My fondest memory of teaching high school is not what you might expect. It’s not of the many commencement ceremonies I watched or took part in, nor of reading the often brilliant work produced by some of my students, or even of the moving Remembrance Day ceremonies that my writing classes scripted. Those moments made me proud. But the memory that always makes me smile is of the 1999 end-of-year assembly when three of my teacher-buddies and I made total fools of ourselves on stage. Wearing black mini-skirts (not too short, of course), high black boots, and sporting backcombed, bouffant hair, we pranced around on stage in front of the whole school doing our best lip-syncing routine to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” The kids went nuts. I’ll never forget looking down at several of my grade nine students in the front row of the audience, screaming, “Ms. Bur-paaaaay!” Ha. I’m smiling as I write this.
I started thinking of that day on stage at Nepean High School after I watched a video posted on Facebook by Emily, a former student. Funnily enough, a former student who is now a teacher herself. In the video, comedian Christian Hull role-plays being a teacher. I winced in a few places, and laughed out loud in others. Have a look.
Watching the video made me groan, and roll my eyes, and think of all the embarrassing, cringe-worthy moments I’ve had in the classroom. Like the time I was teaching science. Yep, I taught science. I was qualified to teach Biology and General Science, but it was not my forté. Not by a long shot. Science classrooms have an elevated lab bench (for demonstrations) at the front instead of a teacher’s desk. Elevated being the operative word here. So, I was talking to the class, writing notes on the board, turning and talking some more, and writing, writing, writing on the board, slowly working my way across the front of the class. Until I stepped off the end of the platform into mid-air. And disappeared. Well, I disappeared from the view of most of the kids, except the shocked ones in the front row looking down at me on the floor. Ha.
Then there was the time I was rushing to class, from an early morning meeting that had run late. The ten minute warning bell rang, and those of us who had a first period class had to run out while the principal was still speaking. I ran up four flights of stairs, and down a hall that stretched the entire length of the school to my classroom at the end. In high heels. The kids milling around outside my still-locked classroom door were a bit surprised when my heel caught on something, and I flew horizontally into an open locker. Ouch. That one hurt. It seems there’s a lot of physical comedy involved in teaching, folks, even if it is unintentional.
|Nepean High School English department in costume for our yearbook photo, 1995|
Or. My favourite cringe-worthy moment was early in my career. I was struggling with discipline in one of my classes, a very large grade ten English class. Thirty-four students, most of whom were boys. Trust me, the gender balance in a class really makes a difference. I actually loved this class, most of the time. But five or six boys who were all best buddies, who were really smart, and very witty, and who could pretty much ruin a class with their antics were driving me crazy. I was too scared to ask for help from the vice-principal. Like most young teachers, I thought that meant I looked a failure in the eyes of my superiors. So I soldiered on. On a long road-trip over the March Break, Hubby and I brainstormed an entire new approach to a unit I was working on that would involve a modular approach, more fun activities, and a clever strategy to “divide and conquer” … so to speak.
As it transpired, the rest of the kids had lots of fun with the new unit. But it made no difference to my problems with the “five or six.” At my wits end one day, I called them all out into the hall. “You know, boys, as individuals, I really like each of you,” I began. “But when you’re together. You’re. You’re,” I could feel myself getting emotional. I prayed hard that I wouldn’t start crying in front of them. “When you’re in a group,” I continued, “You’re, you’re … assholes!” I finally blurted. They looked stunned. I was stunned. “Oh, crap,” I thought, “I am going to be in so much trouble.”
I have no memory whether they behaved any better after that. I doubt it. I was too busy worrying that their parents would find out, and tell the principal, and I would get fired. But a few years later, when a friend and I were at the movies and the theatre was packed, I saw four of the boys in the row right in front of us. “Oh god,” I murmured, as I shrank down in my seat. Then one of them spied me. “Ms. B!” he hooted. “Guys, it’s Ms. Burpee.” He grinned, “Hey, remember the time in grade ten when you called us assholes? That was the best!” Ha. I still smile when I think of that…. probably the only thing they remembered from grade ten English.
|Student “good-byes” in my JMSS yearbook, 2011.|
As a classroom teacher I learned early not to take myself too seriously. I took my job seriously, but I stopped worrying if I looked silly when I was doing it. I’d get very animated when I told stories, and wave my hands around. I used to imitate “my mother’s look,” as I called it, putting my glasses on the end of my nose and looking at the class over the top of them, waving my finger and saying, “Never, never make fun of my name in front of me.” They loved that. Especially, when one male teacher who always called me Burps, stuck his head into my class one day and said, “Burps, you going to the meeting after school?” Ha. I remember I looked at him over my glasses and said, “You are in so much trouble, Mister.” But no one ever called me Burps in my class. After class, all bets were off. I love how the one student, above, addressed her good-bye message in my yearbook. And I love that the other student says I was the reason she wanted to be a teacher. Gad. That’s makes me tear up. I particularly love that during my last year teaching she came to work with me in my classroom as a student teacher. That was lovely.
|One student’s…uh… honest message in my 1999 yearbook.|
But, you know, it’s madness to think that as teachers we can inspire every kid. Many students just want to get their credit and move on. The note above was written the year our school was so crowded we had to timetable an extra class that started at 8:00 a.m. If I had a hard time being energetic at that hour, the kids were worse. I brought a thermos of tea from home for myself, and encouraged my students to do the same, sometimes we had doughnuts. Whatever it took to make the new schedule more “civilized” for kids who had to come to school an hour earlier than usual. I love that the girl who wrote in my yearbook, above, also found my canoeing stories and my outfits worthy of staying awake for. As I said, whatever it takes.
So, yeah, that Christian Hull video started me thinking about all kinds of things. Not just about my less-than-stellar teaching moments. But about what I learned during those cringe-worthy moments. I think the most valuable lesson I learned as a young teacher was not to take myself too seriously.
And I’ve come to believe over the years that it’s probably an important lesson for many of us. Not just for teachers. But for lawyers, and doctors, and scientists, and parents, and politicians too. We should take our job very seriously, but not be too impressed with ourselves. Not get too caught up in the old ego thing.
That, my friends, can be dangerous.
So. Do you have any cringe-y moments in your career that you’d like to share with the rest of us? Go on, we’re listening.