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Teachers team up to create fictional classroom chaos

A drawing from the new children's book by Johnny Tiersma, "If I Were a Teacher," illustrated by Ron Van Der Pol of Escondido.
(Ron Van Der Pol)

A new children’s book lets elementary school students call the shots

Students creating explosions in science class, raising a foot to speak, sitting on their desks, getting awards for having the sloppiest handwriting or the messiest desk ...

Sounds like an unruly student’s dream.

Instead, it is the scenario in a book written by a teacher for young students everywhere. Say, what?

After the pandemic began isolating teachers from their students in the spring of 2020, Cardiff sixth-grade instructor Johnny Tiersma penned a children’s book, “If I Were the Teacher.”

His fictional account put students in the classroom driver’s seat and let their imaginations run wild.

Tiersma enlisted Ron Van Der Pol, a friend and art teacher at Calvin Christian School in Escondido, to create comedic illustrations.

Johnny Tiersma, a teacher at Ada Harris Elementary in Cardiff, collaborated with Escondido art instructor Ron Van Der Pol.
(Ron Van Der Pol)

“It was a shock to be ripped out of all those student relationships I had three-quarters of the way through the school year,” Tiersma says of the pandemic. “It is really difficult to create a classroom culture when you can’t be with the students.”

Learning should be fun, he reasons. Students must be engaged. They need to feel safe, and they need to be able to take risks.

The coronavirus climate robbed them of this in-person camaraderie. Kids were worried about their parents’ health, their parents’ jobs. Home lives were unstable. Uncertainty prevailed.

“I focused all of my efforts on trying to help them feel as normal, safe and as loved as possible,” says Tiersma.

And he also decided to write an ice-breaker book that teachers could share in their classroom at the start of the school year.

California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd graded Tiersma. He gave him an A+ for creating a book “sure to stimulate interesting conversations and become a story time favorite.”

During the creation process, Tiersma had no shortage of student editors. He drafted a Google questionnaire to solicit input from as many as 400 youngsters rating the funny-bone factor of the proposed “student-turned-teacher” exploits.

He actually had tried some of these activities years earlier, such as explosive science experiments and sliding in the mud on campus. One rainy day when he was teaching at a Laguna Beach school, he organized a mud slide/puddle jump activity in place of sports practice.

“If I Were the Teacher,” just released this week, is printed by a publisher in Cardiff — Waterside Productions. It’s available on Amazon and via the author’s website: ifiweretheteacher.com.

Any correlation between its fictional characters and existing students or teachers is purely unintentional, illustrator Van Der Pol is quick to point out.

Although a drawing that shows kids bringing their pets to school depicts a black dog, which he says was modeled after his own dog, Rainier. And a chicken was inspired by Tiersma’s daughter’s pet chicken, Lucy.

Van Der Pol, 50, has been teaching art for 29 years and has created numerous murals. One, painted in 2017, graces the clock tower in the Calvin Christian School courtyard. But this publication is the first book project for both teachers.

“I dedicated the book to my wife, kids, and past, present and future students,” says Tiersma.

It isn’t just writing books that occupies the sixth-grade teacher at Ada Harris Elementary School. He writes personal notes that he mails to his students, usually within the first eight weeks, but continuing throughout the school year, recognizing their strengths.

“That’s the single biggest thing I do as a teacher that makes an impact on the kids because they realize I genuinely see them. I recognize the good in them.”

Some of the students write back. Others have displayed the handwritten notes on the front of their binders.

The mother of one of his former students related that her daughter took his note to college with her seven years later and posted it on the bulletin board in her dorm room.

Tiersma says the notes show the students are valued, and they tend to become more engaged in the classroom.

Meanwhile, the book-writing teacher duo already is starting on a sequel: “If I Were the Principal.” That surely will encourage their student editors to use their imaginations.


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