There is something to be said about the best teacher you’ve ever had. These are the teachers that we sit around and reminisce about with friends. We talk about how they still influence us to this day. We also discuss how they made us feel and how much we enjoyed being in his or her class. But… I’m not here to talk about the best teacher I ever had. I am here to talk about the worst teacher I’ve ever had. I feel like we don’t talk about the bad ones enough and we can’t possibly learn the valuable lessons we need to learn from them.
Today I logged back onto my teacher Twitter and was scrolling through my feed. I’m getting ready to gear up for back to school and, to quote High School Musical, am trying to “get my head in the game.” The scrolling was lovely until suddenly, the worst teacher I have ever had popped up in a tweet written by a highly respected teaching counsel! I was so angry I started yelling about it to my shocked friend sitting next to me. What is she doing on Twitter? Why is she being retweeted by such a credible organization? What is she up to now? Horrible thoughts of Freshman English started flooding into my memory and I couldn’t handle the rage I was feeling towards this woman. So, you are probably wondering, what made her so bad? What are the lessons I needed to learn from her?
6 Reasons Why
- She wasn’t approachable. She was hands down one of the scariest teachers I have ever had. She was unpredictable and unapproachable. When you walked into her class, you didn’t know what was going to come at you, and it was scary. Once I asked for permission to attend a field trip for another class, and she almost didn’t allow me to go! I had to take a quiz early and then, while I was taking the quiz, she stood over my shoulder telling me I should have studied more. She made me feel dumb, worthless, and insecure. I will never forget these horrible feelings, and this is why I had such a strong reaction to seeing her today.
- She played favorites. Right away, there were kids that she clicked with and kids she didn’t. She made it known that she liked these students better, and she treated them differently than the rest of us. All of the kids in her class were not on an even playing field. She made sure people knew that. She required one student in period 1 to bring her McDonald’s breakfast every once in a while. On her birthday, which I think was quite early in the school year, she requested Diet Coke. I can’t even tell you the mountain of Diet Coke in the middle of her classroom at the end of the day. If there were camera phones back then, I would have a ridiculous photo to show you. I forgot my Diet Coke at home that day and freaked out all day long because, of course, I had English 7th period. When I entered, and she saw I didn’t have what she requested she made a mean joke and sent me to get her Diet Coke from the vending machine with my own money. Luckily, I had money to buy the Diet Coke, or I would have had a mental breakdown.
- She made me feel stupid. Freshman English wasn’t the easiest of classes for me. I went from 8th grade English; reading books, filling out worksheets, having pointless literature circle discussions to Freshman English; analyzing literature. I didn’t have the skills and strategies I needed to do the work. She didn’t help me to develop these skills, and instead just made me feel stupid for not understanding what to do. To this day, I hate Romeo and Juliet and had horrible Freshman English memories come flooding back to me on a recent trip to Verona, Italy. At one point, we were divided up into groups to find literature terms. We were each given a scene of the play. My group had a lot of other homework that night, and we decided to each take chunks of the scene and then shared the terms. When this teacher found out, she intentionally called on students who didn’t do that section to make us feel bad. And then screamed, “It shouldn’t be that hard! Come on!”, while we frantically tried to find the literature terms. Do you know that your brain actually shuts down when you’re afraid? Even working your hardest, you can’t think. This was something that repeatedly happened to me in Freshman English.
- She didn’t give second chances. When I had to turn in my first official essay, I made a stupid, simple mistake. Somehow, I stapled the pages in the wrong order and didn’t catch it before I turned it in. When I was in period 3 Spanish someone who had just come from English told me that my name was on the chalkboard. All day I was freaking out and trying to figure out why. I struggled all day, do I go in and ask her about it or do I wait? Will she be mad that I already found out before class? What is going to happen? Is she going to address it in front of the whole class? I decided to wait and stressed out all day long. She pointed out that my name was on the board to the entire class and then told me we would talk about it afterward. When I found out it was because my essay got stapled in the wrong order, I was so relieved. When I found out she couldn’t read it due to this mistake, and I was going to get a zero, I was devastated.
She played games. Back to Romeo and Juliet– a truly traumatic play for me. In Act III, our homework was to find all of the literature terms in the act. (Do you notice a theme?) I went home, and I found all of the ones I could, I Googled it, and wrote down all of the ones I found online and was still nervous that I didn’t get all of them. I had English last period, and all-day no one was saying what happened, but everyone seemed really upset. I walked in, and we were told to stand next to our desks and get out our literature terms.
I got mine out and waited, terrified about the game we were about to play. I didn’t know what was coming, but I was shaking. It turns out, she was going to call on each girl in the class (I went to an all-girls high school) and each girl was going to say three literature terms that she found in the scene. She would call on each girl in random order. She started by calling on the smartest girls in the class; I knew they were the brightest because she repeatedly told us. They had it easy. I followed along in my book, marking off the ones that were said. Quickly, I realized that I was going to be one of the last students called on. I started to panic and felt like crying. I waited and waited, and the number of literature terms left in Act III was growing smaller and smaller. When I got called on, I only had two literature terms left – unacceptable. I said the two that weren’t stated yet, feeling very poorly for the other girl who was left standing. Then, I told one that was mentioned, hoping that she wouldn’t remember. She remembered. I stood up and turned the pages of my book frantically with her yelling at me again. I couldn’t find a new one. She told me I was worthless, and I should sit down. I sat down, so ashamed of this failure, humiliated in front of my friends, and I felt their pitied looks in my direction. The girl after me didn’t have any left. She allowed one of the smart girls to stand up and help her out.
