Why I’m Jealous Of The Pencil Sharpener

Yesterday I wrote about a moment in my English class where a boy refused to be bested by my passive-aggressive pencil sharpener.  This event not only stuck in my mind because it was funny, but it gave me a feeling that I never thought I’d feel before: jealousy of my pencil sharpener.  I know this sounds like I’ve fallen to a new low, but let me explain.

Jerry, the subject of yesterday’s story, averages a low B in my class.  He could easily earn an A, but instead he spends class leaned back in his chair and complains to me about the work.  Half of the time he doesn’t look engaged, and the quality of his work leaves much to be desired.  The day he decided to tame my pencil sharpener he was motivated, focused, and engaged.  The sharpener gave him a challenge and frustrated him and put his pride at stake.  Jerry didn’t give up, nor did he give a half-hearted effort, and in the end, he succeeded. Granted, what he was doing wasn’t rocket science, but it is why he struggled so hard for the sharpener, but not for me, that gives me pangs of jealousy.

Building student motivation is a struggle for all teachers.  In a perfect world students would show up to our classrooms ready to learn– excited to learn rhetoric, analyze theme, practice using semi-colons, and write essays.  They would arrive with their homework completed, armed with thoughts to add to discussion, their textbooks, paper, and writing utensils.  For many students this is the reality. They work hard, learn the material, and really want to improve and do well.  For many others, they are content doing the very bare minimum and, some, nothing at all.  And it’s not like teachers are ignorant about what motivates students.  Every book about teaching will explain that motivation arises from building connections with students, stating lesson objectives, building lessons around their interests, showing how the information connects to what they have learned, will learn, and their life, providing timely and constructive feedback, being enthusiastic, and the list goes on.

All of these are great strategies and contribute to the overall ambience and expectations in the classroom.  But they’re not a panacea for motivating each and every student.  The tricky thing about motivation is that it’s personal and individual.  How was I to know that Jerry had a great motivation to work my pencil sharpener?  In reality, Jerry’s motivation is the least of my worries.  He does his work, asks questions, and we have a good rapport.  It’s the others I worry about.

One student of mine from a few years ago stands out.  I’ll call him Ford.  Ford was a lovable knucklehead who was failing all of his classes– including PE.  In my class he goofed off, wore his hat even though I asked him to take it off, never did his work.  His only motivation it seemed to me was to write rap lyrics and get me to call him by his “tag” name (his graffiti nom de plume).  In order to motivate him, I bantered with him, refocused his attention, stayed one step ahead of his antics and created lessons where he could write rap lyrics in connection to our readings.  We got along, but there was nothing on the production end although many of the other boys enjoyed writing and performing their rap songs.

One day there was meeting after school with his counselor, teachers, admin, and his father.  Since I had him in during the last period, I felt it was my responsibility to get him there.  He refused to go, told me his dad wasn’t going to show up, and worried that he would miss his ride home.  To convince me, he called his dad and had him tell me that he wouldn’t be there.  His father explained that something came up “last minute”, but he did tell me that Ford walked home everyday. Ford was shocked when I asked his dad if I could drive his son home after the meeting; he agreed.  With no out, Ford walked with me to the conference room.

The meeting was a revelation.  The only one who really seemed to be fighting for Ford to get back on track was the AP; everyone else seemed disengaged.  The AP spoke frankly to him about his behavior and the resources on campus to help him.  She peppered her talk with profanity, which he responded to.  She seemed to be the only one who had a modicum of his respect.  As he and I walked out of the meeting, I developed a plan of how he could be successful in my class.  He constantly “lost” his work, so I gave him a notebook to keep in class.  If his hat was near him, he would put it on; we agreed to keep in the cupboard during class.  We had a research project on American authors coming up, but I knew that he would be bored by them.  I agreed that he could research Tupac Shakur.

