My First Day Teaching
I sat at my desk and looked around the room, still somewhat in a state of shock. This was my classroom; mine. I was responsible for what went on the walls, for the books, for the work, for the minds of young people. How would I handle it?? I was scared but excited, and not a little exhausted from the four straight hours of faculty meeting to which I had been exposed already that day.
Thinking of the meeting, I leaned back in my chair and wished I had a cigarette; well, wished I could smoke one! Leave it to me to become a teacher when smoking was no longer allowed on school property. Gone forever the dream of sitting in the teacher’s lounge smoking a cigarette and complaining about my students…How sad. I laughed to myself and as I leaned forward to sketch out my idea for a bulletin board, the door opened.
I glanced up, surprised to see Hank, the eighth grade English teacher with whom I was to work for one class. I wasn’t pleasantly surprised, mind you. I was, rather, nervously surprised – if there is such a thing. I had been told by several well-meaning colleagues that Hank did not want a special education teacher in his classroom. He had been teaching for twenty-nine years and found the idea of a “co-teacher”, as they called us then, offensive. Nor did he want to deal with “those” students. He had threatened to quit when last approached with a co-teacher and the administration had backed down. This time they had not. I wondered if perhaps they (the administration) were using me to force him out so they could bring in someone younger, more open to new ideas and practices. (As the year progressed, by the way, I became convinced of this.) My new “friends” had also told me, though, that his former students often came back to our school to visit him. Given all that had been said I really wasn’t sure how to feel about his unannounced, uninvited entrance into my room.
Forcing a smile I looked into his eyes and asked, “May I help you, Sir?”
“I am sure you know who I am,” he said in an angry tone.
“Well, I know you are Hank, the English teacher with whom I am going to work.” I smiled again, looking at him questioningly.
“I’m sure you have heard that I don’t want you in my classroom!” Again with the angry tone.
“Sorry?” I asked stupidly.
Let me say here that my mind split three ways as soon as his tone and words registered.
Part of me was thinking, “What a jerk! I should stand up and give him what for right back! Who the fuck does he think he is??”
The second part of me was crying and bemoaning the fact that this was happening to me on my very first day at my very first teaching job. “How did this happen??”
The third, perhaps smartest part of me thought, “Okay, he’s a jerk, but he feels threatened. Don’t get up. Stay in your seat and let him tower over you so he will feel more powerful. Just sit there calmly and let him spew. It’s all good.”
Luckily that third part won out over the other two, more volatile, parts. So sit there calmly I did, my hands pressed onto my knees, my face smiling.
“I do not want you – or anyone, for that matter – in my classroom, taking my power away from me. I know what I am doing. I have been teaching for over twenty-nine years and I don’t need anyone watching over my shoulder!”
His voice got louder as he spoke, then he would catch himself and lower it, only to have it rise again. He didn’t pace or move much at all, although his eyes seemed at times to nearly pop out of his head, and sometimes, when he paused, he titlted his head to the left or right until his neck popped. I just sat there and smiled.
“You shouldn’t take it personally, you know. I don’t even know you. For all I know you’re a great person. It’s not about you. It’s about me. And the administration. They will NOT tell me what to do or how to teach or put a spy in my room!” His voice reached a crescendo on the word “NOT”.
“I told them I would quit if they gave me a co-teacher and “those” kids. I meant it, too. I am close to my thirty years. And because they put you in my room I am turning in my retirement paperwork. I don’t want those kids, don’t know how to teach them, don’t want to know. ”
His voice lowered a bit at this point and he looked at the floor – for a moment. Then he raised it again and looked at me defiantly.
“I just thought you should know how I feel about everything, and that you should hear it from me. I don’t want you in my room, but it’s not you, really, so don’t take it personally. So, that’s all.” He turned to go.
“Sir? Uh, Hank?”
He stopped and turned around. “What?”
“Well, you’ve laid all your cards out on the table, which is an excellent thing to do, and I would appreciate it if you would now allow me to do the same.”
I was burning to stand up and face him eye -to-eye, but the third part of my brain that was directing me whispered, “No! Stay seated!” So I did.
He looked at me suspiciously, replied, “Okay,” and stood, two feet from my desk, arms across his chest.
I sighed inwardly and began.
“Sir, I mean, Hank, first let me say again that I am glad you told me how you feel. It’s always better to know where you stand with people. Second, well, I had no idea you felt that way. The only things I have heard about you are that you are an excellent teacher, many of your students admire you, and that you are one of the few teachers here that students return to visit.” I smiled. I had been very careful to keep my tone even and conciliatory throughout my little speech.
He smiled, marginally, and his body language relaxed a little bit. His arms were still crossed but not as tightly. I went on.
“Third, I need you to understand that I am not here to take anything away from you; nothing at all. My only function is to help ensure that your students, whatever their ability level, understand whatever knowledge you try to impart to them. I want to take nothing from you, want, rather – well, hope, to add to your classroom by supporting you, the curriculum, and your students. ”
I looked at him to see if my words had any effect on him. I couldn’t tell.
“Well, Sir, that is all I had to say. Thank you for listening.”
I held out my right hand to see if he would take it and shake. He hesitated, then did so.
“Okay. See you later,” he said in an almost puzzled tone, and left my room.
Once he was gone, I hate to admit it, I cried. Just for a few moments, though. Then I decided that before he left this school he would love me.
And he did.
His last day was the day before Thanksgiving break. Hank bought me a little present, gave it to me with a smile, and pulled me aside to say,
“You know, Robin, I didn’t want you in my room. I told you that at the beginning. And I suppose I was a bit rude about it, too.”
I looked at him in mock shock and said, “You? Rude? Never!” We laughed.
“No, I know I was. And I am still unhappy with the administration, but I want you to know that I am not unhappy with you. At all. You really meant what you said that day: you were here to help me, and you did. Thank you. I couldn’t have taught those kids without you.”
We shook hands, I wished him well in his retirement, and I walked away, a secret smile on my face. I hated his attitude towards “those kids”, my kids.
Rarely have I been so glad to see the backside of anyone.