Related Content from And There Came A Day:
Me in my first classroom – Bishop McNamara High School, Fall 1992
During this Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, I intend to share a memories of my years in teaching – some I’ve posted in years past and some new ones – if only to recall the moments that stand out and the moments that have somehow inspired me to press on.
Mentoring That Changed My Students’ Lives
I completed my student teaching at a co-ed Catholic school in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, just over the Virginia state line. I was as intimidated as hell going into the practicum, as we called it, and nervous to meet the teacher with whom I would share a semester of my young life. The cooperating teacher to whom I was assigned seemed very, very seasoned. He was a veteran among his peers. I noted right away how they deferred to him and I felt that I’d been stuck with the “no fun” guy. One of my classmates was working with a gentleman who had already made it clear how to use personal days to the utmost: “never get caught at the end of the year with one” he told my friend. Later, this guy proved he lived by this mantra has missing a 3 days before and 3 days after the Kentucky Derby. I got the sense the 3 days before were so he could get tuned up and the 3 days after were to recover.
My cooperating teacher turned up his nose at this.
As I said, very seasoned. Frankly, he looked old.
That is my perspective now, 20 years after I worked with him. He was probably younger than I am now.
He taught me much, mainly through osmosis. I watched what he did; emulated his cadence. I learned strategy and management and craft and all of that was critically important and I began to fill my tool box, as it were, with things that he did. I reach into that box all the time.
One thing he said, though, has remained with me all these years. Working through his students’ final exams with him before summer break, I was surprised to see him change a grade. I won’t pretend that I remember what the exact numbers were, but I watched him move a student’s grade up a few percentage points – certainly more than one. He must have picked up on my surprise and he said: “If I don’t know these kids by now, I’ve done something wrong. Aren’t we paid to make these distinctions?”
In thinking about this blog, I went and google searched my old cooperating teacher. He retired last year and has published a book of prayer through Paulist Press. That’s one I’ll pick up.
22 years after I worked with him he’s still taking me to school.
Just How Old Do You Think I Am?
Teaching is sometimes – often? – an exercise in humility. I stopped short of writing “humiliation,” but that word is probably more accurate. When you stand in front of 4 – 5 collections of 25-odd young people daily, whether they are interested in what you have to say or not (spoiler alert – usually not), they are, in large part, staring at you. Sometimes they like what they see. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are judging you. Sometimes they are judging you.
Yeah, I wrote that twice.
I remember, in my first year teaching when I was 22 years old, standing in front of a class on Halloween. It was All Hallows Eve 1992. I had assigned them homework – this year, Halloween was in the middle of the school week – and was deflecting the complaints coming at me like fireflies to a light. They had plans, these juniors in high school. They were going to Trick-or-Treat. They had parties. They weren’t interested in whatever I wanted them to do.
I teased them. I told them that, when I was their age, I stayed in on Halloween and Christmas and worked. I loved school, I continued, and would skip parties and movies to be dedicated to my studies.
“Sure,” a girl in the front row said, “that’s what kids did. In the 1960s.”
So that happened.
An Apology Never Proffered
When I moved into administration it was as Dean of Students for the all girls Catholic high school at which I currently teach. In our model, the Dean of Students is responsible for maintaining student discipline and correcting serious student behaviors. It was, frankly, not a position I was dying to fill when it was opened, but I did want to move into administration and felt lucky to have the job.
I lasted two years.
In those two years, I dealt with a gun on campus, drugs in a bathroom, infractions against our dress code policy and various other sundry offenses, some highly notable, some not so much. I presided, most unfortunately, over the expulsion of one of our students – my worst day on the job – and was forced to recommend it for others. These things tore me up. The Dean job and I were not entirely compatible.
There was a drinking incident that I fondly remember because of its hilarity. On one of the last days of school – it may have been the actual last day of school and I do remember it was a Friday – rumors started flying among our very small student body (this was in the first year of existence for the school and we only had 172 students, all freshmen and sophomores) that a freshman had been drinking after school and was going to get on the bus drunk. The bus was going to take our students to Catholic Schools Night at Denver’s Elitches amusement park. The other administrators and I found the information we had credible and by “credible” I mean iron clad.
