10 Heart Stopping Moments When Teachers Got Schooled By The Students
School is not the most important thing in every student's life.
Early in my career, as an idealistic, demanding history teacher, I had a student (10th grade, so 15-16 years old) who was struggling to keep up with her homework and was at risk of failing. I berated her one afternoon for continuing to come up with excuses and for continuing to ask for extensions and not meet my expectations.
I happened to catch her on the news later that week testifying against sexual assault in front of the state legislature. She was there to support a bill that would protect victims of sexual abuse. The bill carried her name.
That taught me a small dose of humility and a large dose of humanity.
It was my first year teaching.
It was Grade 1 and in the middle of the semester a student had transferred from a different school. This child had major issues and I made it a point to work with this student and turn him around.
For six months I dedicated myself to this child. I went out of my way to differentiate the learning for him, support him emotionally and showered him with love.
One day we were having an informal session and doing some arts and crafts. The new student went over with scissors and completely destroyed another students work.
I must have been up late the night before because I just lost it with this student. I yelled at him and gave him punishment. He didn't speak to me for the rest of the day. It was Friday with a long weekend ahead, so I figured we would both have a while to cool off.
I was so upset with myself. On my drive home I kept thinking of how I had blown it. How all my efforts to harness the positive energy in this child will now be lost. I resolved to apologize to him on the next day back at school.
Later that evening the doorbell rang and standing at my front door was my dear student with his mother.
I was sure that she was going to give me a good telling off but instead the boy reached out and said: "we baked this for you...have a good weekend." I thanked them very much and wished them a pleasant break.
There was an envelope on top of the cake. I opened it and read the following words.
"Dear Mr Goldman, I love you...I hope you still love me too."
I am forever indebted to this student who taught me the power of love; that the only way to affect someone is when you genuinely invest your love and care into them.
On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, my first grade students were roaming about the classroom, choosing activities as they saw fit for themselves.
Since the students were busy I took the opportunity to straighten my desk.
About ten minutes in, I noticed Niko was next to me with a pile of crumpled papers. I stopped what I was doing and looked at him. He was mashing and crumpling pieces of paper into balls.
I said, "Niko, I'm cleaning up my desk. And I think you know where that pile of paper balls goes." I pointed at the trash can in the corner.
He looked at me with his green eyes wide, "But Mrs. Hsu, this isn't trash!"
"No! These are origami rocks. I'm making you a rock garden!"
I guess everything is a matter of perspective.
I learned that I am not the unbiased person I thought I was.
I had a student (let's call him Erik) who was in a required freshman college class that all faculty rotated teaching. (I normally teach statistics and research methods.)
Erik sat in the back of the room, cowboy hat tipped down, boots on the chair in front of him, chewing tobacco. He never said a word. As you can imagine, I was suspicious of him. The students were required to write a paper on any topic, as a method of gauging their knowledge of things like grammar and style. This assignment allows us to intervene early with students who simply cannot write and refer them for tutoring in their first semester.
The title of Erik's paper was something like "The Use of Allegory and Metaphor in the Works of John Steinbeck." I assumed he had copied or paid for it. There was no way this kid wrote it.
I consulted a senior professor about what to do and she said, "Invite him to your office to discuss it. If he wrote it, he'll be flattered. If he didn't, he'll be busted."
So, I did. And he came. And I asked him how he came to have such an interest in Steinbeck.
Erik tipped back his hat, looked me in the eye and said:
"Well, ma'am, when I was on the rodeo circuit, my partner gave me this book, The Red Pony, because I had to do a school book report and since it was about a horse, me and him figured it would be good. When I read it, though, it was about a lot more than a horse .... "
Erik went on at great length about all of Steinbeck's books that he had read and what they meant to him personally.
I was SO glad I had followed the advice to ask him about his paper instead of accusing him of cheating, and did I ever feel like an idiot!
-AnnMaria de Mars
#6 Never Underestimate
When I was teaching a high school class at an international school in Mexico, I thought I was superior to my students. I had a good education, English was my first language, I had a solid moral background. There was little (I thought) that my students could teach me.
