My semester-long stint as a student teacher could have easily suffocated my passion for this career. I am thankful for it nonetheless, since it taught me valuable lessons that normally take teachers many years to learn. This is a story of intrigue, paranoia, frustration and failure. It is a story of the flower of youth being plucked before its time. Whatever bits of hope are contained therein are purely incidental.
By senior year in college, the only thing I had left to do was a semester of student teaching. I was assigned to a large high school in Manhattan that has since been closed. For the spring 2000 semester, Mr. Thomas (not his real name) was to be my mentor. We were told to go into our high schools a few days before the new semester started to introduce ourselves to our mentors and straighten out what class we would be teaching. Even from this early stage, there were signs that this was not going to be my semester.
I arrived bright and early on one of those quiet days when no children were in attendance. The staff was all in jeans and t-shirts, a comfort most of them were going to give up once the kids returned. Perhaps they were too relaxed, since it was not until lunchtime that anybody bothered to tell me that Mr. Thomas had called in sick for the day. I was told to come back on the first day of school. It would be fine, I was assured, since student teachers only observed classes for the first two weeks anyway. In other words, it was not like I had to teach on the first day. I had plenty of time to work out with Mr. Thomas what exactly I would be doing.
When that first day arrived, I again came bright and early to school. I was told to wait in the Social Studies office, where Mr. Thomas would be able to find me. A whole hour passed before my mentor finally appeared. It was 10 minutes before the first class of the day, which left very little time for Mr. Thomas and I to work out my duties for the semester. He hurriedly shook my hand and led me to some dingy room where we could talk in peace. He had a schedule of five classes: four 10th grade Global History IVs and one 9th grade Global History II. Common sense would dictate that I should teach one of the 10th grade classes, since I would be able to observe him teach the same curriculum to another class. Alas, common sense was on short supply at this particular school.
Mr. Thomas launched into some long-winded speech about me having my own “style” and him not wanting to interfere with that style. What the hell was this man talking about? How did some 21-year-old punk who had never taught a class in his life have any style at all? I thought I was here to develop a style. I might have been flattered that he gave me so much credit, if it was not for the fact that he also gave me his 9th grade class to teach. More importantly, because he did not want to cramp my awesome style, he said I could start teaching my class that day. I looked at the clock and saw I had precisely 3 hours until I had to stand in front a room full of 9th graders for the first time in my life with no lesson plan and no idea what I was supposed to teach them for the semester.
The clock started ticking. Just 4 short years before, I was a student in a New York City public high school. My memories of high school consisted of sleeping in class and spending hours in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn “chilling” with my friends. Being back in a high school building made me feel 17 years old again. How in the world was I going to take myself seriously enough to teach? How were these 9th graders not going to see through my pretentious shirt and tie to the insecure 17 year old boy that would be trying to pass himself off as an educator? I had three hours to figure it all out.
Those three hours would be engaged in watching Mr. Thomas go through the first day of class routines with his 10th grade students. During the first period, Mr. Thomas’ students filed into the room and sat where they wanted. All the while Mr. Thomas stood at the front wearing a serious glare, the type that certainly would have scared me as a teenager. He immediately picked two random students to distribute textbooks to the class. As they were doing so, a girl got up to open a window. Before she got halfway to her destination, Mr. Thomas said a stern “no, no”. The girl started to protest and Mr. Thomas repeated his words over hers. She sat back down with a roll of the eyes, duly chastened. From that moment on, the students learned not to mess with Mr. Thomas.
It was all downhill from there. It turns out that Mr. Thomas did not distribute textbooks for the kids to take home. Instead, the textbook was his lesson. He picked random students around the room and had each read a paragraph out loud about World War I until the bell rang. There was no homework, no settling the kids into routines, no notes on the board, no handouts, no do now activity. He did the same thing with the next 10th grade class. In fact, he did this every day I observed him. There was no deviation from this routine of empty reading and lack of any actual work or thinking. Still, on that first day, I was too idealistic and intimidated to pass any type of judgment on Mr. Thomas’ teaching. He was the veteran and I was the kid. There had to be a method to all of this.
