Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Teachers, the Good, The Bad, the Ugly (plus the Sexy!), Part 2

(This is the second installment of a three-part post. Read Part 1 here.)

The Bad

Trust, of the sort that teachers earn and students give, is always fragile and provisional, based as it is on a delicate negotiation of the inevitable power imbalance between adult and child.  It took one bad teacher to destroy that trust for me. Mr J, my grade seven teacher, was everything the "good teachers" I'd had before were not: dour, humourless, needlessly authoritarian. Unlike Mr H, he seemed to have no passion for teaching any subject at all, though I do remember him frequently extemporizing on the topic of the superiority of the Scandinavian peoples. This memory raises red flags in my adult mind, especially when I consider that he seemed to take a particular dislike to me, the only child in the class who stayed home for Jewish holidays. But at the time, I was more alarmed by the way he massaged the shoulders of the "developed" girls as he moved through the rows of desks while supervising our work. Also disconcerting was his temper, which he often seemed to direct my way, even though by the second week of Grade 7 I'd transformed myself from mild shit-disturber to taciturn rule-follower. One day, he saw me working on a speech in what I thought was my free time; he swooped over to my desk, grabbed my only copy, crumpled it into a ball and threw it in the garbage can. "I did NOT say you could work on your speech!" he bellowed. The class was silent; I fought back tears. After class, I snuck back into the room (hurray for open classroom design!) and retrieved my manuscript from the garbage can. To him, work done at inappropriate times was garbage; my stealth retrieval of my work implies that I didn't quite buy that, but I do know that Mr J had the power to make me feel like garbage. I felt like garbage every time I walked into his classroom for the entire year.

The Good, Redux

By the time I entered Grade 8, I was greatly changed. The cheerful, mischievous child who told a classmate that she foresaw a sex change in her future was gone. In her place was a mopey, mildly depressed young teen who professed a profound dislike of school. By sheer fluke that miserable young person was placed in a classroom run by a teacher who was in many ways the polar opposite of Mr J. Mrs L was an exuberant woman of Dutch origin with a passion for grammar. As it turned out, she was passionate—in a non-creepy way—about her students as well. One afternoon in late September, when I was the last kid to leave her classroom, she surprised me by asking a rather blunt question. "What's your deal, K?" (She had the neo-hippy lingo down pat!) "Why so down on school? Did someone give you a bum deal? A teacher, a kid?" This last question shocked me; it implied that she thought my bad attitude stemmed not from some defect of mine, but from an experience I might have had in school. I was a typical enough teenager to hide my true feelings and to offer only the most perfunctory of responses, "I just hate school." Mrs L looked at me as if she wanted to interrogate me further, but said only "Well, don't."

This conversation, brief though it was, had a profound effect on me. It wasn't so much what she said, but the fact that she'd said anything at all, that she had seen me, read me correctly. I perked up almost overnight. I took an interest in my school work, including the grammar that Mrs. L was so enthusiastic about, becoming in the course of a few short weeks her "best grammar student." (I confess my retention of this material has been sub-optimal.) Slowly I recovered my rebellious streak as well, possibly because Mrs L, while not encouraging it, did not discourage it, either. Somewhere in the middle of the school year, a friend and I staged a mini-revolt against the reciting of the Lord's Prayer during announcements, refusing to stand for it, as was the custom. Mrs L was tolerant, but arranged for us to talk to the Vice Principal. The VP was also tolerant; she urged us to stand during the prayer to show respect, but did not insist that we say the prayer ourselves. (Such a compromise seems unsatisfactory in a public school—but at least we were not punished!) I remember many things about Mrs L, including the fact that she was the first teacher I encountered who discussed homosexuality in a positive way (amid a chorus of snickers). I also remember the hug she gave me while handing me my Grade 8 diploma, and her whispered advice: "Don't hate school anymore." But what stands out for me when I think about my year in her classroom is how important the personal—the person—was to my ability and willingness to learn. When I hear educators wax enthusiastic about tech or flipped classrooms or YouTube learning, I can't help but think of the look of genuine interest and concern on Mrs L's face when she asked, "Did someone give you a bum deal?"

Next upPart 3, The Sexy!

(See also, Part 1, The Ugly and the Good)

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