I’ve recently retired from a thirty-five year teaching career. Reflecting upon that career I recall both warmhearted and unpleasant memories. I’ll share some memories of both.
My memory takes me to the first five years of my teaching career. I was teaching in a rural school. During that time, the student was in junior high and was what we teachers call a difficult child. This child was one of those intimidating, aggressive and angry students who often used unacceptable adjectives. He always had excuses for his actions and tended to be a disruptive, non-participating learner. All his teachers attested to these unwanted performances.
It was not unusual for teachers to complain about this student in the staff room. Needless to say, a parent-teacher meeting was arranged. The interview was to take place after school on a Friday as I recall. It began with this father spewing, “ You F#*ing teachers are always picking on my child” and “You F#*ing teachers…” I think you “get the picture.” Now as a rookie teacher, these kinds of parental manners throw you “off guard.” Initially, I was not sure how to handle the situation but I soon regained my composure and as assertive as I could I stated, “I did not come to this meeting to hear this type of language! If the language continues, I am leaving. Furthermore, if every teacher in this school is having problems with your son, then that tells me that the problem is not with the teachers, but with your son.” The parents got up and left. Luckily, for me, that was the end of it because when I ponder upon the event I could have been punched in the nose. I learned from that experience that you understand your students better after meeting their parents. To use an idiom, the “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
This next memory I would categorize as humorous. I was teaching in a small kindergarten to grade twelve school with unusually small numbers in high school that year. Consequently, I was assigned to teach both high school biology courses in the same time slot. The only way I knew how to teach two courses simultaneously was to instruct one group while learners in the other biology course worked on projects. Students working on their projects would mostly work in a small room beside my classroom. Periodically, I would leave my room to check on those students. On one occasion, I walked into the project room to find one of my Biology 30 students with a motorcycle helmet on his head. The student’s back was towards me, so I walked up behind him, grabbed the helmet and lifted the helmet off of his head to hear him bellow the “F” bomb followed by the word off. When he turned around and saw me, his teacher, he unveiled the most embarrassed, appalled look on his face. I, on the other hand, just laughed as the expression on his face was most entertaining. I saw no need to punish the kid. It was obvious to me he realized he was in the wrong.
What you say to your students can sometimes come back to “haunt” you. Whenever a student would tell me they couldn’t do something I always called them on it and said, “Never say can’t.” The school was taking a group of grade tens on a retreat where one of the planned activities was a climbing wall. I was along as a teacher supervisor. After several students had climbed the wall, one of my students said to me, “It is your turn to climb the wall.” My hasty response was, “I can’t climb that wall.” The student then came back with, “Never say can’t.” Needless to say, I had to “eat my words” and climb the wall. I did manage to get about half way up.
Then there are those times during you’re teaching career when you have every single student, to use an idiom, “eating out of the palm of your hand”. Those are the times when students hang on every word you say. I have witnessed this many times, usually while teaching religious education. I remember one occasion when teaching a group of ninth grade students a lesson on reading scripture contextually. I was illustrating the dangers of reading scripture literally by showing them various scriptural texts that should not be taken literally, such as Deuteronomy 21:18-21 where it says, “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother… then his [parents] shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town … Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” Then I would debrief by asking my students, “How many of you have disobeyed your parents?” Typically every student would put up their hand. I would then declare, “According to this text every one of you should be dead!” Every single student in my classroom was silent with his or her mouths hanging open. They were “eating out of the palm of my hand.” Those are the moments that make teaching worthwhile.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is kids are always excited about sharing things with their teachers. I especially remember a group of grade eleven boys that came to me all eager to demonstrate something to me. What they did is something known as the light as a feather game. At the time I was not familiar with this game. What the boys did was had me sit on a chair. Then the four boys surrounded me and attempted to lift me using nothing but their index and middle fingers. The first attempt failed which was not surprising to me. After all I weigh just less than 200 pounds. Then one of them chanted, “Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Light as a feather, stiff as a board.” A countdown followed, “1, 2, 3 and LIFT.” To my amazement they lifted me 30 to 50 centimeters off the ground. I was stunned. I was amazed. I can’t explain how it worked, but it did. I still look back upon that memory with smiles and fondness.
Probably my fondest memories are those from the many letters I have received from students over the years. A person does not realize how much they have impacted a student until they receive such letters. One student wrote, “I haven’t been in this school very long; you were one of my first teachers..[in a new school]. During the many classes we had together you made it very enjoyable and you were very understanding when people didn’t have a clue on what you were talking about.” Another student in a “Thank You” card wrote, “Thanks for being a part of my high school career. I know we had our ups and downs, but just know you have made a difference in my life, and every one else’s.” Still another student wrote in a letter, “I would like to start this letter of appreciation to you by saying what a great teacher you are. Whenever I needed help, you would come right over and do your best to help me understand and that goes for the rest of the class too…I feel lucky to be in your classes at school.” This is why I taught for as long as I did. It certainly wasn’t for the pay as I could have made a lot more doing something else.
It is memories like those shared above, which have made my thirty-five year teaching career a rewarding one. I have no regrets about becoming a teacher.