Why the "Worst" Teacher I've Ever Had May Be the Most Important One

When I started elementary school, I (like many kids) loved school.  From kindergarten to elementary school, I enjoyed going to school, hanging out with friends, and learning something new about the world.  In first grade, I was in awe watching baby chicks hatch in the classroom.  In second grade, math started to really make sense for me (I actually understood multiplying and dividing instead of merely memorizing tables).  In third grade, I discovered self-expression in writing and art.  The science projects in fourth grade spawned a curiosity in biology and physics.  In my report cards, I earned mostly As and Bs with an occasional C.  It seemed all good until I hit the seventh grade.

That year, I had a self-righteous teacher that made me hate school.  She played favorites.  The girls were typically on her good side and was continually  biased against the boys.  She was usually mean and publicly humiliated people in front of class.  I remember one time she was upset that most of the class didn't pass their History test, so she decided to read some of the students' ridiculous answers.  One of the answers she read was indeed mine.  She didn't reveal who the answers were from, but we definitely knew if it was ours.  I can still remember how it felt to have the teacher mock me with my classmates laughing.  I can honestly say it didn't motivate me to do any better.

I don't remember which specific point it was, but I shut down.  The downward spiral started.  I stopped trying.  I gave up.  I hated school and I hated being there.   I saw no point in trying.  I despised my teacher and everything she did.  Soon I started to not do any of my assignments as a form of rebellion and all of my grades dropped. 

Luckily for me I had really supportive parents that encouraged me to do well in school no matter what it took or who my teacher was.  I eventually picked up all my grades but the damage was done. 

For every school year afterward, I wasn't the same.  I became complacent with Cs.  My study habits changed.  I didn't try as hard.  I didn't care about school as much as I used to.  My self-confidence and self-esteem was lower than it used to be.  Even as I succeeded in high school and college, I still had to face these demons. 

Almost ironically, now I'm a high school English teacher.   Most of my students are performing with low confidence in their academic skills and have set the bar low for educational attainment goals.  The surrounding community isn't known for academic success; it's known for poverty and violence.  Many of my students don't see education as priority.  Many have parents who didn't graduate from high school.  Substance abuse is prevalent.  When I see people walking down the street or down the halls of schools, I see a good amount of people walking with their heads hung low.  Sometimes teaching here feels like trying to knock down a brick wall with a toothpick.

An issue that typically comes up with schools in communities of low socioeconomic status is the culture clash between teachers with an advanced education (usually from middle class backgrounds) and students who come from low income families.  The criticism is that these types of teachers have a hard time connecting to the every day realities of their students. 

Even though I grew up in a middle class background, I've found a way to connect with my students, which helps us all in the classroom.  Many of them hate school; I can relate to that.  Some are scared to try; I know how that feels.  They need to learn, just as I did, that they need to succeed in school despite how they feel about it or their past experiences. 

I act with empathy, but still maintain my high expectations for them.  To lower any of their expectations because of their background would be doing them a disservice.  In connecting with them, I also challenge them to have higher expectations for themselves.

In a way, my seventh grade teacher helped prepare me for my present day challenges.  Maybe part of the reason why I am a successful educator is because I struggled in her class.  It gave me experiences that help me relate to students I currently serve.  Even though I considered her the worst teacher I've ever had, she may be way more significant than I thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Join the conversation. Be respectful. Be polite.