Books: Excerpts

By James Nehring — October 11, 1989 8 min read

In a new book, the teacher James Nehring draws on his experiences in four secondary schools to trace a typical work day at the fictional composite “Amesley Junior-Senior High School.”

In the following excerpts from “Why Do We Gotta Do This Stuff, Mr. Nehring?": Notes From a Teacher’s Day in School, he recounts his efforts to make productive use of “hall duty” and describes an interdepartmental meeting on research-paper form:

On the desk at my hallway station is a stack of “things to do": a memo from the social-studies-department chair; a magazine en route through the department; an overdue notice from the library; what seems like the third print-out of second-quarter grades; a camp-counselor recommendation that Peter Weinstein asked me to complete; a half-written work sheet on urbanization in South Asia.

Underneath “things to do” is “papers to correct,” 72 of them (if everybody did it) from my three social-studies classes. Amazingly, there are no papers from my two English classes. ...

All’s quiet in the smoking area. No noise in the halls. I look down.

“Mr. Nehring: Please schedule an appointment at your earliest convenience for a post-observation conference.”


“Donald Rickover, Chairman, Social Studies Department.”

This conference will be a pleasant affair, I think. The old admiral will tell me how impressed he was with my class. He will say that my use of structured work sheets showed excellent preparation, the students responded well to my questions (excellent questioning strategy), the material was appropriate to the syllabus and challenged students at their level of ability, and the bulletin-board displays were highly educational.

Then he will make a few de rigueur recommendations for improvement: I could have gone into greater depth on ... I might consider using the overhead projector for ...

Then I will say how thoughtful and complimentary his report is, we will make jovial small talk, and that will be that. Nice pat on the back. You don’t get many in teaching, so you relish the ones you get.

I make a mental note to schedule the meeting. Then the admiral’s communique goes to the bottom of the stack. ...

“Things to do.” I check my name off the routing list for Social Education, the official journal of the National Council for the Social Studies. Slick, well-researched, scholarly articles, I think.

How many of the people who write these articles are schoolteachers? Professor of education and anthropology at the University of Texas, chair of teacher education and curriculum at Stanford, associate professor of education at Penn State, professor of history at the University of Colorado, supervisor of social-studies education for the Wisconsin department of public instruction, ... .

Well, guys, nice articles. Yes, the Committee for Tenure Review approves. As for us folks here in the infantry, it’s all a little high-sounding. I slide Social Education to the bottom of the stack.

Robert Berkowicz, our librarian, is forthright. No bureaucratic jargon here: It’s overdue. Return it. ...

As I serve my hall duty, The African Experience [the overdue book] is still on my desk. I will return it during my unassigned time later today.

I am told that the effective manager will go through his “in” pile exactly once, dispensing with matters immediately in the order that they appear. That would be fine if I were allowed to get up out of my seat to retrieve The African Experience and bring it immediately to the library. I guess the wisdom on effective management does not take “hall duty” into account.

The overdue notice goes to the bottom of things to do, and my pink grade sheets fall to the floor and scatter. Oversize and cumbersome, waiting to be “reconciled” with the grades in my plan book, they represent a computer advance and the sort of tedious clerical task that offers an opportunity for math error with each of its several hundred little, illegible dot-matrix numbers. I pick them up off the floor, fold once, and lay them carefully at the bottom of “things to do.” ...

Not long ago, Alison Woodward (English department chair) and the admiral called a joint English and social-studies department meeting.

According to the memo that came around, there was “deep concern about research papers.” This promised to be some powwow, what with two whole departments and “deep concern.”

The appointed day arrived, and we convened in Bill Pierce’s room (central location). The admiral was sitting inconspicuously by the windows when I arrived. I sat down next to him, and in marched Alison.

Boom! She dropped a load of texts on the teacher’s desk. I looked at the admiral, who looked back at me and shrugged as if to say, “Don’t ask me.” It was clear whose meeting this was.

“Could we place the desks in a circle,” says Alison. With that, 23 teachers start dragging chairs and desks this way and that, just like the kids we always yell at for dragging and not lifting.

