James Preller Interviews . . . Jack Rightmyer, author of A Funny Thing About Teaching

I recently picked up Jack Rightmyer’s book, A Funny Thing About Teaching. The subhead/tagline reads: Connecting with Kids Through Laughter . . . and Other Pointers for New Teachers.

A secondary teacher since 1980, Jack currently teaches seventh grade English at Bethlehem Middle School in Delmar, New York. Yes, that’s around the corner from me. Jack is also a book reviewer for a Schenectady newspaper, The Daily Gazette. Though we have some mutual friends, Jack and I have only spoken once in real life (and it was fabulous).

Not to belabor a point I’ve made before, but as a reader I often seek out books that will help me as a writer. Reading Jack’s book inspired me to totally rethink a character in my new (untitled) book. I initially felt that the story needed an unsympathetic teacher, someone who was unable to deal with a difficult student. But after reading Something Funny About Teaching, I saw that teacher in a whole new light. He became human. And I felt the story gain heft, and truth, and I watched as it turned like a big boat in troubled water.

Anyway, it’s a Snow Day here in the Great Northeast. Here’s Jack walking up the path now . . .

Day off today, huh, Jack? Life’s rough. Are you familiar with any snow day superstitions? Did you wear your pajamas backwards last night?

I don’t do that pajama thing, but I do pretend there’s no storm coming and I make my lunch and go to bed at the usual time. That way if I get a day off it’s a real treat!

Congratulations on publishing your first book, A Funny Thing About Teaching. I really enjoyed it. I’ve been doing some research about, for lack of a better term, “class clowns.” You know, those kids who fall into the “bright but challenging” category. And I came across something that reminded me of you. The writer advised teachers that rather than try to squelch the “bad” behavior, they should go with theirs guts — and laugh.

It took me a while to learn this, but that’s true. Most of the ‘class clowns’ are usually pretty funny. In fact, I was a class clown most of the time when I was in school. It took me a while to feel confidant that they weren’t really laughing at me, but at the atmosphere and restrictions of school itself. In 29 years of teaching I’ve encountered maybe 5 kids that seemed scary and dangerous to me. Kids are generally energetic and fun and why should teachers try to stop that. We should use that to teach our classes. It also helped that just down the hall from me was a teacher, Paul O’Brien, who modeled how to teach and have fun at the same time. Kids never seemed to give him a hard time, and I used to sit in his class and watch how he did that, how he juggled the content with the humor. He was a magician.

In some ways, I see you passing on that torch with this book. Not that you come off like Charlton Heston coming down from the mountain . . .

. . . but that in an informal, friendly way you are mentoring, passing along some of the things you’ve learned as a teacher.

I hope so. I also hope that my students see that I’m having so much fun teaching they might want to try this when they have to get a real job.

When you first began your career, you were anxious and insecure. You took the task very seriously. In other words, you were scared out of your socks.

That’s right. I thought I was supposed to be some tough, no-nonsense teacher, and I hated every second of it. In the afternoons though I coached the cross country team and was able to laugh and joke and coach the runners at the same time. I’ll never forget one of the runners saying to me, “Mr. Rightmyer, you’re so much fun at practice. How come you don’t teach this way?” That line really got to me.

Tell me about that advice you got in the teacher’s lounge, “Don’t smile until Christmas.”

I think a lot of the veteran teachers saw me as this young twenty-two-year old kid who was going to get chewed up and spit out by the high school classes. I actually grew a mustache the summer before I began teaching so I could look a bit older.

Oh, that’s hysterical. Nobody would dare mess with The Mustache! Was it one of those baseball mustaches, you know, nine hairs on each side? Or were you like some studly Keith Hernandez?

A photo is worth a thousand words . . .

Good God, Jack! I just fell off my chair! Warn me next time you do that. That photo is so great, it should have its own website. Anyway, you were saying about the advice other teachers gave you . . .

These teachers cared about me. They wanted me to get off to a good start, and they felt I needed to come down hard on the students. Before my first class, some of these teachers got me so worked up I felt like I was going in as a prison guard and not as an English teacher.

The irony was that while you accomplished many of your disciplinary goals in the classroom, you discovered that you had made yourself miserable in the process. And the kids were bored out of their minds.

