Back in the Saddle

     When we decided to purchase our current home, there were several factors of the neighborhood which appealed to us besides the features of the home itself. We are less than 300 feet away from a pool, tennis courts, nature trails, and picnic area, and after extensive checking on my part, the neighborhood seemed to be relatively quiet. Oak Creek Village advertises itself as having the lowest crime statistics of any neighborhood along FM 1960, which may be a dubious claim, but sometimes you have to go with the information at hand, so here we are.
     Another item which appealed to me particularly was the fact that directly behind our back fence is an elementary school. That may or may not seem advantageous, but to me, having a school behind us meant no noisy neighbors evenings, weekends, holidays, or summers, and though my wife accuses me of deafness on a regular basis, I have an acute sensitivity to rowdy neighbors. What you do in your own yard is your business, but be quiet about it. Secondly, being a retired teacher, I decided that here was a chance to perhaps do a little substitute teaching occasionally and in doing so collect a little more spending money to finance my lavish lifestyle of three meals a day and driving a 1993 Ford Ranger.
     So in the spring of this year, I did some further checking on Pat Reynolds Elementary, my neighborhood school across the fence, and found out that it was a very successful school. Of course, nowadays in Texas “successful” means proficiency on the state mandated TAKS tests. Forget about active PTAs, PTOs, science/math/chess clubs, art and music programs, after school activities, or community contributions…the media, parents, Realtors, politicians, and home buyers all ask the same question…”How did the school do on TAKS?” I personally like the TAKS tests as a measure of progress, but the tests have been politicized and publicized to the point that their importance is grossly exaggerated and do not represent the success of a school. But that’s another story. The point is, Reynolds had a good track record on TAKS. My next step was to get my foot in the door and start the process of application to the Spring ISD. As it happened, Reynolds had a science and art open house in May, so I attended with the idea of looking over the school and getting a feel for the staff.
     As I walked through the school that evening with the halls gaily decorated with science posters, project reports, and some really impressive artwork and abuzz with parents and children, it reminded me a lot of my old school, Williams Elementary in Pasadena. Both schools are old, established schools which had gone through a recent major facelift. Reynolds had the most recent modernization, apparently a year or so ago, and is in beautiful shape. I chatted with a few of the teachers, all who seemed energetic and appeared anxious to introduce me to their principal once they found out I was a retired teacher. Eventually I met Mrs. Carolyn Mays, a most gracious lady with a kind, dignified demeanor, who seemed most encouraging when I mentioned that I would like to visit with her about the possibility of substituting. With the school year ending, we agreed to meet in the summer and discuss our options for the fall. I went home that evening feeling very positive about my future relationship with Pat Reynolds Elementary. By the time Mrs. Mays and I met again in June, I had already sent my substitute teacher’s application to Spring ISD.
     When we met again, Carolyn (I will respectfully use her first name) and I hit it off immediately. We have both been down the road a ways (although I am MUCH further down the road than she), and we found common ground concerning teaching philosophy and student concerns. With my experience in teaching science and math, it was agreed that I could make a contribution to the school’s success, and I made it clear I had no interest in substituting anywhere else but Reynolds. The next step was to get my application completed and be up and running by the time school started August 23.
     Sure enough, I received my first substitute assignment in early August. One of the teachers in the fourth grade had given birth in June and would be out the first five weeks of school. I would be her long term sub for the duration. I excitedly looked forward to getting back in the (education) saddle. The week before school started, Reynolds had an open house to allow kids to meet their teachers, see their new rooms, and in general get back into the spirit of school. Kellie Rosebush, the young lady for whom I was substituting, was in the classroom and I was introduced as the person taking her place for the first five weeks.
     Anytime a visitation like a school open house takes place, there’s a certain “sizing up” on the parts of parents, teachers, and students. I’m sure some of the students and parents wondered who the old guy in the room was, but as for me, I was pretty impressed with the kids and parents. At least, compared to my old school, these kids were relatively decently dressed and didn’t look like junior members of the Crips Gang. The parents were respectful and inquisitive, and, all in all, I felt really positive about how the classes would be once we got rolling.