There was at least one free period between Mr. Thomas’ classes and the class I was destined to teach. The clock seemed to be moving agonizingly slow, dragging out my dread and anticipation. I expected that Mr. Thomas would sit down with me and give me some pointers on how to make it through my first class ever. After his last class, I sidled up to him in hopes of hearing his thoughts. Instead, his words to me were “don’t take this personally, but I need my space. You should go off and do your own thing to prep for your class.” Prep for my first class with what? I had 40 minutes to figure out what I was going to do. There was no time to round up textbooks, make copies or write a lesson. Even if there were textbooks, what pages would they read? Even if there was a copy machine, what would I even copy? What am I going to do with 30 9th graders for 40 minutes? The longest presentations I ever gave to a group were little 5 minute skits for other college students, and even those seemed to drag on for an eternity. I was toast and I knew it.
The biggest fear of the student teacher is losing control of the class. What if the kids run into the room, throw chairs at each other and totally tune out everything I say? What tools do I have at my disposal to force kids to listen to me? In fact, why should the kids even give me the time of day? Who was I to demand their attention and respect when I literally had no clue what I was doing?
Those questions would soon be answered. I showed up to the classroom 5 minutes before the period started, only to find another teacher and another class in the room. I peered through the little window on the door to the classroom to get acquainted with what would be my work environment. It was a large, open and bright spave. It certainly was a much better room than the one in which Mr. Thomas taught. The bell rang, the previous class marched out of the room and I stormed in, placing myself by the door so I could watch the first students I would ever teach as they entered. To my pleasant surprise, they did not come running wildly into the room throwing chairs at each other. They were mostly sheepish and uncertain of each other and the strange, gawky figure at the front of the room. To make it more confusing for them, Mr. Thomas was sitting in the back. They did not know to which adult they should offer their allegiance. Some of the kids asked me “Are you Mr. Thomas?”, to which I responded with a shake of the head. Their programs had Mr. Thomas’ name on them, since it was legally his class and he was merely lending it to me.
I feared that my kids would be wild because I secretly desired for them to be so. If they had not let me get a word in edgewise, then I could chalk up my failure to unruly students and give Mr. Thomas an excuse to take control of the class for a few weeks until they were settled. That is not how it happened. To my horror, all the kids were in their seats by the time the late bell rang. They were quiet and their upturned faces were all on me, as if they wanted and expected me to actually teach. You could have heard a pin drop in that room as I cleared my throat and wrote my very long and inconvenient last name on the board. Until this point in my life, the only people who called me Mr. Teacher (instead of just my first name, Assailed, or my shortened name, Ass), were adults who wanted to address me in condescending anger. “Mr. Teacher, you’re in big trouble for pulling that fire alarm.” It was always a sign of me being subordinate. Now, I had to call myself by this name when I was in a position of power. Mr. Teacher was now a name to be respected instead of a prelude to a talking to by an authority figure.
It was an out of body experience. As I pronounced my name for the class, I wondered who this Mr. Teacher was and where the hell he gets off thinking anybody should respect him. Everything after that moment was a blur. I remember doing some sort of brainstorming activity to pass the time, which only ended up eating away 10 minutes. For the rest of the period, I rambled on about what we would be learning despite the fact that I had no idea what was in the curriculum. Looking back on it, it was not the most horrible experience in the world. After a few minutes I had found a level of confidence and comfort that I did not expect. The game was on to see which student would be the first to realize that I was full of it. Mercifully, the bell rang before they could figure me out. I had made it through my first teaching experience ever.
After the class was over, Mr. Thomas mustered up the stomach to spend 20 consecutive minutes with me discussing what I should do next. I needed handouts, lessons and textbooks, he said. I needed to establish routines. I did not have to give homework every night, but it should be understood that the kids would have to “study” on the nights they do not. Study what? I had no notes or materials to give the students. Even if I did, what does it mean to “study” them?
