If the baldness didn't convince me, this week I learned that I am, in some people's perspectives, an old man. By some people I mean jaded teenagers with better things to do than spend their summer on a college campus.
On Monday I started teaching three classes of 15-16 year olds in this program at UT called Project GRAD. What happens is groups of students with a C average or better from the under performing schools in Knoxville come to campus for two weeks and take college prep classes. At the end of the program, each one of them gets a $4,000 college scholarship. That's a big deal, and I'm ecstatic to be a part of it. I've always been for the under dog, because in a lot of ways I've always been an underdog, and I'm glad I get to help these kids on their way towards becoming somebodies, even if only for a measly two weeks. We all have to start somewhere.
I made the decision last year to have my freshman students call me by my first name. I've been Tim for nearly a quarter of a century, and I thought it would be awkward changing to Mr. Sisk. I knew the time was coming, but I wasn't trying to rush it along. Mr. Sisk just seems so old sounding. That's who my daddy is, for crying out loud, and my daddy's pretty agey. But I decided for this program I'd be Mr. Sisk. It wasn't much of a decision really. Monda (The Goddess of Teaching Teenagers) told me long ago that when I start teaching, especially at this age level, I have to be Mr. Sisk in order to maintain distance and command respect. So my decision was made. I amped up my ethos by introducing myself as Mr. Sisk, a teacher in the UT English department. I left out the fact that I'm a peon Master's student with very little experience. They need not know my life history, right? Besides, it would ruin the Mr. Sisk Effect.
I gotta tell ya, I think I like Mr. Sisk better than I like Tim. Mr. Sisk is poised and professional, but he still really cares about his students. He's not afraid to keep misbehavers after class and let them know that giggling and hitting (yes, I've had some hitters, even at 16) aren't going to make it through his class if the behavior continues. He's not afraid to scold, when need be, and he's not preoccupied with whether or not a group of rambunctious teenagers think he's cool. He's a teacher and he knows, in teenagers' opinions, teachers are never cool the first week of class. But if they command respect and show that they care, students will learn something, and they'll be more prepared for college. And in his opinion that's pretty damned cool.
Mr. Sisk is personable and interesting. Despite his frumpy attire, which he selects with the express intent of making himself appear older and thus increasing his ethos, he's thoroughly intrigued by his students, laughs at their jokes, reads and comments on their poetry after class (a sure fire sign that he's got them under his spell), and he always maintains a positive disposition even when presented with challenges. He's shaping up to be like the best teachers Tim ever had, and the type of teacher he wants to become.
I gotta tell you, the Mr. Sisk Effect is addictive. I might even have to bring him out again next semester with the freshmen.
Oh, and FYI, despite the challenges, I LOVE my students. They keep me on my toes, but damn if they aren't bright, funny, and a helluva lot of fun.