What’s an Actual Day of Teaching 7th Graders in a Public School Really Like?
Mick Carlon writes on public education for M the Media Project. He is an internationally recognized author of novels for young adults.
Mick Carlon’s Jazz novels—RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN; TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and GIRL SINGER (Leapfrog Press)—are in the curriculum of 100+ schools in the United States. According to the late Nat Hentoff: “Nothing like Carlon’s books has yet been attempted in the history of Jazz. They are introducing a new generation to the glories and stories of our music.” A six-time speaker at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans, Carlon has spoken to audiences about Jazz in New York City,Boston, Dallas, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and all over New England. After enjoying a 38 year career as a public school teacher, Carlon lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts with his wife, Lisa. The couple are very proud of their daughters Hannah and Sarah.
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In my 38 years of teaching, I met many folks who left other
professions–banking, lawyering, Wall Streeting–to become public school teachers.
Most made the leap for altruistic reasons, but several told me that they were
simply expecting an easy gig. Only a handful of these folks stayed in the teaching
profession for more than two years. It is indeed not an easy gig.
It took me until my fourth year of teaching until I truly knew what I was doing.
In my first three years I survived with grit and a caffeinated personality. When I
bump into students from those years, and they rave about my course way back
when, I wince inside. They were being taught by a raw rookie who was still
learning. (Hell, after three and a half decades, I was still learning).
So I’m going to guide you through a typical day as a seventh grade public school
teacher. I could do the same as a grade 9-12 teacher–I taught nineteen years as a
high school teacher and nineteen years as a middle school teacher–but I’ll go with
seventh grade for this day. It’s an interesting age, for many of the young ladies are
statuesque, serious about their education, while many of the young lads are like
My cruel alarm clock sounds the battle call at 5 a.m. I’m one of the lucky ones
who thinks, “What the hell,” and hops out of bed. Give me two cups of coffee, a
shower, and I’m good to go.
I am very fortunate, with only a two mile drive to my school. I know colleagues
who commute up to an hour each way every day, poor devils.
Pulling into the parking lot at any time between 5:55 and 6:10, the school and
sky are still dark, with Abe’s truck already in its spot. Abe is our head custodian
and, like secretaries and cafeteria workers, a vitally important part of any fully
functioning school. Underestimate these wonderful folks at your peril.
Turning on the lights in the main office, I check my mailbox. The school
psychologist has put three 100 question bubble questionnaires for three students
in my box. Each one will take 30-40 minutes to fill out. Delightful. (And what are
the questions like? “The student seems unable to handle stress more frequently
before lunch than after. Rarely. Sometimes. Often. Always.” And there are 99
more questions to go).
Warming up the copier, I fill it with paper, hoping it will work. Today I have two
handout sheets that are absolutely vital to the lesson I will be teaching. No
sheets–no lesson. Yes! Today the copier does not jam or break down. When it
does, one has to walk to the other side of the school to a second copier, which is
often broken down. The third copier in guidance is not meant to handle loads of
more than 20 copies. I have 104 students.
My classroom is on the second floor, near the very end of the school. If a freak
with a gun ever invades, I can easily rush my students down an empty stairwell by
my room and outside to safety. Just in case we have to barricade ourselves in the
classroom, I keep an aluminum baseball bat in my coat closet.
After popping a Jazz cd into my Bose, I organize my handouts and review
today’s lesson, which I wrote the evening before in a simple CVS notebook.
Wednesday, October 23:
1. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Chapter Four quiz;
2. Dialogue writing lesson–then pass out handout;
3. Quick review of commas–with exercise handout;
4. Play Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and discuss;
5. Begin reading Chapter Five with students taking reading roles.
With that complete, I write tonight’s homework assignment on the white
board, then begin grading papers. Our latest writing assignment is what I call The
Respect Essay–the students writing about a person they know personally whom
they respect; they must give three reasons why they respect this person. You
learn a great deal about your students in an essay like this–including the few
students every year who say, “But what if I don’t respect anyone?”
About 45 minutes later, I’m ready for a nap, which means one thing: Head
downstairs to buy a cup of coffee from Shania, our beloved cafeteria cook. (Yes, I
said buy. Each cup costs one dollar. When I began appearing as a guest speaker at
the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans in 2013, the festival organizers remarked
on how grateful I was for my free luxury room at the Monteleone Hotel, the free
food and drink, my $1000 check for giving a 45 minute talk. “You don’t
understand,” I said. “As a public school teacher, my morning coffee isn’t even
free”). Shania is a beautiful soul–giving and wise–and I enjoy our morning chats.
