By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Elementary principal Gerry Brooks started doing videos for his staff out of frustration. How else could he do justice to the daily trials of teachers?
For example, few people realize just how chaotic kindergarten lunchtime can be. But with Brooks’ southern twang, he matter-of-factly talks about his last stint on cafeteria duty.
He dutifully opened 47 Lunchables, including inserting the straw into the explosive drink pouches. He engaged in debate on whether or not a pony would make a good house pet. He listened to one child talk about his grandma having six toes on one foot – to which Brooks’ responded, “She’s so fancy.”
He retrieved children from underneath the tables. And he glanced down to see a little girl licking his hand. She had noticed something brown on his hand and wanted to help get it off.
Sigh. Just another day at school…
Brooks has been a principal for 12 years, currently at an elementary in Lexington, Kentucky. Prior to that, he was a classroom teacher for six years and an intervention specialist for two years.
His videos resonate with teachers, since so many of his frustrations are universally shared among educators. Brooks has a following or more than 500,000 people.
On Saturday, 1,500 of his fans crowded into two presentations by Brooks at the Bowling Green City Schools Performing Arts Center. The event, hosted by the Bowling Green Education Association, attracted teachers from all over Ohio and Michigan.
Brooks donates the proceeds from his talks back to the host district. In this case, those funds will be used for mental health resources and programming for staff and students.
His talk and video clips all have an irreverent tone – and had teachers in the audience cheering in agreement.
Brooks talked about his latest “products” such as a shirt stating, “My principal is great.” Once the principal has left the room, the teachers can then untuck the bottom of the shirt which reads, “at making dumb decisions.”
For fellow teachers, there’s the pencil with “You’re awesome” stenciled in one side, and “at jammin’ the copier” on the other.
And for parents, there’s the pencil stating, “Yes, your child is gifted.” The other side reads, “at eating erasers and losing his jacket.”
No one is safe from Brooks’ ridicule – least of all himself. Most is in good humor – even when talking about state testing, which he detests.
“I believe state testing is the most stupid thing we do,” Brooks said, to rousing cheers from the audience.
In Kentucky, teachers are required to remove everything from classroom walls during testing. “We teach our kids to learn from their surroundings, and then we take them down for testing,” he said.
Even bulletin boards in the hallway have to be cleared. “We don’t want a kid to go pee and learn fractions on his way back to the room,” he said.
To point out the stupidity of the rule, Brooks made a video showing a hallway bulletin board still having staples stuck in it, and another with children’s photos.
“I’m not sure what you’re trying to pull here – but it needs to be taken down,” Brooks said to the responsible teachers, noting the staples and photos could be used for counting.
Some of his videos show variations of classic children’s literature titles, such as the popular “How the Grinch Made us do a Bunch of Assessments Before Christmas” – a true story, he added.
Every year, Brooks sees teachers get stressed out as the state testing nears. He reassures his staff to do their best, and “lay your head down on your pillow at night and say you’ve done your absolute best preparing them.”
Brooks trusts teachers with keys to the supply closet, and with codes to the copier, figuring they aren’t taking copies home to wallpaper their bathrooms. But speaking of bathrooms, Brooks has created one video on proper restroom etiquette for school staffs. If men and women use the same bathroom, Brooks asked that if the women want to “frill” it up lace and “Longen-something” baskets, that they at least throw in one bobble-head to make the men comfortable.
Brooks encouraged teachers to find other educators to talk with about class problems. People outside the profession just don’t understand, he said. “They never saw a first grader flip a table.”
But he also warned that teachers be careful to not surround themselves with negative teachers. He joked about having 99 staff at this school building – with 107 personalities.
There are the super organized ones, and ones whose rooms always look like a tornado just past through. There are teachers who get rid of all the stuff they don’t want on a “free table.” And there are the hoarders who gobble it up for their classrooms.
He told of the physical education teacher with a “boot camp” style of instruction. She was very serious about creating healthy habits in students – but she went about it the wrong way, Brooks said.
“Oreos may be as addictive as cocaine. But 5-year-olds don’t need to know that,” he said. And the gym teacher’s granddad may have lost two toes to diabetes, but Brooks doesn’t need those parent phone calls.
Staff members need to work together – and that doesn’t mean holding a “Toyota” meeting in the parking lot after the principal has a staff meeting. That means learning from the teacher whose students can walk down the hall quietly, or from the teacher whose students are creating beautiful poetry.
“There’s somebody in your building who does something better than you,” Brooks said. “Ask for help.”
Though teachers can work to change the climate and culture in their schools, there are some constants that will never change.
“You are always going to have to work with parents,” Brooks said. Parents can be extremely helpful or can be the source of constant complaints. Sometimes, it’s a matter of communication.
Instead of saying “your child is licking kids on the playground, say your child has a unique way of making friends,”
“You can ruin a relationship with one comment,” Brooks said.
And kids will always have age-appropriate behavior. Some kindergartner is going to throw up on a classmate. A second grader is going to race across the cafeteria to hug an older sibling. And an eighth grade girl might cry all day after her boyfriend dumps her in the hallway before class.
Brooks knows a little bit about what it is like to have a “problem” child. After raising two “perfect” children, his third child turned out to test the patience of his parents and teachers.
During a mission trip in Central America, his son got on a computer at an internet cafe. He posted a picture of a beautiful Latin American baby. When the Brooks’ crossed back into the U.S., Gerry checked his phone and found 270 “congratulations” messages for the new child they adopted.
Brooks talked about his own attention deficient problems on his videos – bouncing back and forth from topics like teaching to tigers, and computers to a buzzing fly.
The principal has also covered touchy topics that created a stir among parents. Not long after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos commented about the need for guns in schools because of bears, Brooks filmed a clip on his school’s answer to bears. There was the compact spray bottle of “Bear Be Gone” for the smaller panda and koala intruders. The big jar of “Grizzly Glitter” was for larger threats. And the “Bear Bait” could distract any bears from children whose hands still smell like bologna from lunch.
Brooks was accused of being “political,” but he responded to criticism by saying issues like low teacher pay, guns in schools and school funding are not political. They are his job.
“We’re dealing with a lot of craziness,” Brooks said. “You can change the climate and culture of your school. Your actions affect other people at school. Be a participant not a bystander.”