I’m going to make a shocking confession: I never wanted to be a teacher.
Arguably, I’m still technically not a qualified teacher. All the same I have taught students in Japan for over five years, of varying levels and ages. My current employment requires me to facilitate testing, grading, check attendance, and deal out discipline. In all the ways that matter, I am a teacher.
For most of my life, though, I didn’t want to teach. I don’t have that “so-and-so teacher really inspired me to become and educator!” type of story. I could probably count about 10 teachers in the entirety of my K-12 existence that meant something to me. Most of all though, the bad teachers really soured my idea on the career.
I didn’t want to end up these bitter bullies, the ones who had nothing better to do than break down their students daily. I’m still terrified that I might one day turn around and realize I’m doing something just like them, and it makes me sick to think that is at all possible. I try, though, to remember being a student and how those teachers affected me even to this day.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on three specific bad teachers I had personally. Names will be changed, identities held secret, for their sake and mine. Hopefully, dear God please, these people have gone on to become better instead of worse over time.
The first one gets a special medal of bad that I’ll get into in a moment. Let’s call her Mrs. Misery, because that’s how she made me feel more often than not. As a fourth grade math teacher, she took her job as seriously as a Southern Baptist pastor takes to Sunday worship, which is to say a whole bunch of yelling that didn’t really explain anything concrete and was confusing as all hell.
Now, she and I perhaps would’ve gotten along better if it weren’t for a whole bunch of factors playing into my life at that time. My parents were getting into year two of a long and horribly drawn out divorce, which included moving out of our old home and moving into a new one. Then, I had her class after lunch. This is slightly more important, as I had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and if lunch didn’t agree with me, I’d have to rush to the bathroom so as not to crap in my pants.
She took my medical diagnosis as my “easy excuse” to leave her classroom, and boy howdy did she take that shit personally. Even though I had a doctor’s note explaining it in my file, she didn’t want to believe it was a real thing. She would bully me during and after class any time the bathroom got involved, and would even talk to other teachers about it right in front of me and other students.
Thanks for putting my business out to the world, ya bitch.
To put the cherry on top of this sundae, I wasn’t naturally good at math. I don’t know why, but literally everything else is easy for me. English? Please, I was at college reading level before third grade. Science took some studying, but eh, no problem. Same for Social Studies, and all the electives ever. Math just doesn’t compute, I don’t know why, but it’s way more difficult for me than anything else.
She made it abundantly clear that she considered my stupid, more often than once, right to my face. Oddly enough, I didn’t get too upset over that, because I knew she was wrong. Also, she called the smartest person in our grade level stupid once, and after that she lost all credibility to everyone in that classroom over who was or wasn’t stupid. We generally all made a pact to ignore anything she said in that area, but I’ve got it ingrained into my brain that I am math stupid. It’s a thing that persists, a part of my psyche, and it sucks.
Alright, so Mrs. Misery gets a special medal for being the worst teacher I ever had because she made me feel like shit for having a medical disorder, and thus making me ashamed of something I had zero control over (the start of many years of hating my body that lasted all through middle school). Then she basically gave me a Math Complex, where I firmly believed (and remain believing) that I’m stupid when it comes to this particular subject. And finally, she did all of this IN FRONT OF EVERYONE, like some horrid shame eating monster that could only be satisfied with the despair from children.
I suppose I should thank her, in a weird way. Because of her, I’m the teacher that lectures students after class once everyone else is gone. I try to keep notes on who has what kind of illness. When students raise their hand to go to the bathroom, I just let them go. If they’re gone for more than ten minutes, I write a note saying they get less class points. I don’t want to make anyone feel that bodily functions are shameful. I never call students stupid, I discourage other students from calling others or even themselves stupid.
The next one we’ll call Ms. O’Hara, and I actually managed to get revenge on this lady in an epic fashion. Ms. O’Hara was known for being what you might call a literary snob and a grammar Nazi, so it was fun times for us kiddies who grew up in Kentucky all with Southern sensibilities and kids to boot. She liked to pick on the kids who didn’t have much money and were a bit slow, usually farmers kids. She’d tear them down for mispronunciation, misspelling, and missing the mark on the “grand points” of some book or another we’d be forced to read.