     The first glitch came the Sunday night before the Monday morning that school was to start. Carolyn called to tell me that my application background check still was not completed, and I would have to hold off coming in until all was approved. I haven’t gotten a traffic ticket since 1974, so I concluded that the Spring ISD Personnel Department apparently had waited until the very last minute to act and now couldn’t complete the job before H-hour. No use whining or crying however, so I waited….three days. It was the fourth day of school before I was able to walk into the classroom.
     Teachers will tell you that the first few days of school are critical in establishing classroom rules and procedures. In those early days teachers establish ground rules and students learn what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It is the worst possible time to have a substitute teacher. When I walked in, all the kids saw was the big “Substitute” sign stamped on my forehead (not literally), and to them it was a green light to see how far they could go and how far the boundary could be stretched. Children today do not instinctively show respect for authority or adults. They are trained by clueless parents, irresponsible television and video, and even other children that the way to get what you want is to take it by whatever means necessary. Of course, these characteristics are not universal among the youth, but, where I used to say that most of the problems of a classroom were caused by less than ten percent of the students, I think now that percentage is pushing 30-40%. It is a high enough percentage that, without restraint of some sort, pandemonium can reign in a classroom with very little provocation. A teacher will now spend 10-25% of the time NOT teaching, but regaining order, parenting, disciplining, or counseling. It is a tragic waste of time. The students come to school without being taught any social skills at all by their parents. Politicians are quick to nail teachers to the cross for poorly performing students, but poorly performing students learn to perform poorly at home before they ever walk into a school. There should be an accountability measure for parents as well.
     The first few days in the classroom were, simply put, torture. If I could have somehow walked away without causing Carolyn grief, I would have done so. I lie awake at night trying to figure out a management plan that would bring order to the classroom. One policy at the fourth grade level was to take the class to the restroom as a group, waiting quietly (oh, right!) in the hall while three or four students went into the restrooms. It was like pushing on a balloon…you press in one spot and another area would swell out. The front of the line would begin to chatter and I would walk toward them and the back of the line would start up. Going to the back would fire up the front. We would stomp back to the classroom and I would preach fire and brimstone for 20 minutes. A few minutes of relative quiet would ensue, but the next time we went into the hall, the cycle began again. After three days, I said enough is enough. I told them we were not going to the restroom as a group anymore. If a student needed to go to the restroom, he/she raised a hand to let me know. If I was not in a teaching moment and we were doing independent practice, I allowed one at a time to go. It worked, and, correct or not, it was the first step in establishing order, and our hallway behavior to and from activities began to improve. And my blood pressure at the end of the day went down about 30 points.
     Inside the classroom during those early days, structure was hard to maintain. Part of the problem was the seating arrangement…you know…buddies sitting next to buddies creating pockets of conversation. By the second week I had learned the students better and rearranged both classes, sitting the students in their most hated arrangement…alternating boy and girl, while spreading the talking problems around the room. It made a decided difference. Not perfect, mind you, but at this point I was grasping at straws. Within another week, I was more familiar with the students and rearranged again. There was another slight but perceptible improvement.
     Changing the subject a bit, one of the features of Reynolds that struck me was the extensive playground. In Pasadena, the district is so gun-shy about playground accidents that most playground equipment has been taken out. Probably another reason for that fact is that in Pasadena there is no organized “recess” period. All physical activities are coordinated through the physical education departments. The district’s argument for this is that the state requires 135 minutes of organized, structured physical activity per week, and as such there is no time for “recess.” In Spring ISD, there are P.E. activities scheduled, but every elementary class has 25 minutes of recess daily. The recess is monitored by teachers, but it is not structured. The kids can run and play as they like within safety guidelines. As a result, Reynolds has a beautiful playground with more than two dozen swings, plus slides, monkey bars, climbing gear, and miscellaneous paraphernalia. I suspect the students get more physical activity during “recess” than they do during P.E. if sweaty faces are any indication.
