Today’s #teach2teach question is a doozy. Every teacher has teaching horror stories. For some of us, it’s a horrible administrator experience. For others, it’s a classroom out of control. Maybe there was a day that a lesson completely fell apart and so did the teacher.
This week’s question is from Jennifer: What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you deal with it?
Great question, Jennifer! But before I start my own story, I want to point out that this experience I am going to retell here leads directly back to my response for question 2 about politics and why I was so blunt in my advice. This particular story heavily influences me, my teaching philosophy, and how I try to manage myself in regard to my admin, students, parents, and other teachers. Thankfully, I am a quick learner, but experience is a harsh mistress.
My awful, terrible, no good, very bad student teaching
My worst experience came in the form of my first attempt at student teaching. I was a young, naive, but energetic and passionate Spanish teacher who was placed with a native speaker teacher in a high school in my area. I knew it would be hard, and I was nervous about my Spanish, but I thought it could be a wonderful experience to work with someone who was a native speaker.
I met with my cooperating teacher before the semester started to get a feel for things. This meeting went fine, and I left feeling confident that I was going to learn a lot. Then the semester started and some things just seemed… well, odd. For example, she was having some computer problems, so she went to visit the tech person and left me alone with a group of extraordinarily unruly freshmen for an entire class period to review for their final exam. On my second or third day. When I didn’t know any names, classroom procedures, or even what they were supposed to be reviewing for! After the semester class switch, she informed me I would only be teaching two sections of Spanish 4. I was confused because I thought I was supposed to eventually teach most, if not all, the regular teaching load.
By the end of the second or third week, I was feeling much more tepid about my experience. The teacher didn’t seem to have any sort of management plan besides ‘Guys, c’mon, let’s pay attention.’ We had first period plan, but she told me she had to drop her daughter off at school so I generally arrived at 7:30 to plan while she usually arrived around 8:30 – half an hour after school started. (This should have been a huge, screaming, blinking red flag.) Cell phones were everywhere with no consequences. On top of that, the Spanish 4 classes were woefully behind where they were ‘supposed to be’. Logic dictates that the best thing to do for these students would be to back up and pick up where they were, but the district mandated that we keep slogging through imperfect subjunctive when I was still regularly hearing ‘yo haco’. One of the two classes I took over had 30 students crammed into a room meant to hold 20. I had this class right after lunch, and I would get so nervous and worked up that I would literally shake when trying to teach them. I was so nauseous all the time from the stress, I worried I was pregnant or had some other illness.
As the semester dragged on, my cooperating teacher and I didn’t seem to get along very well. After about a month with her, we had a discussion about whether or not I should stay in this placement. Because I had no spine at the time and didn’t want to make more work for anyone else to find me a new placement a month into the semester, I said that we could continue.
So things went on like this for another month. The teacher consistently undermined me in the class – everything from letting students leave the room in the middle of a lesson after I explicitly told them no, not helping me with watching for inappropriate behaviors, interrupting my lessons to tell personal stories, and I am fairly certain she changed some students’ grades in the gradebook behind my back because she felt my assessment was ‘unfair’. It’s been over 5 years and I can probably recount at least 10 specific stories off the top of my head. My stress got worse, and I dreaded teaching. By this point, I figured I would graduate and be done with it, and maybe go do something else for a while instead of looking for a teaching job because clearly I wasn’t cut out for it. I would go home and cry on a regular basis. I was miserable.
Everything finally came to a head about 2 months into my 16-week assignment. I was going to teach a lesson using a newspaper article I’d found in the local Spanish newspaper. It was perfect. It had all sorts of vocabulary from the chapter, it was pretty short, and by Spanish 4, I thought we could read it for the main idea. I even had my cooperating teacher look it over, and all she had me fix were a few spelling errors.
The lesson itself was a complete and utter failure. I had no buy-in from the students and by the end, I basically gathered up the handful of students who were willing to work and helped them. I had no idea how to salvage the situation because ‘c’mon, guys’ is an extremely ineffective management technique. My cooperating teacher did nothing to save me from this clearly sinking ship. In fact, there was a member of the district office there that day who happened to be in the room at the time, and she did nothing to help me either. The bell finally rang, and it had never sounded so sweet.
We had another plan period after this class (now I have to laugh, what a luxury to have two planning periods!) and clearly, I was completely distraught. The woman from district office asked me what I think went wrong, and I responded with ‘everything’. I was told that my lesson was awful, and I blew up. I pointed out that I had asked for help and if my lesson was that awful, it was the cooperating teacher’s job to help me fix it before I taught it. At this point, my cooperating teacher launched into a diatribe of every grievance she had held against me for the last 8 weeks, including matters that I had considered resolved. Then the other woman berated me, telling me I was just making excuses for my horrible teaching. I cried hysterically while being browbeaten by these two women for the entirety of the plan period, and then told that I should just go home because I clearly wasn’t going to be able to teach my other class that day.
I left. To make things worse, when I got to my car in the parking lot, someone had smashed into my car and knocked the driver’s sideview mirror completely off. After completely losing it, I sat in my car and recomposed myself, then went home. Shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from my university’s student teaching coordinator telling me that I needed to come in as soon as possible to meet with him and my education professor, and that I should not return to the school.
The next day, I went in and discussed the happenings with them. The woman from district office had contacted the university, telling them I was unfit to teach and should be removed immediately. It was mutually decided that I would not finish my placement there, and try again in the fall with at a different school. I am forever grateful that I was allowed to tell my side of the story and given a second shot, but at the time I felt like the world’s biggest screw-up. I was worried my life was over.
The happy ending
However, sometimes things happen for a reason. I realize now that, had I stayed and finished my placement at that school, I might not have gone into education at all. If I had, I probably would’ve been a very poor teacher because all I learned was what not to do. Instead, I was allowed to thrive and flourish under two amazing teachers, Betty Díaz and Janet Eckerson, in Crete, Nebraska. My experience at Crete was the complete opposite of my first experience. I felt like the teachers and administrators actually cared about their students. They had superb student management. The kids were connected and involved. Even better, Crete had a high Hispanic population so I was able to work with some very nice kids who helped me with my Spanish (I picked up most of my Mexican slang from them) and even got to see what a native speaker Spanish class should look like. I remembered what it was like to enjoy teaching (even if Janet did make me speak Spanish the entire time and it was scary!) and although it was still difficult due to the nature of student teaching, I have only good things to say about my time there. If there had been a position available at the time, I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat.
So what did I learn from this experience? Number one, trust your instincts. If you are in a situation that is not working for you, especially a student teaching situation, do not be afraid to speak up. Your university wants you to have a good experience and to become a good teacher, so let them help you! Number two, even when you’re knocked down, get back up. I take it as a point of pride that I now have Spanish 2 students successfully doing the exact same type of lesson (reading authentic resources and looking for the main idea) that my Spanish 4 students couldn’t complete – clearly, the problem is not with me. Finally, I consider it a part of my duties to take on student teachers and do my best to teach them how to be good teachers too. I see it as my way of paying back the teaching community that gave me a second chance and allowed me to go on and become a teacher leader myself. Once you’re established, I encourage you to do the same.