day I was on the high school campus at lunch. I went to pick up my coaching check. I was the cheer coach for a couple of years now that is another set of stories. If I thought kindergarteners were scary, let me say, there is nothing scarier than being in a room with fifteen competitive, hormonal teenager girls! As I was cruising across campus, I heard the security guard screaming at someone on the other side of the campus. When I looked in the direction of her rants I noticed one of my ex-students, another “bad boy” (I told you I had a lot of “bad boys”.). He was leaning against the wall, glaring at the security guard that was squawking at him. I rolled up to him and said, “You know, Toby, I’m thinking she wants you to tuck that hangy-down-thing on your belt in your pocket. Would do me a favor and tuck that in your pocket?”

“Miss C, I would be happy to do that for you. Why don’t people ask me to do things, the way you always do with kindness and respect?”

“I don’t know, darling, but what I do know is that purposely disobeying to prove a point gets one nowhere.”

“I know, I know, you’re right.”

I smiled at him, gave him a hug and said, “I’m always right and don’t you forget it.”

As I left campus, I heard that big, tough, gangbanger shout, “I love you Miss C.”

I waved and shouted, “I love you too, Toby!”

It’s important to believe that children can succeed, no matter what. I don’t care who the child is, what his background is, or where he is from I believe he can achieve and I expect him to achieve. Believers are achievers.

Finally, hold the magic of teaching in your heart. Mary, if you ever lose that magical feeling move on because children deserve to have teachers that believe in magic. One day early in the morning I was in my classroom working on something for a bulletin board and I was using glitter. It must have been early in my career because only young teachers have glitter in their room. We old teacher become wise about glitter and ban it from our rooms. So there I was working in my room and a young boy enter and asked, “I need to know how you did it?”

“Did what?” I replied.

“Got my brother to change,” he said.

“Who’s your brother?” I inquired.

“Richard,” he replied.

“Oh, Richard, I like him a lot,” I smiled.

“That’s the problem. No one does,” he said suspiciously.

“Does what?” I asked feeling like I was doing a Who’s on First monologue.

“Like Richard. So what did you do to make him like school, start doing his homework, and be nice to people?”

I really didn’t know how to reply and I had a handful of glitter so I blew the glitter in his direction and as the glitter sprinkled down and turned his shirt sparkly gold I grinned and whispered, “It’s magic, kid, it’s all magic.”

As he confidently walked out my door I heard him mumble, “I knew it was magic.”

I want to thank all the people I have taught with and learned from over the years. I don’t want to start naming names because I will forget someone. I want to thank all my students I have had. They have taught me more than I ever taught them. And my students have always made every day unique and different. Every day I leave my room happy to have been there and every morning I enter happy to be back. Finally, I need to thank God for leading me to teaching because teaching is my passion, teaching is what I do well and teaching is my magic.

Cathy Cunningham
Soon to be retired teacher

Paco's Perspective
Enough said

The Flip Side
Does this mean we can chase lizards together during the day?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Nanny, Nanny, Poo-Poo, Karma Got a Hold of You

kar ma (kahr-muh) noun Hinduism, Buddhism action, seen as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in a reincarnation; fate; destiny

When I first started teaching many years ago there was a horrible second grader where I taught. Let’s call him The Devil’s Spawn. He was the worst. Every day he was in the office or being dragged to the office and I mean literally dragged.

One day I observed my principal, a skinny, young thang in heels trying to drag The Devil’s Spawn to the office. Every couple of feet he would drop to the ground and refused to get up. She would yank him up and proceed to drag him a few feet farther. I could tell she was losing steam, so I came up behind them and when she yanked him off the ground I positioned my wheelchair under him and she placed him in my lap. I wrapped my arm around him while she held his hands and we proceeded to the office with The Devil’s Spawn screaming in a hoarse voice and kicking my legs the entire time.

Every day after that incident, The Devil’s Spawn would see me and growl. Every time he walked by me, he would sing under his breath, “I hate Miss Cunningham!” or “Miss Cunningham is ugly!” and I would just smile that knowing smile. This went on for months and then his time came.

I was on my way to the office and The Devil’s Spawn was sitting in the breezeway to the office crying. I went up to him and asked in my sweet teacher voice, “What’s wrong, Buddy?”

He bawled, “I have to go to the oooooffice annnnnnnd my mommmmmy said if I have to go to the ooooffice one more time she will take all my t-t-t-toys away from me.”

I looked around and noticed we were the only ones in the breezeway, so I leaned in close to his face, smiled and snickered, “Ha, ha you’re in trouble.” And then I sang, “Nanny, nanny, poo-poo, karma got a hold of you!”  As I drove away I said, ‘Have a great day at home sitting in your room with no toys.”

As I rounded the corner, I heard him wail, “I don’t waaaant karmaaaaaaa to get me! Whaaat’s karmaaaa?”

There are some people that I can’t wait for karma to get a hold of and I am sure there are those that waiting for me to get a visit from karma.

Paco’s Perspective

I am thinking karma and God are the same person.

The Flip Side

So those bunnies that sit outside the fence and point and laugh at me will eventually get a visit from karma? I hope I’m there to see it.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Thank You Notes

Uncle Chuck was married to my father’s sister and MY Aunt Co. Uncle Chuck was known as Caren’s Uncle Chuck. I spent a lot of time with Aunt Co, and Caren spent a lot of time with Uncle Chuck most likely because he was a golfer. Caren’s Uncle Chuck passed away recently and I wanted to dedicate a blog to him and write about him, but unfortunately because I didn’t spend a lot of time with him I am having trouble composing my words for him.