For future lessons, his routine would be to cut out of my class 5 minutes early so he could go to lunch. I would meet him downstairs after class was over, looking at the top of his head as he hunched over the table, scarfing down his food. I would be lucky to get a complete sentence of feedback out of him about the day’s lesson and, when I did, he would say little more than “it was a good lesson.” After a while, I did not buy the fact that every lesson I did was good. I certainly was not satisfied and I was losing the respect of the kids with each passing day. Since I was not getting any help from my mentor, I had started spending hours in the social studies office looking through materials to use in my classroom and picking up bits of conversation from veteran teachers who spent their free periods there. My constant presence in the teacher’s lounge seemed to engender a lot of resentment on the part of the teachers. Many of them spoke down to me (when they spoke to me at all) and gave me death glares as I sat at the giant table pouring over materials. Maybe I was taking up their space? Maybe I had done some horrible thing I was not aware of that violated some secret teacher code? Whatever it was, I had obviously done something to get off on the wrong foot with them.
If my student teaching experience consisted of just this, it would be bad enough. However, things were about to go from bad to much worse.
Mr. Thomas happened to be absent one day. In a fit of youthful eagerness, I offered to cover his full schedule of classes. His classes were just about to learn of the social unrest caused by the Industrial Revolution in Europe. As an opening question, I asked the students about the meaning of oppression and what groups they might consider oppressed today. I will admit it was not the best assignment, but what do you expect from a total novice who never received an ounce of guidance? Anyway, I listed the answers the students gave on the board. I do not remember the rest of the lesson aside from the fact that the kids were very nice and cooperative.
The next day I had some things to take care of at my college, so I was only able to make it in to teach my own class and then leave. I was unable to speak to Mr. Thomas at all that day, which really was no big loss for me. The day after that, I went back to my old routine of waiting for Mr. Thomas outside of his room for the start of morning classes. When he arrived, he said to me “I told the assistant principal I don’t want to work with you anymore.” I was completely taken aback and let out a reactionary “why not?” I was barking up the wrong tree. Mr. Thomas was already inside of his classroom without giving me another look or missing a beat. When I arrived at the AP’s office, she beckoned me with a stern voice and a wagging finger, ordering me to sit in the chair beside her desk. She launched into a shrill lecture against mentioning “sexual orientation” in class. I did not know what in the world she was talking about and I told her as much in the most respectful tone I could muster at the time. She asked “did you or did you not tell Mr. Thomas’ class that gay people are oppressed?”
“No, I did not. I asked the class about oppression and what people they thought were oppressed today. One kid in one class answered ‘gays’, so I wrote it on the board. It was one answer among many and that is where it stayed.”
But from the inferences she was making, it seemed as if she was suggesting that I had led a detailed discussion on queer identity politics. It was an extremely bizarre accusation for many reasons. I was totally unqualified to lead such a discussion, seeing as how I had zero experience with being gay or gay people in general. I had never even taken a gay studies class in college. But, even if I had led a discussion on gay rights, so what? Was she contending that gay people were not oppressed? Or was she contending that the oppression of gay people was not an appropriate topic of discussion in a history class? Assuming that such a discussion does, in fact, have no place in a high school classroom, does it really warrant me of being stripped of my student teacher duties?
She said, “I have every right to let you go and end your student teaching time, but I will cut you a break and try to find another teacher you can work with.”
Great. Now she was going to have to ask the staff that hated my guts for whatever reason to take me on as a student teacher. Only now, I would be seen as a troublemaker, damaged goods, a liability or someone not worth taking the chance on. I was not holding my breath. To make things even worse, the AP had already informed my college professor about my scandalous gay rights discussion, prompting her to come down to the school to admonish me on doing such a foolish thing. From that point on, she treated me as persona non grata. I was afraid for my grade point average, which was near perfect after four years of hard work. All of that was jeopardized because of the paranoid judgments of a group of ignorant people.
Fortunately, she was able to find another veteran teacher to take a chance on mentoring me. He was much older and milder than Mr. Thomas. Instead of Global History, I would be teaching American History. After I taught my first class, I realized why they had put me there. It was a zero period class that started around 7:30 in the morning. Any teacher who has had a class that early knows that most of the students on the roster are still at home sleeping. I would be lucky if four students showed up. Only one student bothered to show up on time every day, a senior who needed this one class to graduate. The class was death but at least I was able to limp through to the end of the semester. This mentor was a better teacher than Mr. Thomas, although he certainly was no Teacher of the Year. He spent most of his time lecturing and his students spent most of their time sleeping. However, at least he took the time to give me feedback on my lessons. I was too young and inexperienced to internalize the tips he shared with me. But after what I had been through up until that point, I was thankful that anyone in that building spoke to me at all.
