This week, I finally got to my favorite barber in Pittsburgh for a haircut. His name is Brad. Brad is the only guy who holds the ability of making this abnormally large head of mine look presentable. And presentable is relative. When you go to Brad’s shop, you usually wait for an hour or so on an old church pew, maybe enjoy a beer from his fridge, and listen to an expertly curated playlist while wanna-be hipsters, dads with skinny jeans, and a few old-time pittsburghers tell Brad about their lives. If I don’t have time to wait for Brad, I usually end up at one of those strip mall chains with big TVs and sports themes. I always leave there feeling like I look exactly like the 3rd grader who got his haircut beside me.
Yesterday though, I got lucky. I got to Brad’s shop when I was next in the queue, just minutes before Brad switched his window sign to closed. The guy in the chair was a 70 year old poet and artist, who cussed perfectly, said he detested racism, and may have voted for Trump. I wish I could swear like that guy.
Guys like that are one of the reasons I like Brad’s shop.
The other reason I like Brad’s shop is that Brad is always there. A few years ago, Brad gave up his career as an expert coffee roaster to live out his dream of opening a corner barber shop where people could come, listen to stories, have a beer, and get a haircut. He also wanted the ability fill his Disney world addiction with annual trips, at which point he closes the shop and leaves a cartoonish drawing of Abraham Lincoln on the door with a text bubble telling you that Brad is at Disney World and that maybe you should consider doing something more fun with your life. The shop has three chairs, each from the early part of the 20th century, a half-working jukebox from the 60s, the aforementioned church pew, and a dog named Kitty that skates around on the laminate wood flooring like Bambi on ice.
Anyway, Brad usually asks a lot of good questions while he is trying to salvage my head. He will ask me about my kids, the family, and inevitably, teaching.
Usually I avoid talking about teaching to non-educators. It’s hard to find things to say about school that strike an appropriate balance for adult conversation. I get too rambly, or preachy, or tedious and boring. Adults at dinner parties are happy to discuss some macro educational policy, but the specifics of neighborhood high schools really kill a wine-buzz.
I don’t know if it was the beer, or that Trump-supporting poet, but yesterday in the barber’s chair I talked a little bit more.
I talked about the politics of schools, the amazing young people I hang out with each day, the glaring inequities in our city’s schools, and the results of some of our bad decisions. I wasn’t even trying to sound depressing, but I started talking about how difficult the role of teacher-counselor has been this year as there seems to be daily revelations of student trauma. I talked about how I’m happy to be a listening ear, making my classroom a popular place, but that I feel woefully under-prepared to help to address the complexities of life that many young people in our neighborhood experience.
Teachers are often squeezing our oversized heads into an ill-fitting counselor hat. I noticed yesterday that barbers do that as well. The ease of that vinyl covered chair with hydraulic lifts starts to bring out stories. And a good barber has to listen. Brad’s a good barber.
Yesterday, I got a text from another teacher.
“I’m never quite prepared when some kids want to express their grief… there is no way for me to switch to counseling mode without bawling.”
I knew what she meant. I have written a lot on this blog about the value of relational teaching. I think teachers need to work to create safe spaces where students can learn, grow, and share. I’ve not always talked about the challenges those safe spaces present. Learning to know 120 students each year means engaging with 120 new stories of humanity. That humanity may have equal parts of joy and pain, but the students who stay after class and find your room during lunch are often expressing the heartache. Teachers are required to handle a classroom with rigor and expectations in one moment, and awkwardly provide a listening ear with sensitivity and care in the next. Excuse us if we don’t change our hat quickly enough. Or, as my colleague said, forgive us for “bawling.” I don’t know that anybody can be expected to make that switch easily. Teachers often serve as a frontline for students who have to work through their grief, joy, heartache, and happiness.
In the classroom, this presents a challenging dynamic. Teachers should work hard to build strong relationships, listen to their students, ask good questions, and show that they care, but doing that well will probably just make your job harder. Second-hand trauma will become a thing you google search a 2am when you can’t sleep. Your barber chair will always be full and the line will often be out the door and down the hallway.
At the end of my haircut, as Brad was slapping my neck with hipster aftershave made out of rum, he asked me if I had a teacher support group. It was his kind way of saying that I should probably find somewhere other than my barbershop to unload all of my problems.
I told him I hadn’t really found that group. In other words, I’m not sure where and how to talk about all of this stuff without alienating some and boring others.
My hunch is that most people spending their time reading this low-budget teacher blog are the kind of teachers who have that “barber chair” in their classroom for their students. But I’m also guessing there are a lot of us who haven’t found that chair for ourselves.
It might be worth it for you to go to Brad.
Take care folks.