Monday, March 19, 2007

No, dear, life doesn't make sense sometimes

Nor is it fair, right or otherwise logical sometimes. I say sometimes because there are those moments when all is good and right and as it should be.

But not today. And not in the year 2000.

In the year 2000 I closed a bad chapter of my life at an Internet startup where with my skills of speaking Spanish and Russian, I served as an office manager. My life was breaking up into little pieces and floating away like the polar permafrost ice sheet. My job was really frustrating because I was doing something that in no way met with my rather bizarre skill set, my living situation was poor...and in result, I felt angry sort of most of the time.

So I turned that new leaf and went back to school at Good Public University, who offered me a fellowship to get my MAT in Spanish.

The program was administrated by a new, very enthusiastic new professor who was really quite wonderful. The problem was there simply were not enough places for us to go and watch classes be taught that were nearby. We were put with whoever was available, regardless as to whether they would be a good mentor teacher or not.

I was put with OMW (old mean woman). She was a top notch, highly effective teacher who somehow elicited total control over her class and her students all but walked in at attention to her room. I was intimidated. She was on par with a drill Sergeant. But man could she teach Spanish. But would her students speak to her? No. Did she EVER make even the MOST MINUTE grammatical error in Spanish? No. Not even a tiny one. Did she mix it up with great projects that she seemed to pull off effortlessly? Yes. Did she grade papers and hand them back in about 15 minutes after they were turned in? Yes. Her armor gleamed. She was feckless. ALl of her overheads were in 18 point font to be read clearly, her drills were effective, the students were engaged. She was just amazing.

I am a very different sort of person. I tend to learn by trial and error. I am pretty laissez faire, or at least I was. I didn't want to be psychotically exacting and I didn't want to have my students march at a military cadence, I wanted Spanish to be fun.

From the moment I walked into her door, I was trying to see how to get along with her. I worked very, very hard. My day started at 530 AM and ended when I got home from work at 11 at night. They way I saw it, her recommendation was going to make or break my ability to gain employment after the MAT was over.

My first assignment that she gave me was to make a sign for her door that informed the students of something. I no longer remember what, so I took a piece of paper and neatly wrote with a marker the message. When I gave it to her she looked like I just handed her a turd. She put it up, but over the next couple weeks as I saw her style of teaching (she seemed to never do any preparation, she only was mysteriously prepared)...everything was perfectly color coded for the levels...purple was Spanish 2 and Blue was Spanish 1. All overheads were always organized in baskets, all papers corrected immediately. There were no "piles" in her room. I started to see that this order was not just a casual thing. It was a mandated "way to be". My sign probably should have been computer generated, laser printed and plasticized, then maybe it would have been more acceptable.

I tried not to worry about the discrepancy between what she expected of me and the seeming perpetual disappointment she had with me. But as time went on, the fear metastasized and I put on my coat of "Que Sera Sera" and did my best. Though when evaluation time came, she ripped me a new one. I only seemed to disappoint her, perpetually. Down to the most minute detail she had me in a sling. I started to congratulate myself for things I did right to not feel like such a loser. But in front of my professor she lambasted me. I did what was natural, I cried.

I was resigned to deal with my lot, but my anxiety grew and one day in speaking with my professor at the University a colleague overheard and was surprised to hear what I was dealing with. Thankfully, she immediately reported it to her own mentor teacher who then sent a nasty email to my mentor teacher. Naturally, this made things much better. After that I was removed from her room. She didn't trust me anymore.

What I was dealing with was a palpable distaste that she had for me. The students knew it. When I wrote in Spanish on the board, my handwriting was never neat enough, if I forgot a question mark at the beginning of the sentence, it was more proof of my total unfitness. If I erased a misplaced accent with my finger she got mad because I was gumming up her board. If I pronounced Octubre incorrectly she let me know. I became as nervous and as twitchy as a cat and began sabotaging my own success, I began to doubt my ability to do a job that was totally within my reach.

In Russian there is a word to describe teachers like this, I found out. They are called вредно. Vrednie. It means "harmful".

One day in the parking lot, the final bit came. Another person in the MAT program, though not studying to be a Spanish teacher was walking out to her car at the same time as I. She said she felt bad for my with the teacher I got. I knew it was rough, but I was wondering how she knew, so I asked why? She told me she had heard my mentor teacher bragging about having flunked 5 student teachers before me and that she had no qualms about it again. She was a nice person the girl who told me this, she wasn't one to undermine or speak false. She looked at me carefully and asked if there was a way I could get out.

My heart sunk.

I went to professor and I did the only thing I had left. I wigged out.

I was moved to a different school with a different sort of teacher. Again, he was very knowlegeable, but he was totally disorganized. He would spend ten minutes of class setting up the VCR to show cartoons. I picked my jaw off the floor enough so I thought only of the fact that this guy was going to get me a job. This teacher was organized on one level, with semester calendars and Oral Proficiency Tests, but told jokes the whole class period about his fat brother...the students LOVED him. They all came to hang out with him. And he was so good to them, and for them. Though admittedly, he was teaching to one of the poorer white populations in the state and OMW was teaching to the richest. All this makes a difference too I know.

This week, OMW won teacher of the year. And I suppose she deserves it, she is very effective. But for my part, it is hard to imagine.

One of the harder parts to all this was that the student teacher that was with her before I was with her was beloved by OMW. Ironically, this student teacher had an abysmal first year. My first year on the other hand, my students bought me 2 dozen red long stemmed roses at the end of the year. I hardly felt I deserved it, but all the same.

During Spring Break there was a training at OMW's school, with her friends in charge. I was to go. I went. When other teachers asked me how my first year was going, I think OMW nearly gave herself whiplash when she heard me say how well my first year was going.

So that this woman who honestly did more to crush my spirit than any other teacher I ever met won teacher of the year is hard to comprehend.

But ultimately the last laugh is all mine. I was trained by an amazingly effective teacher. I took a treasure trove from her classroom. I survived her fascist methods and went on to some of the best years of teaching I have ever had. Honestly, I think some people just need someone to see their potential, rather than what they are. I love teaching. I am good at it too, though I still am learning day by day.

4 comments:

happychyck said...

Wow! Great story! That's one of the best "student teaching" stories I've heard!

It's too bad that she was such a OMW. It sounds like she was highly organized, and I'm always in awe of people who do it so naturally. It amazes me how cruel teachers can be toward their practicing teachers. I have certainly met some teachers who needed a little more training, but isn't that what mentor teachers are for?

Adeline said...

You know after writing that post Happychyck, I thought of when during that year with her, her daughter graduated high school and fled. Fled as fast and as far as her piggy bank would take her. OMW was a mess. I began to imagine her house, her as a mom and the picture of perfection that she probably was made me understand why her daughter would flee.

People are all so different, aren't they?

Mrs. T said...

There is a teacher in my department much like OMW. He has no room for any grammatical errors (like we never make them in our native language???). He spends a lot of time listing his acolades(sp?).

Fitèna said...

Great story Heather!
Say, hummm, Are your posts going to be in spanish now on? :-) I had to scroll back up to see if I'd really landed on your blog! :-)

Fitèna