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Mice Infested Paper Mache, and Leadership

My first degree was in the Fine Arts. After completing my Bachelors in Education, I took a position as the Art teacher at the middle school — junior high level. Being a beginning teacher, I was exploding with ideas, but I definitely needed some help with my planning of projects and staying organized. I was blessed with an amazing principal and amazing colleagues who were very trusting of my vision, and very patient with my way of operating the Art program, as it felt at times that it took on a life of its own. I have so many stories from my “art years,” as I call them. But, the one that stands out the most was the paper mache saga, which seemed to never end! It was the Andy Warhol paper mache project that started it all.

Shortly before the winter break, I had 100 students on a paper mache project. It was soon after some major cutbacks in education, so I opted out for the good old water and flour version of paste. It was all going swimmingly in the studio. Music playing, kids covered in paste, cardboard and glue everywhere; I had arrived! Once we said our goodbyes, prior to winter break, and feeling the burnout of the last days before break, I didn’t even bother doing a final check for clean up. If I had done that, I would have noticed the paste left behind in cabinets, cupboards, and under the sink. Pretty much anywhere a teen could hide paste, was where paste was left for two weeks!

Upon our return to school, I walked into the art studio with the kids, not only to be greeted by the smell of sour paper mache flour paste, but paper mache projects that had turned to confetti because they had been eaten by mice! As my assistant principal was going around to classes to greet the kids and wish them a Happy New Year, he noticed the smell and chaos in my classroom, as the kids and I were trying to figure out how to clean this mess. He was bewildered at the smell, but one of my students replied to him, “Don’t worry, Ms. P said that if you crack the window open it will go away soon!” to which he didn’t seem to be convinced is a solution. A few seconds later, another student wanted to clean up the broken paper mache projects and lo and behold, two mice came jumping out of it. We all screamed. Kids were running for their lives around the classroom. My assistant principal called the building facilitators, and confirmed our suspicions, that my paper mache project was infested with mice.

Of course, as you can imagine, by the end of the day, it all went into the garbage. The next day, my students realized that their work was gone and were devastated. So, as a young teacher, not wanting to break their hearts, here I was, in the dumpster, with another colleague (who is now a principal), fishing out paper mache projects to return to the kids. I felt like I was in a bad dream. Once we retrieved them all from the dumpster, we gave all the projects a good shake, to make sure they contained no mice, and returned them to the kids.

Now, there is no need to list off all the mistakes in this story. But one thing that I learned was that if you don’t plan out projects well and stay organized, you’ll end up in predicaments you won’t be able to recover from later. Don't cut corners. You must plan out all of the steps of your work and give clear directions and expectations, know how to manage people, have a plan B, and ask for help when you need it, or know when to call off a project. Although I didn’t then, I can now look back at this and laugh. Some of those students are now teachers themselves and remember the paper mache “mice” project, and I hope it serves as a lesson for them too. Don’t bite off more than you can chew!

Read my full interview with Authority Magazine for more teaching stories, lessons, and how to give feedback without being hurtful.


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