Showing posts with label teachers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teachers. Show all posts

28 July 2018

A Million Tiny Steps


I'm paraphrasing Jane Friedman here, when I say:"Success takes a million tiny steps."

People always ask me what's the hardest part of being a college fiction writing teacher.  Is it all the marking?  Having to read student works in genres you wouldn't choose to read?  The long hours teaching at night, at the podium?

I don't teach that way (at the podium.)  I'm a desk-sitter.  But it's none of that.

By far, the hardest part of being a writing instructor is telling my students about the industry.  And in particular, that they aren't going to knock it out of the park with their first book - the one they are writing in my class.

It's hard, because they don't want to believe me.  Always, they point to one or two authors who make it to the bestsellers list on their first book.  "So and so did it - why won't I?"

What they don't know is that the book on the best-seller list - that author's "debut novel" - is most likely NOT the first book the author wrote.  Industry stats tell us it will likely be their 4th book written.  (3.6 is the average, for a traditionally published author.)

My own story works as an example.  My first novel published, Rowena Through the Wall, was a bestseller (yay!)  But it wasn't my first novel *written*.  It was my third.  And before that, I had 24 short stories published, which won me six awards.  (Six awards, students. Before I even tried to get a novel published.) 

Each one of those short stories, each of those awards, was a tiny step.

About that first novel: it was horrible.  So horrible that if anyone finds it on an abandoned floppy disk and tries to read it, I will have to kill either them or me.  It was a Canadian historical/western/romance/thriller with a spoiled, whiny heroine who was in danger of being killed. No shit. Even I wanted to kill her.  The second book was also horrible, but less horrible.  It was a romantic comedy with a "plucky heroine" (gag) and several implausible coincidences that made it into an unintentional farce. 

By the time I was writing my third and fourth novels, I got smarter.  Apparently, I could do farces.  Why not deliberately set about to write a humorous book?  And while you're at it, how about getting some professional feedback?  Take a few steps to become a better writer?

I entered the Daphne DuMaurier Kiss of Death contest.  Sent the required partial manuscript.  Two out of four judges gave me near perfect scores, and one of them said:
"If this is finished, send it out immediately. If this isn't finished, stop everything you're doing right now and finish it. I can't imagine this wouldn't get published."

One more tiny step.

That book was The Goddaughter.  It was published by Orca Books, and the series is now up to six books.  (Six steps.) The series has won three awards, and is a finalist for a fourth, this year. (Four more steps.)

I'm currently writing my 18th book.  It comes out Fall 2019.  Last summer, for the first time, I was asked to be a Guest of Honour at a crime fiction festival.  It may, just may, be my definition of success.

If you include my comedy credits, I have over 150 fiction publications now, and ten awards.

160 tiny steps to success. 

Conclusion:  Don't give up if your first work isn't published.  Take those tiny steps to become a better writer.  Take a million.

How about you? In what way has your writing career taken a million tiny steps?





28 May 2018

School's Out...A Belated Thank You


Many of my Sleuthsayers colleagues are or were also teachers, and as the school year winds down with proms, exams and commencements, it seems like a good time to remember those people who got me to where I am.

 We hear about test scores and teacher evaluation and lots of other concepts, so it's easy to forget that the basic goal is to help students learn more and better so they can become responsible adults. Teachers don't make a lot of money and their popularity is always fickle (especially in America, where they've been political whipping posts for as long as I can remember), but they wield enormous impact. I retired fifteen years ago next month, and about seventy former students are now Facebook friends (We get along better now that they don't have to laugh at my jokes). A few even read my books.

For years, I claimed that the teacher mattered less than the student's drive to learn, maybe even aided and abetted by his or her parents. I still think that test scores are a bogus way to measure a teacher's worth. My belief stems from having several mediocre teachers along the way but two well-read and decisive parents whose DNA included a strong work ethic.

But now I remember the handful of excellent teachers vividly and the others are a generic blur, and it's changed my opinion.

My first really good teacher, June Roethke, was the sister of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Theodore Roethke, and she taught ninth-grade English at South Intermediate School. Miss Roethke ("RETT-key") cared nothing about self-esteem or understanding her students, and most of us had nightmares when we learned that we would be in her class. She made us keep a loose-leaf notebook exclusively for her class, divided into homework, vocabulary, reading, grammar, spelling, and several other sections I no longer remember. She mandated that we open the rings at the beginning of class and leave them that way because she didn't want to hear that infernal clacking for the next hour.

She read us poetry and made us memorize poems to recite to the class (I learned "The Glove and the Lions" by Leigh Hunt). She would berate us for a wrong answer in discussion. She divided the room into teams and asked arcane grammar questions (I didn't know an appositive is always in the same case as the word with it is in apposition until I guessed wrong in front of my henchmen) to earn extra credit on a quiz. She demanded that we all be better than we dared to dream we could ever be. After surviving her class, I have yet to learn anything new about American grammar. Because I got a "B" (Her last reported "A" was reportedly when MacArthur  signed the treaty with Japan), I was placed in honors English in high school even though I didn't sign up for it.

