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My Top 10 Early-Career Teaching Fails, and What New Teachers Can Learn From Them, Part II (6-10)

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Read Part I First.

Teaching Fail #6: Being a Pedantic Hard Ass

The Story: This story goes way back to when I was student teaching in East Hampton, New York in 1988. My cooperating teacher had a speech class that he asked me to take over. I used his assignment for the students, which required a speech of between 5 and 7 minutes. There were criteria for the assessment, and those criteria were very strict. When it came to the time requirements, the rule was simple. Under 5 minutes or over 7 minutes was an automatic fail.

Raised in a Catholic family, educated from pre-k through 8th grade in a parochial school, I was very comfortable with strict rules. And I was very comfortable enforcing them. So when two students gave speeches under 5 minutes–each somewhere around 4 minutes and 30 seconds–I assigned them Fs.

The students protested, met with my Cooperating Teacher, and even had their parents call. We explained to everyone that the grades were final and that was that. The students were upset, depressed, and pretty unmotivated. Over the course of the next several weeks, I was able to rebuild a relationship with these students, but it took me a long time to regain their trust and willingness to learn from and work with me.

Lessons to Learn: Teachers should remember that the only thing that matters in teaching is student learning, and the more positive a relationship we build with our students, the more likely they will be willing and able to learn from us. By putting the rules over the learning of my students, I ended up interfering with the students’s learning. I wish I could say I learned this lesson early on, but it actually took me years.  I got too wrapped up in the grading schemes and particular wording in exam questions and the language in scoring rubrics. Assessments are for helping understand where students are and where they need to go. Don’t use them to be a pedantic hard ass. Save that attitude for where it belongs: with family.

Teaching Fail #7: Moving Furniture Haphazardly

The Story:  This story scares me just remembering it. I was lucky to teach in a classroom that had a good amount of space, nice carpeting, and these terrific, heavy, strong bookshelves that hooked on large seams in the walls.

When I inherited that classroom in my second year of teaching, the previous teacher, Jim, who had just retired, had the room in traditional rows. I reshaped the room to have groups of students together facing the center of the room. Doing this meant the some of the desks had to be up against the wall. Some of the bookshelves were desk height. So I just took a morning, and moved them high up so that they would be above the students’ heads. Perhaps you can see what’s coming.

During a class later that day, one of the shelves fell, hitting a young woman in one of my “non-college-bound” classes.  This young woman, “Andrea,” was hit on her back–not her head, thank the gods!–and her shoulder. For me, time suddenly stopped. I was horrified that she was really hurt and at the same time–I am embarrassed to admit–I was immediately concerned about my own culpability.  Then Andrea let out a loud string of obscenities the likes of which I haven’t heard anywhere short of a biker bar suddenly set on fire.  I and the entire class was stunned, and we stared as her cursing continued.

“Oh my God, are you OK?” I finally asked.

“Owe that hurt like hell!”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?!” Andrea demanded.

“Because he moved those shelves there this morning,” some obsequiously helpful classmate volunteered. “He must not have done it right, so they fell on you.”  I wished the ground would open up and swallow me whole. I was sure the next string of swears would include the words lawyer, law suit, and you’ll never work again!

Instead Andrea shouted, “Jeez. Next time get some help, idiot!” Then, “I’m ok. Go back to your teaching.”

To this day, I love Andrea. She really was OK, and I think she knew damned well she could have sunk me but good. But she didn’t. She knew it was an accident. She called me an “idiot” with complete justification, and we all moved on.

Andrea would be about 42 years old now. I hope she’s had a fantastic life so far and the bruise on her shoulder has healed.

Lessons to Learn: This lesson isn’t really too profound. DO NOT PUT ANYTHING ANYWHERE THAT CAN FALL ON STUDENTS! I hope that’s enough said. Let the custodians or other appropriate personnel help. Or just leave stuff where it is.

Teaching Fail #8: Assuming Your Students Will Be Good Adults

The Story: This story breaks my heart, and it’s one in which I find no humor. As I’ve said a few times in part one, I taught a few rough groups in my first few years of teaching, as most teachers do. I had groups of students who were completely uninterested in school, had jobs lined up for them by their parents, and were mean to students beneath them in the pecking order.

I tried hard to be the kind of teacher who liked students. In even the hardest cases, I found students whose tough fronts masked learning disabilities, an abusive home life, or a series of bad experiences with less compassionate teachers or authority figures. I got pretty good at turning the most antagonistic students into allies by consistently showing them care, respect, and high expectations. And even regarding the students I never reached, I still found things about them to like. I began to feel that inside all students, no matter how unpleasant, was a good person.

I still believe that for the most part, but one student in particular gives me pause. “Wayne” was one of the students who was difficult to like. Petulant, resistant, mean to his peers, and as hurtful as could be to me, he made classes unpleasant for all of us. He often got into fights over nothing, and was good at getting others around him into trouble. He had no discernible sense of humor. No interesting ideas. I never saw him smile, except at other people’s misery–of which he was often the cause.

