I was not immune to idiocy in my youth – actually, I’m still not immune. I’ve definitely had some dork-stamp moments in my life, and some of my “Top Idiot” teaching moments occurred in my undergrad years.
For fun, I wanted to share my top three cringe-worthy moments as a student-teacher. The following are true stories, and are told in chronological order.
Junior Year of College
When I was in my undergrad program at Corban University, I had an excellent advisor. His name is Dr. Jesse Payne (Change Your Brain, Change Your Life – Before 25), and he was my mentor for 3 of my 4 years of undergrad – and even still gives me guidance to this day!
Dr. Payne was my advisor, so we would meet from time to time to talk about life, Star Wars, and teaching stuff. After a few conversations, he asked myself and 2 other students to help start an After-School Science Program at a local elementary school. This was not to fulfill “service hours”, but instead was an opportunity to get classroom and teaching experience without the pressure of running a classroom.
The Science Program ran on Wednesdays for 10 weeks. The three of us (Lindsey, Vinny, and myself) did all of the planning, organizing, and teaching of the Science activities. We had a great time together! Dr. Payne would frequently make appearances to encourage us, engage with the kids, and be there for any support we might need.
One of the expectations for us was to be dressed professionally. Sure, we needed to show up on time and have lessons prepared, but we had a dress code to go along with it. At first, I didn’t really understand… This was an afterschool activity, with non-teachers; those are two very good reasons to not have to wear a tie and slacks.
I pushed back a little with Dr. Payne (remember, I suffered from idiocy), but he stood firm and had good reasoning. He explained that the way we dress influences the way kids see us; also, it can actually help bring about a learning atmosphere instead of just a daycare or a club.
So, I begrudgingly played the part. I wore the dumb ties and dress pants. As Spring started to turn the corner, the heat began rising to the mid-to-upper-80s in an old, non-air-conditioned school. Yet, we all followed the dress code for the weeks we taught.
Week 10 was on the horizon. We were planning on launching rockets and eating snacks in the school’s field for our last activity. The temperature was supposed to scratch the mid-90s in the afternoon sun, so I knew that it was going to be pretty dang hot. Luckily, Dr. Payne was going to be gone that week! He told us and the kids that he had a conflicting meeting (or something) at the university, so unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to make it to the last day of the Science Program.
I thought this was a God-send. The hottest (and last) day of the program was going to be outside, and since my advisor wouldn’t be there, I knew I could wear a t-shirt and shorts. I’d still be “the teacher”, but since we were finishing the program, it was ok for us to relax and enjoy the festivities comfortably, right? Apparently, I was the only one of us three teachers who had this “genius” idea.
You know where this is going…
So there I am in the middle of a field, sweating it out in my unagreed-upon outfit, when Dr. Payne showed up. Right before we started the launch sequencing.
The kids freaked out. “MR. PAYNE! YOU MADE IT!! WE’RE GOING TO LAUNCH ROCKETS!!”
Somehow, I felt 10x hotter. I wanted to die. Or at least disappear.
Since we were in the field, there was nowhere for me to run or hide. He took one look at me, and I knew I was going to be in trouble. Everyone has had that feeling, when a manager or parent or teacher gets that look in their eye, and you know you’re about to have a bad time – for a long time.
Dr. Payne pulled me aside. All I remember is having a lengthy conversation away from the fun. I don’t quite remember what was said, other than him expressing great disappointment and me trying (and failing) to defend my wardrobe choice for the day. As weird as it sounds, I don’t even recall how the Science Program ended for our kids; I just remember it ended poorly for me. I drove home feeling pretty stupid.
The next day on campus, we continued our discussion in his office. In the end, I realized that what I did, and the stance that I had, was foolish and, frankly, selfish. Wearing a “dumb tie” is part of the uniform. If I didn’t like it, I could find a new thing to do. The clothes represent self-discipline and dedication to the role. I needed to make some changes to my outfit (and my attitude) if I wanted to pass my “2-year-long interview” as Dr. Payne called Junior and Senior year of the Ed program.
To this day, Dr. Payne and I still joke about how senseless I was that day (among other days). But now that I’m a full-fledged teacher, I can finally wear my polo comfortably – unless I’m meeting Dr. Payne for lunch.
Senior Year | Fall Semester
My Senior year of college, I was doing well in my classes and had just started my part-time teaching at the school I was placed at. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was kinda the unofficial 1st Grade teacher for a few months. Now, that story itself is crazy enough for a different post, but now is not the time.
I was starting to struggle along in my placement because I wasn’t really prepared for how challenging those 6 and 7 year-olds can be! I tell other teachers and parents that in my opinion, the younger you teach, the harder it is. Don’t agree? Fight me.
In 1st grade, you can’t really take a break. In my 5th grade class, I can say “Silent Reading” if I need a 15 minute respite; for 1st graders, that idea is beyond laughable. This placement required a lot from me, and it was only a matter of time until I made a mistake.
One day, after reading Stellaluna for the billionth time on the carpet, I asked the students some questions that had to do with the lesson. At carpet time, students are supposed to sit quietly, with their hands and feet to themselves, and without any hoods on. I noticed a student towards the back part of the carpet who was struggling with that last expectation.
Let’s call him “Dillon”. Dillon was a really smart 7 year-old, but he could be fiery if prodded too much. I learned this by observing him play with some of his friends. Dillon could think, and stick up for himself. I, on the other hand, was still learning how to think.
Back to the carpet. In between questions, I noticed Dillon had his hood on, so I politely asked him to take it off. Of course, I thought my words would be like magic and he’d heed my request. Dillon and I actually had a decent relationship, but he didn’t respond.
