Maryville middle-school history teachers Scotty Hicks and Rob Kuban recently published The Ultimate Survival Guide for Teachers, available at Amazon.com.
What's unusual about this book?
Kuban: It is laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes unbelievable. Some of the stories even appear to be made up, but as any teacher in today's classroom knows, you can't make up the kinds of things we see day in and day out. And nothing goes as planned. For example, Scotty, an Iraq veteran, once had one of his soldier buddies come and speak about his experiences to a group of 150 8th graders—including parents, teachers, and administrators. During one of his video clips—well, let's just say a few very colorful words blared through the speakers. I once had to lock down my classroom because a father was circling the campus with a shotgun. Scotty had a fight break out during his first official evaluation. I actually cut my thumb off the day prior to the first day of school and still taught. We tried to think of all the crazy experiences that have happened to us and use those stories to help struggling teachers to laugh at and learn from our tragedies and triumphs.
Why do so many teachers bail on the profession?
Hicks: It is a mentally, emotionally, physically, and even a spiritually draining profession—often at a low-end salary. Many get into it thinking, "How hard could it be? Summers off, done at 3:30, etc." But what they find is an extremely stressful profession with a shortage of practical advice to survive the stresses. That is what we did with the book: offer realistic advice in a positive and humorous manner. For example, we warn that too many teachers burn out because they put too much time into their lessons and don't know when to "clock out."
Whose idea was the book?
Hicks: It was truly a collaborative effort. We were always telling each other stories about things that have happened in our classroom, and one day Rob said, "You know we should put this down on paper." And so it began.
How did you find time?
Kuban: A lot of work one summer, several early mornings, late nights, and a few weekends gave us the time to get it done. We passed each section back and forth and held each other accountable to write it in one year.
Did the project involve research or mostly experience?
Kuban: The book is made up of our real classroom (and life) experiences. There are countless educational books out there about research, curriculum development, the latest and greatest strategies, but we wanted to create something different. Something realistic rather than rhetoric—something that was funny, relatable, inspirational, and left teachers feeling empowered in their classroom.
How'd you divide the labor?
HIcks: We sat down and thought of what any newly hired or nearly retired struggling teacher may need to know to make it in this profession. We then divided the book into sections (surviving, arriving, and thriving), then chapters, and from there were able to begin hammering things out. Dropbox.com made it easy to keep up with a file we were both working on. Once the rough draft was done, we sent it out to several other teachers and made tweaks based on their suggestions.
What would you have done differently if you'd read your own book first?
Hicks: This book would have helped me focus early in my career on several things that took many years to discover, like maintaining a great sense of humor.
Do your students know you're doing a book?
Kuban: Not while we were writing it. But when they find out that we wrote a book about teaching, they always want to know if they are in it!
What's the most radical advice in the book?
Hicks: We believe that the best teachers focus on inspiration as well as information. All of the push in education nowadays revolves around curriculum and content mastery—which is obviously very important—but great teachers learn how to motivate, inspire, encourage, challenge, and connect with their students in ways that will never show up on a standardized test. We sought to challenge teachers to leave a legacy that goes beyond learning.
On the day job, do you ever find yourself ignoring your own advice?
Kuban: Do we slip up and make mistakes? Of course. The stresses of teaching will always be hard on teachers. It will never be an easy job, but we try to challenge teachers to reflect on why they became a teacher and create a true sense of mission that matters every day. When the fire drill cuts your perfect lesson short, or a student continues to offer you every excuse known to man why he can't be in class on time, or if you have done everything right and the data still doesn't match your efforts, it's time to regroup, refocus, and prioritize.
What's your best tip for moving on from writers block?
Hicks: For us, it was easy. We could just pass it back and forth when we were hitting a wall. For others I would recommend something similar: Bounce ideas off of others with the same profession or interests.