One day just before class a student by the name of Nicolas came and asked me if he could go to the bathroom. I told him yes, but to hurry back because class would begin in five minutes. He said, "Don't I need a pass?" Our principal was very strict and required every student to have a pass if he or she was out of class. I told him, "Just go! Hurry up back." Then I began writing the lesson on the board.
He returned about ten minutes later looking very dejected.
I asked him if he was okay and he said, "Yes. No problem." So, I continued with the lesson. But at the end of the period as students were leaving, I noticed he still looked dejected.
"You okay, Nick? You look depressed." He replied, "Well, I got put on detention by the principal for being in the hall without a pass."
"But didn't you tell him that I advised you to go ahead without one?" I asked.
"No," he replied.
"Well, why on earth not?" I asked exasperated.
"Because I didn't want you to get in trouble, sir," he replied.
I realized then that here was a student who was superior to me in sensitivity and caring. I could never have imagined doing such a thing when I was a high school student. I was humbled. The incident showed me not to underestimate the existing values of those whom I presumed to teach.
#5 Each Time
Nothing I do matters if the child is not ready to learn.
As captivating as I can be, when a child doesn't have a place to live, regular sleep, food, warm clothing, and LOVE; processing my words is impossible.
I can make sure they eat breakfast and lunch, organize food/clothing drives, hug them and build them up, give their parents access to community services, and call CPS, but there is an awful lot of their life that I just cannot change.
I learn these lessons over and over again, but they're heartbreakingly harsh each time.
While handing out the literature list for the upcoming year of high school, I casually asked the students in my class what they thought about it.
One girl raised her hand and said: "Are you at all surprised we don't read but watch TV when teachers hand out these kinds of reading lists?"
The list was full of English literature they couldn't possibly understand considering their proficiency levels and I suddenly remembered being discouraged myself when I had to read books like these while in high school.
I made an appointment with the principal, took this student with me, and tried to persuade him to get rid of the obligatory reading lists.
During the next week's lesson, I told the classes they could choose three of their own books. They did great during the oral exams.
-Vicky van der Zee
I've learned so many wonderful things from my students. I wish you hadn't asked for the harshest. The harshest lesson I have ever learned as a teacher (and I don't think it'll ever get easier) is that you can't save them all.
I was teaching at a high school in a very rough neighbourhood, and "Paul" was one of my students - though he rarely came to class. A lot of teachers had given up on him, but one of the assistant principals had given me his back story and, oh, I wanted to help him.
I wanted to make him see that focusing on his education was the answer, that we were on his side, that we had his back. But I couldn't get him to change his priorities and I lost him to the streets and it still hurts. And it always will. And I will always regret the ones I lose...
#2 A fact of mattering
I was giving a lecture to around 50 international high school students in my college at Oxford University.
I got drunk before the lecture. I just wanted the paycheck.
The lecture was called 'Shakespeare 101' or 'An Introduction to Shakespeare' or something equally uninspiring.
I arrived and saw a bunch of faces beaming up at me. I put my feet up on a desk and began reading from my notes in a dull monotone. Completely shameless.
The students tolerated about 10 minutes of this crap before one girl put her hand up and decided to call me out.
"Excuse me, Teacher?" she asked very politely. "I have a question. Can you make it less boring?"
Wow. "You're right," I said. "This is boring. I'm so sorry. Here's what we're gonna do. I've got a script here for Hamlet. We're all going to act this out line by line."
I handed out a bunch of sheets and got the whole class up and acting. Actually acting. Saying the words with feeling.
The class livened up. The shy ones came out of their shells. We all laughed. We all became super enthusiastic. They asked me endless questions and I asked them questions back and we all had a great time.
So thank you to that girl who asked me to make my lesson less boring.
Teaching is not about collecting a paycheck. The onus is NOT on the students to make it interesting.
Teaching can be a hard gig but it's damn rewarding when you do it properly.
#1 When you can say it....say it
I was trying to rush through an explanation of a complicated physics concept before the bell rang, and the top student in my class raised his hand and said, "You know, just because you're up there teaching, doesn't mean we're learning."
I'm sure many students have thought something like this in millions of classes around the world, but they don't say anything (it would almost always be terribly impolite). The only reason this student said it, and got away with it, is that he was my 16-year-old son.
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