- I had the fifth of vodka, disposed of hastily in a garbage can in the cafeteria
- I had a Mountain Dew can which many girls reported seeing this freshman consuming that smelled – strongly – of alcohol
- I had the student in my office which, upon her arrival, most suddenly smelled strongly of alcohol
- I had written statements from at least 10 different students who had seen her drinking and heard her sharing her John LeCarre-like master plan of how she sneaked the vodka from home to school – in her book bag!
But the kid denied it. She denied it up and down. Asked me to “ask anyone!” Told me what a good kid she was and that she’d never, ever had a drink. Swore on a bible (not really; we don’t go in for that sort of thing anymore).
I made her call her mom in my presence on speakerphone and had her tell her mom what she was “in” for. Then I stepped in with my comments. I could tell mom was not altogether convinced of her daughter’s innocence, but it would take mom about an hour to get to school and I was stuck with the kid.
I put her on ice in the Main Office and went on about my work of wrapping up for the weekend. The she sat there, angry, stewing, ready to snap at me. After about 45 minutes of her death stares, I decided to give her one last chance.
“Drunken Obnoxious Girl (not her real name and I hope she’s not a Facebook friend),” I said, “we’ve been at this for over an hour. Your mom doesn’t seem to believe you. She’s on her way from work. She had to leave early. Didn’t sound too happy about it. Our principal doesn’t believe you. I don’t believe you. Are you saying that this is all going to end up with you proven innocent and my apologizing to you for wasting your time?”
“Yes,” said Drunken Obnoxious Girl, “that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Some Mistakes Are More Painful Than Others
Not all my teaching memories are good. Not all of them are funny. Unfortunately, not all of them make fill me with positive feelings about myself.
I have learned something from all of the experiences I’ve been reliving the last few days.
I am an administrator and my primary area of responsibility is supervision of faculty. The bad memories – the bad stories – they help me in two ways: first, they keep me honest and, hopefully, humble, and, second, they give me real stories to share.
There is always much to learn.
I teach young women. The chances of one of them finding herself in a difficult position goes up exponentially with the number of students who pass through the halls of the school. Hopefully, when that happens, these young women have the fortitude to make good choices from themselves and for the futures. We’ve been lucky to only have a few girls have to deal with these choices and I can say that I’ve been impressed by each of them.
I was teaching an AP English Literature class a few years ago. One of the students in the class was going to be late to school – about a month and a half late – so that she could make and live with the right choice for her life. I was so very impressed with her. She was, and I am certain, remains a terrific young woman. I knew she was coming back to class. I knew what day she would return. I was ready to deflect any uncomfortable comments around her, protect her from any derision. I guess I was so ready to do so that I lost sight of something very, very basic: my lesson plan in my own class for the day she returned.
The day she returned, I was conducting a Socratic Seminar. A Socratic Seminar is a class discussion for which students prepare for days. The research questions based on a novel or some other text so that they can speak intelligently and analyze deeply the work at hand. The idea is that their preparation allows them to carry on conversation without teacher intervention. It’s a big deal and, if done correctly, can be a very rewarding experience. The class had been prepping for this lesson for weeks. I was going to give the young woman a perfect score and move on, never mention what she’d been through, make this class a safe place.
She came in, I acknowledged her presence – didn’t call attention to her – and got the class in place for the seminar.
As the students began speaking, I almost cried. Truly. The seminar was moving. It was under its own power. I could have stopped it, but how? Wouldn’t that have called more attention to what was a painful and impossible situation? I could have stopped it and made a judgment call not to do so.
When teachers make bad decisions or handle situations poorly, when I would like to be disappointed in one of them, I remember this moment. I remember this young woman and her first day back.
I remember the Socratic Seminar on The Scarlet Letter.