     I sat inside a science and math classroom for five weeks and never saw a text book. I am sure that Spring ISD has instructional plans for covering all the pertinent TEKS objectives, but I never saw them. Kellie Rosebush had very efficiently laid out my instructional plans for the entire five weeks, so, realistically speaking, I didn’t need to see anything else. Whatever the instructional plans, they must work, considering the success of Reynolds on last year’s tests. But with no textbooks, we went through tons of copy paper. I couldn’t help but think back to my Williams days when copy paper was treated like currency to be used sparingly.
     I was flipping through Kellie’s emails one day (she graciously allowed me access to her emails so I could keep up with school and grade level news), and saw an email stating that there was an unused “smart board” in the school that anyone could have for his/her class if desired. I almost jumped and ran for it, until I realized I was going to be out of there in a few days. I received the first Promethean smart board at Williams about five years ago, and it changed the way I taught. It is the most efficient way possible to blend video, power point, pictures, graphs, and activities into a lesson…and save the whole package for the next time you need it. By now, there is probably a smart board in every classroom in Pasadena ISD which has always been a very technologically advanced district. Of course, that also explains why PISD has been running in the red with their budget.
     Though Williams Elementary had a very high percentage of “free and reduced lunch” students, it is primarily a Hispanic school. At Reynolds, I met my first truly culturally diverse classes and came away with a simple observation: It is not the cultural background, but the developmental environment in which a child grows which many times determines the success of a child. I had three or four students whom I considered serious behavioral problems. Anger, rebellion, and disrespect were shown by them on a daily basis. The third week of my assignment, I received student profiles and made a point to read the background information for my problem children. After reading their profiles, I wanted to go hug each one and tell them everything was going to be OK. It is readily apparent that the traditional nuclear family of dad, mom, and children is nearly extinct, and the children of these contemporary dysfunctional arrangements suffer the consequences. I made a point to talk to each one…not about their profiles, but just to let them know I liked them and wanted them to do well. Believe it or not, one of those kids whom I had ground on so hard about behavior came up to me the day I left, hugged me, and said he was going to miss me. Man! Just when you’re ready to hate them, they do something like that and melt your heart!
     The fourth grade team at Reynolds consists of five members: four “regular” (English) classes taught by Nicole Baldwin, Edwin Bigsby, Beth Chippendale, and Kellie Rosebush, and one bi-lingual class taught by Elma Ayala. They are a very experienced and professional team. Each was very helpful and supportive to me, and I appreciated their cooperation. When I left they presented me with a thank you card and a lovely token of their appreciation. I was very touched by their gesture of friendship and decided that when I become district superintendent of the Spring ISD, they will be given choice, high paying jobs. Alas, I fear that prospect is dim, however.
     By the fourth week of my sentence…er, assignment, things started to level out a bit. I knew the students by name and began to get a feel for their personalities and learned to sometimes nip a problem in the bud before it began to blossom. Don’t get me wrong, it was not peaches and cream, but it was becoming manageable. The frustrating part was when things got a little rowdy, I could growl a little bit and they would settle down…for about five minutes. And then it would start all over again. I think administrators and to an extent even teachers do not realize that one of the greatest skills inborn into every child is the ability to figure out how to work, even beat, the system. To some children, you mention “silent lunch” and they clam up, but to others “silent lunch,” “wall time,” and “I’m gonna call your mama!” doesn’t constitute even the slightest threat. Therein lays the challenge: creating consequences which will get the attention of the intransigent student. I am not in favor of corporal punishment, but I am ready to defend the proposition that in many instances, teachers and administrators have few options in dealing with difficult students.
     Carolyn Mays and the new Assistant Principal, Ms Grace Leal, along with the staff of Reynolds Elementary have every reason to be proud of their school. Taking a group of playful, carefree, resistant-to-learning, distracted students up to the next level of success is sort of like trying to herd a bevy of cats. But somehow, through it all, a group of dedicated, professional teachers and administrators manages to pull it off. And just when you're ready to sit back and congratulate yourself on a job well done, a new school year starts it all over again. Welcome to the education profession.


