Musings, Nits, and Praises: Dispatches from a Teachers' Conference: Day One

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher

Dispatches from a Teachers' Conference: Day One

After a night of fitful sleep filled with dreams of a wedding, a talent show, and attempted car bombings, I woke up around 6:30 feeling halfway rested, with a sore lower back and remarkably clear sinus passages. I guess I owe the latter to the mountain air (see yesterday's description of my bed).

The one thing staying on-site has over staying at a hotel is breakfast. You're not going to get gourmet fare either place, but a college cafeteria in the early morning offers the peace and quiet you just can't get when you're cramped into a continental breakfast space with thirty-seven other people, jostling your way past harried parents and hyperactive children to pour yourself the few flakes of cereal that will fit into crappy styrofoam bowl, douse it with lukewarm milk, grab a mushy apple and an oily muffin, pour a glass of the aforementioned milk or a cup of tasteless coffee, and then perform a balancing feat the likes of which plate spinners would marvel at as you weave to find an open table, stopping for a moment to consider making yourself a waffle until you notice a plump, bushy-haired woman in spaghetti straps who is no match for the technological sophistication of a waffle iron is holding up the line, at last plopping down at a table sticky from syrup to eat your disappointing breakfast.

I had no such experience this morning. I strolled into the cafeteria, poured myself a bowl of Total (crappy styrofoam bowl but cold milk), grabbed a plate with two of the morning's hot breakfast offerings--eggs that looked like couch stuffing but tasted decent and some steak fingers--and a fresh apple, poured a glass of ice water, and then had about fifty tables to choose from for a seat. Delightful. And, did I mention I ate steak fingers? They've been a cafeteria staple since at least 1983 when I was in kindergarten, but I suspect cafeterias were serving up those tasty, breaded, amorphous chunks of mystery meat long before I was even conceived.

So with food in my belly and memories of Lincolnshire Elementary in my head, I decided to kill the forty-five minutes before the opening session exploring the Student Union building. It's quite a nice building, really. The front is almost entirely windows, so plenty of natural light shines in. Each floor (there are three) has several seating areas with deep, cushioned chairs, and the third floor has a veranda overlooking the central part of campus. There's a campus book store, of course, and a career counseling center (depending on how the week goes, maybe I'll drop in) among other offices, but what really caught my attention was a sign indicating the Sun Belt Lounge was located on the second floor.

Intrigued, I headed to find it. The Sun Belt Lounge. The name conjured up thoughts of an oasis of relaxation, the sort of place I've always wanted as a teachers' lounge. Yes, I could see it--lounge chairs encircling a small pool, a jacuzzi, a retractable sun roof, waiters dressed in white carrying trays of mixed drinks to people sunbathing by the pool, and a calypso band playing off to the side. Ready to call out my drink order, I turned into the Sun Belt Lounge. But there was no pool. No jacuzzi. No mixed drinks. Not even a recording of a calypso band. Just a Starbucks stand closed for the summer, more of the chairs found elsewhere in the building, and a slew of computers on tables along the walls.

The school really needs to change the name of the "lounge." I'd go with Sunlit But Empty Email-Checking Haven That's Only Anything Remotely Like a Cafe from September-May. I guess that would be too long to fit on one of their signs.

Finally it was time for the opening session. As you'd expect, it was far from exciting. The fellow in charge made a few remarks and a woman who works for some institute/organization/association that goes by some acronym I can't remember rambled about a study someone conducted that found students who take AP classes in high school have higher GPA's in college than students who don't. Wow! Who could've guessed? Of course, now whoever led the study can add "demonstrates the ability to state the obvious through superfluous research" to his or her resume.

Boring? Yes. But I appreciated the opening session for what it didn’t have. I’ve attended about a dozen conferences in my ten years of teaching, and each one before this has included two things I abhor: tote bags and ice breakers.

Now, I realize my ineptness with power tools, my dislike of driving big vehicles, my inability to grow a beard, and my affinity for high-priced hair gel all preclude me from ever being labeled “rugged,” but I’m a heterosexual man, and no heterosexual man wants a tote bag, free or not. Especially one with the hokey name of the conference on it like “Ropin’ Up Dreams.” Whenever I’ve been really unlucky, I’ve received a t-shirt big enough to completely clothe the mother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape along with the tote bag. Just give me a free pen or two and leave it at that. Please.

As for ice breakers, some people might argue I don’t like them because I’m an introvert. But that’s not it at all. I just prefer getting to know someone I’ve just met by simply engaging in a conversation. I can’t believe there’s ever been a friendship in all of history that began when two people learned they were born in the same month, had the same last digit of their SSN#s, or raced each other while balancing ping-pong balls on spoons they held in their mouths.

But I digress.

Once we broke off into the subject-specific groups we’ll be in the rest of the week, our instructor did have us introduce ourselves by telling our name, where we teach, and what we teach. It was during these introductions that I got an idea for a research study of my own that would measure whether teachers in small Arkansas schools have higher rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide. I’d say ¾ of the people in my class (we have 30) have at least three or four preps, often in two or more subject areas. One lady has six preps! I hope her school stocks the teachers’ lounge with Prozac and Valium.

If I ever conduct a conference (yes, I know that will never happen), I’ll have the instructors pass out their myriad of lesson plans and teacher resources, and then give teachers the rest of the day to peruse the material. Then teachers will come to a session the next day where they can ask the instructor any questions they have after reading the material.

Obviously the folks at the College Board don’t think like I do. Our session today (Tuesday-Thursday will be the same) ran from 8:30-4:30, with two 15-minute breaks and an hour break for lunch. I don’t care if you’re in a class that’s co-taught by every teacher who’s ever had a movie made about them, that much sitting and listening in one place gets tiring quickly.

So I’d be hard-pressed to describe today’s session as interesting or entertaining (parts of it were), but our instructor, who has taught AP for years and served as a test grader many times as well, did provide us with a wealth of good material, including a three-ring binder as thick as a phone book with most of her activities and handouts for a school year and a free book. We’ll be receiving three more books later in the week. The only real downside to all that, though, as any teacher who’s been to a conference knows, is that so much information can be overwhelming, especially once you try to determine what of it you can manage to incorporate into your classes. It’s like to trying to catch a tidal wave in a teacup.

Seven hours of sitting and downing a caffeinated beverage or left me with quite a bit of pent up energy, so I changed into a t-shirt and gym shorts after the session and headed to the fitness center. In just over an hour I managed to squeeze in two exercises per upper-body muscle group (3 sets each), 150 crunches, and a hard, 12-minute run on the track. I think I could’ve given someone on speed a run for his money.

While I was working out, surrounded by a bunch of college kids, it struck me that it’s been ten years since I graduated from college—ten years since I was in some of their shoes, deciding where I’d live, how I’d live, what I’d do for a living, what aspirations I’d pursue, who I wanted to be. That wasn’t the first time I’d pondered those questions, though; that’s just when I realized, “Crap, I have to figure this out-now!” Those questions emerged years before in my early teens and took on a more definite shape my last few years of high school. But I wasn’t the only one asking them of myself. My parents asked them. Spiritual mentors asked them. Teachers asked them.

Occasionally my teachers asked me straight out, but more often it was indirectly, through engaging me in thoughtful discussions, through encouraging me to utilize my talents, through knocking me down a peg or two when my head swelled to where my 158 lb frame could hardly support it or offering an open door and a listening ear when typical high school emotional turmoil weighed heavily on me.

Not to sound sappy, but the opportunity to ask those questions of my students is a big reason why I teach. That and the free tote bags.

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