Tuesday, February 06, 2001

SCRUB TASKS, TEACHER'S PETS AND OTHER CLASSROOM TRADE SECRETS: (ALMOST) EVERYTHING THAT YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR TEACHER BUT WERE TOO AFRAID TO ASK

A while back, I had a sixth grade teacher, a hulking 300-pound former Fresno State football-player named Mr. Cohagan.

I only remember a few things from that year. I remember that we studied Shakespeare and whales. I also remember once when his Godzilla-sized hands squeezed the back of my puny neck (a not-so-subtle way of saying “If you like breathing, watch it”), and a Pavlovian instinct caused me to lose control of my urinary tract and soil my Bugle Boys. And I remember him saying once “When you mess up, you’ve gotta pay the fiddler.” I didn’t know why a fiddler should be paid if he wasn’t very good or what that had to do with me at all, but I did know never to mess up again. After all, I was petrified of Mr. C and, needless to say, I never had the guts to ask him much about himself (I still wonder, was he even married?).

That is why I am so amused by the fact that 14 long years later, I have transformed into that object of mysterious unintelligibility: a sixth grade teacher. And here I am, ready to spill the beans, the secrets of the trade. Ever wonder what your teacher was thinking about all those years ago? Here’s your chance.

First topic: homework. You know how much you hated – no, too nice of a word…truly despised – those black-lined masters and other late night/early morning homework assignments all those years? I have a truth that will knock your socks off. You ready? Teachers hate giving homework more than students hate doing homework. That’s right: Teachers hate giving homework. And wonder why? We hate giving homework because we hate grading homework.

In every profession, there is what I’m going to call the ‘Scrub Task,’ the unimpeachable part of a job that no one can bear. Waitresses have to serve patrons who choose not to tip. Airline stewardesses have to recite that god-awful pre-flight safety monologue/sedative. Cops, at least the ones that draw the short straw, have New Year’s Eve breathalizer duty. These are Scrub Tasks, the bane of your on-the-job existence, the part of work that fires up your hidden urge to run off and join a nomadic tribe in sub-Saharan Africa.

Teachers have a Scrub Task too – it’s called grading. What makes grading so abysmally unbearable is that it’s a remnant of a bygone Industrial Age, when schools were designed as factories for productive, ‘civilized’ workers. Even in an Age of Efficiency and E-everything, grading sets of papers effectively is as repetitive, tedious and time-consuming as working at the Ford River Rouge assembly line was 90 years ago. (Last Saturday, for example, I spent nine hours at school grading four measly sets of 60 papers).

Second topic: teacher's pets . Embarrassing disclosure: Last year, in my first tumultuous month of teaching, I had a mother call me up and scream at me for 10 minutes nonstop. She claimed that I was not being objective and unbiased with JB, her son. What happened was JB had ended up with a watch from another student, and I had naively alleged “there was reason to believe that the watch was stolen.” This, in turn, led to her harangue about how African-American males are dealt a bad hand in this society and how calling one a thief becomes a indelible stigma. Alright, I made a foolish beginner’s mistake, but her comment that teachers were supposed to be unbiased stuck with me.

The reality though is that every single teacher – whether intentionally or not – favors certain students, and any teacher that tells you otherwise is probably lying. I’ll be the first to admit it: there are certain students that I connect with better, who I’ll spend extra time after school or on Saturdays working with (or taking to a New Year’s Festival in Chinatown, which I did a week ago). Let's put it this way -- teaching is about cultivating relationships and not all relationships are (or should be) cultivated equally.

That’s not to say that I dole out A’s to a select few, predestined students or only call on 'teacher's pets' in class discussions. If anything, I’m much, much harder on the students I’m closer to. And – after hearing about unequal gender participation patterns in the classroom -- I now intentionally alternate between boys and girls when I call on students. But here’s the point: in our hyper-litigious society, many schools these days are unduly preoccupied with avoiding the mere appearance of favoritism for fear for being sued by parents. The real losers in all this are -- without exception -- all the students, none of whom get to develop any close mentoring relationships with their teachers. And I refuse to accept that.

Third topic: life outside of school. Every once in a blue moon, I get a question from a student that stumps me, one that my grade A, teacher-refined BSing skills can not weasel my way through. Usually, these questions involve obscure topics like who Asoka’s eleventh wife was or about the logistics of how Stalin killed 42 million people.

Last spring, however, I got a different kind of stumper from one of my 6th grade girls late one day after school: “Mr. Tschang, do you have a life? I mean, not to be disrespectful or anything, but do you do anything after school ends?” My reaction: “Well…um…yeah…sort of… yeah, I do other regular things.” I was mostly lying and she knew it. The truth is that teaching isn’t like 75 percent of the other jobs out there, where you punch a card from 9 to 5, go home and don’t think about work until the next day. Teaching is all-consuming; when you choose to teach, you automatically choose a certain lifestyle with built-in limitations on your social life. Don't believe me? Here's a fact: for two years running, the only female in the lower 48 states to give me any attention is Kiwi, my sister's dog.

So sure, I envy people that can make it home for Ally McBeal or be the life of the party at Thursday happy hours, but you know what makes this worth it? A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a parent – a 40-year old woman who works as a crossing guard and moonlights as a clerk at an Osco drugstore -- who pulled me aside and, in the most heart-felt way imaginable, asked me – practically begged me – not to leave the school until her two middle-school daughters graduated from high school. Eat your heart out, MasterCard -- those 5 minutes of pure gratitude were as priceless as it gets.

A teacher, you say? Nah…call me the luckiest guy on earth.


Let me know what you think: ctschang@hotmail.com