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My Top 10 Early-Career Teaching Fails, and What New Teachers Can Learn From Them Part I (1-5)

Teaching Fail #1: Oversleeping

During my first year of teaching high school English full-time, I had a few recurring fears. Oddly enough, one was that I would be incapacitated by a 15-25-sneeze-long sneezing fit and completely lose control of a class. This didn’t happen in my early years of teaching (although it since has, and was fine). I have pretty aggressive allergies, so bouts aren’t as unusual as one might think.

Another serious fear was sleeping late. This nightmare did, indeed, come true during my first few months in the classroom.

The Story: My apartment mate banged on my bedroom door: “Phone!” The daylight streaming from the window immediately betrayed the reason for the call. “Oh shit.”

“Ken, it’s Kevin. [My department chair] We’re into first period. Where are you?”

“Oh No. I guess I overslept.” I immediately went into my just startled awake version of crack problem-solving mode. Should I call for a sub? Should I run to school? Should I ask someone else in the department to cover for me? I came up blank.  “Kevin, What does one usually do in a case like?”

“What does one do in a case like this?! One gets one’s arse into school is what one does!” This was all the more commanding for Kevin’s distinct Irish brogue. I did, indeed, get my arse into school, and it never happened again.

Lessons to Learn: Especially if you live alone or with roommates who are not invested in your success enough to ensure you’re up in the morning: get a second alarm clock, one that does not require electricity. After this fiasco, I bought a wind-up alarm, and it saved me more than once during power outages or very early-morning meetings.

The bigger lesson here is to not just be afraid of something you think might go wrong. Be prepared for it. Make a plan. Even if you try really, really hard and you have never been unreliable, you will some day make a mistake or be subject to something out of your control. It could happen. Be ready. And then be confident.

Teaching Fail #2: Telling a Student, “If you don’t like this class, no one is forcing you to stay here.”

The Story: Like most new teachers, I had a few challenging students during my first year of teaching. One young woman in a tenth-grade-college-bound class really got under my skin. She was bright and had a sharp tongue. She was also quite cool and appeared very confident. She was the kind of student who five years earlier would have been dating the alpha-male student in my high school who’d be throwing me up against lockers in the hall.  While I was dealing with this student, I was a 21-year-old new teacher, nervous as a teacup chihuahua in a wolf pack. So I didn’t deal especially well with this brazen, confident young woman.

“Listen,” I once said in frustration after yet another string of sarcastic comments, “If you don’t like this class, no one is forcing you to stay here.”  So she packed her books and left. Problem solved.

Uh, no. Problem created.

The student went right to the principal’s office and told the principal’s secretary what I said. Dr. Aldi was a wonderfully supportive principal, and he was always good humored about my missteps, in part because he knew I meant well and was generally pretty reliable (despite my confessions in this post). Dr. Aldi explained to me quite clearly that, in fact, the state is forcing students to attend classes, and they do not have the option to leave.

Lessons to Learn: Neither students nor teachers have a choice about coming to class. It is up to teachers to do what is necessary to engage students in learning. Like it or not, students can choose not to engage. So it is incumbent on teachers to provide as engaging an environment as possible. If we teach in a way that bores students, their learning will be negatively affected. Since all that matters in school is student learning, we need to make class as fun as possible. Luckily, there’s a great deal of good advice out there for teachers on that.

Teachers, to a certain degree, do have the option of sending students to the principal, but it’s a bad idea for several reasons (for example, you’ll annoy your boss). Instead, deal with students exhibiting negative behaviors in any of the following ways:

  • Have a one-on-one conversation after class
  • Compose a behavior contract
  • Call the student’s parent
  • Give the student an alternate assignment that will keep the student from interfering with the rest of the class (and follow up on this later)
  • Get some advice from a more experienced teacher or school administrator

Teaching Fail #3: Yelling at a Student for Liking You

The Story: Perhaps this is obvious, but if you find a student likes you–that is, has a crush on you–don’t lash out at him or her.  How in the world did I come to this advice?! It’s a short, and sordid tale. I still cringe at this one, now 30 years later.

At 21, I was not the brash, confident specimen of unbridled masculine sexuality  that is writing this blog post. Instead, I was shy, nervous, and less experienced than many. When one of the young girls in a tenth grade class I was teaching started getting teased for having a crush on me, I didn’t know how to react. My concern was really for the student. She was being teased–not so gently–and she didn’t like it. And other students began to embarrass her.

In my own still young brain, I thought the most efficient and effective way to handle this was to stop this student from crushing on me. And in a class, when she did something fairly minor, I yelled at her pretty strongly. The romance immediately ended, and the teasing stopped. I apologized to the student later for over-reacting, but she never knew of my reason for doing it.

It was clunky and inadvertently mean. It worked in a way, but I don’t recommend it.

Lessons to Learn: Be prepared for some unexpected emotional issues. Young people are unpredictable and are learning about themselves and those around them. And if you are a young teacher, still maturing yourself, don’t act too quickly. Ask for advice from a trusted mentor. Also, try to act out of kindness and in kind ways. Yelling at students is almost never the right thing to do.

OK, I acknowledge the lesson from this story is a little thin. Maybe I really just wanted to tell you that there was once a student who had a crush on me!

Teaching Fail #4: Believing “Once a ‘Bad’ Kid, Always a ‘Bad’ Kid”

The Story: This story is pretty famous among my family and friends. I get requests to tell it, and it has become a tale of legendary woe with peaks and valleys and an epic crescendo. It gets better if I tell it after a drink or two. And, I swear it’s all true!  Here I give just the bare bones.

In my first years of teaching, I taught some rough classes. They had students who were savvy and popular and in many ways just not nice.  I want to keep this fairly light-hearted, but there are young people who are real bullies, commit criminal acts, and genuinely make life harder for those around them. I know–and I firmly believe–there is no such thing as a bad kid, but I do in my stories sometimes refer to “bad kids” (in air quotes). Brian (not his real name) was a “bad kid.” I taught Brian for a year; he tested my patience in class constantly and made it much more difficult for the other students in the class to learn. I confess to having being grateful when Brian was suspended from school, which was frequent.

A year or so later, I was teaching when the fire alarm sounded. I dutifully walked my class to the door out of which we had left the building for countless drills before. But this time, blocking that door in full fire fighting gear was Brian. I was at the back of the line of my students, and Brian was telling the students that they should not go out this door, but should follow the other students to the front entrance of the school.

The sight of Brian at the door trying to convince my students not to do what I KNEW they were supposed to do sent my mind reeling. Brian, who was clearly playing a prank, was trying to keep my students from doing the right thing. This “bad kid” was going to get my students and me in trouble. Well, not on MY WATCH!

“Go Anyway!” I shouted to my young students. “Ignore the fire fighter! Ignore Him!”

I know now I was wrong, but there is some evil part of me that still enjoys the utterly frightened look on Brian’s face when my students began to push against him as I egged them on. But, very quickly, the students stopped, thought better of it–the cowards!–and they obeyed the fire fighter’s commands.

Remember how supportive Dr. Aldi was? Well this time he had to ensure the Fire Department that I would be reprimanded, and doing so he was able to convince them not to have me arrested! I was very contrite and I accepted his firm but kind reprimand. “When there’s a fire drill, Ken, the Fire Department is IN CHARGE! Do you know if that hadn’t been a drill, you might have been accused of forcing your students to march into the fire?!”

Gee. I hadn’t thought of that.

Lessons to Learn: OK, so the real problem above is that I have a unique but consistent reaction to crises: I immediately take charge and then make bizarre decisions. I’m not sure that’s a lesson anyone else could or needs to learn.

But the larger issue is that I didn’t account for maturity and change in this student. I also wasn’t aware that he had, in fact, graduated. When we teach, it’s important that we get to know our students and even if we genuinely don’t like some of them (or more accurately: dislike their behaviors) we should keep track of them. Some students will change and surprise you and become much better people later. Some will even change while you have them in class. Don’t pigeonhole your students. Keep your mind opened to them and what they will become. Otherwise you’ll miss some of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.

Teaching Fail #5: Missing An Appointment with the School Superintendent

The Story: As I thought through all the mistakes I made in my first years of teaching for this post, I began to wonder if I somehow sabotaged myself. Could I really have made so many errors purely accidentally? Of course, the answer is yes. As a nervous new teacher entering a new profession and life as a fully-functioning adult, it makes perfect sense that one would make lots of mistakes. Some of them really pretty stupid. This is one of those.

My department chair had been particularly impressed with a lesson I did. I was the first new teacher hired in the department in over 10 years, so having a new teacher was a fun experience for the whole department. My chair was so excited that I was good (so he thought), that he invited the superintendent of schools–that is, his boss’s boss–to meet me and hear my description of this great lesson and how I came up with it.

The meeting was on Tuesday morning during my planning period. I was excited to get kudos from such a high-level administrator in my first few months of teaching. That Tuesday afternoon, my chair (Kevin) popped his head into one of my afternoon classes and said, “Hey, where were you?” I had totally forgotten the meeting and instead spent my planning period grading papers instead. My chair wasn’t mad, just curious. But I was mad. I missed a really nice moment for myself.

I like this kind of calendar book because it gives enough room for daily appointments plus notes. And you can see a week at a time.

Lessons to Learn: When you become a professional (if not before), you become far too busy to be able to keep everything you’re responsible to attend or do in your head. Use a calendar!

Right after I missed this meeting, I bought my first appointment calendar, and I recorded appointments in it. Every morning I would consult it to ensure I kept up on meetings and deadlines. Now I use Google Calendar, which synchs to my phone, laptop, and my desktop at home and at work. I also have the calendar set to give me an alarm 10 minutes before my meetings. The only times I’ve missed meetings now is if I’ve forgotten to look at the calendar. So it’s not foolproof, but it helps.

This blog post was written in preparation for a presentation I gave at the 2016 National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I presented “Take My Advice: Learning from a Veteran’s Mistakes” in a session with Leila Christenbury, with whom I recently authored Making the Journey: Being and Becoming an English Teacher, Fourth Edition.

5 thoughts on “My Top 10 Early-Career Teaching Fails, and What New Teachers Can Learn From Them Part I (1-5)”

  1. Pingback: Why Are Some Students So Mean to Teachers They Like? – Edukention

  2. Pingback: My Top 10 Early-Career Teaching Fails, and What New Teachers Can Learn From Them, Part II (6-10) – Edukention

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