Every effective teacher needs street cred. Most students will consider with suspicion anything a teacher without street cred says. I mean why shouldn’t they?
Street cred means proving to your students (especially the ones that are–no joke!–21 years old) that they should truly consider you a teacher, as someone whose advice and ideas are worth listening to. Street cred is the currency of teaching: you can work your ass off to build it up, but you can make one foolish error and go broke. Street cred, to paraphrase one of my idols in my non-teaching life (Warren Buffett), “is a lot like oxygen: when you have it, you don’t think about it; when it’s gone, you panic.”
As a new teacher coming into a new community and–let me be honest, standing out like a seal being dropped into a pod of killer whales–I don’t have much street cred. Without this oxygen, without this currency, I haven’t yet panicked or filed for bankruptcy, but I certainly haven’t felt completely confident while walking the wide hallways of the school.
For a while now, I’ve yearned for an opportunity to build street cred. But I’ve been too busy just trying to stay above water with creating strong lesson plans (impossible), grading (perpetually-late) assignments, creating suspension work packets for my (deep) cohort of suspended students, and trying to solve the (seemingly-intractable) copy/paper problem, that I’ve had scant time to even attempt to bolster my street cred (I would like to think that wearing bowties helps in this respect, but that would be merely dreaming).
Thankfully, however, Friday afternoon I had my first chance to earn my students’ respect. Our school had a Homecoming Field Day, which involved a number of inter-class and student v. staff events (e.g. kickball, 3-legged soccer, obstacle course, pie-eating contest).
On a glorious day (that proved once again that weather forecasts are less trustworthy than, for example, teachers with negative street cred), students filled our field’s bleachers, buzzing with talk about the student versus staff competitions. The anticipation was great; for many, these competitions were the only times when students could be on completely level terms with the teachers. That was what made the day special.
After a lot of empty trash-talking (i.e. a lot of talking the talk), the football team was the first group of students to get pwned (i.e. no walking the walk). In an obstacle course relay race involving dizzy bat racing, army crawling, hurdling, reverse cone-weaving and baggy clothes-wearing, four valiant teachers outpaced the turtle-like football players. The defeated footballers cried foul, claiming that we had cheated by taking fewer spins around the bat, but eventually they forgot about their devastating loss and moved on with their lives.
According to a teacher watching from the stands, students were screaming out “Wow–Mr. K run fast!” Most of the students at the school had had no idea who I was. Each day, I only see less than 70 out of over 700 students. But now most of the student body saw me in an act that instantly boosted my street cred.
Next to get pwned was a hodge podge of uncoordinated students. In an innocent game of kickball, I began by blasting a ball past third base and sprinting like the wind around all the bases for a solo in-the-park home run. Later, with bases loaded and 2 outs left, I smashed another in-the-park home run. Although the staff team ended up losing, due to some lenient refereeing calls made to appease the dejected students (they needed a morale boost), we thoroughly enjoyed our showdown.
Students came away from the Field Day realizing that Mr. K actually plays sports–and plays them well–and doesn’t just “fix computers” as certain students have made clear they believe I do. After straining my already-stressed running muscles and receiving a few too many turf burns, I felt that I had had a brilliant day of street cred-building.
In all seriousness, as teachers, building street cred is a must. Students need to know that you aren’t just some authoritarian purveyor of complicated knowledge. They need to see that you have other tricks up your sleeves that are “cool”. They also need to see that you have emotions. They want to see you interact with them at a more “authentic” and personal level, one excluding talk about make-up work or reading comprehension strategies.
With street cred, however, comes more responsibility for my actions. Because I am now in a position where students will listen to me more attentively, I must act wisely at all times and in all places.
I must admit that I already made a mistake. Despite having had a successful first few kickball at-bats, I accidentally blurted out a swear word when I whiffed one of my later at-bats. Some of the students overheard this. Not good.
Indeed, because students now know who I am, and because I live so close to my school, I need to be extra vigilant in public. Case in point: I was waiting at a bus stop near my apartment when I noticed a young woman staring creepily at me. I looked at her, turned away and–when I sensed that she was still fixated on me–looked back. At this point, she slowly inched towards me as I pulled off my iPod earbuds, readying myself for an awkward encounter.
She shyly began, “you teach at [__], right? You’re…Mr. K–right?” As soon as she saw my nod, she confidently extended her right hand. “My name is M. I’m an 11th grader at [__]. I just wanted to say hi.” I asked M if she lived in the area. She said yes, told me to have a good weekend and then walked away. I then realized that I had a high likelihood of bumping into students from my school on a daily basis, whether or not I liked it.
Street cred, then, seems to be a double-edged sword.