I think my wife is right. I’m an oversized 11-year-old boy. How on Earth do they allow me to educate 11-year-olds?

At work, I try to maintain a professional dress and demeanor. In the hallways, most would see me with my khakis, name tag and neatly tucked-in shirt and make some sort of judgement that I’m one of those “serious” or strict teachers.

I’ve had students that come into the year having never had a male teacher and having never heard about me from previous students or families. They walk into my classroom a nervous wreck, some to the point of nausea and tears.

I suppose I get it. I’m 6’ 3”, 220 pounds, bald with a goatee. That is a pretty intimidating look to most kids. I recall similar feelings towards my 6th grade teacher Willie Slocum. If the students who have had anxiety about me on the first day of school had walked into Mr. Slocum’s class, they would have fainted or quit school.

Mr. Slocum was one smooth looking dude. He was tall, slim built, with a short afro. He wore the latest suits and ties, sometimes complete with vest, and his shoes were so shiny you could see the individual classroom lights reflecting in them. He often wore sunglasses that completed the “I’m for real” appearance.

He spoke directly and sternly and quite frankly intimidated the hell out of every single student he ever had. If they say they weren’t, they lie.

The first day of class began just as my brother had said it would.

“Boys and girls, let me introduce you to SELF RESPECT!” Mr. Slocum was standing in the door way holding up a wooden paddle that was about a foot in length. There was a label on it from one of those blue label makers everybody used back then that read “SELF RESPECT”.

Turned out, Mr. Slocum was one of the coolest teachers I ever had. He was funny too, often cracking jokes with students in the class or the class as a whole. The man took care of business and was certainly serious about education, but he knew when to lighten up.

Students coming to me from elementary buildings are experiencing some of that. Many have heard from other kids and parents that I’m a nice guy, but still, every single year, I can see it in their faces. The big-eyed look of “oh man, he’s scary looking”.

In training to become a teacher, I had always heard some old lore about “Never smile until after Thanksgiving.” The idea being to set a tone of seriousness and establish discipline before letting them see the softer side of you. “They will walk all over you if you don’t.” I always heard.

I knew then, and definitely do now, this isn’t me. I’m not serious most of the time. I like to laugh, I am a lot softer than my appearance would indicate. I’m also a lot younger at heart than my bald head reveals. I like to laugh and build rapport with students through laughable moments whether it’s at my expense (which is often the case) or not.

I get the respect of my students by relating to them. When they see me fumble a marker, trip over my own feet, mispronounce an easy word or share one of my many embarrassing stories, they see a bit of themselves in me.

I’ve also noticed that students who like me are willing to work harder than the ones who don’t. They think they are doing it to please me but, in reality, they are developing the sort of habits and attitude that result in better opportunities for themselves.

So I smile well before Thanksgiving, I am silly and crack jokes. I intentionally fall for their jokes even though I’ve heard them all a hundred times before and I laugh at things they laugh at. That is who I am.

There are times when I realize some of the students are snickering and looking around at each other over something that could be interpreted as inappropriate. Most times I either address it by giving “the look” or directly instructing them to stop.

There have been times over the years that it takes everything I have to not giggle with them about something borderline inappropriate.

I’m sorry, but whoever wrote the science textbook we’ve now used for more than a decade knew exactly what they were doing when they included the sentence “Uranus is gassy.”

That writer was a man with an 11-year-old soul as well. I’m sure of it. I can just picture him snickering and looking out of the corners of his eyes to see if anybody was watching him type it in.

It is not pronounced “your-in-us”, by the way. That is a cop-out name used to avoid the inevitable boyish humor. The planet is named from Greek mythology and is correctly pronounced “your-anus” although now it is widely accepted to be pronounced the alternative and “safer” way.

Go ahead say it. Now imagine being in a room of twenty-eight 11-year-olds, many of which begin to chuckle as we encounter that word for the first time. Still, others look around confused, curiously gesturing and making it clear they have never heard the biological term anus.

After all these years, I still don’t know exactly what I’m laughing along to…the sentence, or their reactions and faces they think they are “secretly” making to each other as I stand at the front of the room.

Is it appropriate? Maybe, maybe not. It is after all, the correct pronunciation. Bottom line is, I don’t really care and students are learning two things at that point.  1) The planet is made up mostly of matter in the gas form.  AND   2) Mr. Whitaker didn’t scold or reprimand them for being pre-adolescents with adolescent humor.

I find it far more important to build trust with students than to teach them trivial facts about the sideways planet. Yes, that’s right. Uranus is completely tilted on its side. That fact doesn’t bring nearly as many chuckles as do the endless list of others:

Uranus is icy.
Uranus is blue.
Uranus has rings.
Uranus is cold.
Uranus is large.
Sir William Herschel discovered Uranus.
We have close up photos of Uranus.
Astronomers want to know more about Uranus.

Mr. Herschel, who discovered Uranus wanted to name it after King George III. Later, an astronomer named Johann Bode suggested the mythological name Uranus, in part because it matched the five previous planets named in antiquity and, I believe, in part because he was an 11-year-old at heart and didn’t think much of King George.

I have so many more examples of humor like this from the classroom. I couldn’t possibly put them all to paper. There are some though, that simply MUST be put to paper. I’ll share some of those next week as Part 2 of this blog entry. Trust me, you won’t want to miss it.

Share this to: Facebooktwitter