Sophomore year gave me three great teachers. Edith Jensen retired after teaching me biology, and she was even tougher than Miss Roethke. The week before exams, she told me in front of the class that I had a solid "B" average, which would excuse me from taking the exam (Most teachers liked the chance to grade fewer papers), but she told me I had to take it anyway. Old mimeographed handouts and charts and worksheets lay all around the room, and I took them all to complete again. When the diagrams of crayfish, frogs, and the heart turned out to be the bulk of the exam, I finished fifteen minutes before anyone else. I put the paper on her desk and walked back to my seat, turning back just in time to see her wink at me. I never told anyone because I knew they wouldn't believe me.

Sharon Hunter, a history major and English minor, became my honors English teacher in 1962, and made us use writing prompts and what is now called "free-writing" and peer editing a decade before anyone else even mentioned it. Miss Roethke taught me correctness, but Ms (Actually, she was still "Mrs.") Hunter helped me find my own writing voice. She called me "Step-on" just to bust my chops--which she did to everyone else, too, because she had no favorites. I think we all suspected that we were her favorite, though, and we all loved her back...or at least, didn't give her too much grief.

Rose Marie (Mudd) Nickodemus was a direct descendant of the Doctor Mudd who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg. She and Mrs. Hunter were young and attractive in a school with an average faculty age of somewhere around the half-life of U235. I had a terrible time in algebra, repeating the class in summer school, but Mrs. Nickodemus, who taught plane geometry, knew that some of us could visualize better than others and urged us to use colored pencils or soda straws to construct the figures in our proofs and move them around to test our ideas. Without knowing it (Maybe...), she also gave me the basis for the five-paragraph essay form nobody would talk about until years later, too.

Marjory Jacobson, who had a PhD in math from the Sorbonne, taught me first-year French in eleventh grade. she insisted you don't know a language until you think in it, and made us define the vocabulary words in French even though we were starting from scratch. A Saginaw Michigan native like me, she'd lived in France long enough to teach us idioms the textbook omitted. For example, always refer to a girls as a "JEUNE fille" (YOUNG girl) because a "fille" was a streetwalker. Imagine a group of sixteen-year-olds reacting when she dropped that one on us. Fifteen years after taking her class, I could read the French portions of Mann's The Magic Mountain well enough to get the substance if not the nuance.

Senior year, I had Don McPhee for trig and solid geometry, not long before he left to become the math chair at a nearby community college. Brilliant, patient, and hilarious, he wrote a foot-tall "E" on the wall to the left of the chalkboard to remind us that "left" was "east" when we plotted coordinates on graphs. Round;faced and balding with Clark Kent glasses, he divided the class into groups of five for the second semester and made us teach each other solid geometry. He visited each group every day or two to monitor us and clear up confusion, but he showed us that we understood the material well enough to stand on our own. Without his help, I doubt that I could have passed physics, presented by a teacher who should have retired before I was born.

I left high school planning to be a dentist, but hated my first year. Half-way through my sophomore year, I considered switching to English because Miss Roethke and Mrs. Hunter showed me I could handle it. Later on, I stole the peer teaching and writing prompts from them. I borrowed the three-dimensional (now called "learning modalities") from Mrs. Nickodemus and Mr. McPhee, and the high standards from Mrs. Jacobsen and Miss Jensen. What was left, I worked out myself. There wasn't much.
Arthur Hill High School, my alma mater

I graduated in 1965 and left Michigan for Connecticut two years later. Two of those teachers retired by the time I moved, and I know four had passed away when I returned for my reunion in 2000. If the other two are still alive, they're nearly 80.

But they aren't really dead as long as I remember what they gave me.

I wish I could tell them that I hope some of my students think of me the way I've come to think of them.

26 May 2018

Top Ten Peeves of Writing Teachers


Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one.

I'm definitely on the kind side of the equation.  The last thing I want to be is a Dream Killer.  But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated.  So when a colleague suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted.  (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

So here are my top ten peeves as a writing teacher:

THE OBVIOUS

1.  "I don't need no stinkin' genre" - aka Students who turn their noses up at the genres.

In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my Crafting a Novel course.  Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, western, literary...) to see what publishers expect.  This is particularly important when it comes to endings.  Mickey Spillane said those famous words:  "Your first page sells this book.  Your last page sells the next."

Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres.  Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure.  So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.

Many students refuse to classify their work.  They feel it is 'selling out' to do so.  (Yes, I've heard this frequently.)  They don't want to conform or be associated with a genre that has a formula.  (One day, I hope to discover that formula.  I'll be rich.)

So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction,  even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they've actually read.  *pass the scotch*

2.  The memoir disguised as fiction.

These students have no interest in writing fiction. They really only want to write one book ever, and that is the story of their life.  (Ironically, many of these students are only twenty years old...sigh.)  But they know that memoirs of unknown people don't sell well, so they're going to write it as a novel.  Because then it will be a bestseller.

Here's what I tell them:  What happens to you in real life - no matter how dramatic and emotional it is for you - usually doesn't make a good novel.  Novels are stories.  Stories have endings, and readers expect satisfactory endings.  Real life rarely gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.

If you want to write your life story, go for it.  Take a memoir writing class.

3.  "My editor will fix this" - Students who think grammar and punctuation are not important.

Someone else will fix that.  They even expect me - the teacher - to copy edit their work.  Or at least to ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking.  *hits head against desk*

I should really put this under the 'baffling' category.  If you are an artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade.  Writers deal in words;  our most important tools are grammar, punctuation and diction.  How could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?

4.  The Hunger Games clone.

I can't tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet.  Yes, I'm picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.

What I'm really talking about here is  the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can't come up with a new way to say things.  Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot.  But it has to be something we haven't seen before.

There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing.  For me, it's the 'harvesting organs' plot.  Almost every class I've taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs.  It's been done, I tell them.  I can't think of a new angle that hasn't been done and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please, leave the poor organs where they are.

THE BAFFLING

5.  The Preachers:  Students who really want to teach other people lessons.

And that's all they want to do.  Akin to the memoir, these students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one.  They want to write a novel that teaches the rest of us the importance of reuse and recycle.  Or the evils of eating meat.

Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances better.  She thought if she wrote novels about people going down the tubes financially, and they being bailed out by lessons from a friendly banker (like herself) it would get her message across.

All noble.  But the problem is:  people read fiction to be entertained.  They don't want to be lectured.  If your entire goal is to teach people a lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course.  Maybe a PR one.  Or here's a novel <sic> idea: become a teacher.

6.  Literary Snowflakes - Students who ignore publisher guidelines.

"A typical publisher guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words?  Well my book is 150,000, and I don't need to worry about that because they will love it.  Too bad if it doesn't fit their print run and genre guidelines.  They'll make an exception for me."

I don't want to make this a generational thing. Okay, hell yes - maybe I should come clean.  I come from a generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living.  'Special' wasn't a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators.

Thing is, these students don't believe me.  They simply don't believe that they can't write exactly what they want and not get published.  And I'm breaking their hearts when I tell them this:  Publishers buy what readers want to read.  Not what writers want to write.

7.  Students who set out to deliberately break the rules in order to become famous.

There are many ways to tell a story.  We have some rules on viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you don't want to break them.  The we discuss why you might WANT to break them.  Apparently this isn't enough.  *sobs into sleeve*

I have some students who set out to break every rule they can think of because they want to be different.  "To hell with the readers.  I'll head-hop if I want.  And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints, my book is going to have seventeen!  No one will have seen anything like it before.  They will think I'm brilliant."

Never mind that the prose is unreadable.  Or that we don't have a clear protagonist, and thus don't know whom to root for.  e.e.cummings did it.  Why can't they?

8.  Students who come to class every week but don't write anything.

They love the class.  Never miss a week.  But struggle to complete one chapter by the end of term.  Not only that, this isn't the first fiction writing class they've taken. They specialize in writers' workshops and retreats.

It seems baffling, but some people like to hobby as aspiring writers.  They learn all about writing but never actually write.  Of course, we veterans can get that part.  Writing is work - hard work.  Writing is done alone in a room.  In contrast, learning about writing can be fun.  Especially when done in a social environment with other people.

THE 'I COULDN'T MAKE THIS UP'

9.  Other writing teachers who take our classes to steal material for their own classes and workshops. *removes gun from stocking*

Not kidding.  I actually had an adult student come clean about this.  By class seven, he hadn't done any of the assignments and admitted he was collecting material to use for the high school creative writing class he taught.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

10.  Students who don't read.

This is the one that gets me the most.  Last term I did a survey.  I asked each student to write the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it in.  I begged them to be honest.  They didn't have to write their names on the paper, so I would never know who had written what total.  Here's the tally of number of books read:

Highest number by one person:  26

Lowest number by one person:  0-1

Average:  7

Yup, I'm still shaking my head over that low.  He couldn't remember if he'd actually read a book or not.  (How can you not KNOW?)

And these people want to be writers.  *collective groan*

To be clear here:  I read 101 novels last year.  I read for one hour every night before bed and have done so for years.  That's seven hours a week, assuming I don't sneak other time to read.  Two books a week.  And that doesn't include the hours I spend reading student manuscripts over three terms.


If reading isn't your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write?  Why would you want to??


FINAL THOUGHTS

Here's what I've learned:  Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college credit course.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that escape, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  When I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.

There is no greater high.

Melodie Campbell writes capers in between marking assignments.  Or maybe to avoid marking.
The B-Team is her latest.  You can get it at all the usual suspects.

on AMAZON





23 October 2017

Writing and Reading


by Steve Liskow

Last week, I met a man whose advertisement for a "personal novel writing teacher" had been passed on to me by a friend. I wasn't sure what he wanted or expected.

We only talked a for a minute or two before I asked, "What are the last five or six books you've really enjoyed reading?"

"Oh," he said, "I don't read."

I heard the first timber crack and looked for daylight. "So why do you want to write a novel?"

"I want to get rich."

I ended the interview. I'm proud of myself for not telling him where he could put his misperception.

Most writers who teach have variations on this story, and we all wonder how you can possibly want to write when you don't enjoy reading. That's like a guy who can't stand heights wanting to skydive. Colorblind artists don't get far, either. Or tone-deaf musicians.

I taught English for years, and I still believe you can teach someone to write exposition (essays, research papers, most of the conventional school assignments) reasonably well, but the best students have an innate talent and hunger that carry them beyond the rest. It includes an ear for language that you only develop by reading a lot and starting young.

 Let's face it, writing is hard work, much too hard for anyone who doesn't love words and the way they sound when they dance together. My family included teachers, actors, and journalists, and they all read to me and my sister from the time we could sit upright. We both love to read and we both write a lot.

People who don't read have no frame of reference. If they read, you can use various books, characters, or scenes as examples. You can cite Wuthering Heights, Catcher in the Rye or Gone Girl for an unreliable narrator. You can point to Dickens or Hawthorne for description. But if the student doesn't read, you spend more time reinventing the wheel than you do teaching him to drive. My school called the class "Composition AND literature" because they go together.

If you really want to write, read everything. Read novels, both literary and genre. Read history, science, philosophy, psychology, mythology, religion, economics and essays. Read the King James Bible, too. It doesn't matter if you're Christian or not, listen to those rhythms. Read poetry (preferably older verse with a rhyme scheme) and drama aloud. Read comic books (OK, "graphic novels"), cereal boxes and shopping lists. But stay the hell off Twitter. 140 characters is not language, it's code.

What writer(s) show you how to create rich, three-dimensional characters? Copy them. Who writes terrific dialogue? Steal the techniques. Who writes magnificent description, creates vibrant settings, and immerses you in tone and atmosphere? Figure out how she does it and use the same strategies. Then read your work out loud while walking around the room. Does it make you feel the way you want your readers to feel? If it doesn't, fix it.

Writing has to capture the human experience, and that's the whole point of language. We are (or not) because we read (or not). If you want to write, you can take classes too, but you'll learn more from the authors who speak to you.

Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, said that style depends on two factors: the ability to feel, and the vocabulary to express those feelings. You find the techniques by reading, and they enhance your empathy and humanity...maybe. The only book I know worth mentioning for writing style (except Strunk and White, which is better for exposition than for narrative) is Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. If you haven't read it, pick up a copy.

Then get back to reading for joy.

Now, what's on your coffee table or nightstand?

27 August 2016

Hey Teach! Why do you do it? (aka Vegetables for Authors)


It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling.
Did I want to come on faculty, and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes!  (Pass the scotch.)

Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre.  Such is the life of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the scotch.)

Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author.  Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH!  (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary.  Pass the scotch.)

Why do I do it?   As September lurks ever nearer, I decided to ask myself that question.  And give a completely honest answer.  Here goes:

1.  It’s not the Money
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?  Part time profs in Canada are poorly paid.  I’m top rate, at $45 an hour.  I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3 hours a week).  For every hour in the classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking.  We don’t get paid for that.  At end of term, I spend several days evaluating manuscripts.  We don’t get paid for that either.  This means I am getting paid less than minimum wage.  So I’m not doing it for the money.

2.  It’s not all those Book Sales.
Years ago, an author gal more published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me:   “Aspiring writers don’t buy books.”

I found this alarming, but other authors since then have said the same.  They teach a workshop, and students beg for feedback on their manuscripts.  But they don’t buy the teacher’s books.  Not even one.  I find this bizarre, because I would want to see how the instructor practices what she preaches. 
Bemusement aside, I’m careful in my classes not to pressure students to buy my books.  They’ve paid money for the course, and that’s enough.

My point is:  if you think by teaching a course, you are going to get an avalanche of book sales, think again.

So why the heck do you do it, Mel?  That’s time you could invest in writing your own books…

3.  It takes me back to first principles
I teach all three terms.  Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict.  Three act structure.  Viewpoint rules.  Creating compelling characters.  Teaching Crafting a Novel forces me to constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students’.  It’s like ‘vegetables for authors.’  In other words, good for me.

4.  It’s the People 
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not normally be part of my crowd.  Adult students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are delightful.  I’ve treasured the varied people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them.

Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author.  You’re not merely guessing how others different from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different.  This helps you create diverse characters in your fiction who come alive.

As well, you meet people from different professions…doctors, lawyers, salesmen and women, bank officers, government workers, labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters, chefs, paramedics.  I have my own list of people to call on, when I need to do research.

5.  It’s good for my Soul


I'm paying it forward.  Believe it or not, I didn't become an author in a vacuum.  I had two mentors along the way who believed in me.  Michael Crawley and Lou Allin - I hope you are having a fab time in the afterlife.  Hugs all around, when I get there.

Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college course credit.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  And when I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.  There is no greater high.

No question, my life is richer through teaching fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.

You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Goddaughter Caper.  This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all.  Pass the scotch.


On AMAZON



27 October 2015

Kids and Crime


by Barb Goffman
When I was in sixth grade, word spread through my elementary school that some fifth graders were going to put Spanish fly in their teacher's coffee. I didn't know what Spanish fly was, but it sounded bad. Dangerous. I waited to see what would happen and ... nothing happened. Did the students chicken out? Did someone threaten to rat them out so they called off the plan? Did someone actually rat them out but this information was kept quiet? Did they call off the plan themselves because they realized it was a bad idea? Or had it been a big rumor with no truth to it at all? I don't know. But it's certainly true that kids who may not have the capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions can enjoy playing pranks, and they can get angry and want revenge. Teachers often are a prime target.

A review of news reports on Google bears this out. A small sample:
  • A thirteen-year-old student was charged with allegedly sneaking a sleeping pill into his teacher's coffee after she chastised him for disrupting class.
  • A middle-school student was accused of putting several of his asthma pills into his teacher's coffee.
  • An eighth-grade teacher was sickened after two students slipped a prescription sedative into her lemonade, police said.
The articles go on, including ones involving elementary school students even younger than the kids involved with the Spanish fly rumor from my elementary school. It was these types of stories that prompted my newest short story, "The Wrong Girl," about a group of elementary school girls who seek revenge on a mean teacher. Addressing this topic was cathartic for me because what happened to the girl in the story happened to me, except I never tried to get revenge.

What causes some kids to try to hurt others? Do they not truly understand the consequences of their actions? Or do they understand but lack sufficient empathy? I don't know, but it's a topic I like to explore in my fiction. I've had several short stories published involving children and teenagers. You can find a few of them in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even (Wildside Press, 2013). My newest story, "The Wrong Girl," is my first attempt at flash fiction. It's in a new anthology called Flash and Bang, which was published on October 8th by Untreed Reads Publishing.

This new anthology is the first one featuring members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Every story involves a flash or a bang. The publisher chose nineteen stories, including one from fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd called "Rosie's Choice."

I hope you'll check the book out and let me know what you think of my take on kids and crime. (The anthology is available as a trade paperback and as an e-book, so with a couple of clicks, you could read it right away.) In the meanwhile, as we head toward Halloween this weekend, when children are encouraged to beg for candy or else they'll supposedly play a trick on you, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on children and crime. At what age do children come to truly understand the consequences of their actions? And at what age should they be held accountable?

22 December 2013

When Good Teachers Go Bad


Last week, I wrote about the attorney who argued his client was too rich for prison, and this week’s article began with a similar theme until it morphed into something else.
Kristin L.S. Beck is an athletics trainer who had sex with at least one minor. Although a juvenile, the Commonwealth of Virginia does not consider an adult engaging in sex with a child 15 years or older a felony. The 30-year-old was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor, and is not required to register as a sexual offender.

Beck’s lawyer argued for no sentence at all, claiming his client was the victim and added she voluntarily forfeited her license as an athletic trainer working with students.

“I'm not sure jail time would achieve anything,” he said.

The judge compromised, giving her six months behind bars, but he chastised her for betraying the public trust.

What we think we know

As I mulled over the article, it seemed to me I’d been reading a lot about women teachers having sex with minors. Curious, I googled.

teachers apple
One of the first sites I turned up listed thirty-some teachers. Naturally, Florida is one of the worst offenders. Only three were male, one out of eleven. I googled again, recognizing such names as too-pretty-for-prison Debra LaFave who prosecutors and judges in two Florida counties let walk. And Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who bedded one of her sixth-grade students and, after being given a pass by the judge couldn’t stay away from him, and following re-arrest and time  in the clink, eventually married him. And Pamela Smart who persuaded her 15-year-old paramour to murder her husband.

Wait. I know teachers. For some reason, I’ve dated an inordinate number of educators and many more are friends, including my writing buddies. Every one I know is dedicated, hard-working, and concerned about their students. It has to be every vulnerable teacher’s nightmare to be falsely accused. But, as every teacher knows, there are always a few bad apples.

What’s going on here?

Something else is happening. One writer bemoans that dozens of women teachers are being accused of sexual acts. As it turns out, the writer was wrong: not dozens, but hundreds. Names poured out of my screen. Hardly digging at all, in less than an hour I turned up more than 400 cases:

Kelly A•••Christina G••••••••Alexa N••••••
Tabitha A••••Donna Carr G•••••••Amie Lou N••••
Susan Christina A•••••••Kelly Ann G•••••Linda N••
Shelley A••••Jennalin G•••••-C••••Cheryl N•••••
Toni A•••••Lindsay G•••••-Y••••Angela Sue N••
Brianne A•••••Ellen G•••••••Kristine N•••
Tina Marie A••••Jacquelyn Faith G•••••••Rebecca N••••••
Barbara A•••••••Sandra ‘Beth’ G•••••Christine N••••
Ethel A•••••••Rachelle G••••••Amy N••••
Melissa A•••••••Robin G•••••••••Amy N••••••••
Melissa Ann A•••••••Stephanie G••••••••••Carrie O’C•••••
Bethany A•••••••Jennifer M. G•••Kristi Dance O••••
Jamie A••••••••Lisa G••••Christina O•••••
Melissa A•••••Helen G••••••Jody O••••••
Amanda A••••Brandy Lynn G•••••••Brenda O••••••
Kari Jo A•••••••Christel C. G••••••Laura P•••
Sherri Lynn B••••Marla G••••••-H••••••Angela P•••••
Brenda B••••••••••Lisa G•••••••Janet P•••••
Leslie B••••Jamie Nicole H•••Cameo P••••
Erica B••••Summer Michelle H•••••Karen P•••••
Pamela B•••••Emily Suzanne H•••••••April P•••••••••
Melissa B•••Katherine J. H•••••Alison P•••
Nicole Andrea B•••••••Emma Jean H••••Naomi P••••
Bella B••••••Dr. Allison H•••••••Carrie P••••••
Janelle B••••••Georgianne H••••••Kelsey P•••••••
Ashley Jo B••••Stephanie Diane H•••••Candace R. P•••••
Amy B•••Holly H••••••Linda P••••••
Kristin L. S. B•••Cathy H•••••••••Kaci P••••••••
Rebecca B•••••Kristal Renee H••••Nicole P••••••••
Allanah B•••••-W••••Maria Guzman H••••••••Nicola P•••••••
Shannon B•••Shannon H••••••Michelle P••••••
Anna B••••••••••Wendy L. H••••••Julie P••••••••
Sandra L. B••••••Katherine H••••Stephanie R•••••
Janelle Marie B•••Rachel Ann H••••Shebana R•••••
Joy B•••••••••Symantha H••••Beth R••••••
Michelle B••••••Deanna H••••••Makayla Dawn R••••••
Deanna B•••Becci H•••Lauren R••••••
Rebecca B•••••Crissy H••••Danielle R•••
Rebecca B•••••••Adrianne H••••••Deborah R•••••
Sandra B••••••Meredith H•••••Courtney Sue R••••••
Loni B•••••••Abigail H•••••••Jennifer R•••
Valynne B•••••Sarah H•••••Claire R•••••••
Courtney B•••••Rachel L. H•••Kristy C. R•••••
Rebecca Ann B•••••••Diana H•••Karen R••••••
Kristyn B•••••Kanesa H••••••Liza-Anne R••••••
Keri Ann B•••••Stacy H••••••Rebecca R••••••••-S••••••
Cheryl B••••••Cynthia H••••••Trina R•••••
Mariella B••••••Emily Elizabeth H••••••Valerie R••••••
Sherry B•••••Amy Lynn H•••••Pamela R••••• T•••••
Sarah B••••••Christine H••••Marcie L. R•••••••
Alini B••••Janet H•••••Sharon R•••••••••
Christy Anne B••••Ellen H•••Erica R••••••
Rosanna Encinas B••••Heather I•••••Kellie R•••
Laura-Anne B•••••••Amy Bass J••••••Tamara R••••
Rita B•••Hope J•••••Amira S•’D•
Sheree B•••••••Nicole J••••••Maria S•••
Whitney Dow B•••Urszula J••••••••Megan S••••••••
Ashley B••••••Courtney J••••••Kristy S••••••-T•••••••
Rachel B•••••••Amber S. J•••••••Donna Lou S••••••
Stephanie B•••••••Sarah J•••Lynn S•••••••
Kimberly B••••Christine Marie J•••••••Christine S•••••••
Lucinda Rodriguez C•••••••Kasey J•••••Stacy S••••••
Christine C••••Hope J••••Jennifer S••••••
Wendy C•••••Marie J••••••Dawn Marie S•••••••••••••••
Diana C•••••Danielle J••••Wendie A. S•••••••••
Christina C••••••Sarah J••••April S••••••
Gwen C••••••Christine J•••••Heather S••••••
Katheryn L. C••••••Meredith K•••Beth S•••••••
Harriett Louise C•••••Elisa K•••••••Bethany S•••••••
Amy Kathleen C•••••Denise K•••••Leah S••••••
Katie C••••••••Rebecca Lee K•••••Michelle S•••••••
