A School Teacher's Confession by "Bob Smith"
Bob Smith is a pseudonym for a 59-year-old former middle school science teacher who is now an assistant professor at a large Midwestern university. Moving beyond his youthful initiation into the recreational aspects of cannabis, he finds that periodic use provides insights into the educational process. His reflection on instruction leads not only to changes in his methods of teaching and the curricula, but also to a more balanced perspective in drug education classes.
When I first smoked marijuana, I was a first year science teacher. The year was 1968 and the word was sort of filtering around through society that marijuana was actually not only benign, but fun. Eventually, I prevailed upon a teacher friend to turn me on, which she and her boyfriend did. But I had an unpleasant experience that time, asking over and over if I was high, claiming I wasn’t feeling anything, and then getting sort of lost trying to drive home later. That made me somewhat scared and paranoid. It has only happened to me a few times since, and I am now aware that it is, in fact, a possible side effect, and that helps keep things in perspective. For a few years, while “everyone” was trying it, part of the enjoyment of smoking grass was turning someone new onto it. The sensations – the way time changed, etc. – became enormously entertaining. Of course most users of marijuana are aware of the association between being stoned and laughter. It was a recreational drug in the strictest meaning of the term.
At the same time, another aspect of the experience, I discovered, was the occasional sense that something one said or thought or wrote was truly brilliant or insightful. And, as it turned out, this belief often turned out to be accurate. It happened with such regularity that it became clear that this was a drug that could be used to my advantage in addition to its recreational value. It became fairly common for me to get stoned on a Saturday afternoon. That was the day I usually spent grading papers and making lesson plans.
One particularly important moment in my teaching career came one of those early Saturdays as I was making up some activities for my students for the following week. (Here, I will have to use a little science teacher language. It won’t be hard, and it will be important.) I was trying to redesign a unit on Density, a standard topic included in middle school physical science courses. Now, to a 7th or 8th grade student, density can probably begin to have some meaning, but the concept is extremely difficult to really comprehend and master. I had, in fact, been able to get students to solve quite complex problems having to do with density, which requires some fairly sophisticated algebraic thinking. But frequently, only a few students could figure out how to even use the simplest relevant formulas to work the problems. As I sat there trying to come up with yet another activity to help teach the topic, I realized that the concept of density is extremely abstract. In fact, it is ONLY abstract and not at all concrete. The word “density” refers to a relationship: the relationship of the mass of an object or item to its volume. That, by definition is not a thing. It is a concept formed by two or more things. It cannot be measured directly – only calculated, or, at best, indicated by the response of a hygrometer. Suddenly I saw that it was almost an impossibility to expect young children to grasp this particular notion. At least, in the practical, real life sense, I would have to work weeks and weeks (as I often did) with students in order for the majority to get close to being conversant with the terms, and still, most would not be able to articulate even in their own language the basic truth about density – that it is a relationship between two dimensions of matter. Suddenly, a flash of the legendary insight: I just won’t teach density. Not at all. Never again. Now, as first year teachers learn, you teach what they tell you to teach. But as some teachers soon learn, you can teach what you like if everything you do works. I had been pretty successful in all the other areas of science I was teaching, and I realized that I would be doing everyone a favor if I unilaterally declared that piece of the pie dispensable, which I did, and I’m sure that no one ever missed it.
This event was terribly important to me in my 33 years as a science teacher. I learned from that moment the power that teachers really have in shaping what happens to their students, and it empowered me to continually examine what I was doing as a teacher. In true testimonial fashion, I must say that I’m convinced that my being high facilitated that particular insight that afternoon. It is also that type and level of reflection on instruction that I try to ardently engage my education students to consider (I am now a professor of education in a nearby university.) It is one of many truly important things I learned about teaching while under the influence.
As my career progressed, Saturdays continued to be the day that I ruminated on my teaching, wrote curriculum and made plans. And I can say without reservation, much of my best curriculum writing was done while I was stoned. It is challenging and creative material. I sometimes laugh to myself when something I’ve designed has gone over well with the students. They would be amazed at the conditions under which the ideas were hatched.
I cannot enumerate the insights and understandings I’ve arrived at, either by myself, or in conversation with others, while being advantaged by the killer weed. Many times, under the influence while discussing something with friends or colleagues, my mind racing or wandering, I’ve been driven to jump up, grab a piece of paper and jot down some new ideas that had never surfaced in similar conversations. Often, these jottings, when developed, resulted in some excellent teaching on my part, or some very worthwhile and well-designed assignments that I made for my students.
That there are some very positive cognitive aspects of cannabis intoxication is patently clear to me. In fact, I should go so far as to confess that when discussing drugs with students – a requirement of science curriculum in those grades – I have presented to the students the positives as well as the negatives of marijuana use, including “reports” that people often feel more creative and insightful, and that people smoke it because it’s fun. This is an important part of the drug education piece that is always omitted: telling kids why people use drugs. Often, the “reason” people use drugs, in the view of the drug educators, is to be popular, escape, etc. But they never tell kids why people use drugs to do those things. I have had many students also report to me that they appreciated the balanced view I presented, and said it was more meaningful and believable than all the anti-drug education they had experienced in earlier grades. (I’m sure I gained credibility with at least a few students because of parallels with their own experience. And that, no doubt, enhanced my reputation as being honest and fair in what I had told them).