I was a fake. I hated everything about it. I hated being a tough guy. That has never been my personality, and the truth was, I could never be a tough guy. The tough kids saw through that right away.

Kids can spot a phony a mile away. If you aren’t real, they will eat you alive. I think it’s true with books, too.

And I was a definite phony. But the track kids liked me from the start because they knew who I really was. We’d go for eight mile runs and laugh the whole time. My runners were doing well, improving their times, winning meets, and most importantly we were having fun. All I needed to do was figure out how to do this in the classroom!

It was as if a light bulb went off and you decided, “Why not have fun?”

It occurred to me pretty quickly that I loved the coaching because it was fun, and the teaching had not been fun. When I taught I was uptight, nervous, and unsure of what I was doing.

But not every teacher can be, or should be, George Carlin. And honestly, reading your book, it wasn’t so much the humor that jumped out at me, but the importance of being true to yourself.

My job is to teach and not to be a comedian, but funny things happen all the time in the classroom, and if I’m relaxed and aware I’m able to see those things happening and I can usually use them to teach the class or at least energize and motivate my students.

While you give due credit to the central importance of delivering content in the classroom, you also spend a lot of time and effort on relationship-buildiing.

I teach seventh grade, and many of these kids aren’t so cute anymore. These are some difficult years for many of my students and I might be the only one that will really listen to them during the day. They’re not quite adults and not quite kids anymore, and I actually find them very amusing. I love their insights into the stories we read. I love how raw they can be. Most of them don’t have filters yet, and I think they know they’re safe to say things to me and I won’t get upset. Yes, the content is important, but connecting with them is just as important.

There’s a blog I enjoy reading, called Two Writing Teachers. These women are so dedicated and talented, I’m really impressed by them. One of them, Ruth Ayres, spoke to this issue the other day. Forgive me for quoting this at length, but it’s so right on:

“Sometimes we get caught up in having the perfect plan, the perfect lesson, the perfect unit, the perfect curriculum, and our students producing the perfect pieces. This isn’t what really matters. A middle school student, Jessica, reminded me of this.

I was simply walking to my office when I saw her in the hallway. She smiled and I said, “Hi Jessica.” Her response — “You remembered my name.” I smiled; I had been in her classroom for two days. Then she chatted with me about the trouble she was having with her draft — getting the meaning to come out. Later in the week I conferred with Jessica. We talked about focusing her poem and a bit more about her meaning. Friday afternoon Jessica saw me in the hall again, smiled, and waved. It struck me then. Jessica probably won’t remember the details of our writing conference in years to come. What she will remember, though, is that I cared about her. I cared enough to remember her name. I cared enough to sit down one on one and have a conversation with her. I cared enough to smile and wave good bye on a Friday afternoon.

Those are the things that really matter. The things we do to care enough for our students.”

That’s what it’s all about, and I wish more teachers knew that. I didn’t know that when I started teaching. All I knew was that my students were supposed to be quiet and doing work. Once I began to see them as REAL people that I actually cared about, that’s when they started to do some REAL work.

What about when humor gets out of hand? Aren’t you opening up a can of worms when you give everyone permission to yuck it up?

I explain early in the year the differences between appropriate and inappropriate humor, and I still have quite a few students who never get it.

Put-down humor? I still have trouble with it. And by the way, your ears are really stupid, Mr. Rightmyer.

I wish my ears were the problem. I usually get bald jokes from the kids.

Once I had a kid tell me in front of the entire class “Your fly is down.” I said, “There’s no way I’m gonna fall for that one.” And that’s when the entire class laughed. My fly actually was down and my shirt was even sticking out of my fly. You either laugh at that or quit your job and move to Canada.

I also mention that I like to laugh, but if we can’t settle down and get back to our lesson then we can’t have the freedom to laugh on occasion. The kids get it, and most of them know when enough is enough. I’ve been teaching twenty-two years at Bethlehem, and I haven’t sent anyone out of the room for misbehavior in at least twenty years. I think the kids have learned to respect me and when I say, “Enough,” they don’t push the envelope.

In the book, you quote an article, “Discipline Zingers,” by John O’Neil (NEA Today, January, 2004). The author made an interesting point: “Kids today have the same needs as always – to be accepted, competent, respected – but they seem needier than ever.” Has that been your experience?

