Do These Two Things

Here’s a bold claim that I can make here and now: I have made more teaching mistakes than any other teacher I know. I have the years to back me up.

You’ve asked your students to work out of the textbook for an entire period? I’ve done that more than once. You’ve snapped at a kid and made him cry? I’ve done that. Or you’ve cried in front of the class because you’re so fed up with their ungrateful and spoiled behaviors? I’ve done that. You’ve doled out a factory-made test without checking through all the questions on it? I’ve done that. You’ve brought ungraded papers home and shredded them? I’ve done that. (Although this may not be a mistake at all; we know crappy assignments must be burned.)

You’ve punished the whole class for something one or two kids had done? I’ve done that.

You’ve denied your kids’ opportunities to think deeply because you gave them all the answers? I’ve done that. You’ve given them timed tests? I’ve done that. Worse, you’ve given them timed tests preceded by this lie: just relax and do your best. I’ve done that. You’ve shown a video without previewing it? I’ve done that. You’ve made a promise that you couldn’t keep? I’ve done that.

This list drones on and it’s already exasperatingly dull.

If I may shift my attention then to the two main things that I’ve learned to do over the years so that when I do make my mistakes, the kids are incredibly quick to forgive me. Just two things.

Teachers are not in it to climb some corporate ladder to reach the thick-carpet land. The ladders we know are the ones we climb on to proudly hang our students’ work in our classroom. Or we scaffold a lesson to get students to play around on that ladder of abstraction. We are here to learn right along with the kids. Teachers are hypersensitive to that metacognition thingumabob.

Maybe it was during my second year of teaching when a veteran teacher dropped in to give us new teachers a short presentation about what to do and what not do as a teacher. He told us to not talk about ourselves to our students, that the kids are not interested.

I disagree. I think you should tell stories.


Do talk to your students about yourself. We are adults, they are children, we are teachers, they are our students, so of course the topics have to be appropriate. But it’s disingenuous and selfish to say that we want to know more about our students yet not reciprocate in this endeavor. How else may we create that magical “rapport” that everyone talks about?

I tell sporadic stories about what’s going on in my life — past, present, future — dispersed between solving equations and talking about math. These are not planned conversations, they just come out naturally and haphazardly. These light moments came up within last week.

We were playing Nim in class and discussing how many chips to remove on one’s turn. This made me remember when someone at a department store was trying on a shoe of mine that I’d removed in order to try another shoe myself. I guess it looked new enough that she thought it belonged to the store and wanted to ask the salesman how much it was until I told her it was my shoe! Give me back my shoe, lady! (Two kids couldn’t stop laughing about this.)

I told them briefly about my trip to D.C. and the soft sheets in the hotel room. I told them about my visit to the Holocaust Museum. One student asked, “Did you cry?” Another student replied before I could, “She cried when we did bad on a test, so what do you think?” We eased right back into simplifying the next rational expression.

I was hungry and told them about the so-so enchiladas I’d made for dinner the night before. The kids shared their preference or indifference about red and green enchilada sauce. Quickly the conversation was centered around “mystery meat” coming from our school cafeteria. We agreed that our favorite school lunch is the teriyaki chicken. Then we were all quiet again thinking if these two triangles shared a height or base and what the ratio of their areas might be.


Tell them about things you’re not good at. To balance out my heard-all-too-often outbursts of I’m brilliant!, I tell kids about the many things I cannot do. I tend to tell the class this when I sense they are struggling with a math concept. And when I’m no good at something that they are really good at, I shower them with genuine admiration.

I can’t tread water. I think I can swim. But that’s just it. I have to constantly swim or I’ll drown. I can’t do the eggbeater routine with my legs. My teacher took me to the deep end and said, “It’s really easy. Just watch me…” Ten minutes later, she said, “You’re right. You can’t tread water. Oh, look, our time is up.” I tell this story knowing that the kid who’s struggling with what we’re doing right now is on a swim team. He says, “I’ll teach you. I’m a good teacher.”

Once I skied straight into a big pole while taking ski lessons. I know I’m not supposed to look at the pole because looking at it turns it into a giant magnet and me into an iron rod. I didn’t give up though. Not after I saw a guy take a giant tumble and had taken forever to get up. I was way cooler when I fell.

I bring in a math problem that I cannot solve. Then I share a different one on another day.

I can’t sing. My husband, bless his heart, showers me with affection and compliments ad nauseam. But even he can’t lie about my tone deafness. What I’m about to reveal next has only been known to a handful of people outside my family. Here goes: I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, standing on a small platform at the front of the class with another classmate, we have a song to sing together. I remembered how cute I must have looked because I wore a pretty dress. We did not get far into the song when my duet partner turned… and…(are you ready for this?)… slapped me in the face! She fucking slapped me. I was that bad.

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