The result was astounding.  He started doing his work and following directions.  He proved that he had the skills to write and research.  He decided that he didn’t want to research Tupac, but Lil’ Wayne instead.  I told him that he had to build his case for Lil’ Wayne by showing me that he had info about him and a true desire to research him.  The next day he brought me a file folder of printed articles and song lyrics highlighted and organized.    Everyday as he walked into class he told me of new information and connections he discovered.  Even my over-achievers were impressed.

I wish I could finish this story with accolades of his finished product, but there was no finished product.  He was expelled.  You can imagine my level of disappointment.  I was disappointed in him for not transferring his good behavior to his other classes.  I was disappointed in his father who showed that his son was not a priority.  I was disappointed in his other teachers for not cultivating an area of success for him (this is pure assumption on my part, but I was disappointed all the same).  I was disappointed by the fact that for all of the motivation I could help bring about in him, it still competed with the negative influences outside of school.

So when I see my pencil sharpener, without exerting any effort on its part, motivate a student to succeed at doing something, I get a little bit jealous.

21 thoughts on “Why I’m Jealous Of The Pencil Sharpener

  1. Oh, your post makes me so sad. So many “young men of color” getting lost in California’s maelstrom of an educational system. So much potential. So many in the school to prison pipeline. It’s so hard to “like” your post, but I get where you’re coming from. Have you checked out Cafe Casey’s blog? She’s a teacher on the East Coast.

    1. I’ve not read that blog… I’ll check it out!

      The plight of young men is so complicated. They lack male role models and those who are available to them are those “who get rich or die tryin'”. Many will admit to being lazy, but remember when there was a stigma attached to laziness? Anyway, I think there are a lot of young people who do not see viable roles for themselves in society. It’s really hard to combat.

  2. I think the difference between you and the pencil sharpener (well, besides the obvious) is that you have to hold your students attention for FAR longer and motivate them to work FAR harder. But I think you already know that. 😉

    You have such a tough time, and that story is sad. I’ll bet you made a difference though. Even if you don’t get to see when or how, I’ll bet the support you showed that boy will influence his life for the better. You taught him a valuable lesson – that he’s worthwhile.

    1. Thank you! I’ve been fortunate in that the majority of my students have been motivated, and they make teaching “fun”. Those that don’t see their potential are the real struggles. My story could be written by any teacher– motivating students who don’t see their worth is something we all struggle with.

  3. Ford’s going to remember you, and the effort you made to help him succeed. Knowing there were at least two people who were willing to fight for him might make a huge difference in his life someday.

    Motivating students is the hardest thing in the world. I’ve tutored so many who just wanted someone to “fix” their papers; I’ve also tutored many who said that’s what they wanted, but who really wanted to learn how to write. If you can reach one, you’ve succeeded. Although it sounds to me like you reach a lot more than one student in your classes. I wish more teachers were like you.

    1. Thank you.

      Oh, how I dislike students who want me to do their work for them! And especially when they give me attitude for it! I have to remind them that I’ve already graduated high school and that’s their goal. Students who take an actual interest in what they are learning don’t understand how appreciated they are. Years ago I had a student writing a major report on Robert Frost and she needed to draw connections between his life and poetry (for my class). She came in for tutoring and we spent an hour discussing him and analyzing his poetry. She started getting it and building her own connections. It was the best conversation, but that’s the stuff that makes a teacher’s day.

  4. You have NO IDEA what an affect you had on Ford! Yes, he may have been expelled, but you brought out something in him that he will take with him the rest of his life! I was “Ford” in high school! One teacher got me to do the very best I could on a poetry assignment and wrote the following on my assignment, “110% Omar, ALL OF YOUR WORK SHOULD BE THIS GOOD!” This came from a teacher who’s class I failed on a regular basis, scoring as little as a 4 on a my report card! Yet, she recognized that I had “creativity” and “smarts” and rather than point out the negative, she made me feel like I was only letting myself down and that small incident has greatly and positively affected me in my adult life! Thank you for being that kind of teacher! Your lessons are reflected on for years to come!

    1. Thank you!

      Have you been able to tell your teacher about that experience? You should write a post about your teacher and everyone who has inspired you along the way. It would be a great read to see how you went from being a “Ford” to who you are now.

