By David Lee Finkle
For most of my 23-year teaching career, I’ve been privileged to have a unique way to vent my frustrations and to celebrate the rewarding parts of teaching. I draw comic strips for our city’s daily newspaper.
I had been drawing cartoons since I was in kindergarten. For Fire Safety Week, we were supposed to draw a picture of what students should do in the case of a fire at the school, and I drew the students roasting marshmallows over the smoldering embers of the school. My first educational satire.
In the late 1990s, I’d begun doodling cartoons about teaching, and I developed them into a strip called Mr. Fitz, about a middle school teacher who was a lot like me. I submitted the strip idea to our local newspaper, the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
On a serendipitous day when I was teaching my after-school cartooning club, I got a call from the paper. They had a spot for me on their comics page. Was I interested? Very.
The strip launched in March, 2000 and continues today. Although the newspaper syndicates have turned me down repeatedly, I’ve been blessed with a loyal local readership and a growing online fan-base. Most importantly, cartooning has helped me, as a teacher, in a number of ways.
Cartooning helps me keep my sense of humor about students
In the early days of the strip, most of the humor centered on the absurdity of student attitudes, actions, and interactions. That trend has continued to the present, and drawing the strip has helped me keep my sense of humor on an almost daily basis. If something absurd happens in class, it almost invariably gets modified and put into the strip. A prime example would be the strip below.
Drawing cartoons like that one helps me keep my sense of humor. I suppose I am poking a bit of fun at students’ attitudes, but I share these cartoons with them, and showing them a cartoon proves to be a more effective way of challenging their attitudes than, say, lecturing or yelling at them. Laughter disarms them.
Cartooning helps me keep my sense of humor about administration
I have been blessed with a very supportive school-level administration that appreciates my work as a teacher, and as a cartoonist. They are also aware of the absurdity of what we are often asked to do as a faculty. The following strip is one that I finished during an afternoon professional development, and when I showed it to my administrators during a break, they got it.
I’m not entirely certain strips like this have actually changed any policies, but I think I have publicly vented in a way other teachers find satisfying, and maybe gotten some administrators to take the various initiatives that we have forced upon us a bit less seriously.
Cartooning helps me keep my sense of humor about testing
When I began the strip, most of the humor was about the fun things students say and do. But before long, Florida’s standardized test, the FCAT, became such a focus for schools, I decided it was time to make fun of that, too.
I created a parody of the FCAT, the Universal SKills UNderstanding and Knowledge test: the U-SKUNK. This ongoing plotline about testing moved me into parody and satire.
It also allowed me to use the strip as a teaching tool—only now instead of using the strip in class to teach concepts, I used it to educate the public about the unfortunate side-effects of an obsession with testing.
This strip is a favorite of mine, because it makes many readers laugh momentarily, then realize that it isn’t actually funny. I do think the damage being done to students in the name of testing is no laughing matter.
But when people have their defenses up and don’t want to listen, sometimes humor catches them off-guard and helps them see things in a different light.
Cartooning makes me a better teacher
Drawing cartoons about teaching six times a week has made me a better teacher. Comic strips can be an amazingly reflective and philosophical medium—just look at Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes.
Drawing the strip has given me a space, in the context of a 5 inch by 1.5 inch box in the newspaper, to ruminate about students, teachers, and the real purposes of education.
The benefits of having a creative outlet as a teacher are many: stress reduction, reflection on the craft of teaching, helping others to see teaching and learning differently, to name a few.
Whether you draw comics, write blogs or fiction, compose teaching songs, or paint pictures, indulging in your own creativity may the best gift you can give yourself, your students, and the world of education.
David Lee Finkle has been teaching Language Arts in Volusia County, Florida for over 22 years, and has been teaching middle school since 1995. Since 2000 he has been drawing the comic strip Mr. Fitz for the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
He is the author of two Scholastic Professional books: Writing Extraordinary Essays: Every Middle Schooler Can and Teaching Students to Make Writing Visual and Vivid. He is also the author of 3 novels (Making My Escape, and, with his son, Portents and Portals) and three Mr. Fitz books.
David and his wife teach at the same middle school, and also appear in local theater together. He was the 2005 Volusia County Teacher of the Year and a University of Florida Distinguished Educator. Visit his website to read many more Mr. Fitz panels.