Today we have the opportunity to mine the wealth of information that longtime educator and author Matt Coleman has accumulated from his sixteen years in the educational system in the state of Arkansas (nine in the classroom). Matt’s debut mystery novel Juggling Kittens released earlier this month from Pandamoon Publishing. The novel’s protagonist is a first-year middle school teacher who is determined to find one of his missing students. A phenomenal read. Below is our conversation with the intent to offer details and insights into challenges and aspirations of teachers in our country to hopefully provide a nugget of detail that will help writers bring their stories to life. Enjoy!
In your novel Juggling Kittens, you write about the time around 9/11 from the perspective of a first-year middle school writing teacher. Were you in the classroom on 9/11? How were you able to personally deal with such an impactful event and at the same time guide your students through it?
That part of the book is actually very autobiographical. It played out pretty much just like that. It was my third or fourth week on the job, and I had absolutely no clue how to handle it. The most fascinating part of it all was to see kids reacting to death. I’m sure that sounds morbid and horrible, but I don’t mean it that way at all. There is an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem called “Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies.” I can remember thinking of it that day. You could scan the room and pick out the kids who had experienced loss of some kind–a relative or a friend or, like in the book, a pet. Those kids were carrying the same shock we felt as adults. The other kids were watching TV. And it was a powerless feeling to know you couldn’t help them with it. That was a lesson they would have to learn on their own.
Since 9/11 has there been an increase in the training teachers receive on how to deal with catastrophes like this in and out of the classroom?
I don’t know if I’ve noticed that, but you have been able to feel it. There’s a weight from it that still hangs around even fifteen years later. I think it gives us all this historical touchstone from our own lives. Of course, any kid not in high school right now wasn’t born yet. But for a lot of years, I could see a lot of teachers referencing it in a way that made a lot of what we were teaching (especially in history classes) much more meaningful. As horrible as an event like that is, I feel like we’ve all seen that it can serve as a unifying event. Like I write in the book, we all remember where we were. There is something familial about that.
What is the best part about the public school system in the USA?
The teachers. No question about it. I’ve been in a lot of schools. A lot. I’ve seen public, private, college, charter, and home. The best teachers are in public schools. Hands down. We may be a surly bunch at times. And, just like any profession, there are shitty teachers. But the good ones are phenomenal. We go through around sixty (or more) hours of professional development per year. We are monitored by multiple people multiple times per week. We have more accountability measures than any profession I know of. We work together weekly to plan collaboratively. We are with an individual kid for up to about 20 hours a week (depending on grade). And we teach up to 150 kids a year (depending on grade). It’s a huge job. And we are very good at it.
What is the biggest challenge to the public school system in the USA?
Our biggest downfall is our reluctance to allow for creativity. In teachers and students. We have leaned into the world of standardized testing. And, in many ways, it has turned public education into a shit show. Teachers, by nature, are creative people. When you start to take that away? That’s when you hear grumblings about low pay. People will stomach low pay when they are getting to do what they love. We know that all too well as artists. It’s not always about the money. What teaching is supposed to be is an outlet for people to follow their passions and help kids realize what is so amazing about science or art or writing. We have a tendency to take the fun out of things. We are currently doing that to public schools.
In Juggling Kittens, Ellis Mazer the protagonist of the novel and a middle school writing teacher encounters a student with a gift for writing. In effect, Ellis tells the student to protect what she has because everyone will try to change it and take it from her. Do you think that happens to talented students or people a lot? Their creativity and talent are washed out of them by life?
I think it can. People are assholes. When we see someone doing something, our first thought is often I can do that better. We are a capitalistic society. And we love sports. A lot. Those factors (and I’m not knocking them) make you competitive. Art is not competitive. Paula Hawkins is an excellent writer. Gillian Flynn is an excellent writer. But we aren’t putting them in a steel cage anytime soon. We don’t have to know which one of them is “better.” They can both exist and create alongside each other in harmony. And I know that sounds like some hippy-dippy bullshit, but what I hate to see is this innate idea that we can always improve someone’s art. When all we are usually doing is trying to make it look more like ours. That’s seven kinds of fucked up. I’m not saying we, as artists, don’t have a lot to learn from each other. We do. Of course we do. But I have seen kids get their hands slapped for coloring outside the lines enough times to know it happens. Most of the time we should spend way more time trying to teach artists to ask questions than we spend trying to answer any.
If you had one piece of advice you could give Ellis Mazer or any teacher before they stepped into the classroom for the first time, what would it be?