      1. WELL! Three years ago, after almost 20 YEARS, after a show, in which I performed at the local comedy club, an older gentleman came up to me, pointed at a lady standing next to him and asked, “Young man, do you recognize this lovely lady?” IT WAS HER!! She asked me about the high school I went to and I acknowledged that I did, indeed, go to the high school she taught at. I took that opportunity to let her, and her husband, know what an incredible influence she had on my life! All this time, I thought I was just some forgotten high school student of hers only to find out that she still remembered me, even though I typically attended her class and just “vegetated” (as she put it to mom during a parent/teacher conference). I’m still floored by that experience!

  5. Oh, I so relate to this post. This year was an all-time record for freshmen fails. This is an incredibly unmotivated batch of students. And most of them know they are! You do make a difference with the extra effort. Hang in there!

  6. Well hello! I thought you quit blogging a while back, apologies and thank you for following my new website – I recently returned from self hosting. 🙂

    1. I took a hiatus– I’ve been really busy and also exploring my other hobbies like reading and cooking. Plus, I just didn’t have a lot to say and didn’t want to write for the sake of writing. I wondered where you went! Glad to see you have a new site up and running. I’m thinking about changing the name of my site (but keep the same address) to reflect the changes I’ve been experiencing.

  7. Sometimes I just wish that everybody could have patience, hope and creativity.
    I admire your exceptionality so much. That’s the virtue we need to make a difference in today’s society!
    You are simply unique!

  8. I don’t think you have any right to be jealous of that pencil sharpener. I think you sound like a fabulous teacher who wants to make a difference. I’ve only ever had one teacher like that and I credit her for all the wonderful things that have happened in my life. Let’s just call her Mrs. S. I was a pretty awful student up until grade 8. My report cards were abysmal and I believed my teachers when they told me that the real world would eat me alive. Fear obviously didn’t improve my feelings of inadequacy. I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t as clever as those other kids: if I was crap at being a student, how crap would I be at being a grownup? And then one day Mrs. S. told me that she liked a short story I wrote and leant me some books to read. My English grades improved. Then she suggested I channel some of that positive thinking into my other classes and, by some miracle, I got all As – all the way up until university. Sure, during that time I had other teachers say kind things, but I’ll always remember Mrs. S because she said kind things even when I gave her no reason. She could see that I didn’t mean to be crap, and I hated being crap, and that was enough for her to say nice things about a short story that to be honest wasn’t all that good. I think most teachers forget that kids don’t want to be thought of as dumb or failures. Kids want to be good students. But sometimes, for personal reasons or self-esteem, kids just give up and teachers focus their attention on students who look to be future Rhodes scholars. Mrs. S was generous. You’re generous! And don’t let a pencil sharpener tell you otherwise.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story and your kind words! Mrs. S sounds like she was a remarkable teacher. I agree with you that kids don’t want to be crap– most want to do well. I see it time and again. Sometimes all it takes is one teacher or adult to notice something positive to turn everything around. I’m glad you had her in your life.

  9. Motivation is such a double-edged sword! This year has been a record low for my kids; they just don’t seem to care. And what’s even more upsetting is that they are at a performing arts school, one which they chose to attend. We try so hard to get our kids excited about things, but in the end, we really don’t have any control, do we? If only the powers that be would realize this. But, there’s always that kid that surprises you and helps lift you up to try again tomorrow.

    1. I would love to see a politician who is trying to determine how we should do our job, get in front of a class and motivate the students. It is very frustrating. Motivation is so subjective. We have had trouble with motivation here, too. It’s like they don’t believe us when we say, “This matters!”.

      1. But, honey, we’re just teachers. What do we really know? 😉 We’re all a little nuts to keep doing this. My district just adopted a new teacher eval plan. They’re unveiling it in a couple of weeks. I can only imagine…. Just keep fighting the good fight; we do make a difference even if it’s not what people think the difference should be. 🙂

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