Unexpected Answers

I remember this old Calvin and Hobbs cartoon in which Calvin is in class chewing gum.  His teacher, with the intention of getting him to spit out the gum, asks him if he has enough for the entire class.  The inferred response is that no, Calvin probably does not have enough for the entire class.  However, the next picture in the cartoon shows Calvin holding a large glob of chewed gum dripping saliva.  His answer to his teacher was “Probably, but do you really think they’d want it?”  They next picture shows him standing in front of his principal’s desk saying, “It was her idea.”

Sometimes, a teacher asks a question with an answer already in mind.  Well, to be truthful, the majority of questions that I ask have an intended response.  However, I’ve found that many times, like Calvin’s teacher, I don’t actually get the answer I was expecting.  So, here are some simple anecdotes of times when I got an answer that I wasn’t expecting.

All the names have been changed to protect the…well not exactly innocent.

The Strongest Man Competition

I was walking down the hallway when I heard yelling coming from one of our first grade rooms. I stopped in front of the door and their teacher asked if I wouldn’t mind sorting out what had happened.  There were two first grade boys involved and both were yelling and crying.  I started by separating the boys and then finding the most truthful student in first grade and asking her what happened.  She said, “I’m not sure Mr. Steidl, all I saw was Shane twisting Paul’s arm.”  Oh boy.  So I called Shane out in the hallway and asked him what happened.  Well, Shane wasn’t about to tell me anything.  He stood there stonefaced and refused to either confirm or deny the twisting of the arm or any events surrounding the alleged incident.  So, at this point I was starting to get annoyed and sent Shane back into class and called Paul out in the hallway.  Paul came out to the hallway all teary eyed with his nose dripping.  I gave him my sternest teacher look (still a work in progress to be sure) and asked him to tell me in his own words what happened.  Through sniffles, he told me how he, Shane, and a boy named Cam had been having an arm wrestling contest during class.  He then shamefully told me how Shane had started winning in their contest so he had used two hands.  Shane got angry since Paul had cheated and twisted his arm.

So the truth comes out but it’s not really a big deal.  It was just a case of first grade boys being first grade boys.  However, I felt at this time that I needed to put my teacher face back on and give him a good talking to about how it’s not ok to arm wrestle in class.  However, the way I went about this was entirely wrong.  I phrased it as a rhetorical question. “Paul, why were you arm wrestling in class?!?! You’re there to learn, not arm wrestle!”  At this point, he looked up at me blinking his teary eyes and said, “But we was just trying to find out who the strongest man was.”  I had to turn around so he didn’t see me laughing.

Running with your eyes closed

As someone in the building with advanced first aid training, I was called to most injuries that occurred; especially those involving blood.  So, one day, as I was teaching my Title One reading group, our school secretary came over the PA system and said, “Mr. Steidl, please report to gym as soon as possible.”  This was the signal for either a student that was injured or needed restraining.  My students in the group new the drill and picked up their work and headed right back to their mainstream class while I took off for the gym.  I walked in to one of our second grade students sitting in a small pool of blood holding his head.  Our P.E. teacher had already gotten the bleeding mostly stopped, so it was just a matter of cleaning him up, calling his parent/guardian, and getting him further medical aid.  He had been running and had hit his head on a pole in the gym that, for one reason or another, is a square shape with 90* corners instead of being circular.  His head had a fairly large bump that was split down the middle.  His grandfather came to get him and we then turned to the arduous process of discovering what really happened.

As is want to happen, the investigation started with volunteers.  A group of second grade boys ran up yelling that another student had pushed the boy into the pole.  That boy of course began vehemently denying that he had.  The P.E. teacher had been turned the other way and had not seen anything.  So I had one group telling me one thing happened and another group saying another.  I thought that, as usual, the truth lay somewhere in between.  Maybe the student had bumped him or tripped him accidentally.  Or maybe they had both been pushing each other.  Or something along those lines.  However, as I was about to leave the room, one little girl quietly came up to me and asked to speak with me in the hall.  I took her out there and she looked around to make sure no one heard and said, “Mr. Steidl, Timothy didn’t push Carl into the pole.  He wasn’t even close to him.”  “Ok,” I said, “What happened then?”  She again looked around and said, “Well, Carl just ran into the pole.”  “That’s all? He was just running and hit the pole?”  “Well…kind of…He had his eyes closed.”  “Why did he have his eyes closed?” “Well, they dared him to run for ten seconds with his eyes closed.”…I had no words.  But I think that nothing better summarizes second grade boys than that exchange of words.  He ran into the pole because he had been, on a dare, running with his eyes closed.

