• Chester Jacobs

    Meetingless Productivity Goal

    After reading a Forbes article 15 Surprising Things Productive People Do Differently, I felt justified and ready to be proactive in response to #8 in particular: “They avoid meetings at all costs.”

    I’ve been a team leader at school for years, which means I coordinate a group of about 8 teachers whose classes are drawn from the same pool of students. We’re called the Incredibles.

    That position also means I go to team leaders monthly meetings, an after school affair sometimes with snacks or soda the principal has kept stashed away for us, most often with a big bucket of candy, and sometimes with nothing.

    At the start of this month’s meeting, he said, “No snacks today, so I owe you a short meeting.”

    Nice, right?

    It used to be, under previous administrators, team leaders dealt with the day-to-day details like how to pull off reward day activities, coordinating end-of-year awards assemblies, and lunchtime hallway traffic patterns. Meetings took about an hour, maybe a bit more. However, while I like many of the things this principal has done for our school, his meetings take f-o-r-e-v-e-r. He likes to talk, says things three times over, and then talks some more.

    And it doesn’t help that he unilaterally designated us team leaders, the details-of-duty crew, as the school improvement committee, a formal role necessary to meet the requirements of being a school in improvement (a few years ago our school didn’t measure up, test-wise).

    Never mind that none of us had signed up for–or even been asked if we’d like to be part of–that committee, which has doubled the length of our meetings, or that we are asked for very little authentic input related to school improvement, mainly because he’s talking some more.

    So when he mentions having a short meeting, I’ve learned just to take a deep breath and expect the usual lack of brevity.

    But I’ve realized that those meetings right now are the most predictably disgruntling scenarios of my life.

    I’d completely bow out of the team leader role pretty quickly, except that it has its perks: I get a nice stipend for doing the job, and actually probably save myself time since, if someone else was filling team leader responsibilities, I’d still likely end up doing a lot of the organizational things I do now. My teammates have also been affirming of my organizational role, and frankly, I don’t think any of them would want it if I resigned.

    But as this month’s meeting approached, I had to do something, which turned out to be sending a simple email ahead of time asking if I could slip away from the meeting around 4:30. I didn’t give–nor did he request–a reason. So a bit after 4:30 I nodded at him, he nodded back, and I fled the scene, only an hour into the meeting.

    I felt a bit like I was neglecting my job, but Maria assured me that it was just “the guilt of a highly productive person.”

    In retrospect, I feel zero guilt. After all, the reality is that the absence of my main contribution–a pained look of impatient listening–probably wasn’t missed.

    More importantly, though, I learned the next day that the meeting had continued for another hour after I left.

    This gives me a feeling of relieved panic, like I escaped the jaws of a shark once, but am pretty damn sure it’s going to circle around for me again, like next month.

    I’m guessing that perpetually leaving at 4:30 isn’t viable, but even considering the alternative–actually staying for whole meetings–is about enough to give me repeated asthma attacks. And I don’t have asthma.

    I also doubt the merits of requesting a one-on-one meeting with the principal. I could say, “I really have difficulty staying for meetings beyond 4:30,” but even if he acknowledges this and promises to do better, I don’t trust that his verbal self control and time management abilities would enable him to change. A more likely scenario is that he’ll feel threatened, and my cut-and-paste lesson plans might fall under heightened scrutiny, or I might be dismissed from the leadership position. If that sounds extreme, sorry–it’s not.

    I have four weeks to figure this out before the next meeting. That’s a lot of time to be productive in surprising and different ways.

  • Chester Jacobs


    My bald pate seems to beg commentary from students, particularly after I have my routine monthly close clipping.

    One girl has repeatedly told me this year, “You look like an egg!”

    “At least I don’t look like a seventh grader,” I spit back.

    Yesterday, blind-in-one-eye SP walked up to me in his slow, slow gait and looked me carefully in the face before saying, “Your head is shiny. I can see my reflection in it.”

    “And how do you look?” I asked him.

    “I have chapped lips,” he said.

  • Chester Jacobs

    My dad, my brother, my son

    Not long after Dad retired and my parents moved to our community, he started subbing. His first placement at my school was an afternoon right across the hall from my room, so of course we chatted in the halls as classes transitioned.