- Her grading was harsh and unreasonable. You already know that she couldn’t give me a grade on a paper because it was stapled in the wrong order. She also failed most every student, except those favorite few, and when we failed, we failed hard. I frequently would receive 30% on essays I had worked so hard on. At one point in the year, she decided to “be kind” (her words, not mine) and give all students a 50% for at least trying. That means that I was guaranteed an F. And that means that I got a 50% on every essay I turned in. At the end of a quarter, we would sit down and negotiate our grade. One by one, we would go up and have conversations about the letter we deserved on our report cards and the letter we earned in class. I had always earned an F, and I said I deserved a D. One time she said maybe I could have earned a C, but she felt like a D was better. So, I got straight Ds in Freshman English and was shocked when I went into Sophomore English and got much better grades.
Let’s dig deeper into this trauma with a story a few years out of high school. This teacher didn’t return when I was a junior. The rumors were that she was finally let go, while the smart kids said it was because she wanted to spend time with her children. In college, I heard that she was a special education teacher. Now, I know that she is currently an instructional coach. Anyways, a few years into college, I went to Starbucks with my sister. My sister stayed in the car while I ran in to grab the coffee. I was standing in line and looked up to see the back of a strangers head. I knew that I recognized the hair from somewhere, and while I was trying to figure out who it was. The person turned around, and it was none other than my Freshman English teacher. I literally fight-or-flighted it out of Starbucks. (Fight or flight is when your survival instincts kick in because you are in fear. The parts of your brain for rational thought and other things literally shuts down, and survival skills kick in. In a quick response, you either fight the danger or run from the threat.) I don’t remember leaving Starbucks. I do remember getting into the car and my sister asking why I didn’t have any coffee. As I explained that my Freshman English teacher was inside, my whole body was shaking, and my heart was racing. I couldn’t drive and had to let my sister drive us to the next Starbucks.
Today when I saw the tweet, a million emotions ran through me. I am now a 28-year-old teacher. This teacher humiliated me when I was 14. 14 years later, I still had an extreme emotional reaction. I broke down in tears several times while writing this. The lessons I learned from her about teaching are the silver lining in a very dark cloud. While I was so angered to hear that she is now teaching other teachers through an instructional coaching role, I hope she has changed. I read a few of her articles, and one was about the importance of apologizing to students. Hopefully, these are genuine articles, and she has grown as a teacher in the past 14 years.
6 Lessons Learned
- Being approachable to all students matters. That kind smile you use when you greet kids at the door or in the hallway matters. We can always choose kindness as teachers. Relationships matter. Having a positive attitude matters. Kids don’t learn from teachers they don’t like. Kids don’t learn from teachers they’re afraid of.
- Students in your class should be on an even playing field. There should be no favorites, and there should be no least favorites. I try hard within my classroom to make each student feel like the favorite student. Sometimes students just have a feeling that we don’t like them. When this happens, we need to reach out and solve it right away. All students should feel loved and cared for by their teacher.
- Students should feel smart. Growth mindset in classrooms matter! When students feel like they can, they can. Productive struggle needs to be honored and appreciated within the classroom. This is where relationships with students come in central again! When we build relationships, students feel ok to take risks, and when we take risks, we grow.
- Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has those days! (Hannah Montana anyone?) When creating a growth mindset, errors need to be embraced and honored within the classroom. If the relationships between the students and teachers are there and the relationships peer to peer are in place, the classroom should feel like a safe place to take risks. Having a safe place to take risks is all students need to learn and grow.
- Games are fun, but, playing with students’ emotions and feelings is never acceptable. Sometimes I want to yell from the rooftops that teachers are role models within the classroom. Taking out emotions on students is never acceptable. Teachers need to create a consistent teacher life and live it out. I’m not saying teachers can’t have bad days or moments, but we need to own those. Ironically, my worst teacher ever has a whole article on her website about the importance of an apology. I wholeheartedly agree with her. When we mess up as teachers, owning our mistakes and apologizing is so essential.
- Grading should be something students understand and can grow from. I couldn’t improve when I was given a 50%, and sometimes she admittedly didn’t read my work because she “knew it was trash.” We must believe in every single student potential, and we must help them elevate their level of work to be the best they can be.
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. -Henry Adams
This is true whether the impact is positive or negative. I know that these memories will stay with me for a lifetime. I’m sure the negative experiences you’ve had as a student will remain with you, too. We have a responsibility to the students we teach. Our responsibility is to greet them every day with loving kindness. Our responsibility is to help them work their way through the mistakes they make, no matter how big or how small. Our responsibility is to help set them up for success in all areas of life. Our responsibility is to make them feel safe. Our responsibility is to teach every student, every day, not just some of them or some of the time. Teaching is a great responsibility, and it isn’t always easy. The kids we teach deserve the best teacher version of ourselves.
I’ve learned so many valuable lessons from this painful experience. What have you learned from the worst teacher you’ve ever had? How do these lessons stay with you in the classroom each and every day? I would love to hear from all of you!