Monday, August 12, 2013

On What My Worst Teachers Taught Me

So, my sister is a teacher. She's an awesome teacher.

In fact, I know a lot of awesome teachers; my cousin Melissa, my cousin-in-law Beth, my friend Liz, other relatives and loved ones, friends and family members. I know a lot of good teachers, a few really great ones. I've had teachers who I found inspiring, teachers that gave me the belief and the courage to break through and keep learning even when I didn't think I could do it.

But I'm not really here to talk about good teachers.

I was thinking today about what I learned even from my worst teachers, those that I loathed, that could not teach me, those teachers who phoned it in or had long since given up or had never really seemed to be trying at all.

From the first teacher in elementary school who told me not to try and check out chapter books, because "the class" wasn't ready yet: I learned that sometimes you have to ignore those who tell you no and believe in your own capability. And also that the librarian will wink at you when she lets you check them out anyway.

I also learned that when the teacher says that you are "the only one" reading ahead, it's never true; there are always four or five other kids in your 30-kid class who are as far ahead as you or farther. You're all being told you're the only one, but there are others, and you have to seek them out and help each other.

When you are asked, "Why can't you just get this?!" by a teacher who doesn't realize you will never grasp anything beyond the basic fundamentals of math, what you should take from it is this: Sometimes, you can't 'just get it'. It's not weak to ask for help, even if you have to ask someone other than the teacher.

From the teachers who ignored or excused those who bullied me or treated me and my friends abominably: I learned that sometimes no one will come to your aid, and it's up to you to stand up for yourself and for those you care about. Sometimes those who do wrong are excused or defended, and those who speak up are punished, and that that truth should never stop me. There are always going to be those who don't want us to rock the boat, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't.

From the teacher who accused me of cheating because I finished a typing exercise too quickly: I learned to stand up to authority figures when they are wrong, and to take the resulting punishment with good humor and pride... and then to come in the next day ready to do it all again.

The teachers who expressed disappointment that I wasn't as good as my sister (you know who you are): from them I learned that standing in someone else's shadow is the perfect way to feel unworthy forever. Make your own voice heard. I joined every extracurricular I found even remotely interesting, I spoke up in my history class until my teacher told me to stop answering every question and let the other kids have a chance, I wrote poems with every ounce of who I was in my English creative writing class, sometimes staying up way past when I should have been in bed, just to impress a teacher who had expressed confidence in me. Make your own voice heard, and people will remember you and not a faded copy of someone bright who came before you.

I learned that being able to work in a group, even if you hate every single person there and feel like it's a huge burden, is as important as being able to work alone. One day working as a group will almost certainly be how you make your living, and if you don't learn how to deal even with those you don't like now, you never really will, and it will only make things harder in the long run.

From a specific administrator who held a grudge against me from the time I was 7 until she saw me again at 12: I learned that sometimes people will not accept that we change, and that it's not up to me to please everyone. Sometimes you have to grit your teeth and just understand that some people will never see who you are now, they will be too blinded by who you were then.

From the grad student who tried to teach the labs for my one college math class: I learned that even the most brilliant mathematicians (or anthropologists, or scientists, or writers) sometimes are not cut out to teach, because teaching involves a set of skills that many of us will never master, and that this is okay; not everyone is made for it. It's not an easy job, even for those who are. After all, without teachers there would never be a neurosurgeon, an astronaut, or a physicist.

From the administration at SIUC: Jason and I both learned that sometimes you have to discover how to cut your losses and stop taking abuse just for the shining, shimmering reward held always just out of reach, that is moved farther each time you take a step closer. There is a whole world out there, and running in place in no way helps you discover it.

I think the most important lesson that bad teachers ever taught me was that nobody's perfect. Those teachers or administrators who were less than kind to me had families too, and in some cases were responding to me from positions of sadness, distraction, or anger that was really at a situation in their own lives.

The grad student who had trouble teaching my math lab in college had done some incredibly courageous things; he had immigrated from a nation with a whole different language and set of cultural values and was working as hard as he could to learn how to teach freshman who had been trained to learn differently than he had. He was simultaneously getting an advanced math degree and was bogged down in his own classes and homework. I should have realized that then, and been kinder to him in my frustration.

The teachers who told me not to read ahead were drowning in large classes, trying to figure out how to give each kid the attention they need, a concept that is patently impossible when you're staring at 32 different faces and only seven hours of school day.

My sister has a work ethic and a drive that I have never been able to match, and this was even more true when I was in school. Teachers comparing me to her were expressing their disappointment that I would take so much more extra effort to grasp even the basics, adding to the load they were already under, making their jobs even harder. It really wasn't about me.

The teachers who looked away when I and others were bullied had most likely spoken up before, and been reprimanded or outright punished for it. I didn't realize this until years later, when I began to hear and to read stories from teachers who would talk about the danger of protecting or standing up for the bullied kids. If the bullies were popular, the children of wealthy parents, or the administrators felt some need to protect them, the teacher would often find him- or her-self in trouble for speaking up. After a certain point, they learned not to if they wanted to be able to pay their bills.

It hurt when they stood by idly, but if they had tried to protect me, maybe I wouldn't have learned to defend myself.

The simple fact is, I had some teachers I loved. I have teachers I love now that I still learn from, even if I'm far past being in their classes. I had the aforementioned English teacher in high school that I worked myself to the bone for, mentally speaking. I did that because he treated me with respect and talked to me like an equal. At sixteen, I needed that so badly, and I was willing to work hard for anyone who could give that to me.

I had some great teachers, and I had some good ones.

I had some bad teachers, too, but they weren't bad people; often, they were great people.

They just... weren't perfect. Nobody is.

Whatever else they did, they taught me both to rely on myself when I can and to look in unconventional places for help when I need it. I learned to speak up and to forge past barriers. I learned that the world needs people willing to rock the boat by themselves if they have to. I learned that the world and my life would not wait while we ran towards a goal post moved ever further away. 

Those are invaluable lessons.

So really, they weren't that bad at teaching me after all.


  1. Rhonda Smith LakinAugust 12, 2013 at 5:01 PM

    Katie, I'm a childhood friend of your mom's. I've recently started reading your blogs and I enjoy them very much. You are such a talented writer and this blog about teachers really spoke to me. When my children were in school they naturally came across teachers they didn't care for and I used to tell them some of the things you mentioned. I have to admit, I also get a big kick out of the fact that the little girl that I used to play dolls with raised such an incredibly talented woman!

    1. Rhonda, thanks for coming by and commenting! And for reading, of course :)

      School is one of the first places kids really have to deal with other kids and adults they don't like, where they can't just walk away from it. Learning how to get up and go every day, even when your teacher isn't perfect or exactly what you wanted, is so important.

      I'll tell her you said that. Actually, she'll probably see this in an hour or so...

  2. Thanks, Rhonda! I can't take too much credit for Katie...she has been independent pretty much from birth!

    The bullying part is pretty hard to read. The gratifying part is that a lot of those who bullied now have pretty dysfunctional lives...not that it makes me happy but it just goes to show you how things change. I think Katie and Jason lead a happy and successful life and I love that.

  3. Rhonda Smith LakinAugust 12, 2013 at 9:24 PM

    I have to add that Katie, your mom wasn't just a childhood friend, she was my BEST friend and my kids have grown up knowing who " Laura Jane" is. :)

  4. Reader from the land of Franziaham. Just wanted to say I loved loved loved this post :) I admit I've never really stopped to think twice about my bad professors, you very eloquently explored the flip side of the coin.


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