by Malia Renner-Singer, 2020 North Central ESD 171 Regional Teacher of the Year
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of articles written by 2020 Washington Regional Teachers of the Year about their strategies and reflections on teaching during COVID-19 school facility closures. See the rest of the series.
Here’s some advice: Never get in a prank war with James Elwyn. You will lose.
I know what you’re thinking. These articles are supposed to be about crisis teaching and learning during the time of COVID-19. And I’ll get to that. But first I want to talk about prank wars. Actually, I just want to talk about James.
For nine years, I taught social studies at Wenatchee High School. My classroom shared a wall with my fellow social studies colleague, James Elwyn. The word “wall” isn’t really accurate though. Wenatchee High School was built on an open concept, and the walls were added later. They are thin, and they are not soundproof. I could often hear my colleagues and their students while I was teaching, just like they could hear me. It was an environment where a teacher did not want to show any videos with loud battle scenes while a neighboring teacher was giving a test.
One year, James had a student who enjoyed randomly yelling in the middle of class, interrupting neighboring classrooms. The student’s use of humor to disregard social norms was a delight to James and the students in his class, but it was an annoyance to me. Didn’t this student understand that I was doing really important work? Didn’t he know that he was disrupting learning?
Finally, my students and I got fed up. One day, after being interrupted one too many times, we all started knocking on that wall that our classrooms shared. It was amazing — 32 high school kids knocking at the same time on a wall makes a lot of noise. And it worked. The rest of the period, there was no noise coming from Mr. Elwyn’s class.
But that quiet was deceiving.
The next day, I was in the middle of teaching one of my very important social studies lessons, when all of the sudden one of the classroom ceiling tiles moved. It actually lifted up. Then a human head popped out of the ceiling and yelled “AHHHHHHH!” as loud as it could. I screamed, my students screamed, and the ceiling tile went back into place like nothing had happened.
Turns out that the wall I mentioned didn’t actually go up to the ceiling. The tiles hid the fact that it’s just open space between the classrooms. No wonder we could hear each other all the time. James and his class had figured out a way to prop the student up long enough to lift up the ceiling tile in his class, reach over the wall and lift up the ceiling tile in my class. And then yell.
There was no way I could top that, and I admitted immediate defeat. But my failed prank war has become one of my very favorite memories as a teacher. James taught me to stop taking myself so seriously. He reminded me that teaching is a human act, and the relationships we develop with our students and their families are at the heart of what we do. Humor is just one of many tools that we have to deepen those relationships. I guarantee that both my students and his don’t remember the important Social Studies lesson from that day, but they do remember the day that the ceiling opened up. They remember the fun.
Taking the time to reflect on and remember my many experiences as a teacher such as this one has given me a gift: I’ve been reminded that my body of work as a teacher is so much bigger than this virus. My teaching in the current reality does not define me. Like many of my fellow teachers, I’ve felt discouraged, frustrated, overwhelmed, and like a failure during the past two months. But I’ve also felt proud and excited, as I’ve watched my colleagues innovate and my students engage despite the many barriers to learning that they face. I’m learning a lot about myself too: my values, my beliefs about education, and my ability to push myself far outside of my comfort zone. But the thing that I’m learning the most is that I’m more as a teacher than someone who’s struggling to figure out how to make videos for students from my kitchen. And since I don’t have my physical classroom to remind me of this, I have to rely on my memories of prank wars to sustain this learning.
I haven’t worked with James for years, but I still miss him. I miss all my colleagues right now. We are so isolated, in our kitchens, spare bedrooms, and back yards. But I take comfort in knowing that there’s an army of us right now, spread across this beautiful state, trying so hard to do this very human act — teach — in this very difficult time.
Don’t forget the prank wars. Don’t forget the fun. Don’t forget your colleagues and the gifts of understanding that they’ve given you. Stay safe, and remember that this is just a moment. Learn from it, but don’t let it define you. Better days are ahead.