    “Who’s that person you were talking to?” students bombarded me as I ushered them in my door.

    “I don’t know; I’ve never seen him before in my life,” I said.

    “Right. Who is he?” someone else asked.

    “My little brother,” I said.

    End of story.

    Except that Dad’s next placement in my school brought him in contact with a certain eighth grader TH, memorable for his lack-of-effort sluggardliness and constant look of disdain. As Dad later told me, TH came up to him and said, “You’re dad’s a good teacher.”


  • Chester Jacobs

    When the Moron Is the Boss

    On my bicycle commute I often name particularly discourteous drivers as “morons of the day.” Last week on the same afternoon, two drivers earned the award.

    The second was a young woman on her phone who stopped beyond her stop sign while looking for oncoming traffic to her right first, rather than left, where I was hesitating and awaiting eye contact before swerving around her car nose.

    (In the coming week I would develop the brilliant phrase for future driver’s ed courses: “Look left first, right?”)

    And the first moron of the day? One of the administrators at my school.

    Several years ago, before we moved to our current country home, I commuted along a major thoroughfare that this administrator also traveled. Back then she told me multiple times that she was glad I was a well-lit rider; she was paranoid about hitting me on her way to work. Then one day, too soon after I’d begun riding from our new house along back country roads with little traffic for her to miss me along the major thoroughfare, she happily told me that she would be moving that weekend and so wouldn’t have to worry about hitting me anymore.

    I couldn’t help but chuckle when we realized that her new house was actually on my new route.

    Anyway, this week I saw in my mirror a car approaching me; even so, when it zoomed around me over a gentle crest and in the face of an oncoming vehicle, I was startled and courted the grassy shoulder just briefly. At the same moment, I saw on the back of the car the large ugly sports decals and team spirit vanity license plate that that administrator obsesses about. She sped ahead, then turned in at her street.

    “She probably had to go home and take care of her dog before running into town for a meeting she didn’t want to be late for,” I told my family that night, “because she passed me again a bit later. But that time she was stuck behind a slow-moving car.”

    We discussed what I should say if she came to me at school to apologize; I decided on, “Yes, I was scared there for a minute.”

    The next morning while I was on hall duty she approached with her head prominently ducked behind her clipboard.

    “I know you don’t want to see me,” she said, and continued to “apologize profusely,” claiming that she felt terrible and “thought about it all evening” and “knew she wasn’t going to hit me–I would’ve hit the car coming toward me before doing that”–and she could see me in her backup video camera (so she knew I’d survived? I’m not sure what she meant by that). “I knew I wasn’t going to hit you.”

    “Thank you for saying so,” I said. “I was scared there for a minute.”

    “But I had to get home to feed Bob–he’s our dog,” she said, “because Butch (that’s her husband) wasn’t home and I had a meeting [in town].”

    “Yes, I was scared there for a minute,” I said.

  • Chester Jacobs

    Last Year Next Year

    Today I received my “Yippee for next year!” letter from my principal reminding me that I have just three weeks of summer vacation left. I know that to most people that sounds like the extreme luxury that it is, but still, in the big picture, my summer is wiling away!

    I had one teaching dream this summer, and it wasn’t a good one:

    Last year’s class was notorious. All of our feeder schools labeled the kids long ago as under performers and over offenders. It turned out, the year wasn’t all that much worse than any other year, although I certainly had some doozy students.

    In my dream, I was starting this next year, with a group of students that in real life has been historically  wonderful compared to last year’s. But on my dream’s first day of school, things were absolutely terrible. Students were not cooperating, they were blatantly talking back and being disrespectful, and I was about to pull my hair out.

    “These kids were supposed to be better than last year’s,” I thought to myself. “What is going on?”

    And then I realized that I had caught on to the new class’s students’ names pretty easily–because a lot of my “new” students were my students from last year, all over again.

    Thankfully, in reality if students are mandated to repeat a grade–which very, very rarely happens in spite of an exceptionally high failure rate among my students last year–they usually have different teachers for their second go-round.

    So hopefully it was just a dream!

