Archive for February 2023

Creative School Restroom Rules

February 26, 2023

I’ve learned that school restrooms have become the new hot spots in schools. Students congregate there to avoid the classroom discussions on semi-colons and essay formulas, or having to do algebra equations. Spending time in the midst of a room populated with urinals and stalls seems more appealing. Weird, I know, but not too far removed from the truth.

Back in my growing up days at Ironton High School, we had a group of students who would congregate in a small area outside the gym to grab a cigarette between classes. Smoking was allowed back in those days outside the building. It’s where smokers went and others avoided. Since I never smoked, I didn’t hang out there. My guess, however, is that the conversations did not revolve around the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 or slope triangle calculations.

In our middle school, with there being security cameras in the hallways, gym, cafeteria, and outside areas, restrooms are the new uncharted territories. Schools still see them as spaces deserving privacy, rightfully so. Unfortunately, they attract lunacy. Stupid things happen inside the door. It could be the studio for a spinoff show of that TV series “Jackass.”

I’ve tried different things in the past to separate the urgent from the unnecessary. For a while, I had two Beanie Babies, one for each gender. A boy signed out and took Roam the bison with him to the restroom. Girls had a penguin called Waddles. That worked for a while, until Roam came back wet one day. I didn’t want to know how he got that way. After that, I had the designated Beanie Baby placed on the restrooming student’s desk.

And then the school went to restroom passes on lanyards. I took Roam and Waddles back home to safer surroundings with their old Beanie friends.

Since a no-cell phone policy went into effect in January, students can’t text their friends about this, that, and the other useless informational things. BUT there’s the restrooms! A little hallway conversation during the four-minute passing period is a good time to arrange a mid-class rendezvous in “Stall Town.”

So now I’m thinking outside the box about the situation. Last week I went back to 6th-Grade passes, where a student gets a limited number of restroom passes for the rest of our quarter, and only one student is allowed at a time. We still have the classroom sign-out sheet, plus the restroom lanyard, and now the individual signed sheet.

But I’m not sure that’s enough, so a friend of mine and her eighth-grade daughter gave me some new creative ideas. They suggested that I have a full-size cardboard cutout of myself made. I’d need to get the school administration to sign off on the idea, but what a great way to separate those who really need to go from those who just want to avoid being educated. I can envision someone coming into the restroom and seeing two other strange-looking feet inside one of the stalls, and maybe make my cut-out tall enough that part of me is also above the stall.

My friend also suggested a front and a back. That is, for someone’s first visit of the day, my cutout is of my back, not paying attention to “their business”, but if it’s a second visit for the day, have my other cutout facing them. Awkward! Maybe even have my cutout having my hands on my hips and looking disgusted at the student. The problem is my cutout would probably have something unfortunate done to it about three days in. I’d lose a limb, have someone draw sunglasses on my fake face, or give me tattoos and piercings.

Another thought is to go back to what we did when I was in elementary school. The whole class lined up in the hallway and we took a few minutes to take a restroom break…as a class. I’m sure that would go over well with eighth-graders who would have to stand there quietly…without their cell phones.

Another idea is to have some kind of hand attached to the lanyard. It could be in collaboration with the art classes! Maybe a laminated hand. When the student comes back to the classroom, I would ask him if he washed his hands…all three of them?

Here’s the challenge! Students are deceivingly creative. The educator’s creativity is matched with their dark humor. It’s like a chess match without the board. One move gets countered by the new plunge into tainted behavior. I guess the encouraging thing is that they’re thinking, organizing, planning, and developing new strategies. It’s definitely a new education for this old guy. It makes me long for the days of the old smoking area outside Ironton High School.

The Perfect Imperfect Church

February 20, 2023

From Scripture we learn that most of the early churches that the Apostle Paul and the writer of the book of Revelation, John, encountered had issues. Rich Corinthians were gluttonous, allowed their worship of God to become experiences of confusion, and made leadership a popularity contest. Most of the seven churches of Revelation that John wrote letters to had the word “nevertheless” inserted halfway through his message to them, and what followed that word was not complimentary.

The church has always been an institution comprised of imperfect people. That shouldn’t surprise us. Paul stated it clearly in his letter to the church in Rome that “all of us fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)We have been offered salvation by the grace of God through Jesus. As Paul said to the believers in Ephesus, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—  not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

In essence, as the church we are who we are, trying to be reflections of Christ but knowing that we will have times of failure, falling short, in our pursuit of that. Thus, the quandary! We strive to be like the One who had no sin and was perfect, but have a hard time admitting that we are imperfect. Not that we condone our indiscretions, but rather we pretend they aren’t a part of who we are.