Eventually, the circle is formed, we sit down, there is whispering, nose blowing, throat clearing, then Alison looks up for silence.

“This meeting is long overdue. First let me give you some background. About 10 years ago, a committee was established to ex8amine our schoolwide policy regarding research papers. Charles, I think you were on that committee, and Bill, and yes, Grace, and several others.”

“At any rate, the committee set up guidelines to which all teachers were expected to adhere when assigning term papers. The guidelines set forth were what we at Amesley would accept as correct form regarding title page, footnotes, bibliography, and the like.”

“Well, our in-house style sheet, as it were, has languished for about the past nine and a half of those 10 years, as everyone has gone willy-nilly back to doing their own thing, and the style sheet has been all but forgotten.”

“So let’s print off new copies of the style sheet so everybody knows what’s expected and be done with it,” says Grace.

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Grace,” says Alison.

“I would like to know what our policy is for footnoting,” says Charles.

“I tell my students,” says Madeline, English teacher, “to insert a superscript number right in the text and then give the citation either at the bottom of the page or at the end of the paper. I’m not a real stickler for detail, I tell the kids, and whether it’s on the same page or at the end of the paper, it really doesn’t matter.”

To this, heads nod in agreement. Then Charles speaks up. “You see, that’s where I think we go wrong. I think we need to be consistent"--hear, hear, says Alison--"about policies just like that so our kids don’t become confused. I mean, my goodness, if one teacher says you should place the footnotes at the bottom of the page and then another says no, they belong all toel20lgether at the end of the paper, and then another teacher says, well, it really doesn’t matter, of course kids will be confused.”

“I mean, what kind of a message does that send? That we as teachers don’t know what we’re doing? It’s no wonder kids get so frustrated with term papers.”

“Actually, in the journals I read, the footnoting procedure avoids the whole business of superscript numbers.” This is Andy Rourke, and no doubt the fact that he “reads journals” in itself impresses the group.

“Most journals seem to follow the procedures of the American Psychological Association these days, which ... well, it’s easier if I show you on the board.” Andy goes to the board.

“Ahm, let’s suppose you’re quoting Chaucer, General Prologue, it’s like this.” Andy writes on the board and explains.

“Well, hold on just a moment, Andy,” Grace Haber says, interrupting. “That’s an incomplete citation. We’re missing publisher, publication date, author’s complete name ...”

“I realize that, Grace,” says Andy confidently, having anticipated the question and now answering it. Andy finishes. The group is silent. The group is clearly impressed. Finally, Ethel pipes up.

“Well, I just want to say that I think this is a very good idea and that we should all agree here and now to adopt the form of the American Psychological Association as the correct form for citation of sources in all homework conducted by students at Amesley.”

“I think the sooner we impose uniformity in whatever aspect of education that we can, the sooner we begin to cure the ills of today’s children. No, really. I think that kids today are so ... so disorganized and out of sorts primarily because there is no order enforced from above.”

“I mean, look at our school. Kids roaming the halls, smoking in the bathrooms until they’re blue in the face, not doing homework, wearing rags and calling it fashion, playing their Walkmans, listening to their rock and roll. It is truly disgraceful. It is truly disgraceful! Alison, I move that we adopt this footnoting procedure as the official method of citation for Amesley Junior-Senior High School.”

“Well, wait a minute.” Grace interrupts again. “I hear what you’re saying, Ethel, and I agree with you, too, but I just think we need to look at this a little before we go ahead. For instance--and, Andy, this is a question, I guess, for you--let’s suppose you have a work without an author; I mean, something like an almanac or a general encyclopedia. This method of footnoting will not, at least as far as I can see, accommodate that kind of citation.”

Thus proceeded the multidepartmental footnote powwow toward a not-very-swift conclusion, ending with a decision to retain traditional footnote procedure until such time as a committee could be convened (a footnote committee?) to examine alternatives.

You ask why my students are committed cynics?

From “Why Do We Gotta Do This Stuff, Mr. Nehring?": Notes From a Teacher’s Day in School by James Nehring. Copyright 1989 by James Nehring. With permission of the publisher, M. Evans and Company, New York.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Books: Excerpts