The Indispensable 56

Breaking Bad Habits & Busting Balls

Another set of excerpts from a book whose author cannot be named for reasons apparent to anyone who has seen a Scorsese movie. This week: life lessons for children and meeting the don of the teacher’s lounge.

Rule 4: Praise means more when it comes less often.

One of the more disturbing trends many of us in the education field have noticed is the almost constant need to praise students whether or not that praise is deserved. Somewhere along the line it was decided that if kids aren’t being patted on the back for even the slightest achievements, we’re destroying their spirit.

Take, for example, a recent selection of comments I overheard in the hallways of my school as teachers desperately tried to find something positive to say to the most hopeless of our students:

“Nice job, Timmy! Your nose was only running for 80 percent of the last hour.”

“That’s true, Sally, I’ve never seen anybody who could shove her entire fist in her mouth.”

“You know, Lance, I think you’re right: Someday ‘cat’ may be spelled, ‘K-D-T,’ because it really does look similar.”

I could go on and on, but trust me, there’s more wishful thinking going on inside the classroom than at the annual convention for “People Who Think You Can Make a Living by Answering Those ‘Earn Big Money at Home’ Ads from the Back of Rolling Stone Magazine.”

Ultimately, praise offered so easily becomes meaningless, and the students will stop striving for greater achievement. Let me offer an illustration from my past life.

For about a year, my cousin Paulie and I were responsible for skimming goods from the Port Authority shipments of overseas electronics: DVD players, big-screen TVs, stereos, the usual stuff. We’d show up with a U-Haul, grease a few palms, and come back with 20 to 25 grand in easily fenceable stuff. So Paulie and I think we’re doing real well until one day we get summoned to see the boss. It’s important to remember that a single word of praise from the big guy meant the world to us.

Sure, lifting more stuff carried an increased risk and that last time, Paulie and I had to shoot our way through the Port Authority police roadblock. So I go in and he’s sitting behind his desk, smiling, and I think I’m going to get some kind of bonus or maybe even a promotion. Instead, he says, “You know, when I had that job, I pulled down 35 large per heist, and that’s before you index the amount to inflation.”

Then, he hocked a loogie onto my shoes and told me to get the F out of his office and not to come back until I’d delivered what I owed.

And I got off easy—he plugged Paulie in the kneecap!

Let me tell you, I never forgot that moment, and neither did my dry cleaner—who ultimately gave up trying to remove the flop sweat stains (and Paulie’s blood spatter) from my suit.

So what did I do? I stepped it up. Sure, lifting more stuff carried an increased risk and that last time, Paulie and I had to shoot our way through the Port Authority police roadblock, but for a good three months we were pulling close to 50 Gs per shipment!

The next time I went to see the boss he was so pleased he gave me the keys to his car!

(And told me to get it washed, waxed, and detailed.)

Thanks to the big boss, I now use the same motivational techniques in my classroom. Normally, a 95 on a spelling test would receive smiley face stickers, but in my classroom, it gets my patented “Not Perfect and Not Good Enough,” ink stamp across the top.

Soon, students recognize that a both a 50 and a 90 are failing grades in the game of life. Is removing 90 percent of the fingerprints from the inside of an apartment after a black-bag job good enough? Good enough for five to 10 for breaking and entering maybe, but that’s about it.

Sure, some kids in my classroom never receive a single piece of praise all year, but that’s OK, because they’re better prepared for the rest of their miserable lives.

Rule 22: What goes on in the teacher’s lounge stays in the teacher’s lounge.

This is actually something I didn’t have to figure out for myself, but learned from one of my colleagues my very first year of teaching.

I’ll call her Doris, and she taught the first grade in a classroom next to mine. She couldn’t have been an inch over five feet tall and had a dark mole on her face that sprouted a trio of coarse, dark hairs. On the second or third day of school, as I was about to head into the teacher’s lounge during a break, Doris thrust her sausage-casing arm across the doorway and grabbed the knob, barring my entrance.

“Hey, new guy,” she said in her gravely voice. (She smoked Luckies and already had one half-pulled out of a pack, ready to light up the moment she was in the lounge.) “There’s something you need to know.”

“What’s that?” I said. I wasn’t used to being intimidated by blue-hairs, but she could’ve taught some of the fellas a thing or two about the hard stare.

“This is a magic door,” she said. “When you walk inside, you’re in a place where you can say anything you want about anyone, including the kids. And then, when you come back out through the door, everything you heard is completely forgotten. Capice?”

We’d have a few beers and say things about the boss that under normal circumstances would have had our heads inside bowling bags before you could say, “Rocky Marciano.” Naturally, I capice-d. This was nothing new to me—we take the code of silence very seriously in the family, at least until a federal agent has the goods on you.

Sometimes, back in my previous life, when the bosses asked you to do something that made no sense, you’d just have to take a moment and blow off steam to the other guys. We’d have a few beers and say things about the boss that under normal circumstances would have had our heads inside bowling bags before you could say, “Rocky Marciano.”

The same principle holds true inside the teacher’s lounge. As those of you in the trade know, sometimes you just have to let loose. You should be able to speak freely about the suspected parentage of that one kid whose eyes are too far apart. (Cousins, or half-brother and -sister?) You need to be able to rail against the parent who gives you a 58-item list of things their precious child is allergic to and which therefore must be banned from the classroom entirely.

And sometimes, you just need to have a space where you can sit quietly and smoke your brains out until you’re forced back into the fray.

I’d say more, but then Doris would have to kill you.

And then me.


TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner