Bret Turner, First Grade Teacher, Head Royce School
Bundled up in scarf and jacket, I shuffle into Bret Turner’s classroom lugging my camera and laptop, finding him standing at his computer in the far corner. In his spectacles and loose shirt, denim pants and faded leather shoes, the rangy 36-year-old radiates modesty and composure. He appears tired in the way of teachers once their students have left the room. Even on this rainy day, I find Bret’s classroom bright, tidy, welcoming. Five table groups are spaced easily around the room. Two gold-brown guitars hang on the walls. From his standing desk, Bret winds up an email, then offers me a little blue chair the size of a toaster. Both of us glance back at the clock, each aware that we have limited time between our classes to do the interview.
Ian: Bret, thanks for your time.
Bret: No problem! Thank you for coming.
Ian: So, the illustrious Bret Turner, renowned far and wide for his teaching abilities, is also a serious artist. Tell me a little about yourself—where are you from, where did you grow up, what was your childhood like?
Bret: I am an almost-third-generation Berkeleyan. My grandparents moved to Berkeley when they were a young, childless couple from Georgia. They bought a house in Berkeley, had my dad and his brother, and they grew up in Berkeley. My dad went to Berkeley high, then my dad met my mom, me and my sister were born, and we grew up in Berkeley. So I guess I can’t really count three generations, but you know…two and a half.
Ian: We’ll round up.
Bret: So I grew up in Berkeley where my parents still live. I have a twin sister. I went to the French-American school all the way through grade 8, then I went to Berkeley high.
Ian: Do you still speak French?
Bret: I do! I speak French with my mom, exclusively, and then I keep it up as much as I am able to otherwise. I have learned the amazing joys of voice-to-text, which has made my French spelling so much better, because it puts in all the accents for you, and all those crazy endings.
Ian: Those are mostly implied, anyway.
Bret: Exactly. Well they’re actually…it’s funny because texting, emailing, sort of reveals how sort of unnecessary they really are. Yeah. I have a twin sister, she’s my only sibling. Her name is Katy. She’s a nanny and a fashion designer here in Oakland.
Ian: When did you start creating?
Bret: I would say I started creating—no joke—when Mrs. Powell, our current assistant head of the lower school, was my second grade teacher.
Ian: (laughs) I’m sorry, what?
Bret: Uh…at the French American school. It was her maybe second or third year of teaching. I still have the class picture. In fact I still have over there (gestures) my second grade writing journal.
Ian: We’re going to need to take a look at that.
Bret: I’ll show it to you. And it’s possible that I enjoyed writing before then, but she really sparked in me that enjoyment of creating your own original something. At that point it was writing, and I became obsessed. I wrote original poems, original stories, everywhere. If I ever had a day that I couldn’t go to school because I was sick, or the school was off and I went to my dad’s work over in the city. They had lots of computers (with the ugly green screens at the time, where it was all just text), and I would sit there. And he taught me how to print, and I would just write, write, write and print out my stories.
And so whenever I had free time I would either build Legos, build train sets with my Brio trains—or I would write stories. Poems were kind of my main interest, because I really loved Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, and some of the other poets who write kids’ poems.
And with rhyming…there was a point that I realized that poems didn’t always have to rhyme, and I was like (waves hands dismissively) pwpfffph….that’s not a poem. And actually later on in life, I really struggled with reading serious poetry. And it may not have had anything to do with that but I think I struggled with, ‘What even is this, if it doesn’t rhyme?’ and I think it came from a childhood of loving wordplay so much, that when that was gone, I sort of…lost the feel of what it was for. But I need to get back into adult poetry at some point. I think I would probably appreciate it now.
Ian: Well, what’s funny though is how much ‘poetry for kids’ sticks in your mind. And so I think there’s—maybe if we’re honest—there’s a really blurry line between adult poetry and kid poetry.
Ian: Before we jump more into that, what other jobs have you had? Like, how else can we think of Mr. Turner?
Bret: Most of my jobs have had to do with kids one way or the other, with the exception of my first job out of college, which was a data entry law firm job. Everything else has either been out of a school or in education somehow. I worked the same job that Katrina has, I’ve done that twice. I was the principal’s assistant at French American High School in San Francisco, and then I was an office person at a preschool in Berkeley called Step One.
I also worked managing high school study abroad programs at a company in San Francisco, which is actually where I met my wife. And then we both became teachers after we met. Elementary school teachers. And, you know, odd jobs here and there…but those have included babysitting and camp counselor. So almost everything has had to do with kids, ranging from age two all the way into high school. So. The only ‘teaching’ experience I’ve had has been elementary school. But yeah, I had some strange jobs in college…
Ian: Ooo, like what?