Now, I managed to skate through her class mostly unscathed, since as mentioned previously, English class was my jam. I loved the written word, I read books daily (not kidding, I can chow down a paperback in 24 hours or less), so for me the class was a breeze. Yet, she decided not to give me my grades, as in call them incomplete, until I did my AR points.
For those of you who weren’t a part of this inane literacy program, consider yourselves lucky. My school district opted to use the Accelerated Reading program in order to “track the literacy level of the schools.” They would put books by a certain grade level. How the system chose the grading levels, I don’t know, but odds are length and vocabulary had a lot to do with it. The higher the grade level, the more points you get. It was annoying and pointless since most kids just read Cliffnotes and passed the stupid tests regardless.
Well, Ms. O’Hara wanted my class in particular to get the points at our specific literacy level. I was at college reading level, which meant I got two choices in the library: “Crime and Punishment” or “Gone with the Wind.” For a twelve year old, those were both daunting choices. I chose the latter, and sped read through it, hating every single bit of it. Scarlett was an abusive, manipulative she beast, and no amount of literary analysis will ever make me look at this novel with wonder and awe.
I read it, I did the stupid test, and passed with flying colors. Whoo-hoo.
Ms. O’Hara was furious, because while other students were reading at least ten or so books a semester under her regime, I read only one for her. What she must’ve not realized is that college reading level books had the highest scoring points, as in enough points to cover me for an entire semester and half way through the next. She was forced to give me my grades, and I felt unimaginably happy to have thwarted her attempts to bully me with extra work.
Once again, I should feel a bit appreciative towards her, because I’ve learned that managing expectations in the classroom is very important. The class should be challenging, but not impossible. Homework and projects shouldn’t be piled up high, but set at a reasonable timeline with class time given to help struggling students. Notice I said help! I don’t tear my kids down over English mistakes, I take the time to explain and help them remember the rules, and I practice with them to make it better even outside of class. I want them to make mistakes, because making mistakes and correcting them is how everybody learns.
Finally, let’s talk about Mr. Sports. Mr. Sports was yet another abysmal math teacher, a high school dude who wanted to talk about basketball more than geometry or algebra. Often, the jocks in class would get him started on some tournament, they’d talk about that for the next hour. We wasted countless hours of class time, learning nothing, and it was pretty obvious the dude was only coming in to get his paycheck and be done with it all. He was useless, not really a bully, just a complete waste of time.
I remember being frustrated that he wouldn’t cover any of the material in class, but would still demand we learn everything by the midterms. I don’t recall how I passed those classes, but I suspect the main reason is because the internet was finally booming into something amazing, and I started looking up “How to Math” on AskJeeves. I learned enough to survive, and continued taking his unfortunate classes because my schedule for everything else AP and/or Advanced wouldn’t allow for a different teacher.
From him, I’ve made an absolute promise to myself to never, ever put material on a test I haven’t gone over in class. If we haven’t practiced it, wrote it into notebooks, or whatever then it’s not going to be on the tests. I won’t make my students suffer that kind of agony that’s not fair and beyond asinine to inflict on them. I don’t care that’s not the speed the school wants, too bad! Fire me and replace me with a useless person instead, I’m going to spend my hours teaching and therefore helping students LEARN.
I suppose in the end, I learned a lot about what not to do from these bad teachers. They’ve stayed with me, remnants of the past that have healed and scared over, so I take those experiences to turn them into fuel to become the best teacher I can possibly be. I will try my damndest every single day not to be the teacher that ruins an entire subject subject for a student, that will educate instead of shaming, and will use every minute available to give the students a fighting chance at using what they’ve learned long after they’ve graduated.
So thank you Mrs. Misery, Ms. O’Hara, and Mr. Sports! I guess in the end I did learn something from you.