Ever since the incident of the gay rights discussion that never took place, nothing was the same. I was only 21 years old but felt like a crotchety old man. On one occasion, my nicer mentor suggested that I spend less time in the social studies office, since the teachers were very territorial and there was a lot of “who does this guy think he is?” feeling going around. At that point, I did not care what they thought of me, so I made it a point to spend as much time in the office as possible. After all, I needed to work on my lessons and I could not pass up the chance to piss people off with just my mere presence. If they were going to make it so easy for me to get under their skin, then I was going to take full advantage of it. While they sat around with their coffees talking about the color of their drapes and what they did over the weekend, I was going to pour over my books and my handouts and build my career right in front of their eyes.
Ironically, the more time I spent in the office, the more teachers I was able to meet. I learned that not all of them were bitter, petty people. There were those that understood that I was doing actual work and respected me for it. On one occasion, one of these teachers revealed that Mr. Thomas had been under a very long and dragged out investigation that prompted his removal from the classroom. He had just recently been cleared. Therefore, he was a little sensitive to any controversy in the classroom, which explained why he was so quick to get rid of me. What I did not understand was, if he was so apprehensive and hurt, why would he take a student teacher on at all? The teacher had an answer for that one too: he got a free class at my college. It sort of made sense to me at that point. It was a bitter lesson to learn that schools were not the wonderland of learning and tolerance that I had envisioned. There were those people who, for whatever reason, were not solely motivated by the high ideals of disseminating knowledge.
It has been 12 years since my personal horror show of student teaching. There were many things I left out about the experience, things I will be sure to reveal in future posts.
I like to think I am light years beyond the type of teacher I was back then. In some ways this is true. But, in other ways, a part of me is still that bitter 21-year-old student teacher. A part of me still feels sickened when I see a teacher act all uptight or afraid to say or do certain things. There are always limits, of course, but there is also such a thing as intellectual honesty. Oppression is a fact of life and I do not see why so many teachers try to avoid the issue. Ignoring it and treating it like it does not exist just serves to perpetuate oppression, since it deprives children of a full understanding of the world around them. In short, there are too many repressed teachers who go out of their way to censor themselves. Knowledge should be a vast open space. I make no apologies for being honest and open with my students. There is nothing inappropriate about giving your students access to powerful ideas that they can use to unlock the meaning of the world around them. Of course, teachers censor and repress themselves for good reason, especially today when their tenure rights have been severely eroded away. My honesty is my personal rebellion against this culture of fear, paranoia and pettiness that pervades the public schools. I find that honest words cut through the foul smog of censorship like a knife. It might catch up with me one day, but at least I get to keep a part of my soul.
Moreover, I learned that the rumors that make their rounds around the teacher’s lounge should be immediately disregarded. I cannot imagine the types of judgments that were being passed on me as a student teacher; judgments from people that only had second and third hand information about what really went on. Whenever a teacher is removed from the school pending an investigation, there are always those teachers that are quick to combine the scraps of half-digested rumors they have heard and judge that “the teacher should not have done that.” As a former chapter leader, I have seen first-hand how totally innocent and innocuous things can be twisted around in an attempt to destroy a teacher’s career. When the day finally comes that my more judgmental and rumor-prone colleagues find themselves on the business end of an investigation, I can only hope that other people are not so quick to write them off like they have written off countless others. I am not religious but a little “there but for the grace of God, go I” might be in order.
Honesty is a tough commodity to find today in public schools. Fear is the order of the day. I resolved a long time ago to not carry out my duties in fear. It is the 21-year-old student teacher in me. It is the idealist who has seen all of the horror stories one can see in a public school. Rather than allowing the system to crush my humanity, I have vowed to be more and more humane with every new horror story that comes along. It is my way of compensating for the sins of the education system. The current era of education deform only promises to inject more dark fear into public schools. As their measures become more severe and entrenched, so will my honesty and so will the honesty of every educator out there who has never lost sight of the type of courage that is required to be an actual teacher.