Melissa C••••Jodi A. K••••••Natasha S••••
Beth Ann C••••••Heather K••••••Joan Marie S•••••
Heather C•••••••Tammy K••Pamela S••••
Whitney C•••••Irene K•••Christy Lee S••••
Michelle Rose C••••Mariane K••••••Sheral Lee S••••
Jodi C•••••Kirsten K•••••Melissa S•••
Jennifer C••••Haven K••••••••••Samantha S••••••
Lisa Lynette C••••Jodi K••••••••••Amanda S•••••
Susan C•••••••Anne K••••Mary Jo S••••
Tammy C••••••Melissa Diana K•••Christine S•••••
Stephanie C•••Abby K•••••Ashley S••••••
Angela Christine C•••••Kym K•••••Yvette S••••••
Brittni C••••••Nicole K•••••••Stephanie Ann S••••
Angela Renee C••••Michelle K•••Angela S•••••••
Andrea C••••••Debra Beasley L•F•••JoAnn S•••••••
Amanda Leigh C•••••Adrienne L•••••••Erin Baynard S••••••
Kellie Ann C•••••••Margaret L•••••••Meghan Allison S••••••
Julie Gay C•••••Shanice L••••••Jenifer S••••••
Lauren C•••••••Melissa L•••••••Elizabeth S•••
Megan C••••••Lisa L•••••Sara S•••••
Kimberly C••••Christina L•••••Lakina S•••••
Tara Lynn C••••Heather L•• B••••••••Kristen S•••••••
Elyse C•••••••Autumn L•••••••Beulah Nicole G••••••• S•••••
Kahtanna C•••Mary Kay L•••••••••Abbie Jane S••••••
Kelly Lynn D••••••Vicky Lynn L•••••••Traci T•••
Heather D•••••••••Jill L••••Jennifer T••••••••
Gay D•••••••-S••••••Amy Gail L•••••Michele T•••••
Kathia Maria D••••Angela Simmons L•••••Katherine T••
Margaret •• B••••••••Jennifer Dawn L•••••Tanya T•••••••••
Teri K. D••••Elizabeth Claire L••••••Erin T•••••
Melissa Michelle D•••Nicole L•••Heather T••••••
Melinda D•••••Chantella L•••••Lauren T•••
Diane D•M••••••-S•••••Julia L•••Deborah Lee T•••••
Jennifer D••••••Kimberly L••••Rebekah T•••
Megan D•••••Jennifer M••••••Sarah L. T••••••
Melinda D••••••Jennifer M••••Gay Lyn T•••••
Julie A. D••••Kesha D. M•••••Pamela Joan Rogers T•••••
Erica D•P•••Kristen M••••••Jennifer T••••
Nadia D•••Lisa Robyn M••••••••Erica U•••••••
Cara D•••••Amber M•••••••Michelle V••M••••
Stefanie D••••••••Christy M•••••Rachelle V•••••••
Pamela D••••-M••••Katryna M•••••Sheila V••••••
Dorothy Elizabeth D••••Elisa M•••••••••Jamie W••••
Jennifer D••••••Andrea M•••••••Jaymee W••••••
Stephanie D•••••Tina M••••Danielle W••••
Tara D•••••••Lindsay M••••••Stephanie Jo W••••••
Christine D•••Cindy M••••Allenna W•••
Andrea E••••Melissa Kellie M•B••Donna W••••••••
Susan E•••Christine M•C•••••Amanda W••••••
Amy E••••Carrie M•C•••••••Gina Marie W••••••
Christine E•••••Cristina M•C•••April W•••••
Rhianna E••••Melissa Dawn M•C•••Kelly McKenzy W•••••
Amy Rita E••••••••Michelle M•C••••••Melissa W••••
Celeste E••••••Amy M•E••••••Crystal W••••
Teresa E••••••••Lynnette M•I•••••Dawn W•••••
Jennifer E•••••••Regina M•K••Kathy W••••
Darcie E••••Alexandra Elizabeth M•L•••Shelley W••••
Michelle F•••••Erin M•L•••Jennifer W••••••
Diana Leigh F••••••Amberlee Evonne M•••••Heather W••••••
Rachel L. F••••••Elizabeth M•••••••••Amber Renea W•••••••••
Laura Lynn F••••••Amy N. M•••••Christy A. W•••••
Marcy R. F•••••Kelly K. M•••••Kacy W•••••
Carol F••••••••Julie Ann M••••Tawni W••••••••
Stephanie F•••••••Michelle M•••••Robin W•••••
Ashley F•••••Cris M•••••Emma W•••
Lisa F•••••Emily M•••••Jessica Bailey W•••••••
Ronda F•••Alison M••••••Toni Lynn W••••
Andrea F••Melissa M•••Kimme A. W••••
Chandra F•••••Elizabeth M•••Amy Y••••••••
Natalie F•••••••Antonia M••••-J•••••Shannon Y••••
Lynne F••••••Franca M••••-J•••••Melanie K. Y••••
Kenzi F•••••Allison M••••••••Heather Lynne Z••
Gail E. G••••Karolyn N••••Michelle Z••••••••
Zenna G••••••Sheryl A. N•••••••Maria Z•••••
Some of the above cases have yet to go to trial while charges in others have been dropped. A person is not judged guilty until determined by a court of law.

