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Susan Gianiodis: You need a thick skin to teach junior high

The end of the school year can be stressful for teachers. It brings high-stakes testing, budget cuts, possible reductions in staff and contentious School Board elections. Teachers have deadlines to get grades in, inventory all books and clean out their classrooms.

Classroom management gets more difficult. Students are worn out from state tests and school exams. The heat in un-air conditioned schools sometimes makes them tired and lethargic or ornery. More than any other time of year, dress code is a problem. No teacher enjoys having to play fashion police or dress code enforcer, but some standards must be upheld.

The heat can also make for some smelly days in crowded adolescent-filled classrooms. The students, some coming straight from gym class, have not yet learned to use restraint in their use of body sprays. The classroom can be a potent mix of Axe, fruity smells and body odor. The heat and humidity also create another dreaded thing – bad hair days.

I have the kind of hair that was great in the ’80s, but is not so great for the preferred straight hairstyles of the last decade. Junior high students, in particular, sometimes lack tact, so on humid days when my hair resembles a dandelion that has gone to seed, I hear about it. If I’m going to be honest, my hair can look like that in the dry winter air, too.

In fact, one year my students proudly presented me with a Christmas gift that they all chipped in for – a big bottle of anti-frizz serum. It can be a challenge to teach junior high kids. A person has to have a thick skin even during the best of times.

One year, on the day the school was celebrating Halloween, a smiling student stood in front of me. I could tell she wanted me to remark on her costume, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell what it was. She looked cute, though her hair was down and curly; she was wearing a skirt, cardigan, sensible heels and carrying an armful of books. Grinning broadly, she exclaimed, “I’m you!” OK, maybe she teased her hair out a little bit, but really, I’m a character now?

It isn’t the first time I’ve been made a character, however. I have learned the hard way to tell students that they may not write about me in any of their papers. One year a student wrote a “compare and contrast” essay about a drill sergeant and, you guessed it, me. Another time I was a superhero whose eyes had the ability to shoot out blue lasers.

My favorite, however, happened when I assigned a paper close to Halloween. One choice for the writing assignment was to give a witch a makeover. I told them, trying to be sensitive to differing religious beliefs, that they could choose another person instead of a witch. Yes, I was the subject of one makeover. The student got rid of my middle-aged wardrobe and frizzy big hair. It was the first time I had ever been described as middle-aged. Ouch.

Like students, teachers can get irritable at the end of the year. Some students are now making last-ditch efforts to pass the class while their teachers wonder why this effort didn’t happen earlier. Teaching can be stressful, and in this time of budget and staff cuts, tension can run pretty high. We worry about what next year will bring – bigger class sizes for one. During summer, teachers need to recharge. Some of us will be spending another year in the junior high.