Yes, I think kids are needier today. So many families are in distress. So many families are broken up and dysfunctional, and so many kids today don’t know how to form relationships. They’re plugged into their iPods and playing video games. But at their core, all kids are still very much the same from one generation to another.

Overall, how did the publishing experience go for you? Obviously, as is true for all writers, now you are fabulously wealthy like J.K. Rowling.

I was lucky to find this publisher. My book isn’t quite a memoir and it’s not quite a teacher resource book either. It’s a small company in Colorado, Cottonwood Press, but they put together nice books. I haven’t made a lot of money, but that was never what it was all about for me. I just love the idea of writing as a way to reflect on something and think through a problem. I just finished another book about how I wanted to be a writer but ended up as a teacher. I had fun writing that one, too.

Wait up, hold on, you lost me. You think writing is . . . fun? What in sweet Lincoln’s mullet (gratuitous Anchorman reference) are you talking about?

Writing is more fun than correcting 120 essays. And I once had a job cleaning out sewers, writing is more fun than that!

Point taken. When will your new book be published? Will it have a title — or are you going for, like, a Beatles “White Album” effect?

I just finished my first draft and I’m calling it “Disturb the Universe: Write.” It’s another part-memoir and part “How To” book. I explain why I always liked to read and write as a kid, how I thought I’d one day be a famous journalist with Time Magazine, and how I ended up teaching at my old high school. I also give some advice about how to write and how to teach writing. Hopefully the book will have a few laughs and also some good advice in it. I’m hoping it will come out next fall some time, but I’m still very early in the publishing process
with it.

Good luck, Jack. It sounds like you are on a roll. Okay, buckle up: Lightning Round! Favorite books to use in your classroom?

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko; The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury; And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie; Endor’s Game by Orson Scott Card; The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson; Trouble with Lemons by Daniel Hayes; poems, short stories; essays by Dave Barry. On the adult side, I love books by Richard Russo. My favorite of his books is The Risk Pool. Probably my favorite book of all time is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

Yes! The Things They Carried is definitely in my Top Ten. It’s perfect. I’ve read it a few times. The audiotape is also outstanding. Russo, of course, is always great. I’m also a huge, huge Richard Ford fan.

My favorite book on writing is Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott, and I love the wacky humor of David Sedaris especially found in his collection Naked.

Favorite music?

I love all types of music from REM to Radiohead to Neil Young and Coldplay. I’m one of the few people who can play a Ramones CD and then follow it up with a Beethoven symphony.

Wow, Jack. I just realized: We’re brothers from another mother! How about movies?

My favorite movie of all time is “Chariots of Fire,” and I’m a sucker for those sports movies like “The Cinderella Man” and “Rudy.” If I could I’d go to a movie every night of the week. My two favorite movies this year have been “The Visitor” and “Frozen River.”

Athletes?

My favorite athlete of all time was Carl Yastrzemski. I also admire Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson.

Yaz! As a kid, I used to imitate how he held his bat. I’ll have to tell you my Carl Yastrzemski story one day — he taught me how to read! Sort of. Anyway, thanks for stopping by, it was a real pleasure. Please accept this XB-500 electric moped, equipped with brushless rear hub motor and powered by three chipmunks, as a parting gift.

I promise to drive it responsibly!

5 comments

  1. Stacey (TWT) says:

    Thanks for your kind, kind words about our blog & the work we do.

  2. Ruth Ayres says:

    Thanks for the props! Wow, I’m humbled and smiling sweetly right now. 🙂

    I’m also excited to check out Jack’s book. It sounds like the perfect read right now in the dead of winter.

    Happy writing,
    Ruth

  3. Jimmy says:

    Thanks for swinging by, Stacey and Ruth. I’m currently reading BOY WRITERS by Ralph Fletcher. Pretty smart so far. I don’t know exactly why I’m newly fascinated by this topic, but I’m learning not to reason why . . .

    JP

  4. a student says:

    woahh mr. rightmyer… nice picture! and eww you cleaned out sewers? thats a nice job.. (: You always made our class laugh so much! funniest english teacher ive ever had…

  5. Your Student says:

    Looking Good Mr.Rightmyer!
    Your absolutely the best teacher I ever had. No doubt about it. English is my favourite subject and you’ve inspired me to pursue something writing related in college. You deserve a million bucks! <3

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