Anyone who has ever taught in a school, or served in some secretarial or administrative capacity, can share a horror story or six regarding the copier. These bulky machines are prone to catastrophic meltdowns, many of which occur at the most inopportune times. I guess it’s not surprising when I consider the volume of work our copier is subjected to, but it’s still frustrating when it happens. With a host of stapling options, size preferences, density settings, and e-mail capabilities, they’re important to any school.

When they go down though, they go down in flames.

It’s not uncommon at my school to see a line of teachers frantically trying to copy items before first hour. Some need to run enormous jobs; others simply need a few sheets. They’re all doing the same thing while in line–offering up a silent prayer that the machine can endure the workload. Any veteran teacher knows it’s not a matter of if, but when. The copier will be compromised at some point. The toner will be bone dry. Paper jams are a foregone conclusion and when it happens on your watch, or while you’re at the copier helm as I like to say, be prepared for dirty looks, eye rolls, and collective groans. If it’s a friend, he’ll mask it as much as possible. He’s thinking it, though. He loathes you.

It’s a lonely place to be when you’ve pushed the button before the jam. Sure, it’s not really your fault. It is, though. At school, it is.

Anyone who has ever seen the movie Office Space is familiar with the iconic copier scene. It’s something many teachers have dreamt of (on more than one occasion) during their careers. Several of my colleagues have entertained the idea of a fundraiser (insert worthy cause here) where teachers pay for several swings with a baseball bat. Who wouldn’t love to take a few whacks at the beloved copier, the source of so much angst over the years? I know this, whatever event stands to benefit from those funds can probably host it twice with the outpouring of teacher support. Yes, I know it’s five dollars for three swings; here’s a 20.

With a host of dos and don’ts, it’s important to understand one’s role when using the copier. Any breach of copier etiquette can create tension amongst the staff. Allow me to illustrate: one of the worst things a teacher can do is leave the copier unattended. Sure, it seems innocuous enough if the job is small. If it’s a larger job, though, the odds of running out of paper drastically increase. Someone will need to reload the paper in order to finish. Annoying, yes, but tolerable. But what some teachers fail to consider—or perhaps choose to ignore altogether—is the possibility of a jam during their absence.

At my school, a paper jam message on the LCD screen is never singular in nature. There are many, and they’re in all sorts of fun places. To remedy the issue, one must follow several steps, all of which involve levers, cranks, clips, and trays. Follow in succession, and you’ll restore the machine to working order, maybe.

And just for fun, there’s one final scenario that reigns supreme: the jam-causing, lips-are-sealed, anonymous walkout. It’s bad enough when it happens, but to leave the door panels ajar, toner spattered on the floor, red lights a-flashing and trays pulled to capacity—all without notifying office personnel—is just the worst. Please tell someone. Please.

One of the most epic paper jams I ever witnessed occurred a little over a year ago. I’d love to place the blame on someone else, but I can’t. This was my doing. I fed my originals through, and it wasn’t long before a frantic succession of beeps rang out, followed by a flashing red light. The dreaded one-two punch: unmistakable confirmation of how I was to spend the next 15 minutes.

Sadly, I lost my composure.

The screen prompted my first move, but I was in a hurry. Rather than carefully turning the knobs to release the jammed paper, I pulled—recklessly pulled. I quickly compounded the issue by tearing a piece of paper, leaving behind tiny fragments, many of which were deeply embedded in the metal teeth and otherwise impossible to reach. I knew it was bad. I dreaded the moment when the next teacher would enter the room to find the copier in a state of disrepair, the incriminating evidence of my involvement strewn across the floor. It was tempting to abandon ship. Just walk away now, I thought. They won’t know it was me. I couldn’t, though. Something kept me there. I felt the need to be candid with all who entered the room. Taking ownership of your jam is part of the copier code, or at least it should be. Own it when it’s yours; your colleagues will—through clenched teeth—respect you for it.

There are few things more maddening at work than dealing with a non-functional copier, especially when you need handouts for class. And so, I’ve been thinking. Perhaps all potential hires should be subjected to some form of copy machine debacle. Maintaining composure throughout any of the aforementioned issues would be an invaluable lesson in patience, one that should translate well to anything in education. Teaching is hard—let’s put new teachers through the ultimate test before they set foot in the classroom. See these open trays, flashing lights, and near-empty bottle of toner? We’re going to leave you in here for 20 minutes. Give it the old college try. If you’re not screaming, kicking, or crying after the allotted time, you’re hired!

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Patrick Danz

Patrick Danz is a follower of Christ, husband, father, educator, and sports enthusiast. He lives in Trenton, Michigan, with his wife, Nicole, and their three children: Keason, Carmella, and Alessandra. When he's not teaching, Patrick spends his time writing, golfing, grilling, and quoting lines from Groundhog Day. His work has appeared on and Fatherly.