Her son, a beloved former student, is doing well in the Navy.
I duck into the downstairs restroom for a quick pee before heading upstairs.
The bell has rung and the children are now unleashed from the cafeteria or from
the locked front doors. The principal wants his teachers in the hallways greeting
our students, and I agree with this and enjoy saying hello to most of the little
devils. However, we are also supposed to be in our homerooms, making sure that
nothing untoward is happening. It’s a fine caffeinated dance.
Standing in the middle of my team’s hallway, I greet one and all by name. (It’s
wonderful when you’ve learned your students’ names. During the first two
weeks, when I don’t know Caitlyn from Kristy, I feel rather helpless). Most
students give their teachers a smile and a hello–but not all. Some look you in the
eye but do not respond. (“Um, the proper reply, I think, is ‘Good morning, Mr.
Carlon,’” I sometimes rather snarkily say). Some children are deeply depressed
and you give them a break. However, here comes Jason–a spooky lad who gets
his fashion tips from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
“Time to take off your hood, Jason,” I say–to no response. (Hopefully, his bony
finger will not point to Scrooge’s–or my–tombstone). In the early 90s, our school
committee decided over the summer that students should no longer be allowed
to wear caps or hoods in school. It had bothered me not a fig if a student wore a
cap (or hood), but now we teachers had to become agents of the state and
enforce a rule we did not really care about.
“Um, Jason–the principal gave you lunch detention last week for wearing your
hood. If you recall, though, he made you eat lunch with me–not him. Although I
enjoyed your sparkling wit, I prefer to eat my lunch alone. Please take off the
Is that a sign of humor that I see behind Jason’s eyes? Perhaps. He takes off
When my teammates and I discuss our troubled students, two of my colleagues
believe that Jason is the type of kid who could trudge into school with a high
powered rifle and an itchy trigger finger. Do I believe this? I’m not sure. I’ve been
fortunate never to encounter a student with a gun–a knife once, but not a
gun–and, like I said, I keep an aluminum baseball bat in my classroom closet with
which to defend my students. I would quite simply die defending them. But when
I picture this grim scenario, it’s always a mentally unbalanced adult I picture
clobbering, never a kid. But how many times has it been a student killing his
classmates and teachers? So many times.
I keep bopping into my homeroom–“Jamir, put down that chair, please”–before
bopping back into the hallway. “Mr. Carlon, I forgot my locker combination,” says
a special needs student. My knees pop as I kneel down to open the locker. (This
happens about once a week and I now know the combination by heart).
“MISTER CARLON, YOUR PHONE IS RINGING!” yell two girls from my
“Yes?” It’s the school’s nurse, a lovely lady. “Is Jamir here yet? Could you send
“Jamir,” I call. “Come here for a sec.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Well, come here anyways.” I lean down and whisper in his ear: “It’s time for
your meds in the nurse’s office. Why don’t you go straight there when you arrive
instead of walking all the way up here? You’d save so much time.”
“I forget,” he mumbles. Nonsense–Jamir loves to wander, and he often gets
into trouble bothering the girls on a sixth grade team. (“Why do you let him out
of your sight?” asks our principal. “Um…because the nurse is on the phone asking
for him.” “Why don’t you tell him to go to the nurse when he arrives?” asks our
Finally, the bell has rung and the day has begun. A student is reading the day’s
announcements over the intercom. Then it’s time for the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Stand up, everyone,” I say. They all stand–except for one young lady. She’s
Native American and does not wish to salute the United States flag. With her
permission I once used this as a teaching moment about our First Amendment
Rights. “Then why do I have to salute the flag?” asks Patrick, a rather egocentric
hockey player. “Because this country never abused the rights of WASPS,” I reply.
“What’s a WASP?” asks Michelle. “It’s a bee, dummy,” replied Patrick. “Patrick,
please apologize to Michelle. She is far from being a dummy.”
And I have yet to teach.
The bell rings, my homeroomers leave, and my “A” class wanders in. Although I
explained back in September that they should sit, open their agendas, and write
down the homework which is written on the board, maybe five students do. The
rest have to be reminded every day. However, I’ve only been renting the black
coffee that I’ve been sipping non-stop, so I open the door that connects the back
of my room to my colleague Heidi’s room. “I have to pee like Sea Biscuit,” I
whisper. “Back in a sec.” We teachers have each other’s backs.
