Memoir: Toward the Teacher I Want to Be

Memoir: Toward the Teacher I Want to Be

“Kenna, will you tutor this student in biology?”

Music to an aspiring teacher’s ears! Excited to feel needed, my head spun with so many plans for worksheets and flashcards and quizzes and games. The possibilities were endless and so was my enthusiasm. This particular student, adopted from Sierra Leone when he was in about third grade, he was a sweet kid, always friendly and willing to offer a helping hand, but he struggled in school, especially in anything to do with abstract concepts. His reading and writing skills were low, and his accent often made him difficult to understand. He needed someone to review the material with him at a slower pace. I wasn’t asked to do anything new, just reiterate what had already been said in class.

This request came from the high school biology teacher. An unrelenting man, he loved eight hundred (yes, with two zeros) point exams with lengthy in-class essays. He was married to the English teacher, so his essays were serious business. The tests demanded much rote memorization of muscles, bones, and organs. Labs were also worth hundreds of points, and he was a fan of giving failing grades to the entire class if one tool was left out of place. I’m pretty particular about my cleaning habits, too, but he went to the extreme. A clean room seemed to give him a sense of power. Streaky lab tables? Zero for the day. Desks out of line? Zero. Cloudy beaker? Zero. Students were expected to be focused and almost mechanical in what they did. Notes were given off old school projector slides as students rushed to write quickly enough before he turned to the next page. Then, students were to move to the lab quickly and quietly. He became very upset if his classroom was too chatty. Labs had many steps and minor errors in the beginning could destroy your chance at success. Insubordination would not be tolerated, and this man yelled weekly, loud enough to be heard down the hall.

He was large, looming over his students as they worked. Broad and towering, you naturally stood up straighter when he was around. He wore a white lab coat every day and had a salt and pepper beard. He was ex-military and wanted his students to be “disciplined.” Every student had to pass biology to graduate, and my high school was small. One biology teacher, no other options. It was common for students to fail and have to retake the same class the next year.

“He’s having issues with vocabulary.”

The multisyllabic words used to explain the human body and its many processes made the student’s head spin. They are challenging even for native speakers who’ve been educated in the United States their whole lives. But I loved words. I thought I had a command of them (it wasn’t until college I learned that I could never control all the power words harnessed). A future English teacher asked to work with a student with an emphasis on vocabulary? This was a dream come true for me. To be honest, though, I immediately stopped seeing this student as a person. He was nothing more than a step on the path to greatness for me. I cared about what I could gain from our relationship rather than focusing on helping him succeed.

“You’re his best chance at passing.”

While I’m working on having more internal motivation, I still thrive on teachers’ praise. Every “good question” or “that’s correct” or “well done” makes my pride soar and brings a smile to my face. I might not be super athletic or the prettiest girl in the class, but I’ve found my niche in being a student. I’m confident in my role in the classroom – the girl who always sits in the front row and raises her hand regularly – so becoming a tutor to this student seemed like a natural and logical step for me. Yet, looking back, I’m not sure I actually was his best chance at passing. Perhaps I could have been, if I had been more focused on his needs instead of my own desire for praise.

This teacher was one tough cookie, and I wanted to impress him. Make him proud. Have him praise me in front of the whole class. I set to work making worksheets and flashcards in my loopy, flowery cursive. Though English is my one true love affair, I’m not too shabby at biology, and who doesn’t love multicolored neon flashcards? While I understand the importance and usefulness of technology, I’m an old-school girl at heart. I still take handwritten notes and prefer to read from paper copies, so typing the worksheets was never an option for me.

I was ready. I was going to make this student pass the next exam if it killed me (or him). Make. Not help. I was the commander and the power felt good. I came armed with resources and pages of painstakingly-made worksheets. This was my time to shine. Finally, this teacher would be proud of me, and on a secondary note, this student would pass biology (thanks to me, of course). As soon as we sat down at a table, I laid out my beautiful assortment of activities. I expected the student to be impressed, but I looked up to find a puzzled face and then downturned eyes.

“Kenna, I can’t read cursive.”

He said this quietly, almost in a whisper. My heart sank on the first evening of tutoring, and I’m sure my face didn’t hide my feelings. How could this be? I put in the effort and the time, and it was all for naught. How could this student not know cursive? I thought everyone could read cursive. This is all his fault. He’s wrecked my plans. What the heck am I supposed to do with him now?

“I’m sorry, Kenna.”

Hold on. Wait a minute. My internal speech was angry and unpleasant, but this apology forced me to take a step back. He’s sorry he couldn’t read my cursive? Well, crap. I am a terrible person. This sweet kid is fearful of failing, and I’m upset about some worksheets? I never felt so low. I’m no better than the biology teacher! I’ve become the person I feared, and this student is sorry? This is not what education is supposed to be about.

As a student, I swore I would never be like the biology teacher. As a preservice teacher, I find myself more sympathetic. He was a product of his time, just as I will be. His education was more teacher-centric than student-centric, and I cannot fault him for aligning his practice with the way he was taught to control a classroom. I was not expected to do anything extra to help this student. I engaged in traditional practice without considering what would be most effective in helping the student. I cannot blame the biology teacher for this. My focus on traditional pedagogy comes from years of schooling that taught me there is only one way to teach, and that way includes endless worksheets and flashcards.

Some days I am convinced I do not deserve the goodness in my students. This specific student reminded me that teaching is not about impressing others (even intimidating biology teachers). The student I saw as just another rung on the ladder to achievement unintentionally humbled me. He was also a reminder that a teacher’s humanity must precede her content, and a skilled teacher enables the humanity of herself and her students to come through the content. If we forget that we are teaching students, not statistics, we have already failed.

Kenna Krier is an English-Teaching candidate at the University of Northern Iowa.  She looks forward to student teaching in spring 2019.