when teachers hurt self-esteem
Today’s teacher story comes from guest blogger Leonore Rodrigues from As a Linguist. Leonore and I connected because of our love of language, weird words, and proper punctuation. As it turns out, we have quite a few real life things in common.
Leonore’s a teacher and she just wrote a lovely piece called Intermission. It is exactly what I’ve been feeling recently, and she wrote it so beautifully. Please check it out after you read what she wrote here today. Also feel free to follow her on Twitter at @asalinguist. Thanks for helping me out, L.
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I can remember the names of most of my teachers I’ve had from kindergarten until graduation from high school, which is something about me that freaks out my boyfriend just a little bit. I try to tell him that there is still plenty that I don’t remember about school, but then I go and spoil it by mentioning that I also remember most of my first-day outfits.
I don’t know why these details stick, but the truth is that I do remember not only names, but little details about most of my teachers: my second grade teacher hated when we used short pencils; my fifth grade teacher showed tons of film strips; my ninth grade English teacher used the word ‘bitch’ on the first day of class and we loved her for it; my eleventh grade trig teacher smelled like cigarettes, coffee, and chalk; and my twelfth grade Calculus teacher was sweet and flirty, but was probably just a stone’s throw from being a dirty old man instead.
These details stand out but they don’t mark the teachers as being particularly great or terrible. When I do think of my favorite teachers, different memories arise. My sixth grade Math and History teacher’s silly manner made his classes fun and interesting. My eleventh grade American History teacher taught me how to write clearly and concisely, and he took me seriously, which helped me gain more confidence in myself and my ideas. My twelfth grade English teacher – who is probably my favorite teacher of those years – built on that confidence and challenged us every day with thought-provoking lessons.
Unfortunately, not all of the memories were good.
My third grade teacher, Mrs. G. was rather stand-offish, which in and of itself wasn’t a bad thing, but it didn’t win her many supporters, either. Her lessons were straight-forward and predictable, which for me usually meant boring. I thrived when a teacher gave us unusual projects or pushed us with harder material. Even clumsy classroom manners were forgiven as long as the teacher had passion and energy to inject into the lesson. Mrs. G. gave us neither creative nor passionate lessons.
The moment that stands out in my mind was the day she assigned a project to make a puppet. It didn’t matter what kind of puppet it was – it could be a sock puppet or it could be a 10-string marionette for all she cared. It could be a princess, a dog, or a prison inmate. We were left to our own devices and given no examples, guidelines, or criteria.
I’d seen some dolls that T, my best friend, had in her house that her mother had made. We talked about it and she said she was probably going to do a puppet similar in style to the dolls. Not having the slightest idea of what kind of puppet I could even hope to make, I asked Mrs. G if T and I could do the same sort of puppet if I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
She not only told me “no” about the puppet project, but she also quite bluntly told me that I depended too much on T, that I should be more original and not just copy my friend, and that it probably wasn’t even healthy for us to be such close friends anyway. I came away from school that day with the sense that my teacher thought I was a parasite and a fake. Not knowing any better, I thought she must be right. I felt like a girl with any real talent, intelligence, or integrity wouldn’t need to get ideas from anyone else, and so it must be true that I’m useless on my own. Nothing she did for the rest of the year ever disabused me of that notion.
At the end of the year, Mrs. G. assigned T and me to different fourth grade classes so we could break our apparent co-dependence on each other. We stayed just as close as we’d been, despite the separation. Slowly, I began to repair the damage that had been done to my self-esteem. To this day, however, I find that there’s still a tiny voice in the back of my mind that ask, “Was she right? Was I really just getting valid help with a project, or was I copying? Am I really just a hack?”
A teacher’s influence can indeed be deeply-felt for many years afterward. I wish my 9-year-old self had gotten angry and fought back, but I was lucky to have good teachers in the following years to combat the damage done. It took a long time, but at least now my 40-year-old self knows how to fight back.
Was there a teacher who really sapped your self-esteem? Did you ever get it back?
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If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a memory about a teacher you had and can explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction, I’d love to hear from you! Contact Me. Essays should be around 700-800 words.
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