  • Chester Jacobs

    End-of-Year Happies

    Not to brag or anything, but really nice thank you’s from parents and students aren’t all that common. Maybe that reflects on me as a teacher, but I don’t think so.

    Yesterday, the last day of school, one student gave me a $15 iTunes gift card, another showed me an un-addressed poem about someone who makes her smile every day, complete with “I love you” (“That’s quite a love note,” I said. “Is it about your boyfriend?” “No!” she said, indignant), and yet another wrote me a really nice card–and I got a really nice email from her parents, too.

    That student, SA, had written me another card several months ago: 

    “Dear Mr. Jacobs, I want to thank you a bunch for letting me copy those notes. I looked everywhere for them and just couldn’t find them. I’m really glad that you gave me the notes to copy. It really meaned a lot to me. You have been an aMaZiNg teacher so far. you are one of my favorite teachers on this team. Thanks again! From, SA. Thanks A Bunch!”

    This is the card she gave me yesterday:


    And this is the note from her parents:

    “Dear Mr. Jacobs,     
    Thank you for being such a wonderful teacher for SA this school year.  She has enjoyed you and your class so much.  As parents, we can tell she has learned more this year than last year.  She speaks very highly of you personally and professionally.  I know she will remember as one of her favorite teachers.  This has been a much better year for her due to all of her teachers being able to handle many of the issues with students who tend to have discipline issues.  I want to thank you  personally for not allowing these students to interrupt her learning like it did last year. She appreciated how you handled the students and spoke highly of you for that.
            Again, thank you for teaching our daughter this year.  My husband and I hope you and your family have a wonderful summer.”

  • Chester Jacobs

    The Boss

    BV is, shall I say, not the brightest spark in the cigarette box when it comes to his edumacation. Back in September I felt victorious when he actually chose to read (albeit just the caption to a photo); by midyear he tripled his score on a benchmark assessment (to 30%); in March he had a 1.8% grade in class and was given an alternative schedule that would hopefully make him move around a little more, since he’s so huge.

    Then there’s TW, a small boy who talks way too much, swaggers, can do great schoolwork but mostly doesn’t, and worships BV.

    “It’s like TW is trying to be a gangster,” a colleague said.

    Another teacher told about this exchange between TW, BV, and her, with other nearby students–including BV–fully aware of the the conversational manipulation at play. TW seemed to have no clue he was being played with:

    BV: I hate America.

    TW: I hate America, too. It sucks.

    Teacher: TW, you know you always just say whatever BV says. BV, now say that you like America.

    BV: Oh, I love America.

    TW: You know, I do, too. I love America.

    Finally the other day I had a chance to do my own field test of TW’s ability to blindly adopt whatever, whenever. This had nothing to do with BV, who had been out of my class for months.

    Anyway, TW was creating an advertisement about himself (to introduce himself to his teacher next year) on which was proclaimed, “I am the boss.”

    Me: Really? I heard you just go along with everybody else.

    TW: No, I’m the boss.

    Another student: Show Mr. Jacobs that you’re the boss, TW. Tell me something to do.

    TW: Okay. What do I tell you to do?

    The End.

  • Chester Jacobs


    Monday I was too in the throes of convulsive throwing up to care if my emergency sub plans were good or not; my students would survive.

    Tuesday I again called in sick and was in bed all day again physically in pain and mentally agonizing that my sub plans would hold out only so long and potentially not well at all.

    Wednesday I felt terrible but knew staying home wouldn’t help matters much in my gut or classroom, so I plowed my way into the day and ended up feeling fine. And it was good I went back: As I wrote M partway through the day, “Things here were getting subbish.”

    The scoop: My school division pays subs really poorly. Furthermore, Monday had originally been a holiday, and a lot of teachers and subs just didn’t acclimate well to the idea of it becoming a snow day makeup occasion. Therefore, I had no sub. Other subs and some school staff ended up cycling through my room, presumably making sure the students were following my instructions.

    It wasn’t too bad, really, but I wasn’t happy to see that the students seemed to have been told they could work together on the assignment, as I had clearly indicated should NOT happen. As one “sub” noted, “The students didn’t seem to want to work and were more interested in socializing.” Um, duh.