I worked with Wayne and did my best to like him. I told him I liked him even though I frequently didn’t like his  behavior. I tried to cajole him into learning or at least allowing those around him to learn. I got administrative help and I called his parents. Nothing
really seemed to work, but after that year, I knew he would grow up and eventually make his way positively in the world. I was wrong.

A few years after I left that school, I learned that Wayne was in jail–on a 25 year-life sentence. Why? He had robbed a cab driver. After he had gotten the driver’s money, he shot him in the back of the head, fatally. Seemingly for no reason. Witness statements and other evidence found him easily convicted, and the judge cited his reckless disregard as a reason for the long prison sentence.

Lessons to Learn: Finding out about Wayne sent me into a bit of spiral. What, I thought, might have I done that would have prevented him from pulling that trigger? We read literature together, I worked with him on writing and communication. I’d have taught job-getting skills and even some social skills in those classes. I’m confident I didn’t teach him anything that would have encouraged murderous behavior, but was there more I could have done to encourage humanity, respect for the lives of others?

Most people who have committed heinous acts have had teachers. Hitler had language arts teachers, as did Charles Manson. Teachers can’t prevent the mentally ill, the psychopathic, or the ethically bankrupt from committing crimes.  Sometimes we have to get help or to try to protect the larger society.  Some of our students may be victims, but others are also victimizers. We need to be prepared to teach them all.

Teaching Fail #9: Thinking Administrators Have the Same Sophomoric Senses of Humor as You and Your Students

The Story: One Halloween when I was teaching high school I decided to wear a costume to class. I dressed like a student. I wore a heavy metal band tee-shirt (this was the 80s), and I shredded a pair of my old jeans. I was a pudgy blonde-haired, blue-eyed very young-looking 21, so I probably looked like Wayne and Garth had a baby who ate a bit too much formula! But I did it and I owned it that Halloween day.

I got the biggest kick out of my students’ reactions. My college-bound classes said, “Oh, he’s dressed like a ‘dirt bag,’ isn’t that funny?!” And, my non-college-bound classes said, “He’s dressed like one of us! Cool, man! Awesome!!” Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was dressing like one kind of student, but apparently I was. I was delighted that non-college bound students took my costume as a sign of affection. (I think they knew I actually enjoyed teaching them more than the other classes, but don’t tell anyone I said that.)

So later that day, I ran into Mr. Ed Shomanowski. He was the Assistant Principal with whom I worked. He was a 6’7″ tall walking mountain, a former college football player, who never went into the pros only because of a serious injury. So he became an educator. Ed scared EVERYONE.

When he saw me in the hall dressed as a student, Ed looked at me with contempt and said, “What are you supposed to be?”

Feeling full of myself from the positive reactions I’d gotten from students all day, I said, “I’m your worst nightmare, Shomo!” (Shomo was the name the students who spent the most time with him [that is, the trouble-makers] called him.)

Ed replied without so much as a passing glance of good humor: “If you ever call me ‘Shomo’ again, I will knock you on your ass so hard, it’ll take you a week to climb up out of the crater.”

Lessons to Learn: Do not tick off the administrators in your school. Do not assume they have as silly a sense of humor as your students. If your administrator is a 6’7″ walking mountain, do not crack wise.

I tease. Ed was actually a great support to me in many ways, His office was right on the other side of the wall of my classroom and he could hear my class from his conference room. He appreciated how I used silly humor to connect with my students, and once I established myself as a serious educator, he treated me as an equal. The problem was that I didn’t know he did not like being called “Shomo” by students and that they only called him that behind his back. I touched a nerve. I was lucky that Ed liked me. If he didn’t, my mistake could have been the final nail in my coffin. Don’t let this happen to you!

Teaching Fail #10: Having Only One Pair of Pants at School

The story: This one happened after my high school teaching days, during my fourth year teaching as a graduate student in English at Syracuse University. Some people may wonder why I am so willing to laugh at myself. Stories like this show that it’s basically because I have no other choice.

I was teaching an Introduction to Critical Theory course of about 20 students in a seminar room. We sat at a very long table, and I taught from one end in front of a white board. I had chinos on that were pretty loose in the seat, and I had my wallet in my back pocket. After giving what I’m sure was a particularly brilliant mini-lecture, I sat down as all my students watched. On the way down, my wallet caught on the arm of the chair and a very loud and long ripping sound commenced. The alarm on my face grew worse, as I stood (keeping my front facing the class) and used my right hand to feel that I had ripped my pants open so badly that they flapped back and forth like a flag in a breeze. I sat back down and taught riveted to that position for the rest of the class. Thank the gods it was winter, so I could tie my coat around my waist and get back to my car without being arrested.

Lessons to Learn:  Your teaching life may not turn out to be the “I Love Lucy” episode that mine frequently is, but you should still be prepared for the unexpected. Be ready to laugh at yourself and your own mistakes. Be humble. And treat your students with the care and respect you’d like them to treat you and their peers with. And bring extra pants!

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.



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