Friday, May 30, 2014

Why I'm a teacher

Teachers are the easiest people in the world to make fun of, mmkay. I personally have had some doozies for teachers, despite going to a prestigious high school and claiming to be a kind-hearted individual.

One horrible teacher that comes to mind was an extremely unhealthy Spanish teacher, who happened to be Caucasian. Each day, he would start class by violently coughing for five minutes, then he would say, "Just pull out something to work on. OK?" He's got to be dead by now.

Another thing I'll never forget was in seventh grade when my math grade was a 96 percent, and I got a B plus. I went to the teacher and said, "My percentage was 96. Isn't that an A?"

She responded, "Well, yes. But an A is very special, and you just didn't have that special quality to get an A." I asked, "Did anyone get an A?" She said, "Well, yes, Melissa. Just Melissa." I later asked Melissa her percentage. She said 91. Honestly, I can't believe I still remember this episode, but I actually did learn from it.

So, I have been writing this blog for five years, and I've never written about why I'm a high-school teacher. When people ask me why I'm a teacher, I typically play the "noble profession" card. It is true that I have a chance at positively influencing a student, and I believe that typically happens by giving that student attention, being a good listener and not judging.

Officially, I try to help a student's writing and reading levels and help them put out an award-winning Yearbook, and that does happen. But, unofficially, I just try to model being a real person, be in the moment and have fun.
The best thing about being a teacher: the students. The worst thing about being a teacher: other teachers.

The downside to being a high-school teacher is the misery of my colleagues. I am unsure the percentage of miserable teachers out there, but by my standards, it's at least half. How do I know this? Well, it's because they complain about the students.

The whole reason I'm in a classroom is because I like these peculiar, finding-their-way, I-don't-know-how-to-read kids. The buck stops with me. When I get a student who is basically illiterate, yet somehow is enrolled in an "AP English language" class, I love it. The kid has so many other skills to compensate for reading and writing that I got to give some sort of thumbs up to that.

Being a teacher means being an active behavioral psychologist. Humans act in patterns, and you got to finesse those patterns to teach. Nothing is more important than the first week of school. You set it all up there, and if you falter then, you can be doomed.

You also have to play to the audience while still being you. My mentor once told me, "You were born to do this." He then had student-teachers observe me every other day for two years in the hopes of them understanding how to handle their profession. Yeah, teaching also is a funky thing, and it makes me think of this awesome article by Malcolm Gladwell, comparing teachers to NFL quarterbacks.

At my current school, there is no mentor system, and people never really observe. The teachers blame the administration, but in reality, the teachers likely suck. Oh well. The students exclusively know what's up. And that's good enough for me.
So why am I a teacher? I can think of no other profession that can help me feel so good about myself, so fulfilled, so worthwhile.

I like to think of myself as the "dad you wish you had." I may come from a social class in which being a high-school teacher may not be considered a success. But with my value system, I believe it is. Yes, teachers are historically underpaid. But there are the perks of the off time and the rewards of actually doing something that matters.

If I had to do it all over again, would I do anything different? ... I don't think so. The best teachers I've run across haven't been exclusively teachers. The all-your-life teachers seem to have no frame of reference for how the world works. Would I want my daughters in their classes? ... Not really.

Making a run of it as some type of writer was a fun jaunt for me, and I got a staff job at age 22. I like that storyline, and I'm at peace with doing this profession and ... living in the moment. Am I fulfilled doing this job? To a certain degree, yes. Do I feel I need to do anything else? Who knows? Maybe this summer, I'll finally start "The Snooze Button Generation: The Novel."

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sterling's repugnant behavior: No surprise to me

After covering the Clippers for seven seasons, 2001-2008, for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, I have some insights on the train wreck of the individual that is Donald T. Sterling.

This week, "The Donald" went berserk in an interview with Anderson Cooper and verbally assaulted Magic Johnson and the entire black community. Presumably, he did the interview to apologize to the black community, America and the world, but he made everything much worse.

His words and behavior with Anderson Cooper were 100 percent consistent with the Sterling I knew during my seven years writing about the Clippers.

"Honesty is the best policy" is a good aphorism when you are a respectable individual, but when you're egotistical, racist and delusional, it's time to clam up. During my stint covering the Clippers, Sterling was shielded well from me and most media. In essence, he was well-shielded until this year, and keeping him out of the media was the only way his franchise could function.

For the longest time, the mainstays in the Clipper organization were DTS, CEO Andy Roeser, general manager Elgin Baylor and pr director Joe Safety. Safety left this June, and DTS and Roeser were forced out this year. Baylor is a slightly different story, as he left in 2008, the year I coincidentally moved off the beat. In a way, when Mike Dunleavy became coach/general manager, and thus getting Elgin out, it was a major step in getting the wheels in motion to Sterling's collapse.

Elgin Baylor is one of the most upstanding individuals I have ever met, and the "off-the-record" stories he told me made me realize that I was in the presence of secular godliness. Yet he seemed like a normal, down-to-earth guy with his personality. One story he told me that comes to mind is when he played tennis with the Kennedy's in Cape Cod. Another story was his friendship with Neil Armstrong.
Elgin was a celebrity in the '60s when access was only granted to a few. It was before the paparazzi infiltrated the elite, and well before the Internet, Twitter and "The Real Housewives of New Jersey Shore." Because of Elgin's past, demeanor and overall dignity, I liked the guy.

As a general manager, Elgin wasn't the best, but that was because his hands were tied because DTS ran a discount team for years. Once the NBA's collective bargaining agreement hit, though, it forced teams to spend a certain amount on players, and the Clippers were forced to no longer be the Wal-Mart of the league. Eventually, it wasn't easy, but the Clippers finally gave lucrative contracts to players with Elgin even being voted the NBA's executive of the year in 2006.

That year, Sterling got a taste of winning a little bit in the playoffs with Dunleavy coaching, and in essence, Dunleavy soon took on a role beyond a mere coach that involved personnel decisions. I assumed that Dunleavy was going directly to Sterling on decisions, and, despite the majority of his life as a bush-league penny-pitcher, Sterling actually bought into Dunleavy's moves.

Dunleavy officially took over general manger duties in 2008 when Elgin was replaced after 22 years as the Clippers' general manager. This was the first step to Sterling being a shielded pariah to an international a-hole phenomenal pariah that has surfaced the past few weeks.

Perhaps it was just a matter of time before Sterling came crashing down somehow. In a way, it is a testament to the professionalism of Elgin, Joe Safety and Andy Roeser that they kept the Clipper machine sailing so long with Sterling always being a wacko. Each had been with the organization for at least 20 years, and that length of stay for three guys in those positions in professional sports is unheard of (especially for a general manager on a perpetually losing team!).

So with Baylor out, the functioning dysfunction of the Clippers for more than two decades was unhinging. Dunleavy only lasted about a year-and-a-half in his role as general manager/coach, and the Clippers actually were on the path to becoming a serious contender. But, apparently, that business model never could compute with Sterling and the Clippers, and when the team looks its brightest with two superstars in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and a revered championship coach with Doc Rivers, the majority of the world agrees that Sterling must go....

Actually, I realize that these past two blogs are much different for the Snooze Button Generation (TM). With Sterling acting the fool for the entire world to see, it brought back memories of my foray into the NBA.

On one hand, writing about pro basketball for seven years was fun, quirky, a learning experience and sometimes inspiring. At the time, I cared about what I was doing a lot it was my job. Looking back, I don't regret having that occupation, but I eventually felt empty with the job. It was like having cotton candy for dinner.