Secret Student

Paul Parker taught algebra the first year I taught at the middle school. But, although he probably didn’t know it, he also taught me. I needed his help because the students seemed big to me and rowdy. The hordes in the hallways at class change intimidated me. So did each class of thirty students who seemed to dare me to teach them. I knew which teachers the students hated. They used explicit language to explain. And I knew they didn’t hate Paul Parker. In fact, they liked him, although they weren’t so forthcoming with their reasons.

I wanted students to like me, too. So I became a secret student of Paul Parker, and here is what I learned:

  • To keep students guessing—Paul’s students never knew what he might do next. One day they’d walk into a dark and silent room and find Paul with his finger over his lips in the shushing gesture. The next day, he’d be playing loud bouncy music and flicking the lights. He walked around the room with a yardstick and in the middle of class slam it in celebration across the desk of a student who just completed a hard algebra problem. He whispered and shouted all in the same period. Students just never knew about Mr. Parker.
  • To turn students into teachers—When someone successfully graphed an inequality, for example, Paul made it a big deal. “You’ve got it!” he’d say. “Now, I want you to teach Jon. He’s still having trouble.” Soon he’d have kids teaching kids all over the room. Paul knew that you remember what you teach.
  • To help students leave a legacy—I’m sure Paul didn’t consult the Board of Education about the way he used his classroom ceiling tiles. He used a new one every year for kids to sign when they passed a legendary algebra test. Students could read their older sisters’ and brothers’ names up there and the name of the quarterback of the high school football team. Tile-signing was a celebration, a chance to leave a mark.
  • To help kids stay cool—Middle schools are full of groups with different definitions of coolness. For some kids carrying an algebra book home for homework is not cool. Jack was such a kid. When Paul connected this to Jack’s nonexistent homework grades, Paul issued Jack a second book—one to keep at home. Jack’s algebra grades improved.

Paul retired before I did. The last year he taught, he moved painfully through the halls, every step dogged with arthritis. He worked harder to smile and left school exhausted with his efforts to be a good teacher for one more day.

“I’ve got to stop,” he told me. “They need a good teacher, and I can’t be one anymore.

That’s the moment I chose to tell Paul how I had once been his student, too.

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