A few weeks ago I saw a performance of They Call Me Mister Fry, a one-man show by an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. As Mr. Fry inspired me to steal a few of his teaching techniques in tutoring Victor, I decided to interview him.
They Call Me Mister Fry chronicles your journey in becoming an effective teacher. What are the techniques, or qualities you feel enable you to be most effective in the classroom?
I think stealing is the best technique for a teacher. I’ve become the Robin Hood of teachers. I steal techniques from the effective teachers and I pass it along to the poorer ones. Actually, Mr. Fry in They Call Me Mister Fry starts out as not a very good teacher. He’s a buffoon. He’s green, slow, insensitive, but he learns to become effective. He learns from his students. He evolves as his students evolve. I think this is relatable because there is a learning curve for all of us in anything new we are trying.
What was your motive for creating the show?
To conquer the world by putting little Mr. Frys in classrooms from Tallahassee to Tibet to Taiwan. I’ve always wanted my own cult and to be prayed to, but no one here in California will go along with it. (I thought they’d be the first.) So it’s off to a slow start.
Okay, here’s the straight answer. After my first year of teaching full time, I witnessed a lot that I felt many people in the general public weren’t completely aware of. I wanted to tell the teacher’s story using my experience as a template.
How do you hope that the show can make a difference?
In all of my 154 performances, if my show can make a difference in just one person’s life—then I better get another job because that’s a horrible percentage.
Okay, here’s a better answer. I hope the show creates a new appreciation for those who fight the early alarm clock and battle the day in our schools with honor and enthusiasm. Presently, we seem to be in an anti-teacher environment where if the scores don’t go up, it’s the teachers’ fault. The LA Times called the show “oddly inspiring” and some people have come up to me to tell me that they saw the show and it helped them to redirect their career into education. If the show motivates people to get into teaching and creates a respect for our educators, then it has made a difference.
How has education changed in the past few years?
Education has really changed in the last few years. The teachers’ freedoms have really been shackled in low performing public schools with low API (Academic Performance Index) scores. Everything has to be approved and there’s red tape up the whazoo.
Every time I go to a professional development meeting, I feel like I’m entering Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors because there seems to be a new and improved “flavor” or “teaching method”. In the last two decades, there have been 65 different teaching approaches that have been touted as the “new and improved” teaching method. But 60 years ago the test scores were higher than they are now. Maybe we should reconsider the abacus that my grandparents used?
How do you think that the LAUSD can best be reformed, or improved?
I think the LAUSD ought to just fold. No, not like “fold” as in disappear. I mean “fold” clothes and get into the dry cleaning business. They should turn their schools into laundry facilities. They’ve spent over half the state’s budget and all the lottery money on education and now they can’t find the money. They’re professional launderers. They’re in the wrong business.
Some of my colleagues will hang me in effigy. But I’m a big voucher guy. We should not sentence students to a zip code death by limiting their access to education and in some cases permanently capping their future. Competition is good and will create better schools. They do it in places such as the Netherlands. This raises everyone’s game.
What do you think of the role of technology in the classroom?
I try to introduce it in my classroom whenever I can. One of their favorite activities is their weekly computer class. They do a program that’s a self-directed math program called “Gigi”. It’s the future and they need to be a part of it. I was just kidding when I suggested we should reconsider the abacus. (What’s an abacus, anyway? I think it’s an extinct bird or was that the Dodo-cus?)
How does performing a show for a paying audience compare to being a teacher in a classroom?
I started charging my students ticket prices before each one of my lessons. Their parents revolted and my students’ lunch money started to vanish like social security, resulting in very thin students. So consequently my model students became my supermodel students. So, I’ve been forced to keep two separate worlds completely. Both are performing, but no one laughs more at the word “Chee-chees” than the students. Imagine that.