Recently, I became concerned that my point of view as a blogger was too ill-defined. Without a unique niche, I’m just one more self-proclaimed educational expert yammering away in cyberspace, and God knows, we have enough of them.
This concern got me to thinking about a night fifteen or so years ago, following one of many break-ups that everyone but me saw coming. My friend and I were about four inches into a bottle of something brown. She looked at me, a bourbon-glazed twinkle in her eye, and suggested that maybe God’s plan was for me to serve as a horrible warning to others.
I don’t remember much from that evening but I remember that comment. I like it. It gives my screw-ups gravitas.
If this is, in fact, my cosmic destiny, it seemed appropriate to blog about my education-related failures. In addition to providing some schadenfreude-induced laughter, I hope some struggling teachers can take shelter in them.
“See how badly I screwed up?” they beckon. “I bet you didn’t screw up this bad! And even if you did, look what a great career I’ve had despite my shortcomings!”
Over time, I’ve learned that the worst case scenario rarely happens. And when it does it’s usually not as bad as you think it will be.
This prologue will precede every post in this particular series.
I make no secret of my disdain for movies about teaching. This contempt developed over time as I came to understand that real teaching bears little resemblance to the pabulum peddled by Hollywood. Even documentaries must be viewed with a generous dose of skepticism, as their version of the truth is circumscribed by the political or ideological bias of the filmmaker. I have been unable to get all the way through Waiting for Superman, frustrated as I am by what I feel is David Guggenheim’s rather simplistic implication that charter schools are the solution to every problem facing urban American education.
Back in the day, though, that film would probably have impelled me to join a charter school network. Then I would have sent a letter and headshot to Guggenheim in the hopes that he’d put me in his next film. I wanted to be the kind of teacher people made movies about.
In fact, I had a particular scenario in mind, culled from a small volume called The First Year of Teaching: Real World Stories from America’s Teachers. In one vignette entitled “Don’t Waste Your Time with Those Kids,” a newbie is assigned to a class of self-described “retards” and can’t seem to corral them. On Day #2, she reveals to the students her own struggle with dyslexia and forbids them to label themselves stupid. They immediately improve. They even coax her into drilling them in grammar because “people still think [they’re] stupid because [they] don’t talk right.”
The students know she is getting married over the summer, but they are poor and can’t afford to buy her flowers. They take the initiative to solicit donations from floral shops and funeral parlors, literally filling her room with flowers. The student who spearheaded the operation tells her, “Period 2 got you roses, and Period 3 got you a corsage, but we love you more.” She bursts into tears. She gets married, all the kids graduate, six earn college scholarships, and everyone lives happily ever after.
That was the sort of first year I expected. Nothing less than slavish devotion from my students —including but not limited to a roomful of flowers—would do. I had no reason to expect otherwise. Everything I’d ever read or seen assured me that if I worked hard enough and cared deeply enough, this would happen.
On my last day of student teaching, I received numerous cards, a bouquet of flowers, a bottle of really excellent perfume, and a necklace and earrings set. One young lady sang “How Do I Say Good-by to Yesterday,” reducing me to heaving sobs. Being a Super Teacher was even better than I had hoped.
And so easy.
I found a job teaching English and theater in a western suburb of Chicago and fully anticipated that, by the end of my first year, Oprah would be optioning the rights to my life story. At 7:20 a.m. on my first day, I went to the ladies’ room, touched up my make-up, and fluffed my hair so that I might look perfect when, at 7:30, I positioned myself at the podium and greeted my Senior Composition class. Around third period, with my first section of freshmen, things began to unravel.
I have an acting background and an undergraduate degree in theater. As a result, I am highly sensitive to audience reaction. I could feel that something was off. They were grinning, but the grins didn’t seem to match the timing of the jokes. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem and was beginning to feel uncomfortable, so I finished my introductory shtick and suggested they talk quietly until the bell.
“Don’t you want to collect these cards?” I had passed out index cards and asked them to write down their contact information.
“Oh, yeah. Pass those up.”
I walked along the front row collecting stacks of cards and eventually was handed one with a piece of paper folded on top of it.
“Oh. My. God.” I inwardly smirked. “Someone has a crush on me already and has passed me a note?!“ With a shiver of anticipation, I unfolded the paper and read:
X Y Z
I looked down and, sure enough, my fly was wide open. And had been since about 7:20 that morning. It was now a little after 10.
I quickly ran through my options. I could burst into tears, flee the building, get in my car, and never come back. I could find a way to make this their fault, get really angry, and start yelling. This is how we dealt with anxiety in my family. Or I could react the way I hoped my own teacher would react if I were sitting in one of the little desks. I started laughing hysterically and zipped up. I didn’t even turn around.
Given these humble beginnings, you might expect me to surrender my Super Teacher aspirations. Instead, that incident reinforced them. Third period was, hands down, my best class that first year. They liked me. I did relatively little screaming at them.
If I could turn that sow’s ear into a silk purse what couldn’t I do? Clearly, I was destined to be the hippest, the smartest, the bestest teacher in the history of education. The idea that my career would be anything less than spectacular was unconscionable.
Of course, that was just the first day. The real teaching had yet to begin, nor was I in any way prepared for what real teaching entailed . . .
Deb Teitelbaum, PhD is a faculty member at the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee, NC, and focuses on beginning teacher support and secondary ELA instruction.