Too often, the church, a fellowship of the fallen, shoots its wounded instead of restoring the injured. Instead of treating the broken, the church has a habit of making the imperfect the scapegoat sent out from the flock to roam, weep, and wonder if it is possible that God can forgive him, since the church doesn’t seem to be able to.

That might sound harsh, and it is, but it’s also what so many followers of Jesus have experienced. They’re like the students who have been cast out of the classroom and sent to the principal’s office where the other castoffs are huddled.

Repentance and confession have always arisen in the midst of a spiritual awakening, but confession is hard to do in the midst of a church that feels it has nothing to confess, or, maybe more precisely, is afraid to confess. Being able to live out the motto, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner”, is too hazy for many Christians. Because of Jesus, we live under Grace but we find ourselves operating out of the Law. Jesus is our Standard, and yet we have unwritten but strictly adhered to standards.

Many years ago, a good friend of mine began attending a church where he was warmly welcomed, conversed with, and made to feel a part of. Feeling accepted, one Sunday he opened up to the small group he was a part of about the struggles of his past. Almost immediately, he felt that someone had turned down the group’s thermostat. It became as cold as the North Pole. His vulnerability had been greeted with social shivering and icy looks. He decided he would go to a different church and be upfront with whoever talked to him about the troubles of his past and the hope that walking with Jesus had brought to his life. Thank God that the one middle-aged lady who talked to him at the end of the worship service responded to his confession of who he was and where his life had been with the words, “Well, I’m glad you’e here and I hope to see you again next week.” Her words were like ointment on a burn. If she would have shied away from him after he had spewed on her, he may never had become a part of any church of his life. But she didn’t. She lived out Jesus to him that day and almost 30 years later, he continues to live out the hope of Christ.

That story gives me hope about what the fellowship of the fallen can be: an imperfect church that holds on tightly to the robe of the perfect Christ.

Giving Confidence To The Convinced

February 19, 2023

Sometimes we live up to our expectations, but sometimes we also live down to them. When the expectations are low to begin with the challenge is getting people who have close their eyes to open them up and see the possibilities. It’s applauding their efforts to break through into new territory that they didn’t believe they could ever enter.

I’ve experienced this in a variety of ways during the course of my life and, as I look back on it, what occurs to me is that I had certain people at different times who said they believed in me, believed that I could do whatever it was that others had told me I couldn’t do.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to one of my students at lunchtime about various adolescent items of interest. In the midst of our conversation, she made a statement that caused me to pause and clarify a false assumption. She said, “We’re the dumb group, aren’t we?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Our pack (the name given to our section of students) is the dumb pack. That’s who we are.”

“You’re wrong.”

“I heard that’s why we’re in this pack, because we’re not the smart kids. They put us in this pack because of it.”

“Let me correct you on that. Students are not grouped together in packs on the basis of who is smart and who isn’t. Quite frankly, you may have the dumbest language arts and social studies teacher in the school, but you are not in this pack because your chances of being successful are less.”

She smiled, grasping the fact that I believed in her ability to be awesome. It was a defining moment for me. In this year where this writer, a pastor for 36 years, has been called upon to guide a pack of eight-graders in their pursuit of education, I realized that my purpose, my aim, is to instill confidence in this following of students. I am called to them to believe in themselves. In the midst of teaching them how to construct an essay, I must convince them to believe in themselves.

Having coached basketball for close to 30 years, one of the things I would say frequently to my players who were reluctant to trust their ability to do a left-handed layup is “What’s the worse that can happen?” The response almost all of the time would be, “I’d miss it.” “Exactly”, I’d say. “And I’m okay with that. What I want you to know is that you have there ability to do it. It may take a few times, a few days, but I believe you can do it. And if I believe you can do it, why don’t you start believing you can do it?”

For the last three months of this school year, I’m going to preach over and over again to my flock of 57 students, “I believe you can do it. There may be people who have convinced you that you can’t, but this voice is telling you that you can.”

“You may have decided that you can’t and, as a result of that conclusion, you’re making it your goal to succeed at not succeeding, to be successful at being a consistent irritation to your teachers, as well as your classmates, but I believe you can achieve what has been pounded into you that you aren’t capable of.”

“And just like in coaching, where I sometimes have to have a refocusing activity of running a few sprints to get my players back on track, I’m not going to allow you to not reach what is easily in your grasp. Why? Because I believe in you! In all the noise of the voices who are telling you that you can’t do it, I’m going to yell “Yes, you can!”