     Having been about seven months since I last visited the Toyota Center in downtown Houston, I reflected as I traveled to the venerable sports arena last evening on the heavy hitters who were speakers during the all day motivational seminar I enjoyed on my previous visit. With personalities such as General Colin Powell, Evangelist (excuse me)… Republican Sarah Palin, Ex-NY Mayor Rudi Giuliani. Ex-Razorback Coach Lou Holtz, and motivational icon Zig Zigler, the place on that particular day had been a magnet for all business mogul wannabes, albeit with a small section marked off for us souls who were far past our prime and simply attended because we wanted to hear some good stories.
     This time the purpose was far different. My family was en route to the center to hear music, and since our beloved daughter-in-law was going to be on stage during one of the performances, we felt a paternal obligation to be there and yell, “That’s my daughter-in-law!” She was part of a group of singers (Bethel Praise Choir) from our church, Bethel Tabernacle, which had been selected to participate in the “How Sweet The Sound” musical celebration sponsored by Verizon Wireless. This musical celebration of gospel choirs is in its third year of sponsorship by the giant communications company, and the process begins when regional choirs submit videos of performances and are judged on presentation, skill, and musical abilities. Those eight groups who are fortunate to make it to the Toyota Center are the crème de la crème and the winner of the Toyota Center sing-off goes to Washington for the national finals in November of this year. Not to mention that there’s generous prizes involved: just making it to the Toyota Center puts $3,000 in the pockets of the choir, and the night’s winner can walk away with as much as $15,000 plus a free ride to Washington for the finals.
     Up until this point, the choir contestants could pick their own songs, but for the Toyota Center concert, each choir was allegedly assigned a new song to practice, learn, and present. We have found out since that, while our group was assigned a song, other groups were allowed to sing songs of their own choosing. The reason for this inequity remains a matter of conjecture. The groups were divided into small choirs and large choirs, and, since our group is a fairly small ensemble, it was assigned to the small choir category. The song for them to learn was “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” which is, according to Wikipedia, a “Negro spiritual that originates from before the American Civil War…thus it is what scholars call a slave song, a label that describes their origins among the enslaved and contains coded messages of hope and resistance.”
     I love these songs. When I taught United States History in school and our time line reached the pre-Civil War Era, I usually spent a day in class teaching my kids to sing a few of these old songs that projected such powerful messages of longing and hope. More than once, my students thought I was nuts when they saw tears in my eyes as they innocently sang of travails and struggles they knew nothing about.
     The Sunday before the concert, the Praise Choir gave a dry run presentation to our church, and the effect was incredible. Without a sound of music, a cappella, our singers projected through beautiful harmony a powerful message of spiritual encouragement. The church responded in kind, and a wave of worship swept through the building. Our lead singer, Misty Hargrave, offered a perfect balance of power and spirit with minimum theatrics. Hopes were high as the big day of the concert approached.
     Arriving at the Toyota Center parking garage and paying the modest(!) $20 parking fee, we walked the short distance to the center. The center, home to the Houston Rockets, seats around 14,000, I think, and is heavily used for every imaginable venue. As I walked toward the entrance I began to observe more about what “How Sweet The Sound” was all about. In the first place, the crowd was predominantly African-American, and once we were inside and I was able to pick up a copy of the program I realized who Verizon’s target market for this musical experience was. The celebrities, judges, masters of ceremonies, and a majority of choir participants were African-American.
     Now, before you get the wrong idea, please understand that I feel when it comes to spiritual, powerful, moving presentations of gospel music, no one can touch the depth of soul and heart like the African-American singer. So my conclusions after observing our entrance into the Toyota Center was that we were going to hear some really outstanding choir music, and that it was going to be a very enjoyable night.
     The dual Masters of Ceremonies were Donald Lawrence and Cece Winans, both heavy hitters in the African-American gospel music realm. I’m sure Donald Lawrence deserved the accolades he received, but, I’m sorry, someone needs to show him how to dress. I know this betrays my age, but in the sixties super skinny pant legs and narrow lapels on a suit were in…but not now. And glittery sneakers? Somehow the image was not memorable. Cece Winans, on the contrary, was dressed to the teeth. Slinky floor length gown, beautifully coiffured, she seemed to me to be sort of the Janet Jackson of the gospel set…lots of image and flash with a medium dash of skill. The prompt cards gave her a little trouble. Fortunately the idle chatter between the two hosts was minimal, and the choirs were the main attraction.