Mrs. Steidl

A few years ago I was working with a group of students for Title One reading.  We were working on how to write a personal letter.  I had the layout of a letter up on the Starboard with date, greeting, body, conclusion, and signature all displayed.  We worked through an example letter that we would write to the school principal.  They then began writing their own letters.  I allowed them to choose to whom they were writing their letter and the topic of their letter.  After they completed the rough draft, they each brought their letter to me to check over.

As I was reading over one little girl’s letter, I noticed that in the signature of the letter she’d written “Mrs. Steidl.”  I assumed that she had the greeting and the signature confused and had intended to address her letter to either me or my wife (the abbreviations of mister, missus, miss, etc. is always an issue).  I explained it to her and said, “See up here is where you write the name of the person receiving the letter.  Down here is where you put your name.  You put Mrs. Steidl down here.”  She looked at me, winked, and said, “Oh I know what I wrote there.” Then grabbed her paper and ran giggling back to her friends.  I’ve never felt more awkward around an 8 year old.

Memories in the Mundane

So on the weekends, I work a second job as a janitor.  I spend eight hours cleaning a church and getting it ready for Sunday morning.  Although I do enjoy the work, eight hours cleaning by myself goes a lot quicker when I have something to listen to.  So I generally alternate between Pandora and different podcasts.  Lately, I’ve been listening to a podcast covering Israel’s exodus from Egypt to Canaan.  Specifically, this past week dealt with the 40 years exile in the desert.  The thing of note for me that comes out of the 40 years wandering in the desert is not really any single anecdote but really the marked lack of narrative that comes from the entire 40 year time period.  The majority of the writing from that time is the giving of the law.  I looked over the summary of the 40 years from the desert and found that really there are only about 20 stories that come from that time and most of them surround the giving of the law.

Now whether or not you believe in the historicity of the Exodus account or not, I believe that we can still glean a huge single truth about the human experience from this text.  To have only 20 stories come from a period of 40 years tells me that in life, there will be some highs of note, some lows of note, and a few major events to record, but many many more days of mundane routine.  I mean think about it.  Out of a 40 year period, there were only about 20 noteworthy experiences.  That’s one event every two years.

This is something I’ve come to struggle with lately.  At my core, I’ve always felt that I’m an adventurer.  I’m a traveler, a soldier, a student, etc.  I’ve always had some sort of quest on the horizon driving me forward.  Lately however, I’ve felt that life has just gotten very routine and mundane.  It’s hard not to think that some of the adventure is over, at least for a while.  Each day seems to be a lot more of what the last day was.  This is true in both my job and at home.  It’s wake up, go to work, follow my teaching schedule, plan the next day or week, and go home.  At home it’s get home, get dinner ready, fight to get the kids to eat dinner, baths, storytime, dishes, and bed.  Then we sleep a couple hours and repeat it.

I think it would be very easy to fall into an emotional and even spiritual malaise simply following this same routine.  However, I’ve decided to start something to try to find beauty and purpose in the slew of mundane days of routine that happen between the highs and lows that make up the big events in our lives.  I think that there is great beauty to be found in the mundane.  Although events may seem small and insignificant, that does not mean that they are not worthy of committing to memory.  So, A few times a month, I’ll be sharing simple stories that, although not extremely significant or life changing, made my day better through laughter.  Without further ado, here is the first few stories in the series “Memories in the Mundane.”

It’s Good for Your Life!

It was my first year of teaching.  I had started collecting books for my room from library book sales or donations.  I had built up a pretty decent supply of books and was starting to allow students to check books out and take them home.  I had two of my second grade students, we’ll call them Joe and Bob, in my classroom picking out books to take home.  They were perusing the shelves together when they came across a series of books based on stories from the Bible.  Bob looked back and me and said, “Mr. Steidl, why do you have Bible stories here?” Before I even had the chance to answer, Joe turned around and yelled, “BECAUSE IT’S GOOD FOR YOUR LIFE!!!” and punched Bob right in the stomach.  I feel like there’s some hidden metaphor in here about how the modern day evangelical church handles things but that’s probably a different post for a different time :).

Marshmallows and Shrimp

This story takes place in a first grade classroom.  A big skill for primary age children is being able to categorize information.  It is how our brains work most efficiently.  So, in ourmorning meeting, I go around to my first graders and give them a topic and exercise that practices phonemic awareness.  For example I’ll say, “Today when it comes to your turn, tell me your favorite animal and another animal that begins with the same letter and your animal.”  On this particular day, the topic was fruit.  The students had to tell me their favorite fruit and the number of syllables in that fruit’s name.  We went around the circle and students were telling me strawberries, bananas, apples, etc.  It came to a girl who we will call Jane.  I said, “Jane, what is your favorite fruit?”  She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Marshmallows.”  I said, “Honey, marshmallows are not a fruit.” This fact simply blew her away. “Whaaaaaat!?!?!” I gave her three examples of fruit and asked her again what her favorite fruit was.  She said, “You’re for real telling me that a marshmallow is not a fruit?” I said, “That is exactly what I’m telling you.” She replied, “Well, I guess if marshmallows are not a fruit, then I’m gonna have to go with…shrimp.” I have no way to quantify this, but I believe that shrimp is actually less of a fruit than marshmallows.

The Falling V

This story really isn’t as much a story as an image that I will forever have etched into my memory.  I was teaching my fifth grade ESL/Title One reading group.  There was a boy who we will call Tyrell who was forever leaning back on his chair.  I had to remind him about three times every day to put all four legs of his chair back on the ground.  To no avail.  It’s not that he was defiant, he just had a bad habit of leaning back in his chair.  The image I have forever burned into my mind is of when he finally tipped over backwards.  His legs flew up up and spread apart in a V and hung there for about 4 seconds while Tyrell was trying to decide to continue the roll over backwards, roll to the side, or try to sit up forward.  Needless to say, we did not get much productive work done the rest of the period.

Tide Pods and Jalapeños

So if some of you are not aware, there is a bizarre new trend going around among teens called “The Tide Pod Challenge.”  The challenge is to film yourself biting into and/or ingesting one of the pods containing concentrated Tide laundry detergent then post the video on the internet.  Thankfully, YouTube has inserted some common sense into the equation and banned any such videos which has started to somewhat subdue the movement.  Let’s all pause for a second and thank whatever deity we either ascribe or don’t ascribe to for that.

Now I would like to sit back with a sound “Harrumph!” and say that I would never have been stupid enough in my adolescent years to do anything so foolhardy.  However, I have clear memories of snorting half a packet of Crystal Light lemonade powder then through watery eyes and sneezing, looking at two of my buddies and saying, “Ok, your turn.”  So I can honestly say that there is a very sound possibility that I might have tried it had Tide Pods been around in my youth.

This brings me to my story of the day and the lesson that I take away from it.  It was the summer of 2015.  I was running the summer reading program with two or three other teachers from the school.  Our school’s location is walking distance to the West Side Market in Cleveland.  We decided to take our summer reading kids on a walking field trip there.  We were going to teach them math dealing with money in a real life situation, delayed gratification in not buying the first apple, orange, or watermelon that they saw but waiting for a better price later, etc.  All the kids brought $3 and we set out.

When we got into the heart of the market, we came to the Campbell’s Sweets Factory.  Their booth was filled with all sorts of sweet things.  They had many different popcorn varieties, unique candies, cookies, cupcakes,….and chocolate covered jalapeño peppers.  The jalapeños caught the eye of one of the young boys in the group and he immediately ran up to me asking if he could buy one.  I told him that they were $2.50 and if he bought one that he would probably not have enough money for anything else.  He insisted that he wanted one despite my advice to the contrary.  We went back and forth for about a minute.  Then finally I said, “How about this, we’ll go through the rest of the market. If, at the end, you haven’t seen anything you want more than that chocolate covered jalapeño, then I’ll bring you back here and you can get it.”  We spent the next hour or so walking through the market examining different vendors.  We passed butchers and bakers, seafood and soulfood, Hungarian and Honduran, and all sorts of other things for sale.  The entire time, he kept his three dollars pressed firmly into the palm of his hand.  He denied himself everything else to go back to get the chocolate covered jalapeño that he was so sure he wanted.

We all sat down to eat whatever we had bought in the market.  I watched him as he slowly nibbled some of the chocolate off the outside of the jalapeño.  He could feel a slight burn I could tell, but was not about go without truly trying it.  He paused from eating the chocolate, examined the pepper, then bit off about an inch and a half of the pepper and started chewing.  It took about ten seconds for the heat to register in his mouth and he ran over to the trash can and spit out the chewed jalapeño but the damage was already done.  He spent the next thirty minutes with watery eyes trying to rinse his mouth out (Yes, we gave him milk and bread.  I’m not a monster) before he finally got to the point that he didn’t feel his mouth was going to fall off into the Cuyahoga River.  At that point, he came up to me and said, “You were right Mr. Steidl, I didn’t want that.”

This brings me to the teaching and parenting lesson that I learned from this particular experience.  Sometimes, we simply have to allow children to learn through experiencing pain or through their own failures.  John Wayne taught this lesson in his movie Hondo.  In it, there is a boy named Johnny who really wants to pet Hondo’s dog Sam.  Johnny twice asks Hondo (Wayne) if he can pet Sam.  Both times Hondo tells him not to.  Finally, when Johnny asks a third time, Hondo replies, “I told you twice not to, but you do what you want to do.” When Johnny tries to pet Sam, the dog bites him.  Johnny’s mother is upset at Hondo and confronts him.  Hondo says in perfect John Wayne fashion, “People learn when they get bit.  The boy just learned.”

I think that most students have an innate desire to experience things for themselves.  As they mature and become more self-reliant, they want to know things because they did it, not just because someone told them so.  For some children, this starts very young.  My two sons, ages 3 and 2, are already this way.  When I’m making pancakes on the skillet, they want to touch it.  No matter how many times I tell them that it’s hot and it will burn them, at some point, they are going to try to touch it to experience it for themselves.  So the challenge then becomes, in both teaching and parenting, to allow children to experience pain, to “get bit” sometimes, in order to know things for sure and believe them while avoiding catastrophic injury.

I believe one of the ways to do this is to provide environments that allow students to safely experience risk.  It’s about allowing them to fail while providing support and guidance when they do.  When children do not have that environment, they are left with a sense of wondering and doubt.  At some point they will test things for themselves.  So, although it is scary and challenging, I truly believe it is crucial as both teachers and parents to embrace that challenge and give children freedom, in most cases, to experience things for themselves.

Steering into the Skid

“Steering into the skid” is a phrase that initially applied to driving but later has been used to apply to other situations and areas of life.  In a driving sense, “steering into the skid” means that if a car is sliding sideways, the driver should turn the wheel in the direction that the car is sliding.  This will cause the front and back end of the car to come back into alignment and bring the car under control again.  In other situations of life, it has come to mean that if there is something happening that seems out of your control, it’s a way better option to embrace it and work to turn it into a positive than to constantly fight against it.

I find this to be true in so many teaching and parenting situations.  There is, for example, the situation of my hairline.  Ten years ago, I was blessed with a long flowing maneof thick dark curls.  Some people said that I reminded them of a darker Heath Ledger…well, these days, it is much more probable that I will be likened to Jason Statham.  To call my hairline receding would be a compliment and the bald patch in the back is moving forward to meet it.  However, I have neither the money, nor the inclination to really do anything to prevent it.  I’ve just kind of decided to steer into the skid on it.  Here’s an example of how.  It was the first week of my job teaching here in Cleveland.  Part of what I do is Title One Reading Intervention.  So I was working with one kindergarten student learning his letters and letter sounds.  In the middle of the lesson, the boy just pauses and says, “Listen Mr. Steidl, I didn’t really wanna say anything but I just gotta.  I would go back to whatever barber did your lineup and I would fire him.  Cuz he messed you up bad brah.”

So at this point, I have a choice.  I can choose to be offended and get mad at the kid.  Or I can choose to laugh at the beauty, simplicity, and honesty that is a child’s mind and steer into the skid.  So I put my head down so he could see the top of my head and said, “No Dominique, I had him do that on purpose.  Look at my hairline.  It’s the shape of the letter M.  I knew we would be learning M today so I had him do me up like.”  He kind of cocked his head to the side wondering if I was serious or not.  Then he smiled really big and started nodded emphatically.  “Oh yeah! I see it! It’s an M like the sign at McDonald’s!”…skid corrected and back on track.

Another instance of this happened about three years ago after my wife and I had our first child.  Things got really busy and I stress ate a lot and didn’t run very much.  So I gained about fifteen pounds that summer.  When I got back to school, the students noticed it right away.  I was working in our fourth grade class with a group of our ELL students. (English Language Learners).  The class was working on writing opinion essays and being able to given reasons to support their opinion.  While the students were working on forming their opinions, I overheard a group of students talking about me.  They were debating about whether or not I was actually fat or I just looked fat now. (I’m still not sure what the exact difference is).

Again, I have a choice.  Again, I chose to steer into the skid.  I had them use their debate as the topic for their opinion essay.  They had to form and defend their opinion on whether I was fat or just looked fat and defend it using three different reasons.  They thought it was absolutely hilarious and were probably the most engaged in the writing assignment that I saw all year…skid corrected and back on track.

So both of those stories are simply goofy anecdotes dealing with how seriously or not seriously I take myself, but the overall concept remains true.  With many things, it is easier and more productive to embrace things we cannot change and spin positives out of it than it is to fight it.  In parenting, Shannon and I have used this outlook many times.  Most recently, we got our sons a drumset for Christmas.  They bang on everything anyways and as far as positive creative energy outlets, there are many worse things they could be doing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if I’ve learned anything so far in life, it’s to not take myself too seriously and to try to find positives in situations I can’t change.  So keep steering into the skid everyone.


This is the post excerpt.

Hi Everyone! Welcome to the blog and thanks for reading.  Since this is my very first blog post, I’ll start by introducing myself and what the blog will be about.  My name is Erik Steidl.  I’m a 30 year old teacher in downtown Cleveland, OH.  That is what the blog will primarily cover.  I’ll be sharing experiences from the classroom both good and bad, interviewing other teachers, and sharing some tips on teaching techniques that have worked for me over the years.  However, I’m also a husband and father.  My wife Shannon and I have three children ages 3, 2, and 8 months old now.  So some of what I’ll be writing about will be the very steep learning curve that I’ve experienced delving into the world of fatherhood.  I hope to bring some humor and levity but won’t try to act as if everything is perfect in my life.  Both teaching and parenting are very rewarding but very challenging, especially in the location and demographic I teach.  I’ll share struggles as well as success and I promise to always be honest about both.

I have some other passions as well that I’ll be throwing into the mix.  Although it’s not nearly as frequent now, I still consider myself to be a runner.  I ran one year of cross country in high school and fell in love with it.  I’ve run a couple marathons and did one half-ironman triathlon in which I discovered that I really suck at swimming.  So some of my posts will probably involve my constant struggle against my expanding waistline and trying to maintain some level of fitness.  On the other hand, another passion that I have is cooking, baking, and food in general.  So at times I’ll probably share recipes and meal plans and might even throw in a restaurant review every six months when Shannon and I actually get a date night.

So, I realize that this sounds like a random and eclectic assortment of topics and ideas and it is.  I’m pretty low key excited about it though.  So thanks again for reading and stay tuned for my first post.Family2017