It is against my religion to use the students’ bathroom, so I high-tail it down the
hall and then down the stairs to the teachers’ bathroom. Tragically, it is locked.
“C’mon, c’mon,” I mutter, as I hear the first period bell ring. Tragedy averted: The
door opens and a kid scurries out. “Hey, this is the teachers’ bathroom,” I say. I
think the kid gives me the finger–but I don’t have time to argue.
Refreshed and back in front of my “A” class, I tell them to open their agendas to
“today’s date. Just for a change, let’s write down the homework.”
“But we do it every day,” says William, a bit of a grade-grubber.
“He was using sarcasm,” says Jennifer–one of the eight Jennifers we have on
our team this year.
“Any questions on last night’s reading before we have our quiz?” I ask.
“We’re having a quiz?” asks Jose, a kind but rather spacey kid.
“Yup–I announced it yesterday. And the fact that we’re having a quiz was
written on the board, too.”
“Yes!” says another Jennifer.
A boy’s hand shoots up. “Jason?” I ask.
“What happened in Chapter Four?” Jason asks.
Oh, boy. Here we go. I pass out white lined paper, reminding the students to
write their names on the top. I could remind them eight times and I’ll still receive
at least two quizzes with no name on the top. Since it’s only October and they are
not yet hip to all my tricks, I reach into my shirt pocket and pretend that I’m
“Oh, Lord. Here are your good, hard-working parents paying my princely salary
with their hard-earned tax dollars–and this old fool can’t even remember where
he put the reading quiz.”
A few giggles.
“I’ll make a deal with you guys: If I can’t find the quiz in the next minute, you
will all receive one hundreds. Look at the second hand on the clock. I have a
minute to find it.” Now they’re excited, all hoping for a free 100 from this aging
dolt standing in front of them. I watch the second hand. I have forty seconds left.
“Oh, Joe,” I say. “Can you please stand up?” Joe, a hefty lad, is sitting in the
middle desk of the middle row. Confused, he obeys. Bending my knees so I don’t
strain my kabonzas, I turn his desk upside down. There is today’s quiz taped to
the bottom of the desk. I did that at 6:35.
“All right, I guess you yingyangs are going to have to earn your one hundreds.
Easy to do if you did the reading.”
Grading the quizzes that evening, I’ll be relieved that only three kids did not do
the reading. But that’s only one class; I teach four. All told, fifteen students did
not do the assignment. It being early in the year, I spend over an hour calling the
parents of all fifteen, explaining how nightly reading is vitally important, and that
tonight’s reading is Chapter Five. I also explain that I’m available for after-school
help if their child is having any difficulties. Most parents are grateful for the call,
but at least one (and sometimes more) say, “What do you want me to do about
My reply? “Walk down to your son/daughter’s room, take the phone out of
his/her hand, and please tell him/her to read. Reading is not going away. Your
child will not be graduating from high school if he/she does begin to read every
single night.” You don’t want him/her living in your basement when he/she is
thirty, do you? I think–but do not say. Actually, I said it once.
Once the quiz is finished, I collect the papers and we go over the questions.
Sadly, I can already tell, with astonishing accuracy, which students are
college-bound. (Will there be exceptions? Yup. Are there many exceptions?
Nope). But not every child is meant for college–and many of my students who do
not go instead find a lucrative trade, thereby avoiding unholy debt, and do quite
well in life. Your community’s technical school is a treasure, so treasure it.
It’s now time for a lesson on writing dialogue, which most of them find
interesting, followed by a comma lesson, which no one finds interesting, including
me. (But I do try: Here’s #5: Ringo Starr the oldest of the Beatles was the last to
join the group in August 1962). (And yes, I create all of my own handouts. Using
company produced exercises seems rather stale to me). This is followed by Billie
Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which produces quite an honest discussion about
prejudice. Finally, we begin reading Chapter Five in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,
Mildred D. Taylor’s superb novel, with several volunteers taking reading roles.
(Tonight’s homework is finishing reading the chapter). The 55 minute class breezes
When class is over, I erase the notes that are written on the white board. I will
need to write them again for my next crew. Not surprisingly, my second class runs
smoother, with more hands shooting up. Why? It’s later in the morning; the little
devils are more awake.