     As luck would have it, the Bethel Praise Choir was the first group out of the chute. As the lights, dimmed everyone in our section, which constituted a considerable number of Bethel Tabernaclers, collectively held our breaths as Shelaine Fauss-Everhardt, choir leader, gave the first wave of her arms.
     All I can tell you is the Bethel Praise Choir absolutely nailed it. Before they were halfway through, the crowd of ten thousand plus was on its feet, and, when Misty Hargrave really got into it, there was a wave of praise which swept the center. The judges were swaying along with our choir members, and when they finished with their last “Mary!” the crowd erupted. It was totally thrilling. The judges gushed praise to Shelaine and Misty with not a single word of suggestion or criticism. It was a proud moment for our choir and for our church.
     There were three other contestants in the small choir category. “Heaven Bound,” a Seventh Day Adventist group, sang the way you would expect Adventists to sing…beautifully…but without an ounce of spirit or conviction. The “Bible Days City Voices” and the “Bethel Temple Pentecostal Church Mass Choir” (too long a name) were traditional all-African-American groups which sang as many such groups do…tremendous spirit and worship but only middling in skill. In every instance, the judges were complimentary, but offered some point of suggestion or criticism that they felt would improve the presentation. To make a long story short, once all groups had finished, we felt that our group had won, hands down, no contest.
     In the large choir category, let me say simply that the Royalwood Sanctuary Choir from Pastor Macey’s United Pentecostal Church blew the doors off the other three contestants’ carriages. By the time they finished singing “God Blocked It!” half the audience was shouting, Sister Macey, their choir director was dancing around, and the judges were waving and bouncing also. It was an amazing demonstration of singing with spirit and a confirmation that the singers were singing the way they did because they knew, and had experienced, what they were singing about.
     The time finally came for the awards to be presented, and Bethel Tabernacle held its collective breath for the second time. It was not surprising when Royalwood Sanctuary Choir won the large choir category and the ticket to Washington for the finals (not to mention $15,000.) By this time we had seen clips of last year’s performances at the finals, and I had decided it was highly unlikely that a small choir group would go to Washington since all the groups there seemed to have been of the large variety. But we were stunned…shocked…and dismayed when the small choir award went to the Adventist’s “Heaven Bound” group, the group with the funereal presentation, the group that one judge said he wished they had sung the song with more spirit and connected with the audience.
     As we were leaving the Toyota Center, still in shock and mumbling to ourselves, we overheard two different people just in our area and not connected to our group say they "thought that other group…the Bethel group, was much better.” We let them know we agreed. Being somewhat analytical in nature, I tried to determine why the obvious verdict had not been reached and for what purpose would a decision contrary to the obvious be made, and I have come to one or two scenarios:
     “How Sweet The Sound” is a marketing strategy by Verizon Wireless to reach a particular audience. The brochure, the presentation, the style of delivery all point to a market segment which Verizon feels is an untapped source of future income. It must have been particularly galling to the marketing director for Verizon who was introduced to the crowd to see Royalwood, which is not a group which represents the target market for Verizon, blow away the competition to the point of no contest. But once it became evident that Royalwood was the hands down winner, I can also see a decision being made by Mr. Verizon…or the judges (that’s the second scenario)…that they’re not going to allow TWO non-representative and non-targeted groups walk away with all the prize money. So the best small choir was slighted and the money went to probably the second best group, minimal spirituality notwithstanding.
     However disappointed we were in the outcome, our pride in our little band of singers swelled to probably excessive levels. They represented our church with honor, and their singing brought a worshipful spirit into the Toyota Center that was unmatched. In the final analysis, powerful singing does not come from culture or latent talent, but rather it comes from a deep personal experience with our Creator. And to think, we get to hear the Bethel Praise Choir just about every service!