Let me speak for myself. Young teachers have a lot to learn. A lot. Even though I'm retired now, I still have dreams about classroom failures (sometimes, dramatic implosions and explosions). And at times I shudder with memory. Some former students (now Facebook friends) from those long-ago years (the mid-1960s onward) occasionally remind me of my follies (and, yes, cruelties), and--like most of the rest of you, I guess--I wish I had a select-and-delete feature on my memory, if not on the past itself.
From the start, I was mercurial, sarcastic, unprepared for class, impatient, peremptory, terrified to admit I was ever in error, fearing, of course, that students would lose respect for me if I admitted to being a human being. I remember Mrs. Nichols, my own Algebra I teacher back at Hiram High School (1958-59), who, when she made an error on the board, would invariably say that she was trying to see if we were paying attention. (I used that line myself a few (thousand) times.)
In my early years (decades?!) Error flowed from me like a torrent. Every day I said and did things that ranged from ignorant to stupid to (as I said) cruel. Over the decades the torrent gradually subsided--but never dried away. Even during my final years I was saying and doing things I later regretted, but they occurred far less frequently, and I'd grown to be confident enough that I had no problem apologizing to kids--often in front of the class--for my behavior. Or admitting that I didn't know something.
I'm writing about this because this past week I tried to do something to atone for a mistake I made back during my student teaching--West Geauga High School (Ohio), Winter Quarter, 1966. I was assigned to an eleventh grade English teacher who gave me four classes: Two were college prep, two were not.
I was in some ways relieved about the assignment. Eleventh grade English focused (and still often focuses) on American literature--and I'd had a wonderful preparation for this back at Hiram College. I'd taken more than a half-dozen courses in it--most with the best professor I ever had, Dr. Abe C. Ravitz (now a Facebook friend). So I was not too worried about the content of the course. (Little did I know!)
I was terrified about being in charge of a classroom, though. I'd never done it. In those antediluvian days our first classroom experiences came in student teaching. Sink or swim. (I would do some of both, every day.)
I spent a couple of days watching my supervising teacher handle the classes, and I was impressed with him (at first). And then it was my turn. And things actually went pretty well for a while. I was earnest; the students wanted to impress me (that ended fairly quickly). But I discovered almost immediately that I loved what I was doing. And I was working harder than I had ever worked before. Reading the assignments, preparing lesson plans, grading papers--these things and more kept me extraordinarily busy. But happy.
Then one day in one of the college prep classes I experienced my first failure--and told my first lie. I wrote about my student teaching--and this experience--a little bit in my memoir about my early teaching career (Schoolboy--available on Amazon), and, below, I've reproduced a truncated version of the story as I told it there ...
Oh, sure, there were mistakes. Plenty of them. Like the time we were doing E. E. Cummings’ poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” I had not prepared much the night before (and didn’t really understand the poem too well), so in class I just asked some questions, said a few things, moved on to something else.
Yes? I looked up. A kid named Ed—one of the brightest in the class—had his hand raised.
There’s a lot more to that poem, I think.
I blushed. Then lied: Oh, I know that, Ed. Of course there is. It’s an incredibly rich poem. But we need to move on now—there’s so much to do … so little time …
Ed didn’t look satisfied.
"anyone lived in a pretty how town"--even the title puzzles, doesn't it? But my supervising teacher--who, thank Zeus, was not in the room observing this day (he rarely came, actually--but that's another story)--had told me to teach the poem.
And so I did--sort of. I read it aloud to the class--laughed with them at the odd language--then, as I said, tried to move briskly on to something more comprehensible (to me).
And that was when Ed raised his hand.
To be continued ...