Cowards Need Apply

Butterfly on Finger
Teaching kids can be as challenging (and exhilarating) as taming a butterfly.

I walked into my first high school classroom as the one in charge at the age of 37. For as long as I could remember, I knew I was going to be a teacher. I used to dream about it at night when I was as young as eight or nine. Thus, by the time I entered that first room of sixteen teenagers, I was revved up and didn’t even think about being scared. That euphoria lasted three months.

Three months … that’s how long it took for me to realize I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing. It wasn’t as though I had been on a hiatus from young people. I had been a youth leader in my church, developed summer programs for kids, hung out with my friends’ teens, and spent countless hours assisting college students. In most of these roles, I was their friend and buddy and sometimes an authority figure. No one told me (or maybe they tried … I’m not always the best listener) that by sheer juxtaposition of the title “teacher” the roles are reversed in the classroom. Kids expect you to be an authority figure first. Oh, they are kind enough to allow you to be their buddy for awhile and pretend to be real grouchy when you step up to take charge, but it didn’t take long to realize that nobody was happy when I tried to be the buddy. The kids couldn’t tell who was in charge, and they didn’t act like it, but they really wanted someone to lead the way.

My unfocused crowd loved this arrangement, but my eager learners … well, this is sad, but they got sulky and despondent. They stopped volunteering to give answers. They slipped me their homework only if they were sure no one was looking. They passed notes and looked bored. The other kids were talking all the time (or throwing things at each other) and weren’t being pushed to succeed, why should they?

Then came that three month marker I mentioned, and I found myself in my principal’s office in tears – embarrassed and afraid. “I was stupid to think I can do this. My classroom is chaos. I quit.”

My principal’s laughter was jarringly rude.

“I don’t see anything funny about this,” I blubbered

“Oh, I’m not laughing at you,” she insisted. “I just am amazed that you made it this far. Most first time teachers are in here the first month, asking where to put their resignation letter.”

“What are you trying to say?” I asked.

She explained some base truths of teaching. Kids WANT discipline. They will perform and grow to our expectations. If we don’t challenge them to something bigger than themselves and then hold them to it, they won’t jump in and challenge themselves.

“But I’m not the gestapo type,” came my protests.

“You don’t have to be. This isn’t about being mean or angry. It’s about leading them, giving them boundaries, and expecting them to do more than their lazy little selves want to believe they can do. You can certainly do that in a Jesus, loving kind of way.” Her grin was quirky, yet knowing.

“But, I’m afraid I’m going to mess them up,” I was still whining.

“Then you’re hired. Wait … I already hired you. In that case, I won’t fire you. Because now that you’re scared, you know what a big deal this is, and you know you can’t do this alone …”

I can’t say that I remember much else of what she said at that time, but that stubborn, curious side of me kicked in, so I stayed with it.

Changes came about as fast as ketchup leaving a bottle, but they did come as I took back the leadership role in the class. By the next year, I was known as the “Ausminator” when it came to turning in homework on time and paying attention in class. I was also called a “fair” teacher, and even occasionally, “Not too bad to talk to.” (Definitely not what they were saying the first few months.) There were up and downs, but I learned to channel the fear into prayer and the hesitation into risk taking. Now, fourteen years later, I’m still teaching, and I’m happy to say that I have meaningful adult relationships with many of those same students in that first classroom.

If I take this same story, back it up even eight years earlier and insert the details of becoming a parent instead of a teacher, I realize I had twice before lived the same scary dilemma and thoughts. “How on earth, am I going to teach this child anything?” “I am going to mess her up!” Those thoughts overwhelmed me when they laid my firstborn in my arms and again, three years later when our second daughter arrived.

I know that it’s supposed to take courage to be a parent (and a teacher) and I would agree, but I’m one of those people who didn’t get it about the need for courage until I had to face the ugly truth of what a coward I am.  I envy people who don’t seem to have any fear when it comes to parenting their kids, but that’s just not my journey.  I guess, however, there is merit in that I refused to stay stymied by fear.

Ultimately, I’m trying to land on two thoughts. First, when it comes to parenting or working with kids, cowards are welcome – just don’t expect to stay one. (This said from one of the most flawed, yet determined parents you’ll ever meet.) Second, there’s a lot that we do wrong – let’s learn from it – but let’s also celebrate what we do right.  That’s what this blog is about.  Hang in there with me … more coming about how vital adults are to kids. We matter because they are watching … whether we want them to or not.

Would love to hear about something you did wrong … or right … as a parent, a teacher, or someone who works with kids. Jump on in and help create a discussion!


7 thoughts on “Cowards Need Apply

  1. I’m curious about your experience of starting as a teacher at 37. I’m 37 now, and I only just realized that I’m a teacher. Now I feel trapped in a rocket ship that’s flying to the wrong planet.

  2. Luke,
    As rocky as it started, 37 was a great age to start teaching HS kids. I had planned to be a teacher all along, but after finishing college, I took a journey through 10 years of full-time ministry and then, full-time wife and mom. It was when our first daughter started at a private school that it leaked out that I had a degree in English, and then came the plea, “Could you help us out?” I think I needed the wisdom of those in between years to become an effective teacher … my belief is that in the long run, wisdom far outweighs the cool factor when it come to teens. Plus, there is a burn out factor that comes with teaching, so while many of my colleagues were frazzled by their 40’s, I figure I’m charged up for another decade or more. You might be at the perfect spot to begin such a journey. What would be your ideal teaching situation?

  3. Teaching was my plan, I was a para for(ever). But CHF and COPD has altered those plans. I have always taught something. Home Schooling I was not prepared for, coward is an understaement…
    Its the parenting and tough love which sucker punched me. Then divorce, remarriage, two addicts and a third currently 16 who has decided home schooling sucks (and we cannot afford Christian education right now.) Finding a way to keep him stimulated has turned me into well a “stoflenator”?
    I know this is far from the exasperation of a class of 30 something, but any ideas?
    ….waiting with fervent anticipation – like the old ketchup commercial

  4. Stoflenator! Love it!!

    A 16 year old can be challenging in any setting as far as motivation goes. For some of my more reluctant learners, I try to tap into an interest and milk it for all it’s worth. For example, if a kid likes photography or has computer skills, I might use those avenues for creating reports or retelling a story such as a Shakespeare or more contemporary story. I’ve found some great materials for using film as literature and follow up with assignments like writing a letter to the director or to one of the fictional characters. Another thing that has helped, it when I have a dispassionate student tutor someone younger. I don’t know if you have that avenue available, but it’s interesting to see how an interest in learning grows when teens feel like they are responsible for another person’s learning. Those are just a couple of quick thoughts I have. Maybe someone else reading this has some thoughts as well.

  5. This is really quite insightful. it is quite true that life is a journey and often times we “mess it up”. However, everything in life contributes to growth and is in and of itself a growing experience. Many times, our “life-clutter” is confusing and doesn’t seem to have a resolution, but it always leads to the next step in life. I’m extremely glad that I have the Bible to base my life on! Often, when I’m going through hard times, it’s easy to try to “ride it out” and choose to not grow. However, it is often best to take hold of circumstances and see what God is trying to teach you and where He wants you to go!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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