The Teacher I Never Wanted to Be

If you’re a regular reader here (which puts you in very exclusive company!), I’d like your permission to go way off topic with this one. It has nothing to do with ed tech–it’s just something I  decided to share on the drive home with my son today. We were talking about his day, and something that was said about laughter and his joking around in class triggered some memories from my own childhood. I’ve changed the name of the teacher that is the subject of this post. I considered not changing it, but I decided that I need to be bigger than that, no matter how tempting. Throwing her under the bus would be spiteful, and it wouldn’t do anything positive for me, either.

When I finished second grade, my dad was transferred to north Texas. We moved to a nice, friendly neighborhood with modest but attractive homes, lots of kids to befriend,  good schools, etc. At the beginning of the new school year, my parents attended a meet the teacher night at our new school. My new teacher, Mrs. Simmons, was an experienced woman that I would estimate had  been teaching for more than 20 years. As my parents visited with her, they shared some of my educational background and qualities. They told Mrs. Simmons that I had attended an open-concept school in our previous town, which was a trendy thing in that day in age. For those who are unfamiliar, open concept schools eschewed traditional classroom structures, even to the point where there were no walls between classrooms or learning spaces. Students worked in small groups based upon ability levels, and teachers took on roles that were more like mentors. Students were often afforded more independence and able to progress at different rates.

Mrs. Simmons bluntly told my parents, “I don’t like getting students from open concept schools.” Such students were too undisciplined and struggled to fit in to the traditional school format, and they were likely to become behavior problems. I don’t know how my parents reacted, exactly, but I know it must have been disheartening. Mrs. Simmons had pre-determined how my year would play out before I had been given anything resembling a fair shot at showing her who I was and what I was about.

angryteacherandboyAs could be expected, the year was not pleasant. I was a very good student academically, so much so that I finished assignments very quickly. This gave me too much dead time to cause mischief, which I must confess I know I indulged in. It wasn’t malicious stuff, just 8-year old silliness–I always was a bit of a class clown. It was enough, however, that I believe I had a brass name plate affixed to my regular seat in the principal’s office, much like the guy who drinks every brand of beer at the local tavern. Mrs. Simmons, you see, had no sense of humor, at least none that I can recall. She was stern and expected strict adherence to her rules or else. This was the day in age when the paddle was routinely wielded, and I feel confident that my principal (a man I really liked, by the way) probably wore out a few on my backside.

I can’t remember anything remarkable at all about Mrs. Simmons’s teaching. Not one lesson or activity stands out, other than these records she used to play with multiplication facts. The time between facts grew increasingly short, and I was the first to get all of my facts correct on the fastest speed. That’s it. Records of math facts.  I don’t remember anything else about what we learned, how we learned it, a field trip, a fun activity…anything.

My most vivid memory came late in the year. This is embarrassing to this day, but it had such an impact on me that I want to share it. We had a test or something very serious one day, and Mrs. Simmons ordered us to be silent or face her wrath. There would be no talking, no raising our hands to ask a question, no getting out of our seats for any reason. By this time of the year, I had nothing but fear of Mrs. Simmons. I would do whatever it took to avoid angering her or displeasing her in any way. Then it happened. I had to go to the bathroom. Being the undisciplined student I was, I had obviously not planned my trips out carefully enough. As my discomfort increased, I was faced with a terrible choice: leave my seat to go to the restroom and thus face the consequences, or risk having an embarrassing accident if I was unable to wait until martial law was lifted. Fear of Mrs. Simmons ultimately made the decision, and mother nature ultimately did the rest.

Somehow, some way, no one said a thing about my accident that day. Maybe it was the ultra dark blue Sears and Roebuck Toughskin jeans that made the evidence less obvious. Maybe it was close to the end of the day, and I was able to get out of school quickly and inconspicuously enough not to be noticed. Maybe it was kindness and pity on the part of my friends. Whatever it was, it was merciful, as I was humiliated enough on my own.

When I decided to teach, there were some incredible, creative, inspiring teachers whose practices would greatly influence my own. Mrs. Pruitt and Mrs. Hardison were funny and engaging, and even seemed to embrace those kids who made others laugh and operated a bit out of the box. Mrs. Eldridge LOVED science, and she passed that on to me. Mr. Eklund’s dry, sometimes sarcastic sense of humor enabled him to maintain classroom decorum with laughter rather than intimidation. Mrs. Holcombe, Mrs. Perry, Mr. Stelricht, Mrs. Talbert–all became a part of me the teacher.

So did Mrs. Simmons. Mrs. Simmons became the benchmark of what I never wanted to be. I never wanted to pre-judge a student. I used to go out of the way to avoid conversations with my students’ teachers from previous grades, actually walking away from such conversations. Every year is a fresh start, and every kid has a clean slate. Very few of us would do well if we were judged based upon the worst moments of our pasts. I never wanted to send students to the office. It is always better to work things out in the classroom if at all possible. Sending students to the office takes kids away from instruction and is socially stigmatizing. I always felt it was my responsibility to create the class climate and handle any issues that arose. I very rarely resorted to referring a student to the principal, and only in extreme cases where it was often mandated by school policy. I never wanted a classroom devoid of laughter, of joy. Research shows that laughter releases chemicals in the brain that actually help us to remember. It also makes a classroom a place where students want to be. I read a blog post awhile back by a prominent educational blogger that actually proposed that school was not the place for fun. I  inferred that this meant laughter is bad, too. I replied to that post and told her in no uncertain terms that I would never want my children in her classroom–she reminded me too much of Mrs. Simmons. Finally, I never wanted to be unremarkable. Certainly, we’ve all taught lessons  or led classroom activities that were dry and a bit uninspired at times–at least I know I have. However, I did try as often as possible to do things memorably. I stood in the trashcan or on the desk to teach prepositions (Thank you, Mrs. Pruitt, for this one.). I pushed desks out of the way and had students emulate animals foraging for food to teach adaptations. I kept live animals in the room, even snakes and spiders (Hat tip to Mrs. Eldridge’s science table.). I made up silly songs and sang off-key. I tried to use the teacher’s guides as rarely as possible, particularly as I gained more experience. I wanted my students to say, “Remember that time in Mr. Rodgers’s class when we…”

I’m not sure how to wrap this up, and I don’t really know why I decided to share this today. Maybe it’s therapeutic. Maybe it will remind someone of the remarkable and the unremarkable teachers they had and the one they aspire to be. I hope it does. Hopefully, none of us will be that teacher that is written about 37 years later as the teacher someone never wants to be.

1 Comment

  1. David Phillips

    May 20, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Over my 20 years of teaching, I’ve decided that the number 1 quality teachers must have is that they must like kids. They also need to care about their students individually and be dedicated to giving the best education possible using the most effective methods, but I think these attitudes flow from the first quality.
    Of course, we’ll all have students who are hard to love, but I’ve found that every one has some redeeming quality–or at least every one of the hundreds I have taught.
    Sounds like Mrs. Simmons started off lacking quality number 1 and the rest of her attitudes followed.

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