Hahahaha. You are about to fuck up. Accept it. No. I think it’s all about structure. For a right brain like myself, that’s hard. But it is critical. You have to be more structured than you’ve ever been before. There is a procedure for everything. Everything.
I smoked for the better part of ten years and Ellis is attempting to quit in Juggling Kittens. Where do teachers sneak a cigarette while on the job?
Man. It’s tough. I, thankfully, have quit now, but, like you, I did smoke for many years. Your only option as a teacher is to take a drive around the block on your lunch break. There is no smoking anywhere on school grounds. So at one of my schools, there was a cluster of custodians who would walk right across the street and smoke every day. The teachers were never brave enough to do that. Smoking is a very closeted thing for a teacher.
Where do students sneak a cigarette?
Hahahaha. The bathroom, I think. School grounds are pretty locked down now, so the days of a “smoking tree” are gone. But you will smell it in the bathroom every now and then. I don’t know … maybe that’s the answer to the previous question.
Nearly twenty years since Columbine, school shootings are still a real and all too common of an occurrence in our country. How has the recent surge in school violence changed the way teachers are trained and what the fuck can we do as a society to stop these shootings?
Well, the training is crazy. We go through it every year. There are whole companies who have emerged out of this shit. We have “active shooter drills.” Just like a fire drill. It’s a thing now. During the summer, they put teachers through the motions, with fake shooters and everything. We have to run and hide and barricade doors and shit. And don’t get me wrong, schools are much more watchful and safer. You can’t just waltz into a school these days. But as far as what the fuck we can do? I don’t see any real fix until people in power stop politicizing kids’ lives and sit down at a fucking table together to find solutions. I’m pretty apolitical on the topic of guns, but I do believe that can do something. Last year, the IRS discovered that I owed them $213. Some mistake was made in filing. So, I say to you, if we can track two hundred bucks to the doorstep of some nobody in Podunk, Arkansas, can we not get assault rifles away from crazy people? Didn’t we invent baseball? Look how complex that shit is. We made the Internet, right? It just seems to me that if we set aside politics and brought everyone together, we could come up with some solutions that would help protect our kids without violating anyone’s rights.
You alluded to No Child Left Behind to a degree in Juggling Kittens and teaching to the test is often portrayed on TV and film as a negative. Is this accurate in your opinion? Do teachers have enough flexibility to teach?
I touched on this earlier. I think it’s awful. Teachers do still have some flexibility, but testing is killing creativity. Accountability is important. It’s crucial. But we have allowed ourselves to be test-driven. That’s bad. If the test is driving what we do, then we’re only doing what can be tested. As you can imagine, that carves it down to very measurable skills. Doesn’t leave much room for creativity.
STEM is constantly in the news these days. What are your thoughts on this shift in educational focus?
It’s actually great. STEM is a very hands-on approach to teaching. Initiatives like STEM and project-based learning (PBL) are working against that test-driven industry we had become. I’ve worked with quite a few schools to help them implement PBL, and it really seems to breathe new life into the classroom. STEM has the same effect. And what is wonderful is that there is an even larger growing movement (as an offshoot of the STEM movement) for STEAM, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. Now, don’t get me wrong, it will take some getting used to. We are adding more science curriculum; we are building in engineering; and we are increasing technology to include content, like coding. You have to be logical (we aren’t good at that as a people). If you are adding things, some things have to go away. So when you hear about schools not teaching cursive writing anymore, please … please … please … Calm. The fuck. Down. We can’t teach all of it. If the choice is cursive or coding, trust me, you want your kid to learn coding.
You have a fantastic character in Juggling Kittens called The Drew so I wanted to try out my impression. “Matt Coleman. We need to come up with a nickname for you. How about Matt King Coleman?” What do you think?
That is great. Absolutely great. I can promise you that The Drew would use that one. He is actually based on a few different people I have known. The nickname part came from an assistant principal I had at one point who called me Mattipedia whenever I came up with an answer to anything. He also called me Matty Ice or Mattural Ice, both of which I thought were pretty clever. But Matt King Coleman is amazing.
Thank you, Matt!
Matt Coleman works in the fields of writing and education. His short fiction has appeared in various journals and web publications. He also spent three years writing for The City Life Supplement, a comedy podcast. JUGGLING KITTENS is his debut novel. He has spent fifteen years in public education and is currently a school improvement specialist in Texarkana, Arkansas, where he lives with his two daughters, four rescued dogs, two rescued cats, and a fish who refuses to die.