This is a sizable sampling, not a comprehensive list, but I'm making a point. Columnists casually speak of 'dozens', but there appear to be hundreds, perhaps thousands plus many unreported.

I could be wrong, but I don’t for a moment believe predation by female teachers (and aides, coaches, PTA members, etc.) outnumbers male’s by eleven to one. Slate writer William Saletan attempts to extrapolate from general rape statistics. Contrary to an US Department of Education survey that says in 2004 that 43% of complaints were against women, he claims assaults by male teachers outnumber female by 25-to-1 and echoes popular opinion that female aggressors are “less vile.” He intimates that male ‘victims’ are almost grown up and can better tolerate harassment.

He appears to miss the point that many Americans don’t regard sex with a female teacher a crime. Thanks to reluctance of victims and their families, fewer female teachers are accused, fewer yet are charged, fewer are prosecuted, and still fewer are given jail or prison sentences and required to register as sexual offenders. It’s a bit like that tree falling in the forest: If the teacher is let off, is it a crime?

As a 2007 NPR segment pointed out, fewer women teachers face criminal penalties. The day after Debra LaFave was allowed to walk, a male teacher was given twenty years for the equivalent crime. Elsewhere, a former Miss Texas contestant had her case dismissed without trial. The grand jury found the relationship ‘endearing and flirtatious.’

What’s a crime in one state may not be a crime in another. If the age of consent is 15 or 16, then a felony may not have been committed. Worsening the problem, laws that acknowledge women can be capable of sexual assault have been slow to catch up. One teacher said an internet search she conducted suggested she wasn’t engaging in a crime. Often, boys and even their families refuse to cooperate with authorities. The British National Association of Women Teachers has said that teachers who have sex with pupils over the age of consent should not be placed on sex offender registers.

The Association went on to say statutory rape laws were out of date. They weren’t alone. In the comments following some of the articles I researched, many readers suggested the age of consent should be lowered to 14. Fourteen! This age was the one that cropped up most often in the case searches (varying from ages 9 to 17).

Former US Secretary of Education and former Houston School Superintendent Roderick Paige taught us thousands of ways to manipulate school statistics. We don’t know how many teachers are simply dismissed rather than prosecuted, which makes a shambles of statistics maintained by Departments of Education. We don’t know how often a woman is allowed to plead to a misdemeanor or non-sex crime, whereas her male counterpart may be charged with statutory rape, sexual assault, or creative charges like false imprisonment.

The adage ‘Women get months, men get years’ isn’t quite accurate, but New Jersey courts convict a majority of men but less than half of women, and they sentence men to terms 50% longer than that of women. Nancy Grace says, “Why is it when a man rapes a little girl, he goes to jail, but when a woman rapes a boy, she had a breakdown?

While I’m surprised by the mounting evidence, I am willing to adjust my stereotype. I once consulted for Sinai Hospital outside Baltimore where they gathered reams of statistics. According to one curious number, domestic battery by women outnumbered assaults by men. (While more wives assaulted husbands, men tended to inflict more harm because of the sheer physical strength.)

I mentioned this to a psychiatrist friend in New York and later to another in Virginia. Both confirmed that finding. The Virginia doctor said she believed the reason was that women didn’t feel constraints, whereas sensible males have been taught to never hit a woman. The reverse isn’t taught.

With that little bit of knowledge, I could understand more or less equal numbers, but without hard statistics it’s difficult to judge. As mentioned the other day in the comments of a SleuthSayers article, our society doesn’t trust men. At the same time, we take greater steps to protect our daughters than our sons. Because women teachers are trusted, is it possible some see an opportunity? Or, more kindly, does emotion and sensation slip under their guard?

This phenomenon isn't a fluke and we can’t blame incidents on ‘trashy women’. These are women with bachelors degrees, sometimes masters and doctorates, as in the case of Dr. Allison Hargrave, seducer of a troubled 13-year-old girl. These women are articulate, smart, poised community figures. Many have won awards. They held such promise.

And now?

Like many men, it’s much easier for me to sympathize with women, but can’t we find a better way to deal with this situation?

Why does one teacher receive a 25- or 30-year sentence while branded a pedophile and another's given no sentence at all? I’ve suggested before in a different context, we need to balance sentencing. First, we must decide whether an act constitutes a crime and at what level: Misdemeanor? Felony? Or simply bad judgment? And once that's determined, we need to be fair, sensible, and consistent.

The too-pretty-for-prison defense has to vanish as do overly harsh sentences. Educator-of-the-Year Ethel Anderson wasn’t pretty and she wasn’t white. She received 38 years for her relationship with a 12-year-old. Hundreds of others received a virtual slap on the wrist if they were reprimanded at all.

Society clearly has both a problem and a vested interest. We entrust our children to our teachers, people we want to care about and train our children. How do we solve this problem?