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A Teacher's Sixth Sense: I See Dead Dogs (Book Excerpt)

In this excerpt from Schooled: A Love Letter to the Exhausting, Infuriating, Occasionally Excruciating Yet Somehow Completely Wonderful Profession of Teaching, Stephanie Jankowski hilariously recounts the lengths to which she and a co-teacher went to keep an English class focused on "The Odyssey" despite a rather unseemly and potentially lesson-wrecking distraction.
Teaching Strategies:
Updated on: February 27, 2020

A Teacher's Sixth Sense: I See Dead Dogs

By Stephanie Jankowski

Schooled by Stephanie Jankowski

My sophomore English class was knee-deep in Homer’s The Odyssey, an epic poem that can be an epic flop because it requires instruction with a certain je ne sais quoi. That’s French for “ignore all the weird sex stuff.” The poem basically invited mayhem, but by god, we were teachers! It’s a requirement of the job to wrangle chaos and fight the battle against distractions. We rolled with the punches when someone pulled the fire alarm during a final exam; we persevered when a student threw up in the hallway outside our classroom. We remained patient as our secretary confused the new phone system with the PA system, interrupting the entire school with “announcements” of “Good afternoon, this is Hill High School” seventeen times a day. With thoughtful preparation and teamwork, my co-teacher and I were determined to keep the students focused on Odysseus and his journey. We were busy redirecting student questions, such as “Is Odysseus really boning a goddess?” and “Are Trojan condoms named after this story?” when I saw it.

Outside, at the base of a tree...

Multitasking as teachers do, I continued the class discussion while stealthily moving across the room, closer to the row of windows.
“Someone talk to me about Greek hospitality.” I sneaked a better look.

Half-listening to a student’s response, I zeroed in on a lump half-buried beneath the thawing snow. I ran through a mental check list of all the things that could be at the base of that tree. Finally, I succumbed to the cold, hard reality: It was a dead dog.

To say that I might be a dog lover is like saying Justin Bieber might be the next E! True Hollywood Story: no doubt about it. When I cast my eyes on the poor pup’s limp body a mere 30 feet away, my heart dropped and an internal panic gripped me.

OMG was that someone’s pet?

Did the poor thing freeze to death?

We can’t let the students see this!

DO. NOT. CRY.

The snow was melting under the afternoon sun; soon the morbid scene would be uncovered for everyone to see. And if there was one more distraction during this freaking poem, Odysseus would really never get home.

Discreetly, I caught my co-teacher’s attention using only “teacher eyes.” Comparable to “parent eyes” in that they quietly suggest corrective action, “teacher eyes” are used between fellow educators to communicate a potential problem without interrupting instruction. In this case, my heads-up message was, “A canine kicked the bucket right over there, and I am panicking. Make note of this atrocity, but don’t let it register on your face. Also, What are we gonna do now?!”

Her subtle nod let me know she understood.

My partner in classroom crime skillfully held the students’ attention by comparing the Sirens in the poem to the Kardashians, allowing me to inconspicuously slip to the back of the room and call our principal.

In hindsight, a call to the head honcho was maybe not so necessary. Coulda called the maintenance department, maybe even the secretary, but let’s be honest: She would’ve answered the call over the loudspeaker and announced the situation to the entire building. Being the calm professional that I am, I made this call instead:

Me, breathy and creepy: “Umm, hi. There is a dead dog—I repeat, a dead dog—right outside of my window. I’m kinda freaking out!”

Head Principal: “Stay calm. Where exactly is the dog?”

Me: “In the woods, just beyond my farthest window.”

Best Principal EVER: “I’m on it.”

I hung up the phone and made “it’s-being-handled” eyes at my faithful collaborator. Never breaking our instructional stride, we continued teaching, and the students were none the wiser.

Until.

Our maintenance man, whom I loved dearly but was admittedly not the subtlest, clomped past our window in his knee-high rubber boots carrying a giant black garbage bag and what appeared to be a spear he had whittled out of a yardstick. Of course, the students noticed and all hard work at holding their attention was obliterated.

“He ’bout to shank somebody with that thing!”

“No, no! Everything’s fine! Nothing to see out there—let’s chat about how Odysseus cheats on his wife with some witch!”

No dice. The students watched, oblivious that our maintenance man was approaching a pile o’ death. To my horror, he prodded the lifeless heap of fur with his pointy stick. Circling it, he poked from all different angles. He squatted down, eyes narrowed, examining the scene like a CSI investigator. His hand hovering just above the mound, he lifted his head, searching for me. We made eye contact and a foreboding smile slowly crept across his face, and then he did the unthinkable. My hand flew to my mouth, muffling the gasp that escaped as he held the dead dog up like a trophy for everyone to see. Without breaking our gaze, he stood, victorious, clutching the garbage bag, prodding stick and a soggy, matted pile of dead . . . leaves.

Turns out the dog wasn’t so much a dog as a messy mound of foliage left over from the fall. Minor detail.

Taking advantage of the blessed fact the students were clueless about what had just unfolded, I tried refocusing everyone’s attention only to have my classroom phone serve yet another interruption.

Principal: “How’s that dead dog situation?”

Me: “I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now. I’m teaching the youth of America on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Principal: “You know I’m telling everyone about this, right?”

Me: “Yup.”

Ironically, my mistake disrupted the very lesson we’d painstakingly prepared. I also embarrassed myself at school...again. Whatever. The moral of this story is the students, much like Odysseus, finally completed their odyssey despite the challenges and distractions that tried to throw them off course. Yes, let’s go with that. It’s much more academic than my dumb ass confusing leaves for a dead dog.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Schooled: A Love Letter to the Exhausting, Infuriating, Occasionally Excruciating Yet Somehow Completely Wonderful Profession of Teaching by Stephanie Jankowski, Page Street Publishing Co., 2019.

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