Experience might not necessarily be the "best" teacher, but it almost always results in the most enduring lessons. Recently, we asked members of the Education World Tech Team to tell us about their most unforgettable teaching -- and learning -- experiences. Included: An opportunity to share your best lessons.
The book Ooops, What We Learn When Our Teaching Fails, edited by Brenda Miller Power and Ruth Shagoury Hubbard, is a compilation of essays by teachers describing their worst teaching experience and what they learned from it. For this article, members of the Education World Tech Team have written their own essays, revealing the best, the worst, the funniest, and the most embarrassing experiences of their teaching careers.
"My worst teaching experience was with a third grade class in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia," Bernie Poole told Education World. "I'd been teaching for ten years in England and Nigeria, but this was my first contract as a teacher of English as a foreign language at The Riyadh Schools, a private school for (mostly) Saudi boys.
"I didn't know any Arabic when I arrived in Riyadh, which was the first problem. For the most part, the boys' English was rudimentary, and communication was very difficult indeed. Another problem was cultural. My teaching style and body language didn't get the response I expected from these students. They soon were all over me and very difficult to control (Although I never before had had a problem with classroom management.) Yet another problem was one that substitute teachers routinely deal with -- taking over someone else's class mid-year.
"Fortunately, my first contract was for only six months. I struggled through, and more or less held things together. Along the way, I learned a good bit of Arabic; I also learned, from watching the school's Arab teachers, what strategies might be effective in ensuring good behavior on the part of the students.
"When I returned for my second contract, I had a whole new class of third graders, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and the first words out of my mouth were in Arabic! A hushed silence fell over the room...It was like magic. To cut a long story short, we had a wonderful time together for the rest of the year.
"What did I learn from the experience? That you're never too old to learn!"
Few teachers have forgotten the lessons learned during their first year teaching.
"My worst teaching experience was my first year teaching," said Beth Gregor. "I was young and naive and teaching eighth grade language usage from a cart, so I was assigned whatever classroom was available. For one period that year, I was assigned to the music room -- which worked out OK until the music teacher started leaving out the musical instruments he was using that day. Every desk had a different musical instrument on it -- instruments like mini drums, recorders and gourd shakers.
"The music room was off by itself -- because, of course, the students make lots of music -- and was located at the opposite end of the school from the room in which my previous class was held. The students were supposed to wait outside the music room door until I arrived, although they rarely did.
"One day, as I was pushing my cart down the hallway toward the music room, I heard some strange noises -- and they were not music noises. My students were "playing" the instruments, and they were playing them to their own personal rhythms. I went into the room and sat down on the stool, wondering if teaching was for me. The students were already out of control -- and class had not even begun. I knew from experience that if I yelled, they would not pay attention, so I closed the classroom door and just watched them play the instruments. That day, we had a music lesson instead of a language usage lesson. Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow."
"One of my worst teaching experiences occurred during my very first year teaching," Stew Pruslin recalled. "I was teaching fifth and sixth grade at a private religious school. The students were doing a science project that involved buckets of water, and my 'fiscally responsible' school had supplied us with cheap, coated-cardboard buckets. As you can imagine, the buckets burst, flooding the room and dripping into the office downstairs, right onto the secretary's typewriter and onto the secretary herself. The experience did provide a great story for parties -- and perhaps a lesson for the school as well."
For some, a few words uttered in an unfamiliar teaching situation have led to surprising lessons.
"During my first year as a regular classroom teacher after five years as a sub, I was teaching in a rural school, in a class that had managed -- with their attitudes and behaviors -- to drive out their former teacher," John Tiffany remembered. "One day, in a burst of rage and frustration, I uttered the words "Jesus Christ!" Soon after, someone left a picture of Jesus Christ himself on my desk. It was a humbling lesson in self-control and in not letting students get the better of me."
"I wouldn't call this my worst teaching experience," Jenka Guevara said, "but it was a learning experience! One day, I explained a concept to one of my advanced classes. That afternoon while reviewing what I had done, I realized that I had made a mistake in my explanation. The next day, I started class with the words 'I am sorry,' and then I gave the correct explanation. Instead of being angry, the students clapped and thanked me for acknowledging my mistake! Lesson learned: Do not be afraid to accept responsibility for your errors."
"I'm not sure what category this experience falls under," Nicholas Langlie told Education World, "but I'll call it an 'enlightening experience.'
