Teacher Lore by Sandra Effinger June 16, 1997

“Teacher Lore” sounds so wise and assured, so heavy with tradition, so stodgy; so Miss Grundy and her bun, if you will. Words of wisdom powerful enough to work for every teacher in every school with every student. The Golden Rules of Teaching?
In a curriculum class the semester before I did my student teaching, Frances Dunham, a newly retired teacher who was later to lead the first Oklahoma Writing Project, handed out a paper titled “The 50 Things I've Learned in a Lifetime of Teaching.” Same old stuff. Back then I knew almost everything, so I threw away her list. One rule stuck anyway: “Do every assignment you give your students before you grade their work.” When I don’t make the highest grade on a test, when my poem isn't the best one, when I can't do what I expect my students to do, I am humbled, but honest. That one rule made me a better teacher. I’d probably be a master teacher with Mrs. Dunham’s other 49 rules. If I know it all, is that teacher lore?
During my twenty years of teaching, I have lost many illusions and much of the pleasure of teaching. A bit jaded, I’ve flirted with other occupations. Yvonne Palmer, a “baby” teacher, helped me rediscover some of what I’d lost. So excited about teaching, she did the whole room decoration thing, bulletin boards and paint, potted plants and posters, you know. So innocent, so naive, so juicy new, she remembered what it was like to be a student. So understanding, she wouldn’t give so much homework and she’d take late work and on and on. In spite of her ooey gooey goodie goodness, Yvonne warmed my heart when I saw the note she’d written on a tiny post-it only she could see: “Remember to smile.” Is teacher lore touchy-feelie?
One day my sophomores were being unspeakably obnoxious, irritating me to the point that I was already grinding teeth. I had warned them with a “People, I mean it!” I had tapped my foot, crossed my arms, flicked the lights, called for silence, not just quiet, rung my desk bell, three times. Finally, I began passing out worksheet after worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. Yet still they tittered. Worksheet. They grumbled. Worksheet. Whining? Another worksheet. Someone muttered “busy work.” Forbidden phrase. Another worksheet. I managed to growl through clenched teeth, “I can hand out worksh*ts all day long.” If we laughed, is that teacher lore?
I’ve given students my home telephone number all through those twenty years. It’s never been abused. The three times I’ve had students die -- an accidental slide from an icy highway, the all-too-predictable end to an illness, the suicide I prevent in hindsight -- kids could call and talk to me. Somehow, such conversations help. They take away some of the surprise and relieve some of the pain. A moment to think about the next day. I go to school very early and rearrange the seats so none of us will stare at the empty spaces. If we cried, is that teacher lore?
The Golden Rules of Teaching? Not so sure? Not so old? Always new? Comic? Tragic? I don't think that I have that kind of wisdom to pass on.