Bret: Like one of them was for the…well I was the scorekeeper for the women’s softball team—
Ian: That’s awesome.
Bret: And I was also the ball retriever for the soccer team, so whenever the ball went out of bounds, I had a new one handy, gave it to them, then ran and grabbed the one that had left.
Ian: Well that is an essential job.
Bret: Yeah. And sometimes you get yelled at, and you have to learn that they’re all just in the heat of the moment. They are very interested in their game.
Ian: Of course. The team always comes first.
Bret: I was also part of a little audio-visual club in college, that I worked for officially a few hours a week training new people on how to use video cameras and editing equipment. I also worked for a Linguistics professor transcribing interviews done in other languages. Because I studied Linguistics in college, so they would do various projects where they tried to understand the grammar of a language, and there was a lot of transcription that needed to happen.
Ian: So I guess I’m struggling here with being…trying to fit this conversation into the…I guess I’ve never really talked to another teacher who is a serious creative quite like this, which is strange to say. I know that many of my peers are these serious creatives and working artists, but it’s…I guess I feel sometimes like when we’re here at school, it’s really only because we’re ‘teachers.’ But I find creativity and making just popping up everywhere I go, and it seems like you do, too. What do you see as unique in the situation of being a teacher and a creative at the same time? Do you see one bleeding into the other at all, from either direction?
Bret: I don’t think I would have become a teacher if I didn’t have a drive to be creative. Because I think that every teacher has something, or multiple things that propel them to be as good a teacher as they can be. And for some people it’s a love of literature. For some people it is…like…kinetic, maybe they do yoga or dance, in their class. For some people it’s meditation, or something that’s really important to them in terms of the body/mind connection, and how they can bring that to the classroom. And there’s a million things like that, I think. Not that I believe those are things that ‘define’ a teacher, but that sort of help them, you know…get through a day (laughing). Because sometimes that’s not easy. And for me, if I didn’t have first and foremost my music, but also my own background in creative writing, I don’t think I could be a first grade teacher.
There are other teachers that do it without that, and they do it in different ways. But you know, music is the fabric of my day at school. We sing during transitions, moving from one place to another, we have a birthday song that I wrote that’s different from the typical birthday song that we sing at birthdays. We sing a different song every month to get us started in the day. And sometimes if the kids are having a lot of trouble doing something, I’ll pick up my guitar and sing the instructions, and it’s like…it like flips a ‘switch’ in their brain. And so I feel like music really drives my teaching.
I don’t know if I knew it when I was still getting into teaching how important that would be. Because I certainly didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a classroom teacher because I love music.’ But I learned very early on in my first year as an intern that that was going to shape my classroom experience.
And writing—being an ‘unsuccessful writer,’ in terms of getting anything published (Bret recently self-published an excellent novella), has also been really helpful too—because it allows me to talk about what the writing process is.
You know, I have a book that I wrote that my mom illustrated, that I read to the kids. And after I’ve read it to them, I’ll show them the sheer amount of pages that I cut out of it. Which usually results in a lot of jaw-dropping. Because for first graders, especially kids for whom writing a page is a monumental task, the thought that you wouldn’t keep all of that precious hard work is hard to understand. But I think it sort of gives them a preview into the future—it’s like, ‘next year, two years from now, three years from now, writing is going to be less about quantity than it is about quality.’ A lot of first grade writing really is about quantity. Like, we’re going to smooth out the edges later: spelling, what a paragraph is, punctuation…all that’s going to come. But right now, you need to let your ideas get onto the page.
Bret: And so showing them that I go through that process myself, it can be hugely important. Because so much of what we teach in the lower school, you’ve got to have buy-in. And I mean, you know that—you have to have buy-in, at any level. But to have buy-in is so much easier when I can say, ‘Hey, I’m a reader too. I read. For fun. I read for information. And I write for fun, too.’
Ian: Do you feel that when you play music, or when you write, that that same ‘switch’ flips for you? As when you play for your kids, you see it happen with them…do you think it happens for you, too? Are you just a teacher who is also an artist, or do you have that ‘switch’ that happens when you work?
Bret: That’s an interesting question. When I’m doing my own personal creative stuff?
Bret: Yeah, definitely. I think that it’s much harder to do that now that I have a kid, and a second one coming. But, you know, the summers—like last summer, my wife and I really worked on carving out time for each one of us to follow our own creative pursuits. She’s a teacher too, so she also has the summer off.
Ian: But she’s also a creative?