He was always kind to me. I never heard him raise his voice when I visited Aunt Co and Uncle Chuck. As I reflect on the times I spent with him and Aunt Co I know that he lived by the mantra “happy wife, happy life”. Uncle Chuck would do anything for Aunt Co. She didn’t like to cook, so he cooked. Happy wife, happy life! Aunt Co and I loved to peruse the local swap meets and Uncle Chuck would go with us and follow us around the place I am sure bored out of his gourd. Aunt Co would say, “Isn’t that nice?” And he would respond, “Um, yea, sure. Get it, if you want it.” Sometimes Aunt Co and I would find the most God awful thing and Aunt Co would say, “Isn’t that nice?” And Uncle Chuck would always respond, “Um, yea, sure. Get it, if you want it.” Happy wife, happy life! Every morning Uncle Chuck would go to the local drive thru and get Aunt Co a large diet Coke. Every morning! Happy wife, happy life! Aunt Co had a thing for decorating rooms with themes. One day Uncle Chuck would be brushing his teeth in a golf themed bathroom and that evening he would go into the same bathroom that suddenly had a country theme. Aunt Co would ask, “What do you think?” Uncle Chuck would respond, no matter what, “Oh, WOW, Hun, that’s great!” Happy wife, happy life!

Uncle Chuck was with MY Aunt Co through every step of her battle with cancer. He dutifully cared for her to her dying day. 

When Uncle Chuck was alive I should have told him how much I respected him for his undying love for Aunt Co.

Why do we wait until someone’s dies to ponder on things we have learned from them?

I’ve decided not to wait. I want to list some lesson that I have learned from different people in my life. First I want to apologize to anyone who feels they should have been on this list but were left off. 

Mom and Dad, Thanks for teaching me that there are no obstacles in life only hurdle to jump. Also, thanks for making me realize that being handicapped is a reason to work harder not less.

Gerry, Thanks for being mom’s pal. DaBoyz thank you for all your love too.

Chris and Colleen, Thanks for oozing an unfathomable faith in God. Chris, you left an extremely well paid position to take the moral high ground and because you knew God wanted it and you had faith in Him that things would be okay.  Colleen, you have moved to and from Phoenix quite a few times because someone needed you with the never dying thought, “God will take care of me.”

Norma, Thanks for teaching me “positive intentions”. You have always said, “No teacher drives to work muttering, ‘I think I will see how many children’s lives I can destroy’. Everyone has positive intentions.” I no longer get upset with people because I always think about you saying, “Now, Cathy, remember, positive intentions!”

Illona, Thanks for sending me quotes about facing life’s challenges. Thanks for sharing your many epiphanies about why we are here and what we should be doing. Also, thanks for keeping me alive all these years.

Rhonda, Thanks for teaching me to keep going in the face of adversity. You have had to face so many challenges and you have done it without missing a day of work. I am sure you have that “faith in God thing”, too.

Phyllis, Thanks for showing me what “Christian love” feels like and looks like. I think you are “the” example of “God’s love”. I have said many times, “When I grow up I want to be just like Phyllis!”

Darrell, Thanks for teaching me straight forward thinking. Keep your eye on the prize. Thanks for loving Caren and also living by the mantra, “happy wife, happy life”. 

Gramma Anne, Thanks to for being my Montana Mama. It is so comforting to know that you are there waiting for Caren and I to arrive with hot vegetable stew and snickerdoodles. Also, thanks for playing endless hours of games all those Montana summer nights. You are our Montana cairn. 

Janet, Thanks for being my friend, confidant, and caretaker for so many years. You’ve taught me to suck it up and keep on going. You can do more in one hour than an army of folks could do in a week. You are an amazing woman!

To all the sistahs, you know who you are, what you’ve done and what you’re expected to do.

Sue and Mary, Thanks for being longtime friends and my weekly movie buddies. You have schooled me in never having to pay for popcorn. But what I enjoy most about our weekly adventures are our chats at lunch. If we were in charge of the world . . . . .

Cheryl, Thanks for being my carpool friend this year. I wish I knew the answers to the questions on those darn radio quizzes.

C. Store (Caren), Thanks for everything! You make me laugh and cry for happy. Thanks for giving up so much for me.  Words cannot express . . . . . . .

DaBoyz, Thanks for teaching me about unconditional love. You are always happy to see me and ready to lick me in the face.

To all the teachers I have taught with over the years, Thanks for TEACHING me so much. I have learned from every single one of you, young and old. Thanks for your undying dedication to the children of Cartwright School District. 

Students of the past 38 years, Thanks for making every day different. Thanks for giving me a purpose in life.

I wish that I could say that I have internalized everything I have learned and have become one amazing human. But, I have a long way to go and I know all of these people will be there every step of the way.

Readers, instead of valentine cards this year send out thank you cards before it’s too late.

Paco's Perspective
Thank you, to whoever makes dog treats! YUM! YUM!
Roses are red, violets are blue. I love dog treats! WOO! HOO!

The Flip Side
Bunnies, Thanks for multiplying so frequently so I have so many bunnies to chase!
Rose are red, violets are blue. I love to chase bunnies!  What rhymes with bunnies?