I was two months into my first year in a new school when I found myself hunched over a lunch table in the staff room praying for an earthquake. Not a big earthquake. Loss of life and limb was not necessary. I didn’t even want property damage. I just wanted everyone to get stuck in first period under their desks waiting for the ‘all clear’ until it was time for third period. So, there I was: palms cradling my forehead, deep groan of dread building in my throat, listening to the clock tap out the minutes to my doom. I dreaded second period. They were mean. They were never prepared. They never ooh’d or aah‘d when I lit something on fire or made things bubble over a beaker. On lab day, they acted like they were being forced to act out a Shakespearian drama through interpretive dance. And they were mean. I had never had a class like this. I loved science and every day I wanted students to love science. My classroom management skills were good for a relatively new teacher. I only had one awful day student teaching and I blame that on my ill-chosen outfit: pastel checked sweater and cream skirt. (That color combination is responsible for prison riots. You cannot blame teenagers for losing it.) So pretty much every day for two months, I sat in the teacher’s lounge and prayed for temporary illness, fire drills, mild earthquakes and locust. They never came. At 8:20 every morning, I trudged to my classroom chanting in my head “You are the teacher. They are teenagers. You can do this.” But on this particular Monday, I could take no more. I realized I needed help. The other teachers tried to help. They gave me advice. They told me their “second period” horror stories. I am pretty sure the Shop teacher even had a few covert come-to-the-mountain talks on my behalf. All to no avail. I knew I had to figure it out. I also knew that just beyond the staff room, a mere 20 feet away, sat the very man I needed to talk to. I swallowed my pride and prayed it would sit firmly on top of my breakfast. Just the idea of talking to the principal made me nauseous. I was only in the principal’s office one time as a student. As I sat across from him, that moment flashed back in my head. Believe me, the principal’s office is just as scary at 26 as it is at 16. The principal was a lanky man with straight, jet black hair that looked perpetually two weeks overdue for a cut. He reminded me of a cowboy in an old western. Everywhere he went, he seemed to mosey along like he had all the time in the world. I sat across from him and explained my problem. I asked if he would come to my class and observe. I told him that I had tried everything, and I just needed him to tell me what was going wrong in this class. It was a risk, as a new teacher, to even ask. (Less risky than the earthquake I was praying for, I guess.) But I really didn’t think I could take another day.
He came to my class the next day probably sensing I had one foot out the door and, since I was coaching three sports, fearing he would have to replace me in the middle of the year. He came in after the bell. I was worried that my students would all be on their best behavior with him there. It turned out that I had nothing to fear. They gave him quite a show. He took it all in. At the end of the class, he asked to see me after school. Now, that got ooh’s and aah’s. The rest of the day dragged on as I faced the possibility that asking for his help might just have ended my career. When the final bell rang, I headed for the office where he was waiting. His office felt a lot smaller than it had the day before. I scooted my chair closer to the door as I sat down anticipating the need for a rapid escape. I opened with, “So that is pretty much how they are every day.” With fingers tented, he tapped his chin, took a breath and said, “I can see why you are concerned.” I charged into the breach and asked, “So could you tell what the problem was?” He pronounced, “yes.” I had just a millisecond of hope before he continued. “It’s you.” All of the air went out of my lungs and I am pretty sure my heart stopped beating. I know for a fact I was staring at him in utter shock and disbelief when I squeaked out “me?”
He didn’t make me wait, which was good because I was already rewriting my resume and considering becoming an ornithologist (birds being clearly nicer than teenagers). He said, “Catherine, you do not teach that class like you teach your other classes. It is obvious to me and it is obvious to them. You walk in and expect them to misbehave. You don’t plan interesting activities because you don’t trust them to act appropriately. The problem is you. If you taught these students like you teach the rest of the day, they would act like all of the rest of your students.” As any smart, new teacher would do, I thanked him for his sage advice and taking the time to help me. Then I stormed out to my Jeep and used the 52-mile drive home to question everything from his parentage to his education degree. At about mile 30, I remembered that I had asked him into my classroom to assess the situation and give me his advice. Pretty stupid move if I wasn’t going to take that advice. So, I did 22 miles of soul searching and realized he was right. The situation was completely in my control. They were teenagers. I was the adult. My job was to teach them even if they were expertly applying the principles of aversive therapy on me. The fact is, even a porcupine has a soft belly. I needed to turn the tables on them- expect them to want to learn and participate in class. And deal with it like an adult when they did not. I had to teach as if they were already my favorite class. It was a lot of work. Harder than any other class I taught that year. It took months to turn it around. In the end, they were my favorite class that year.
I cannot say that I was grateful to have such a direct and honest principal at the time. But I am grateful for having learned the lesson. The cold, hard truth is tough to take sometimes. But as my dad used to tell me (often), the truth will set you free. It saved me in this case. Our perceptions drive our actions and influence all of our relationships. Perceptions are a reflection how we see ourselves in others. They grow out of our experiences and feelings and, because of that, they are flexible. Perceptions are less like granite and more like clouds. The fact is we can change how we see things. When we change how we see something, there is something in us that changes as well. I had to take responsibility for my behavior. I had to ask myself, “would they be different, if I thought they were?” In the end, it made it possible to see them as they really always were- just a bunch of normal teenagers trying to figure out life.
I chose the photograph below because it was another lesson in changing my perception. I came across this grave marker in the Annagh burial ground in Ireland. I dismissed it quickly as not worth a photograph. I was taking pictures of all of the graves in search of ancestors. In the burial ground, other graves were marked with large ornate crosses adorned with Celtic knots. As I was walking through, a local man stopped and told me that it was a Famine grave -probably an infant child not yet baptized who could not be buried in the cemetery proper. It changed my whole perception of how worthy of a photograph this weathered stone was.
(1/200 sec., f/7.1, 100 ISO, 55mm)