Wednesday, 28 March 2012

How to get back up after licking the carpet (staying strong in the face of humiliation).

I was licking the carpet, my tongue covered in fluff and the distinct taste of trodden-on chewing gum filling my nostrils. Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but having just tripped over in front of a class of year nine students, I was certainly becoming more intimate with the floor than anticipated! I had barely regained my breathing, when I began to pick myself up with dread – what would they say?

Oh, how quickly those delusional dreams of keeping a class mesmerized and entertained for forty-five minutes are sucked up like sand into the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner! Teenagers to a graduate teacher are like fruit-flies to a rotting plum – they can smell you a mile away. They know how to set you up. They can sense your dis-ease with swapping from the role of student (which you’ve been comfortably filling for most of your life) to teacher (which you’ve only been filling for a couple of days, weeks or months).

Inevitably, a new teacher gets swamped with a load of cliché’s from the first day they start. ‘Don’t smile till second semester!’ ‘Show ‘em you mean business – come in strict from the beginning!’ ‘Don’t tell them too much about yourself!’ Great advice – but not that practical when you don’t know what to expect of ‘them!’ Individually, high school students are pretty nice, on the whole. Even pairs, or small groups, they are generally quite friendly and polite. They may even answer you when you ask them questions. But sometimes, as a CLASS, it’s a whole new ball-game.

I had a certain English class in my first year of teaching. They were year tens, and they’d had plenty of practice in baiting new teachers. They could smell my fear from a mile away - they knew I was scared and they were going to make the most of it. It started out quietly; interruptions during my instructions, little comments across the classroom. I didn’t know what to do – should I tell another teacher, or would that look incompetent? Was it worth issuing a detention? I wasn’t sure, so I just left it. And the kids took this as an invitation to rev up their efforts.

I guess I just tried to pretend I was coping okay. I concentrated on the good kids, ignoring the ones who were causing the problems. I had nothing to compare them with, really, so I blamed myself for their bad behavior and didn’t seek help. My emotions were beginning to fray – in the mornings I was dropping my son off at crèche, and dealing with his sadness. Then at school, I was running around being busy – too busy to face the problem I was having with these few students. I hated this class. I was beginning to dread turning up to work – and all because of this one group of fifteen year old children!

It all came to a head one day when I was feeling particularly vulnerable. I’d had a minor car accident in the morning, not enough to go home, and after dropping my son off again, I arrived at school. I had that class first off, and in I went. I greeted the students as usual, began the lesson, hoped that for once we could just have a normal lesson where everyone listened and did what they were supposed to. But they started on me about three minutes later. It had grown from little comments across the classroom, to public verbal insults about my ability as a teacher. They went on and on, and eventually I just blew it. Tears poured down my face and by body began to shake. I sat on the chair in the corner and pretended I wasn’t there, like an ostrich with its head in the sand.

I could hear them whispering behind me. The class had gone quiet. One of the nicer students asked if I was okay, and I sent her out to get another teacher. In a couple of minutes another teacher arrived to take over, and I went outside.

A crucial decision had to be made - would I stay out here, maybe go home, and never return? Or would I have a drink, take a few breaths, and head back into the classroom? It was a hard decision, but there was one thing I knew – if I didn’t go back now, I would never go back. I had to face the firing squad. I had to endure the humiliation of returning after my break-down.

That flight of steps to the classroom had never seemed so long and steep, and as I opened the door the teacher looked surprised. She had probably assumed I wouldn’t return. I stood in front of the kids and said, ‘Let’s get on with this lesson, will we?’ They were quiet. They listened. They did the work I had set for them.

Soon the bell rang, and one of the girls who’d been causing the trouble from the beginning came up to me with a note, gave it to me, and left the room.

‘Sorry Miss, for making you upset.’

And in that small act, she changed from a scary, unapproachable monster, to a human being. I realised that I hadn’t been connecting with these students, because I wasn’t really seeing them as people. People just like me.

Something changed after that day in that class. Don’t get me wrong, there were no instant miracles. There was no sudden perfect group. But we seemed to have some kind of connection that wasn’t there before.


That carpet sure smelled. I slowly got up, expecting the class to be in fits of laughter at my clumsiness. I brushed myself off, waiting for the reaction. Nothing. Students were just sitting in their seats, waiting expectantly for the class to begin. The girl sitting nearest me asked if I was okay. I put my books on the table and said I was. We had a quiet laugh. The lesson began.

Copyright Sue Oaks 2012