"My first semester teaching at the college level, in an attempt to inject into the class some humor that referenced popular culture, I referred to a song by a rock band popular when I was a young teen. I expected that the class would understand the reference. Instead, a student said something I never would have foreseen. She said, 'Watch it, Mr. Langlie, you're dating yourself.' That experience was a demarcation point for me as an educator -- the line between being able to fit in with my students as 'one of them,' and becoming 'one of THEM' to my students. All of a sudden, I was an authority figure, responsible in presence, not just in mind.
"After that class, I could think of nothing else. It occurred to me that I was not cool and that it was OK to be 'not cool.' It was the dawn of a new era for me. All of a sudden, I had a new tool in my bag of tricks -- 'being un-cool.' I could be my academic self. I didn't need to seek validation from my students by 'getting it' according to the rules of their generation. I could do the opposite; I could unabashedly express what my students call my 'dorkdom,' and use it, often in a calculated and self-deprecating way, to get my students to learn and retain what I was teaching them.
"So the very next day -- my second class at the college level -- I told my students that I had come to the realization that I was not cool anymore. I was not the cool guy that teenage naivete once led me to believe I was.
"Some of my students were amazed, others were indifferent, and some (at least one) thought I was crazy. For the first time, however, I was able to make fun of myself and to use that self-deprecating humor as a tool to get my students actively engaged in exploring the subject matter. I can proudly (yet humbly) say it was the best class I have ever taught."
Remember when education technology was new? Everyone had some lessons to learn!
"One of my worst experiences as a technology trainer involved a classroom teacher who just didn't want to learn to use technology," Robin Smith recalled. "He had made up his mind that technology was something he was not going to get involved with. Moreover, he was rude. He talked when I was talking, did everything except what was asked of him, and basically refused to be part of the class. I tried standing close to his desk, asking if he needed help, ignoring him It was hopeless. To make matters worse, he was a veteran teacher whom many others looked up to.
"During one 3 1/2 hour training session, I reached a point where I couldn't take it anymore. I asked the class to stop and listen. I told them I understood that some people didn't want to be there and if they didn't want to participate, they should leave so others could learn. I didn't have a problem with them leaving, I told them -- although I would be required to report their names to the superintendent -- but if they stayed, I said (looking directly at the offender), they had to be quiet and participate. I also pointed out that if their students acted the way some of them were acting, they would be assigned detention. Then I stood behind the person causing the problems. He quieted down after that; although he didn't always follow the assigned tasks, he did stop complaining. Later, though, I heard him talking in the hall about how I was treating him like a child and had embarrassed him in front of the rest of the class.
"About three years later, I had the same teacher in a class again and he chuckled about the episode. He now is a big user of technology. He never actually apologized to me, but when other teachers had problems, he helped them and told them they should pay attention to what I was saying."
"One of my funniest teaching experiences," Smith added, "was when I was training teachers how to use e-mail. Evidently, one veteran teacher had listened to only part of the session about sending e-mail and hadn't listened at all to the part about receiving e-mail. A few days after the training session, the teacher came to me and said he had a problem with his e-mail; he was sending a lot of messages, but no one was getting them. I asked him to explain. He said he had sent about 20 e-mail messages, but none had been received. He had sent two e-mails to himself to make sure they were going through, but those hadn't arrived in his mailbox either.
"After asking a few questions, I discovered a couple of problems: First, he expected the test e-mails he sent himself to physically appear in his snail mail box in the school office. In fact, he walked to his mailbox several times a day to see if they were there. (He thought the e-mail messages that appeared in his inbox were just copies of what he had sent.)
Second, the reason no one else was receiving the e-mails he sent was because he was typing only the recipient's name in the TO: box. He didn't realize that he had to type in an actual e-mail address. He thought the computer would 'know' who John Smith was if he only typed in the name John Smith. (He didn't even have an address book set up!)
"I am happy to say that that teacher now sends me e-mail on a regular basis!"
"For me," Smith said, "the best teaching experiences occur when you see the light bulbs flicking on and know they understand. I have had the pleasure of training many people, some with very low technology skills and technophobia, so scared they are going to break something that they are afraid to do anything. When they learn that they can do something they never imagined they could do, or realize that the technology will save them time, a wave of enthusiasm washes over them. It is such a nice thing to be a part of.
"The very best moments are when someone you've taught tells you that you are extremely patient (I am not normally a very patient person!) or comes back later to tell you how much they've used the skill you taught them, or how what you taught them has helped them be a better teacher.
"Another great moment is when they are so excited about what you are teaching them that they constantly comment about how cool it is, or how much it will help them, or how much fun they are having. Those are the lessons you wish you could repeat over and over. They are what keep us doing what we do!"
Article by Linda Starr
Copyright © Education World
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