When my second class is over, it’s time for an absurdly early lunch period. Our
principal does not trust our seventh graders to walk to the cafeteria without
causing a stir, so we must accompany them downstairs. That’s alright–the
teachers’ bathroom is downstairs, too. But by the time I trudge back up to my
classroom, I only have fifteen minutes to cram lunch down my throat. Oh, and
there are four kids eating lunch in my classroom. All four are on the spectrum and
the cafeteria noise bothers them, so I allow them to eat in the relative quiet of my
room. Every now and again they will ask me a question, but they mostly chat with
each other about their favorite Korean boy band. I’m glad to give them a quiet
I’ve barely swallowed the last of my lunch (rice cakes, hummus, and a banana)
when it’s time to head outside for recess duty. Since it’s a brisk day, I grab my
jacket. And since I’m growing older, I pop the hood of my car’s trunk and grab a
beach chair. I sit at the very end of our softball field, making sure that no kid kills
another kid, or leaves school grounds. My lunchtime crew are not into the various
touch football or tag games that are going on, so they gravitate around my chair
and test my knowledge of Korean boy bands, which is nil.
Twenty minutes later, I blow on the whistle attached to my room keys: It’s time
to head in and teach two more classes. Climbing the stairs yet again, this is the
nadir of the day for me: Do I honestly have the mental/physical/emotional energy
to teach two more classes? When I teach four similar classes, I always think of Yul
Brynner, who was once asked how he kept his King and I portrayal fresh after
4,625 performances: “I always tell myself that it’s a new audience.” Amazingly (to
me), I always find the energy: 25 pairs of adolescent eyes focusing on one always
gets the adrenaline flowing. And by the time I begin teaching my fourth class, the
end is in sight, which brings a fresh tailwind of energy.
After this class, the students head off for their enrichments: gym, music, art,
technology. After yet another trip to the bathroom, it’s time to grade papers for a
Then my homeroom magically reappears for twenty minutes. “Alright, open up
your agendas,” I bellow. Of course, only about four students, all girls, do. “We’ve
been doing this since the first day of school: Open up your goshdarn agendas, you
little yingyangs.” I stroll up and down the rows, making sure that the students
wrote down their homework in all their subjects. Only about four girls did.
“Alright, Joey, go into Mr. Negron’s room and bring back tonight’s math homework
for us all.”
First the bell rings for the bus riding students, leaving behind incredibly antsy
walkers. Then, blessedly, our school’s administrative assistant says the beautiful
words: “All students may be dismissed.” Oh, but our principal does not trust our
students to walk out of the building without causing a ruckus, so my colleagues
and I must accompany the kids down the hall and staircase until they are gone,
My brain, being on high alert since dawn, is mush. But the day is not yet over.
If I’m lucky, there will be one to five students waiting in my classroom for extra
help on our latest writing assignment or on our current novel. I love these
moments. Working with a small batch of kids, this is when you see eyes lighting
up and hear those glorious words: “Oh, now I get it.” This is when you can talk
human-to-human with the kid who often disrupts the class and say, “C’mon, man,
you know how to behave. Give me a break.” And oftentimes it works.
But we teachers are not always lucky: This could be a faculty meeting day, with
data already being projected on a rickety screen set up in our cafeteria. For the
next hour, you will sit there, already thoroughly exhausted, being told meaningless
stuff by people who no longer teach. Usually I bring my notebook and map out a
rough draft of tomorrow’s lesson. When that’s done, I write down the musicians
of the 1940 Duke Ellington Orchestra, or the starting line-up of the 1967 Boston
Red Sox. Anything to escape the endless slides of data being thrown at our
At 3:55, with only five minutes to go, a feeling of impending freedom surges in
our hearts–and recall, I’ve been in school since 6:05 a.m. However–and you can
set your watch to this–some older lady will invariably ask, “Can we talk about
gum?” or “Can we please talk about the girls breaking the school’s dress
code?”–and you know with a Captain Edward J. Smith sinking feeling that the
meeting will now be extended. In 38 years of attending such meetings, precious
few were not soul-sucking experiences.
And that, my friends, is an average day in the life of a teacher.
Except at 7:30 p.m. I sit down at my kitchen table and grade more papers until
my brain and eyes can simply work no more.
Besides, I still have tomorrow’s lesson to truly prepare, which will take at least
And that screeching five a.m. alarm clock is rather unforgiving.
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