She had never failed at anything before, consistently making the Dean’s list, writing articles for the college paper that were always accepted and frequently printed with a byline, participating fully in campus life. Her college years had been the best of her life so far, and a good life it had been. Doted on by her parents and older siblings, she always felt special. She had longed to be a teacher from the first day of first grade.
“Oh no, I don’t want to play school, Mary Margaret!” When she heard those words, she would line up her dolls on the back steps and teach them instead of her real live friends.
Dolls never disobeyed her, sassed her, or refused to turn in assignments. Dolls listened to all of her lectures, and they enjoyed being read to, their faces in permanent smiles, their eyes blank.
Real ninth graders were nothing like that, except for the blank eyes. Day after horrible day, she returned home to her dorm room beaten down, exhausted, demoralized. “I just can’t do this,” she thought. “How am I going to tell my parents?”
She ranted to her roommate. She blamed her co-op, who left the classroom the minute she walked into it. She blamed the teacher in the next room who looked at her disapprovingly. She blamed the librarian who seemed to think the use of the library needed to be scheduled in advance. She blamed the A.V. teacher who chastised her for her failure to return equipment at the end of the day—as if she didn’t have enough to do just making the necessary copies, putting up bulletin boards, and trying to create interesting lessons.
The lesson “plans” looked great. Her co-op loved them, though she rarely stayed to see them in action. If she had, she would have noticed that Mary Margaret’s problem was not planning lessons but delivering them.
On the day she introduced poetry, she brought in a recording of revving motorcycles, race cars, and drum beats to illustrate the concept of rhythm. When she turned her back to the class to write something on the board, one of her charges hid the record under the desk blotter and she spent the better part of the class period searching for it. Meanwhile, the little reprobates threw paper wads at each other and ran around the room. The poetry lesson, of course, didn’t happen.
“You need to let them know you’re in charge,” advised her supervisor, though he didn’t give her any tips on how to do that little thing.
At lunch one day she heard one of the senior teachers say, “People are born teachers. If you don’t have the knack for it, you’ll never be successful.” She was certain that his comment had been directed at her and she knew that she, indeed, did not have the “knack,” or the “talent,” or the “intuition,” or whatever ephemeral thing one needed to be a real teacher.
She had no appetite, slept poorly, stopped going out with friends. She pored over textbooks trying to come up with the perfect lessons to engage the little demons who now consumed her every thought and action.
One morning as she dragged herself into school lugging two canvas bags of materials as well as a handful of markers and construction paper, a student she did not know plowed into her, scattering all of her belongings in the lobby. As he ran down the hall, she felt genuine anger. “How dare you,” she yelled. “You march right back here and help me pick these things up!” To her great surprise the culprit stopped, turned back, and did as she had ordered. He even mumbled an apology.
Buoyed by his reaction, she strode to her classroom, but instead of unpacking all of her bags, she took a stand at the door. As the children entered the room, she looked each one in the eye, greeting them by name, and giving several of them tasks to accomplish.
“Good morning, Michael, did you get a haircut?”
“Linda, please see that everyone has a copy of the poem that’s on my desk.”
“Karen, will you pass out the construction paper?”
“Good morning, Stacia, that is a good color for you. I like it.”
“Mark, I’m going to need someone to record responses on the board today. Would you like to do that?”
A fairy tale would end here: “And she taught happily ever after.” But, of course, she continued to struggle, though the struggles no longer seemed insurmountable. She even began to see the humor in some of them, even the hidden record incident. She gained confidence and began to set aside time for reflection.
She learned several important lessons from her student teaching experience, lessons that could be passed along to novice teachers. First, every human being fails at something sometime. Don’t let those failures define you. Second, blaming others for your shortcomings wastes energy. Third, don’t let your fear of failure lower your expectations for your students. Mary Margaret expected her students to misbehave, and they rose to meet those expectations. Fourth, and most important, she learned to see each student as an individual. In greeting them at the door, she connected with every child every day, and as she told her own student teacher, thirty-five years later, “It’s hard to be mean to someone who is nice to you!”