I was embarrassed by my first two years in the classroom. I was lousy at my job, and even though I had access to the greatest mentors a first-year teacher could hope for, I still screwed up at just about every turn.
What a shame that experience can’t be taught. These were my six worst rookie teacher mistakes.
- I allowed students to create their own groups for group projects. As a result, groups were almost always uneven with respect not just to work ethic, curiosity, creativity, and skills, but also along gender lines. Not surprisingly, groups also seemed more interested in discussing weekend escapades than focusing on the task at hand.
- I tried to be that “cool young teacher,” accepting just about any old excuse for tardiness and absences. As a result, students felt they could simply slide by, put in minimal work, and still do well in the course. Often they assumed correctly. Whenever I tried to reclaim authority, or tell students they had to refocus, most didn’t or couldn’t take me seriously. It also didn’t help that at 23 years old, I didn’t make the extra effort to dress much differently. Appearance matters, especially when you and your students are separated by just six or seven years.
- Similarly, I didn’t monitor bathroom visits. If nature called, I told students to leave class quietly to do their business. As a result, a constant flow of students came and went, supposedly for an understood reason. I had assumed, quite naïvely, that juniors and seniors wouldn’t take advantage of this policy. In teaching, as in most professions, assumption is the mother of all calamities. Students always had an easy out, quite literally, if they didn’t like or understand an activity or concept.
- I didn’t understand the difference between authority and respect, even as I lacked both in the classroom. Whenever I tried to have serious “talks” with students about misbehavior or poor performances, I tried to invoke a poor excuse for authority. I thought that simply holding the title of “teacher” magically granted me authority, especially when I put on a serious face. Without having earned respect from my students, though, I also hadn’t earned authority.
- My writing assignments lacked sufficient direction, not just with respect to guidelines about prose and structure, but also on how to properly cite sources. Unclear expectations also enticed otherwise bright, capable students to cut corners. I’m not excusing such behavior, but I certainly placed low-hanging fruit directly in front of them. I’m equally to blame for whatever infractions they committed.
- I also didn’t help matters by drowning student papers in red ink. I marked every little mistake, to the point where students felt (quite understandably, I should add) that I took some twisted pleasure in pointing out even the tiniest flaws. At times, I also provided comments that met or exceeded the lengths of submissions, making my students feel even more inferior, incapable, and insecure.
All of this wasn’t for lack of listening. I listened intently to my mentors. Still, I insisted on making failure my greatest teacher. Looking back, my actions weren’t too unlike those of teenagers who experiment, even as parents and adults warn against such behavior.
During my first two years, I relied more heavily on my mentors for consoling and support. They never turned me away, even as I neglected to embrace their advice and guidance. They listened to my frustrations and regrets, all the while encouraging me to try again and not give up. Without them, I wouldn’t still be teaching today.
All the same, I only began to transform into a great teacher my third year in the classroom, when I matured a bit and wised up a lot. The experience of repeated failure had made me all the more receptive to learning from veteran teachers. I had also grown smart enough to act upon their advice, rather than just listen to it.
Alas, I wish to apologize formally and publicly to anybody I may have taught during my first two years. Thank you for enduring my failures and shortcomings, and, at the risk of sounding haughty, take at least some solace in knowing that your collective suffering has helped mold me into a terrific teacher.