April 26, 2011

The Marks I Made: A Life in the Classroom

Stack of school books
Win a couple of essay contests in high school and the whole town thinks you should become an English teacher. Everyone except Miss Paisley, the school counselor. She saw my test scores and knew I couldn’t spell. Also, according to her, my handwriting was more appropriate for prescriptions than blackboard lessons.
Mother pooh-hooed Miss Paisley’s doctor idea as foolish for a girl, “By the time you get half way through med school you’ll fall in love and want to get married. And then where will you be?”
Miss Paisley was right. I must have misspelled pre-med as pre-ed on my college entry forms; they put me in the college of education.
Mother was right, too. When I married two days before graduation, Mother kept muttering, “She has her teaching certificate. She has her teaching certificate.” The insurance policy all girls needed. 
Thirty years later, the video at my retirement party chronicled a career of changing hairstyles and glasses. It listed my teaching positions but missed the HONEST classroom highlights recorded in my journals:
   Year 1: French I and II and freshman English.
I never planned to teach French. But the only school hiring needed a French-English teacher and assumed my grades in French meant fluency. Whenever students in English class pointed out my misspelled words on the board, I told them it was the French spelling.
I was afraid to tackle the required Freshmen novel because I hadn’t studied it in college [to learn the “correct” symbolism]. Since in those days, you couldn’t teach if you were “showing,” I got pregnant and left the book for my replacement. Hubby and I moved to the other side of the continent, and I changed my hairstyle to prevent recognition in case anyone from that school moved east.
   Year 2: Remedial Reading—in my hometown high school.
To help the boys get ready for jobs at local plants, I gave them practice application forms. They stalled on the Maiden Name line. I abandoned that reading strategy.
I taught them to read the drivers’ training manual so they could get driver’s licenses. The following year Mother sent the newspaper account of Homer being arrested, driving the get-away car used to steal a pig. I added Aiding and Abetting a Criminal to my journal.
  Year 3: 2nd grade. They were desperate for a teacher and overlooked my lack of elementary certification. 
The main objective with 36 seven-year-olds is crowd control and constant counting. It took me an hour after recess to discover that I was missing one boy and another hour to figure out which twin it was who had decided to go home before reading time.
The rookie kindergarten teacher was as unaware as I was of common catastrophes with primary schoolers. She discovered when the children sat cross-legged on the reading carpet that little Candy frequently came to school sans underpants. More disturbing to Miss Young was Martin Mamasboy. He emerged stark naked from the restroom, calling, “Teacher, come wipe me.” As far as I knew, my students always wore underwear and took care of their own bathroom needs.
I didn’t know new math. Neither did the parents, so no one complained when I taught multiplication the old way. 
I failed at getting second graders to make a circle on the playground. At the end of that year, I asked for a transfer to middle school where they don’t have recess.
  Fifteen years of middle school English
I graded 18,553 essays.
One of those essay writers became an airline attendant. He told the whole plane on which I was flying that he had been failing until he got to my English class. While I basked in his compliments, I remembered our year differently. When all of my tricks failed to get him to hand in homework, I called a parent conference. His dad threatened the boy that unless he started studying, he would end up digging the graves in the cemetery the father managed. Horrified at such an end to a student I liked, I was jolted into action; I told Bennie I could do better and would swing by his house to pick up his assignments or rummage through his locker for them from then on.
Two boys are now judges. (Chris, I’m sorry I made you read Last of the Mohicans and Evangeline. Or did those dry passages prepare you for law books?)
Thirty of my students became teachers (before I stopped counting). One was named Teacher of the Year. She probably knows how to get children into circles on the playground.
The boy who bicycled to world fame turned out to be the one who swiped my teacher’s spelling book with all the answers. I threatened no more spelling tests until the book was returned. Peer pressure made him turn it over. (8th graders are not strong in logical thinking.)
That was the year I decided to teach grownups. They don’t have spelling tests.
Recently, I sat on a scholarship committee to interview future teachers. One hopeful told us that Divine Fate had brought her to the decision to teach. Remembering exactly how I had ended up repeating the 8th grade fifteen times, I told her I understood completely.

Do you have a “how I choose my career” story? Teachers, what was your worst rookie mistake? If you dare, share the humor with us.