    Tuesday was worse. The sub, whose name I didn’t recognize, left even less completed work than did Monday’s conglomeration, and this note: “It was a good day. Thanks for the plans.”

    And of course there was the rash of spit wads all around the room, textbooks out of place and disorganized, and no work graded. (Okay, I admit–only an excellently excellent sub would actually grade work.)

    But the surest signs that it was bad (if necessary) for me not to be at school were the greetings from students throughout the day:

    “Oh, you’re back.”

    “No offense, but the sub made you look boring.”

    “We had a comedian and magician for our sub yesterday.”

    (“Was he funny?” I asked. “Not really.” Great.)

    Now, these responses to my lovely face smiling over my still-sore gut at first were a bit of a blow to my self esteem. But by the end of the day of interacting with students, making them laugh and work and be relatively model citizens of forced responsibility, I realized that most of the time a sub adored by students is a really bad idea. “Fun” under the guidance of a nice someone who believes in the innocence of children clearly has no place in a middle school classroom, where structure must be rigorous even the most creative and “free” projects must be strict regulation and “encouragement.”

    Simply put: I hope my assignments are of value and even interesting and fun for my students. But let the emphasis rest on “value.” Also simply put: I have many devious students. Don’t watch them like a hawk, and you get annoying spit wads everywhere.

    The bottom line: If my students didn’t want me to come back, then they really needed me.

    It was also important for me to go back to school Wednesday because I had already planned to be out Thursday and Friday, too. I had to finalize plans for that sub, a woman I know and respect for her distinctive quality of being the most persnickety, unpleasantly confrontational, anal, nitpicky, and rule-following specimen of particularity person I know. She’s excellent: kids hate her because they’d better be perfect and work their butts off or she’ll get her own panties in a wad and then there’ll be trouble.

    Now, to be fair, this lady is a retired teacher who knows how to affirm and encourage kids, and she does do that. But she’s strict beyond imagination–an absolutely lovely quality in a sub.

    Plus, she often does grading. Last time when I came back from a day away, the only recuperation I had to do was enter grades into my grade book.

    As I told one class Wednesday, “Look, you may have liked the sub yesterday. But just because I’m going to be gone again this week doesn’t mean your education has to suffer. Mrs. DS will maintain good order and insist that you do your work. You may not like her, but be cooperative and work hard and we’ll all live happily ever after.”

    Here’s to hoping.

  • Chester Jacobs

    Pledge, Steps, and an Egg: Highlights

    Yesterday was a good day at school.

    In homeroom two girls were gossiping loudly across the room to each other about one of their neighbors. I interrupted to explain that if they want to talk about someone’s problems, they should talk just about their own. Since they didn’t seem inclined to stop gossiping unless I was talking, I just kept on talking. 

    “It’s like sharing time in church,” I said. “I don’t like when people tell all about their great aunt’s cousin’s nephew’s sister-in-law. People should just talk about what they are dealing with, themselves.”

    A student piped up. “But if you go to church, Mr. Jacobs, why don’t you say the Pledge of Allegiance?”

    “Religious reasons,” I said. 

    She seemed satisfied, but another student said, “What sort of religious reasons?”

    “Just that I think I should pledge myself only to my faith.”

    He seemed satisfied.

    Later, a boy brought me a poem his mom had printed for me, an Internet doozy of English-language plural quirks (goose becomes geese but a moose sure doesn’t become meese). His general question to the class was, “Will Mr. Jacobs laugh? Will he smile? Oh look–he’s smiling! He’s laughing!” (It was a funny poem, after all.)

    Another student piped up: “It’s like when a baby walks for the first time,” he said.

    Later the day even got better. A student brought her project from Spanish class, a confetti-filled egg that when smashed over someone’s head brings good luck (a cascarón). Good student that she is, she asked for permission first. Email me if you’d like a link to the video of the scene, narrated by my student with the amazing radio voice.

  • Chester Jacobs

    Me of All People

    I require that my students write me a note to request the work they missed while absent. I have a form that they use and which allows me to respond efficiently, but apparently one little boy thought the bucket where I keep those forms was the receptacle for his own form of absence letter. Fortunately I happened to look in the bucket a few days ago to find this: