My wife and I took an anniversary trip to New York City last week – I’ll be writing more about it later this week – and one of the very briefest of events got me thinking.
We passed two men dressed in what looked like Hassidic Jewish garb – except they were wearing T-shirts. The shirts read: “I am a non-fungible teacher.” My wife and I both thought, initially, that it meant they taught people about NFT’s – non-fungible tokens.
But that, it turns out, is not what it meant. I gave it a little more thought and looked up the meaning of fungible just to be sure. Fungible, it turns out, means “able to replace or be replaced by another identical item; mutually interchangeable.” So non-fungible means irreplaceable, unique. When it comes to online NFT’s, I’m not a fan. Producing these “cryptographic assets” and making them unique enough to be non-fungible takes massive amounts of energy, which is bad for the environment.
However, all it takes to be an Non-Fungible Teacher NFT is to be a unique teacher. All that takes is a life story that leads you into teaching.
I like this T-shirt.
Because what the system seems to want is fungible teachers: easily replaced, easily duplicated. Standardized. Heck, they tried to replace us with Edgenuity videos when the pandemic started in 2020.
But I am not easily duplicated. I can pass on some of the strategies I’ve developed to other teachers, but that doesn’t mean they will become copies of me. And I wouldn’t want them to be. I want other teachers to be unique, too.
What makes me non-fungible?
My childhood. I grew up in an alcoholic household and had to deal with some things growing up. I know what it is like to deal with school while you’re dealing with homelife problems. A school counselor friend recently introduced me to the ACE quiz that rates you on a scale of 10 for “Adverse Childhood Experiences”. I discovered that I rated a 7. I had no idea. But I believe I have managed to come out of the experiences intact. This is something I bring to the classroom. It informs how I deal with my students.
My creativity. I am not famous. I am not wildly financially successful. But my creativity is one of the things that helped me get through a somewhat troubled childhood. I wrote novels. I tried to make a movie. I wrote a musical and staged it. As an adult, I have written a musical, a full-length play, over 6,000 comic strips, a four YA novels and an adult novel that I still to get published. All of that informs what I do as an English and Creative Writing teacher. Every time I have trouble getting students to do something (go beyond the five paragraph essay, write fluent sentences, end fictional stories well, write using word pictures, etc.) I come up with a way to teach them to do it. I would go so far as to say that this is what teaching IS: finding ways to take students from where they are to where you want them to be. I am always trying to find new ways to reach and teach students, to take them on a journey, to help them see the world in new ways.
My mindset. I am curious. I am enthusiastic. I care. I have a strong sense of wonder. A am capable of seeing multiple points of view. I am open to new evidence and willing to change my mind. I am willing to entertain ambiguity. I am comfortable with uncertainty. I am willing to admit what I don’t know. I have ideas and values that I feel certain of. I try to be a model of intellectual health. Am I always? Of course not. No one is. But I try my best.
My reading life. I read. I tend to read around 50 books a year. I read fiction in many genres. I read comics. I read non-fiction books: history books, history of education books, how-to education books, psychology books, philosophy books, theology books, art books, creativity books. I read… a lot. And re-read. This is how I model a literate life. It is also where I get a lot my ideas for teaching.
My writing life. I write comic strips, blogs, novels, graphic novels, plays, poems, song lyrics, op-eds, and non-fiction books. I sometimes feel like I write like I’m running out of time (though I’ve already outlived Alexander Hamilton – whose grave we visited whilst in NYC!). I struggle with my writing, so I know how my students struggle. I have the inside view of writing. I am able to look at my own process and apply to what my students are doing. I am a model of an adult who creates.
My acting. I have been acting on stage at least once a year since 1985. (I even did an online play in 2021 since theaters were closed!) I have played (among other parts) Linus Van Pelt in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, Harold Hill in The Music Man, and the Pharoah (as Elvis!) in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. My theater experience makes me a good read-aloud person. It gives me presence in the classroom. Teaching is, at least a good portion of the time, performative. My theater experience helps me perform.
My experience as a cartooning teacher and summer camp counselor. I started my teaching career while I was still in high school, teaching cartooning in the Southern Adirondack Library System (SALS) in Upstate New York. I learned early on about to engage students, how to pass on what I have learned, and how to generate enthusiasm. As a summer camp counselor I learned how to relate to kids – and how to take any situation and sort of turn it into a game. I led songs, led hikes, led storytelling and discussion around the campfire. I learned how to lead.
My willingness to change and grow. When I started teaching, I tried to implement discipline as I had been instructed to do. Now I don’t really have rules. I have excellent behavior most of the time without being rule-based and haven’t written a referral in years. When I started teaching writing, I taught the five paragraph essay. I gave that up early on and haven’t taught it for years. I started out giving textbook questions to answer after reading. I haven’t done that for years: my reading assignments are very open-ended – I try to show students what should be going on in your head if you are an engaged reader. I used to use rubrics to grade writing. I avoid them now and try to make feedback about writing a dialogue. I have used traditional grades for 30 years. In the past five years I have begun to realize how much grades keep the focus on points and not on learning. I am currently reading up on how to change my grading practices to encourage learning.
My reliance on literacy. Reading and writing have saved my life and given in meaning over and over again. Reading and writing bring meaning to my life. I want to pass that on. It’s a better motivator than higher test scores. I have had to ask big question in my life – about happiness, success, power, and education itself. My sense of what questions to ask and how to find answers informs the way I frame what we do in the classroom.
My fatherhood. My children are in their twenties now. They are both doing well. I have no regrets about their childhoods. I played with them, talked with them, created with them. I read to them. A LOT. By any possible measure, they turned out… smart. I have a sense of what investments pay off in terms of literacy.
I am unique. Why would you WANT to standardize me? Why would you want to turn me into a copy of every other teacher?
I am a non-fungible teacher. I need to get that T-Shirt.
If you are a teacher, what makes you non-fungible?