The Simple Gospel

February 15, 2023

The “He Gets Us” campaign that aired a couple of commercials during the Super Bowl has created more debate than the controversial holding penalty on the Eagles did at the end of the game. The commercials focused on loving all people and being childlike in our treating of one another, two aspects that Jesus lived out in his ministry. He touched the untouchable, dined with tax collectors and prostitutes, and used despised folk (the Samaritans) to elevate the sacredness of caring for those who are different from us in some way.

But the “He Gets Us” commercials got turned into a symbolic tog-of-war for the different political factions to begin pulling and straining against one another. Jesus had suddenly become the rope in the middle, yanked back and forth like a toy between two pre-schoolers. Some of the accusations had merit to them. I AM uncomfortable with how some conservative evangelicals have “buddied Him up” with Donald Trump. You would never see such a theme emerging in own Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus Yoder, who taught at a Mennonite Seminary, had a completely different perspective on Jesus relationship with the political establishment.

On the other side, however, the liberal side of the fight ring has blamed Jesus, simply because conservatives have photobombed themselves into the picture with Him. In essence, the simplicity of Jesus’ message and mission has been complicated by both those who don’t believe in Him, as well as those think they can use Him for their purposes. The simple gospel has been translated into something that rivals the IRS tax code.

Whether you agree with the message of Jesus and His purpose, He didn’t ask for this. He came as a Suffering Servant, the prince of Peace, and the Lamb of God. He identified Himself as a shepherd, a vine, and the Bread of Life. He offered Himself as the Light for a dark world and the darkness that invades a person’s life. He gave up His life in order to create a bridge between the Creator and the created. There was something terribly wrong with the world and He offered Himself up as the Way back to life.

The simple gospel tries to be footnoted by the “Yes, but” folk who desire to put their personal paraphrases into the story. In the world of instant communication, everybody has an opinion (instantly) and very little time decimated to introspection and reflection. To use an analogy, it’s like having Andy Reid, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, in the room, and suggesting that he use your ideas for his game plan. He would be justified in drawing a mustache on your with a marker.

Jesus kept things simple. We are the ones who cheapen His message with our own personal biases.

The Hidden Heroes

February 11, 2023

My middle school has a cast ion characters that could rival the uniqueness and hilarity of The Office. From the office staff trying to pacify a belligerent parent, to the new 6th students in August who are wondering when recess fits into the schedule, to the youthful-looking teacher who keeps getting stopped in the corridor and asked to see her hall pass, Timberview Middle School could keep the viewers wanting more and laughing uncontrollably.

What really gets noticed, however, are the heroes of the school that are hidden in the shadows. The kid who has his own assigned seat outside the principal’s office is known by most of the school, but the folk who keep the wheels and springs of the institutional community well-oiled are passed over and not thought of.

My classroom has two boys, J and J, who stack and chairs and help clean up at the end of each school day. I never asked them to help, never even suggested it. They just do it…day after day, like a two-person team in rhythm as they complete the task. Other students, clueless to anything outside the three-foot area around them, chit-chat and stand around waiting for that dismissal bell to sound, but J and J keep at it until completion.

And then there’s our custodial crew. Most students don’t even think about the fact that the trash is taken out, toilet paper is available in the restroom, and scuff marks magically disappear over night from there hallways. They just assume that the iced-over sidewalks will be cleared by the hand of the Almighty and that the laptop computer they left in the gym will be taken care of until they get around to looking for it again. They clean up what the adolescent residents don’t feel obligated to clean up. After all, their moms and dads clean up after them at home. I think there should be a day when our school custodians get to sit down and be waited upon by the students. On the other hand, since they are part of the hidden heroes, they would probably feel very uncomfortable having Little Johnny serving them a plate of nachos.

Our school nurse gives out more bags of ice each day than the local party store on New year’s Eve. She distributes band-aids in bulk, and listens to the moans and groans of countless students who believe they have some kind of terminal cough that conveniently appears every time they have a scheduled math test. She’s the school medical mom who makes the boo-boos feel better, as well as tend to the student who tripped going down the stairs and now needs a wheelchair. She tends to the needs of ten-times as many students each day than my physician and takes care of the students who should never have come to school that day to begin with but their parents didn’t know what to do with them. She’s the hidden health hero.

And don’t forget about the thankless job that our crossing guards have. Stopping impatient parents who are steaming because their pre-ordered drink at Starbucks is losing its steam is a part of their daily routine. Keeping the young ones from being run over by the texting, tardy high schooler is her daily mission. Future doctors, lawyers, scientists, and teachers owe their careers to the stop sign she has hoisted and her eye that spotted a potential tragedy before it could occur.