Bret: Yeah! She is. She creates very differently, but she does a lot more stuff with her hands, like quilting and drawing and cooking and things like that. Where her creativity shows up most, I think, is in how she imagines and plans and executes lessons. She teaches 4th grade, and has this amazing skill at making content, especially math and social justice, accessible and exciting to her kids. Her outside-the-box thinking constantly inspires me. But when I have time that I’ve carved out to do something creative, first of all, it’s always this struggle: do I record music, or do I write something? And I have a very difficult time deciding, a very difficult time.
It goes in batches. There will be times when I’m like jeez, I’ve spent six months learning how to use this new Pro Tools update and recording a bunch of stuff. And then I’m like, OK, so I did a bunch of stuff, and I go into my Google Docs, and find the 150+ unfinished manuscripts ranging from extremely short children’s’ poems to full-length adult horror novels. And I’m like, how do I choose? And I actually feel like that ends up being the burden of wanting to create all the time, is that I have a difficult time finishing. I think that’s probably fairly common issue if you create. But the times I am able to put together a finished project, and package it in some form, and call it done, it feels really, really great.
But yes, I would say that that ‘flip,’ that ‘switch’ definitely ‘flips’ when I’m in the zone.
Ian: I’m trying to pick between two questions…So your students really ‘know you,’ in this environment. And they know where Mr. Turner sits in the room, they know what he wears, they know how he talks, what songs he plays…they know who you are in this environment. How is your creative environment different at home? How would you describe who you are in that space, as opposed to this one?
Bret: Um…my creative environment at home is one where I have to limit my distractions. Because otherwise I do get really distracted. I have to unplug the modem, sometimes, if I’m writing or recording, because I know that I’ll just go and check ‘one thing’ and do ‘one thing…’ But I do have to have time when I know I’m not going to be interrupted.
Which is funny because here (at school) I think that’s opposite…it’s really controlled chaos. And it’s interesting, I’d say that my creativity here is much more improvised than it is at home. It’s on the fly, because it has to be. Or, if it’s not improvised, I’m like, Ok, well, there’s this thing that’s not working in my class. Can I solve it with music? And that is why we have the ‘10-second song,’ that I could play to you at some point. It’s a song that the kids know, and if we’re having a difficult time getting in line, it’s like, (claps) all right, we’re going to sing this thing. And it’s a 10 second song where each second—it ends up being longer than 10 seconds, of course—each second gives you different instructions for how to get your body ready to go to the next thing. That was something that I was like, ‘we need this.’ So I went home and I wrote it, and I came back and we sang it.
Ian: That’s so cool.
Bret: But then there are other times where it has to be a lot more spontaneous. And it’s funny because I have struggled with this idea that, well, is this (music) a crutch? That I’m using? Or is it an actual helpful motivator? Because I don’t want to…there’s always a struggle of how to get kids to be intrinsically motivated to do something, rather than doing it for some sort of reward. But I justify it by saying that singing a song is not a ‘reward,’ it’s a method. And I think that, I mean…it’s incredibly effective.
Because the kids love to sing, and so they do it. And if they’re having sort of a cranky time, and certain kids are not responding to a direction that you’ve really worked on a lot, and your systems are breaking down, one system that never breaks down is singing. Never. It just always works. It’s the same thing with reading a book. I can always read a book to the kids, and they will listen. No matter if five kids have an ice pack because they bonked their heads, and three kids are upset about an incident at lunch, and two kids are really having an argument…sit down and read a book? (claps) Doesn’t matter. Same with the music.
Ian: It’s so interesting to see how for you, even in just this brief discussion, there seems to be a strong link between your own personal creativity and problem-solving. Problem solving as a link between music, and writing, and reading, each as its own problem solving device here at school. Does that apply for you, too? What problems does your art and the act of creating solve in your own life, if any?
Bret: It totally centers me, and grounds me. I mean, this is less true now than it used to be, but…well, I started learning guitar when I was 16. And I would say for the first ten years, cause I’m 36, but for the first ten years, I would never put it down. And it’s how I got better, it’s how I improved. I never put it down. I just…if I had a few free moments I would pick up the guitar, and especially if I was feeling frustrated about something, I would pick it up and play. And I’d just make something up, or play a song that I loved. And the same this is true of writing. I mean if I ever had a time when I was struggling and I was feeling overwhelmed, I would pull up a story I was working on and put a few hours into it. And it’s super helpful.
Ian: You are legitimately an awesome soul.
Bret: Well, it doesn’t always work, but it’s something. It’s my go-to. But now I have the additional option of getting a hug from my two-year-old, which is also really good.
Ian: Well you know…you kind of helped create that, too.
Bret: That’s true.