So I asked him again, but this time I was a little more direct. I figured if I made my stance clear, he’d follow suit.
Dillon did not follow suit. In fact, he turned away from me – with his hood still on – and folded his arms across his chest. “Dillon, you know the expectations. I need you to follow them before we continue as a class.” He scooted farther away. “I don’t want to take your sweatshirt, Dillon. But if you don’t follow our class rules, I will have to.”
You know where this is going…
Dillon yells. He doesn’t even turn around to say it to me, he just screams, “I’m not taking off my stupid hood, and YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” Mr. Graham now had a choice. And suffice it to say, he chose poorly: this was the mistake I was primed for.
I told the students to go back to their seats, except Dillon. I approached him, and in a more aggressive tone, told him I would be taking his sweatshirt. An embarrassing scene unfolded as we entered into the Power Struggle Arena, the most epic lose-lose scenario known to the education world.
In the end, Dillon threw his sweatshirt at me, said a few cuss words (yes, in 1st grade), then proceeded to tell me his dad was “taken to prison yesterday”, and he was told by his mom that “he’d ever see him again.”
Talk about gutting.
I responded the only way you can in that situation: I gave him detention.
I’m kidding! I earnestly apologized, offered him his sweatshirt back, and asked him if he wanted to take a break with an office aid or another student. I don’t remember what he chose, I only remember that I had failed him at a sensitive time in his young life.
Similar to the previous story, I found myself not knowing what really happened for the rest of the day. I was disappointed in myself for the way I handled the situation, and was embarrassed at how quickly I had lost control of my emotions, my poise, and my relationship with Dillon.
I learned a valuable, hands-on lesson that day about Power Struggles. Nobody wins. Right now, the veteran teachers reading this are either nodding in agreement, or shaking their heads with a knowing smile. If there are any aspiring teachers reading this… I just hope you don’t have to experience a Power Struggle, or my level of ignorance in your career.
But wait… Where was the classroom teacher for this whole ordeal? Again, that’s a blog post for another time.
Senior Year | Spring Semester (aka Graduation in a few weeks)
By now, you’d think by now I’d be a polished professional. You’d think that I would have learned both in class and in person the way to conduct myself, right? There seems to be this thread of idiocy that is preventing me from doing that…
It was my 2-week takeover in my placement classroom. I was in 5th grade. I was doing great with my studies. Heck, I was even hired by the district to become a teacher next year! I had arrived.
So for my 2-week takeover, I was running the show. And honestly, I was doing fairly well. The kids respected me (thanks tie and slacks), and I felt confident in what I was doing. Of course, most of my lessons were still awkward and lacking in some area or another. But for the most part, I was doing fine with the students and the content.
Well enough for my cooperating teacher to be comfortable stepping out of the room for a minute or so on occasion. In what follows, she was occupied in the office for a little bit; nothing overly unusual, and a good opportunity for me to try teaching without my training wheels for a minute.
So there I was, trying to motivate my 5th graders to participate in a math lesson. Today, they just weren’t feeling it. I, on the other hand, was really trying to make geometry the most important thing in their 11 year-old lives. So I was asking, and asking, and asking kids to be more engaged. I didn’t get what I wanted.
So I became frustrated. I specifically remember what I said, which brings us to the heart of this story.
After about 8 minutes of prying teeth, I stopped trying. Then, in a raised voice, I lectured (almost verbatim) something like this:
“You know what? I’m done with trying to get you guys to participate. I’ve been asking nicely for you to try, but you’re all having a terrible attitude today. I’m done. It’s like you are all saying ‘screw you, Mr. Graham’, and I’m not teaching just to hear myself talk…”
At the words “screw you”, nearly half of the class looked at me with giant, doughy eyes. In my frustration, I forgot I was teaching 5th graders, and resorted to talking like I do to my brothers when I’m upset. (To be fair, the majority of those kids had heard – and said – worse things than “screw you”; however, they probably never thought they’d hear me say something like that.)
I quickly recovered when I saw their reactions and said something along the lines of, “…and I’m sorry if that upsets any of you, and I probably shouldn’t have used that phrase, but that’s just how I’m feeling, and it’s frustrating.”
Throughout the day, I made more apologetic comments and was sure to be on my best behavior for the rest of the week, lest a student “tattle” to my cooperating teacher. I actually did tell her what happened, and she was graceful yet firm with her response to me.
But did losing my temper and using those words help my kids become more engaged? Honestly, I don’t remember. I do remember having very mixed emotions: grateful that my cooperating teacher wasn’t in the room that instant, but embarrassed and annoyed with myself for being so flippant with my words. I guess there was one more shameful experience I needed to have before graduating. At least one more.
There have been many other mishaps and mistakes in my short career, but those three are experiences I won’t soon forget. I have learned a few nuggets of truth from each of them.
I learned to not let my vocabulary become a barrier to my students, and to refrain from negative, slang terms – even in my frustration. If I want to be different for my students, my words need to be different as well.
I learned that there is no winner with a Power Struggle. Relationships are WAY more important than regulations. Again, at all costs, avoid the Power Struggle. (I have to hear things twice sometimes to really hear it.)
And finally, I learned that appearance can have an influence on how others see me. But it’s not just about the collar and slacks, it includes attitude and body language. I need to play the role I’ve been given to the best I can, and that includes an outward and inward “dress code”. A simple change of outfit and mindset can go a long way in the world of education; if it’s a small thing that can go a long way, the smart choice would be to take the road less traveled.
So why not wear the tie?
Unless my supervisor has the day off, of course.