And finally, there are the substitute teachers. Have a flu run through part of a teaching staff and see what happens when there are not enough substitute teachers available. Truth be told, there are some students who see substitute teacher as fresh meat to satisfy their appetite for creating misery. The teacher who is in the classroom everyday knows who the warts are that enjoy drawing attention to themselves in irritating ways. Substitute teachers usually don’t know the history of why a certain student has been assigned the seat right next to the teacher’s desk until it’s too late. They received a phone call that morning, listened to the voice of the school person desperately looking for a last-minute fill-in and agreed to help. If the answer would have been to decline, the caller might have hung up and started to weep. Like the circus lion-tamer, the guest teacher enters the classroom cage, minus a whip. Most classes are fine, but there are some…oh, man!…there are some that are earthly reflections of what purgatory must be like. Substitute teachers are the hidden, humble, and sometimes humiliated heroes.

Every school has been blessed by heroes such as these: students, support staff, and people with servant hearts. I’m not sure how any school can properly function without them.

The Apology Letter Essay Assignment

February 4, 2023

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Middle School Girl’s Basketball season had just ended and, suddenly, I had a school day where everything was planned and there weren’t any after-school responsibilities. So I called my coaching buddy and friend, Ron McKinney, to see if he was available to be my substitute (The politically correct term is “Guest Teacher”) for me the next day. After checking with his daughter who was home from the East Coast, he said “Sure!”

Ron had taught at Timberview ever since Moby Dick was a minnow, and then retired at the end of the 2020-21 school year to do other things, like go fishing, hunting, laying on beaches, and diving in Cozumel. Plus, he started substitute teaching at Timberview. He’s known, respected, trustworthy, and not easily fooled (A good quality for a substitute teacher).

I have 56 students who I see at least twice each school day, language arts in the morning and social studies in the afternoon. Half of them I also see a third time in another shorter class period that is meant more for academic help, study, and special presentations.

When I stopped by at the end of the school day to talk to Ron and see how things went, I got the report! THE REPORT! The morning classes had not gone well. Many of my students decided it would be a day that they’d feel the freedom to chatter to one again about meaningless subjects and not be on task. After a talk from Mr. McKinney to begin the afternoon, things went much better, but the rise in my blood pressure had already shot to the moon. My friend had to talk me down from the Bobby Knight-ledge, and, by the way, chairs were close at hand. (That’s a Bobby Knight classic story!)

The next morning I began each of the first two classes with the words, “What do you think we’re going to talk about first?” Instead of looks of cluelessness from their adolescent faces, I received confessionals from the guilty. “How we were not on task yesterday,” came the words from one astute young lady. “How we kept talking and made Mr. McKinney upset,” revealed another.

“Okay, so let’s make a list of our actions and what we are apologetic for.” Silence. They knew this was not a jury of twelve. This was a jury of 56 with a presiding judge of one. As they gave their contributions to what was and should have been done differently, I typed them on our classroom screen.

“The thing is…Mr. McKinney is a dear friend of mine. You wouldn’t let someone treat your friend in the ways you just mentioned, would you?” Several students looked crestfallen. Others, bored with life and the fact that they couldn’t be on their cell phones doing mindless video games throughout the school day, took on that middle school look of indifference.

“So, we’re going to write apology letters to him, and not just apology letters. We’re going to practice our essay writing.” The essay formula went up on the screen. “Since you’ve given me a number of reasons as to why my blood started to boil, use three of them for your body paragraphs. If one of your classmates was out of line with his or her actions, attitude, or behavior, you may reference those as your “source”.”

Pause for effect. “Oh, and this is for a grade!”

There was quiet in Wolfeville. The sound of fingers pecking keyboards began, and the testimonies were put into print. The names of the frequent offenders were pounded into the laptop. It was a little bit of revenge for those who did not care for the immaturity of some of their classmates. There was no holding back. Reading the student submissions was like pouring through the final chapters of a John Grisham novel, the courtroom scenes. The wayward had been revealed.

The concluding summary was already known and stated by most of them. That is, most of them want to learn, some of them have bought into the lie that eighth grade doesn’t matter and they will become suddenly transformed as high school freshmen, and a few others are like the wind, changing their status and efforts at a moment’s notice.

Teachers try to move the class train along the tracks, but there always seems to be a few education hijacking students who are intent on robbing the class of the possibility of learning something new. I will try, really try, to not be like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride as I’m grading the test the students took on Friday, “Hello, my name is Mr. Wolfe. You wounded my friend. Prepare to be alarmed by your test grade.”