Ruler of Education
By Michael Cservenak
In seventh grade English, I read Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, and the Cycles of the Werewolf, I learned what a gerund was (and promptly forgot for about 10 years), and I learned how to write a readable essay, however, the most memorable aspect of my English class was not Robert Louise Stevenson’s adventure tale or Mark Twain’s humorous childhood romps – it was Mr. Ruhs diving under his desk. Our school was located below a seldom used, but very low altitude flight path and the fly over sound would dwarf whatever else was going on. Mr. Ruhs was a teacher who recognized the value of such interruptions. Instead of pausing and then proceeding as if nothing had happened, Mr. Ruhs, no matter what was going on during a fly over, would dive under his desk, wait out the engines, pop his head back up, and proclaim, “One day, it’s gonna be the big one! Phew!” This was quickly followed by him giving us a you know what I mean look. We didn’t really know what he meant, but he had our attention and he never lost it. Another day, he spent an entire class period going through his old yearbook describing in depth the idiosyncrasies of his old schoolmates (none of whom we could see). As the year went on, I began noticing these schoolmates in the stories we read in class. When I questioned him about these coincidences, Ruhs seemed as surprised as I was, “Really? How is he like Dave from my Senior class?” The cad! He tricked me into doing a full characterization! Unbelievable. Mr. Ruhs was a strict teacher, he demanded the best, and he tricked us into giving it. He never dropped his act because he knew that it would be something akin to ripping off Santa’s beard and showing us his tax records. He knew that as soon as he tried to transform his antics into teachable moments, we would be bored to tears.
Nowadays, teachers are so paranoid about making each moment teachable that they are signing up for pre-paid legal in case they get sued. We’re so focused on the standards that we can forget that it all doesn’t matter unless the kids are having fun. By striving so very hard to make a moment standard-worthy, we make it so boring that it’s rice cereal on Christmas. Mmmmm. Gag.
When I walked into my school’s library media center air conditioned carpetarium to hear Jack C. Berckemeyer speak, I had high hopes but I definitely expected at least one portion of rice cereal along with those hopes. Coming in at around 6 feet tall with looks akin to the dad from “Malcolm in the Middle”, Jack seemed a modest, charming, yet fairly average teacher dude. I said hello and confirmed our interview for after the talk and took my seat – all without much scandal. Halfway through his talk which featured team spelling with paper plates and demonstrating low-pressure systems with diaper genies, Jack moved into how depressing it was to teach 6th grade health and realize that 6th graders were getting more action than he was. “Did he just say that?” our laughter read. Yes, he did. Hell yes.
In an ocean of educational company training sessions and restructuring programs which give us multi-tiered, mile-high, leagues deep curriculum plans for every teachable moment we should plan for, Jack proved himself to be a blazing asteroid of common sense. His frank impersonations of young adolescents taking elongated routes to the pencil sharpener while poking every other student along the way and his candid admission of having been a teacher who would “start somewhere” when trying to quell classroom interruptions by yelling at the last kid he saw talk (usually the most innocent of the bunch) or shushhhhing for what seemed like hours were refreshing but also a bit frightening. Why hadn’t we all admitted these absurd behaviors before? The laughter in the room confirmed that every teacher in there had done exactly what he dramatized so aptly before us. It was as if we were all finally admitting that we secretly loved the Backstreet Boys and could relax and listen to “That Way” in peace.
In the ensuing week, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jack and then watching two more of his talks at the Hawaii Association of Middle School’s (HAMS) annual conference on Oahu. A Colorado native, Jack was recognized as an outstanding educator early in his career, cutting his teeth in a few content areas, including Physical Education and Administration, but mainly working as a middle school Language Arts teacher on his path to becoming a speaker, writer, and director for the National Middle School Association. His most recent book, “Managing the Madness” was published in 2009. I bought and read the text enthusiastically; however, I have to say that it is much more conservative than Jack’s speaking routines. While “Managing the Madness” efficiently covers his Middle School credo, its pages are a bit confining for his personality. I recommend having this text in your school’s education library but its full potential won’t be realized without seeing Jack speak.
“Middle School is a calling,” Jack soliloquizes near the end of his talks, “In this country, you are either Elementary or Secondary and that’s it. One day, I’m going to be crowned Ruler of Education. I had a teacher at a conference tell me that she’d vote for me but I told her – you don’t get to vote!” Jack then made his first decree, that all teachers in the world shall be required to sport a tick of some sort. A spasm or a “hayooo!” randomly applied to any and every lesson.
Jack laments what he calls “educational criminality” in our country, identifying this not as unqualified teachers or underfunded schools but rather as schools tending to put teachers in Middle School classrooms when they do not want to be there. At one point in his talk, Jack asked which of us just sort of ended up teaching Middle School rather than choosing to, and about a third of the room raised our hands – myself included. With a wave of his hand, he assured us that there was nothing wrong with this but went on to say that teachers in the Middle School classroom should recognize the utter difference in the young adolescent from the elementary aged child and the high school adolescent. “[Middle School] is a weird place to be. If you don’t laugh at least 5 times a day, there is something wrong with you.”
Jack cites actual physical developments such as an 11 year old’s spine fusion as a stuttering example of what we don’t know about our students. “We know more about Pavlov’s dog, than our students’ spines!” he exclaimed while explaining how he works back stretches into his lessons to make his students more comfortable. Jack reminded us that knowing our students was and always has been the most important choice we could make as teachers. This ended up being his million dollar secret. “Do you want to know the answer to education? It’s relationship. Get to know your students. I’m looking out at you guys right now and I know that there a few people in this room who don’t even bother to say hello to their students in the hallway.” He was right. There have been a few mornings I’ve avoided eye-contact or didn’t return a “hello” from a student because I felt too busy, but why else was I there in the first place? No matter what hurry I could be in, it was always a good time to say hello or good morning.
This was part of a more somber conclusion to his speaking engagement – the fact that there was no miracle cure on the horizon. We weren’t going to pass the right law or stumble upon the perfect book – it was up to us and we’d known that all along. Phew! Now I can dive under my desk. If only I can get Kona Airport to change their flight paths.
If you are a Middle School administrator or even a lit’l ole teacher like me, go to this website, www.jackberckemeyer.com or go friend Jack on Facebook and get him to your school! Your students deserve it. You deserve it. You can view my interview Jack here: