Education Memoir

The Day I Got It All Wrong

When I teach, I come to class prepared. In fact, I sometimes come to class with a Plan A, Plan B and an Emergency Back-Up Plan. I think this stems from the days when I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Case in point: Many years ago, when I was just starting out, students were completing their last day of oral presentations. One girl was standing up before the class doing her thing and a small group of boys were being – well, let’s just say, a little bit disruptive. Nothing major. They just weren’t really interested in the symbolism that she had found so riveting in Ordinary People.

I tried to get the attention of one of the boys. No luck. I tried to make eye contact with another. Nothin’. Finally, I took my pen – a Precise V5 extra fine tip pen in hand and attempted to throw it so that it would hit the main offender: Let’s call him Hugo. It should be noted here – and you can’t make this stuff up – that Hugo happened to have one good eye, having lost the other eye years earlier, although I never found out the circumstances surrounding how it had happened. Anyway, I tried to aim for Hugo’s leg – to get his attention without disrupting the entire class. I figured he’d feel the pen tap his leg, look at me, I’d give him “the death eye” and he’d stop screwing around. It seemed foolproof.

I don’t know how it happened because I usually have pretty good aim, but anyone who was in the class that day would vouch for the fact that the pen did not hit Hugo on the leg. That pen had a mind of its own and fueled by green ink, it launched itself upwards right into Hugo’s face just below (or maybe above?) his good eye.

Hugo stood up before the entire class holding his face, “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted (and with good reason). “You could have blinded me!” And with that, Hugo announced that he was going to the nurse, the principal and, then, he was going to call his mother.

I had done precisely what I had set out not to do. I had disrupted the class completely. At the time, I was pretty sure that I was going to be fired. After apologizing to the student presenter for creating such a commotion, class ended, and I hustled up to the Upper School principal to whom I confessed all my terrible, unforgivable sins. She clucked her tongue at me, told me to call Hugo’s mother, and explain what had happened. Thank goodness, Hugo’s mother was wonderful, supportive and understanding; she even joked that sometimes she wanted to poke out Hugo’s good eye. Later, I also apologized to Hugo who apologized to me for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I have often thought about my experience with Hugo. As a new teacher, I was trying to figure things out. After throwing a pen at my wonderful student, I learned many things: First and foremost, I learned to never throw anything at anyone in class ever again. But I learned a lot of other things, too. Over time, I discovered more creative methods to communicate with students about their behavior without making the class come to a grinding halt. I learned a great deal about respect that day and how quick actions can lead to terrible consequences. I learned that sometimes teachers need to apologize to their students because sometimes teachers are the biggest twits of all. We learn from experience.

Oh, and I didn’t get fired.

What’s a not-so-great thing you did on the job that turned into a huge learning moment?

50 thoughts on “The Day I Got It All Wrong

  1. Hee hee – that’s funny. I’m glad you didn’t get fired.
    I never thought you’d be the modern equivalent of my hard duster chucking primary school teacher.

  2. Renee – You are so brave to share that story. I was young too, when a mom of one of my 2nd graders showed up at 10am to pick up her child. Mom was acting all weird, sitting at her daughter’s desk. She had everyone in the class laughing, except her daughter. It wasn’t until I watched the car drive away (20 years ago, before office sign-outs etc) that I realized Mom was drunk. That experience has haunted me for years. How could I have not known while she sat in my classroom? If I had known and confronted mom, called the office, got mom help, how would my student’s life have changed? I’ll never know.

    1. Ooooh. That’s hard. I can’t imagine confronting the mother would have brought about anything positive, but you might have been able to get the girl into some kind of counseling — if she had been willing. And kids aren’t always willing. A few years ago, I had a student commit suicide during the semester I taught him.

      It was awful.

      I felt like I had missed everything.

      It’s really hard to be a teacher. Sometimes we miss things. Hopefully, your former student was a resilient soul and powered through to adulthood, learning what she didn’t want to be.

  3. Thanks for sharing that story. Sounds like something I would’ve done! Well, teachers and students are all only human, mistakes are made and (hopefully) not repeated. I worked in special ed for years, so I have too many teachable moments to count! My biggest lesson learned: patience. And to find different ways to teach individual students and their needs. I think back to those days and I do believe the students taught me more lessons overall.

    1. Patience is absolutely a prerequisite for the job. Especially in Special Ed. You guys are a special breed, no doubt. I don’t think I could do that, day after day. All that individualization and all those personalities. And all that paperwork. Thank goodness for teachers who know how to do Special Ed.

  4. I checked out Romeo & Juliet from the school’s library (which, incidentally, was the district’s library). I made the fatal newbie error of not screening it ahead of time, assuming since it came from the SCHOOL LIBRARY it would be “fine.” I didn’t know Franco Zefirelli incorporated a little nudity…not even frontal, fer cryin’ out loud…but, even back in the pre-cell phone days, word still made it home to parents before noon that “I saw a flash of Romeo’s butt!” I had to write a letter of apology to the minister of the church of the flakes (ok, I don’t remember what the church was, but it was more cult-like with membership consisting primarily of his family, one of whom was my student), and sealed the deal on an already-awful year that I use as my tale of caution to new teachers.

    1. Somebody made a fuss about Romeo’s quick butt shot? Wow, that is emblematic of a difficult year. That movie is a classic. And you are right, it does serve as a great tale of caution.

      This is mine, I suppose.

      I was lucky that my principal was the most awesome principal in the whole entire world and that the parent was forgiving. And that the student has grown up to become a wonderful man who has a sense of humor about this story. (He is older now than I was when i had him as a student!)

  5. Oh my god, that’s horrible. However, I have to imagine that it garnered you some major street cred with the rest of the class. I’ve never had a teacher throw anything, but someone threw an eraser at our cranky old fourth grade teacher and it got lodged between her glasses and her face. She started swatting at her head and freaking out. It wasn’t nice to laugh, but we were cracking up because, well, she was a cranky old coot no one liked.

    1. Is it bad that I laughed out loud with your description? I did. I really did. Once a teacher threw an eraser at me, and I thought it meant he liked me. Like, LIKED me. Teenagers are so dumb. I think he wanted to kill me. Like KILL me.

  6. Ah…it was that email that I shouldn’t have responded to…but in my rage at the implications about how I did my job (on the heels of having bended over backwards to clean up a ‘mess’ created by several others including the email author) I couldn’t quite let it go and crafted an email in return… There was no way for me to write an email that would get my point across and not have others offended. After a small melee of finger pointing and accusations, I learned my lesson. Now I make a phone call after waiting 24 hours to cool off 😉

  7. Yikes! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who has such cringe-worthy moments in her portfolio, though I shouldn’t be experiencing such “schadenfr….” Oh hell, what’s that word. SCHADENFREUDE!!! over your experience. Except I’m not feeling exactly malicious about it. Anyway, I figured Hugo’s mother would explain that his missing eye had been poked out by a green pen or something.

    When I taught middle school (briefly. I’ve blocked it out due to political circumstances) it was one of those particularly unruly days when the moon is full, the weather is about to change, every girl of a certain age in the building is at the peak of her menstrual cycle, and every boy of a certain age was on high-hormone alert.

    One student, who was rather quiet, was occasionally picked on, had recently suffered an embarrassing incident on a school bus ride home and had returned to school, where some students picked up on the teasing once more.

    This student, “Starla,” had her mother in tow that day. I’m sure Starla wasn’t happy with this arrangement, but I was even less enthralled. Starla’s mom announced at the classroom door (which I was attempting to bar, due to the rowdiness of the interior of the room) that SHE was going to SETTLE this matter once and for ALL and was going to sit in on ALL HER DAUGHTER’S CLASSES and teach those little so-and-so’s …blah blah blah.

    At which point, one of the students inside the room slugged another one.

    I was never so grateful to see the counselor chugging down the hallway to rescue me from Starla’s mother (no doubt, Starla was also grateful) and class resumed in its usual rowdy fashion (after removing the slugging students).

    And then there was the day I subbed and there was a fire drill, and afterward, the secretary informed me that she saw two of my students eating an early and luxuriously long lunch at a local fastfood place. I hadn’t even missed them.

  8. There are all kinds of teachable moments, aren’t there. This was a doosy! Thanks for sharing it.

    I was working as a research assistant for a very insecure man who knew I was smarter than he was. He would subvert my efforts at success by witholding key pieces of info from me in order to complete the assigned task, then chide me for not getting the job done. I didn’t know this at first, of course, and thought I was just not getting things right on the job. So, rather than asking questions, I hid, made excuses, whatever I could think of to postpone telling him I hadn’t completed the work. He would finally give me that piece of info I needed in an “Oh by the way, I forgot” manner. I finally caught on. I learned not to assume the boss always had it right and I always had it wrong.

    1. Ooooh! I hate people who try to make you look incompetent in order to make themselves look more competent. It is one of the most malicious kind of work sabotage, truly. These people are usually pretty toxic in real life, too.

      Great reminder to keep doing what I know I need to do no matter what anybody says.

  9. I’ve noticed lately what a brave writer you are. You inspire me.

    As a mother, I use ridiculous words with my children – silly billy, booger head, etc….sometimes, as a teacher, these words would slip out….like once when I called a 4th grader a poopy-butt.
    He was SO mortified and started to cry – I felt like such a heel having to apologize to my class and his parents for the slip.

    I feel better knowing that at least I didn’t take aim at the kid’s one good eye! =)

    1. Grouchy Mom:

      Thanks for your kind words. Have to tell you: That is a great story! Too bad you had 4th graders (who would take that personally) as opposed to college students like I do now. College kids would have laughed at you and thought you were the dork! I’ll bet you didn’t even leave a miniature emotional scar.

      We do the best we can. And the blessing is that kids forget. They really do.

      Unless they don’t. 😉

  10. To be fair, that pen’s in your hand, the object of scorn is right in front of you… it’s practically entrapment.

    My first year I was having a group of sophomores read a series of passages aloud. We got to one kid who said, “pass” which apparently was okay in certain classes, but I wasn’t having it. Everyone does everything. So I’m saying, “Pass? There’s no passing.” And it’s gradually turning in to a production, and face-off, a line in the sand. He’s getting really upset (and I should have noticed, desperate). But I’m the teacher, damn it! And if I back down, I’ll lose them all! So it becomes a full on battle of will, with me determined to make an example of him, until finally a critical piece of information comes to light: It turns out he was illiterate and was just slipping under the radar. So on one hand, it’s good I tagged him, but looking back, it’s shocking I couldn’t see the nonverbal cues he was giving me, and I suspect public shaming isn’t in the handbook for helping students in need.

    My favorite, though, was my wife’s first year teaching: She was explaining the difference between a metaphor and a simile. And, at this point, it’s important to note, that she was naive to certain racial epithets for hispanics. So, she goes to one students, a hispanic student, and says, “So, if I said that Carlo was a bean, that would be a metaphor. If I said he was LIKE a bean, simile!”
    This of course, was immediately followed by stares of horror, deadly silence, and my wife saying “What? Why is everyone starting like that?”

    1. Byron:

      Your story is classic. The power struggle that ultimately reveals something horrible. I wonder where that kid landed. What your discovery in the nick of time or too late?

      As far as your story about your wife: I actually had to think about that one. So is this epithet some weird reference to a Mexican Jumping Bean or something? I have never heard of it before. Sometimes I’m glad to be ignorant about such things. It’s always great when the kids teach you something that you don’t know. I think it simultaneously ages us and keeps us young.

  11. I have often apologized to a student and do it in front of the whole class. It elevates me in their eyes. “He’s fair. He cares” Sometimes had to apologize to whole class. Sheeesh. All I did was chain the front and rear door during the fire. Couldn’t they take the heat?

    1. I apologize whenever I goof up. In this case, it was private — why? Because none of the kids appeared to even remember the event the next day. But Hugo and I made it right quickly. I felt awful.

      Luckily, I learned that lesson pretty well and I don’t think I’ve ever chucked anything at a student ever since.

      But I have had to apologize for plenty of other goof-ups. And, as you said, I think students appreciate it when teachers admit to being human.

  12. Thanks so much for sharing that story, I have so many of those — only it’s mistakes that I made as a nurse, not a teacher.
    Great post, Renee!

  13. Renee I’m so happy you shared this post! LOL. I’m going to tell my sister about it, she’s a teacher too, and will love this post. Mistakes I made? Hmm, more so in the relationship department, but like you, I wouldn’t take it back because I learned from it all about being a better partner.

    1. Hi Jess! Tell your sister that I share all my Twit stories here. In fact, there is a whole category for these stories. They fall under the heading of “Sometimes She’s a Twit.” 😉 She might even like to read (or write something) for my Wednesday #TWITS feature where people write a memory about a fabulous (or awful) teacher and explain how the lesson they learned from that person has stayed with them. I just started up when school started up, but I have a bunch lined up.

      Hey, do you want to write one? 😉

  14. I believe it simply demonstrates the degradation and permissiveness of our current society. When I was in school, there was no disruption from anyone because the consequences were swift and painful; you were lucky if you made it home and didn’t get punished again.
    Now we are so scared of lawsuits that we walk on egg shells and of course the students are going to capitalize on the situation. You are in greater danger of being reprimanded than the out-of-control student. Everyone is so concerned about victimization that no one is addressing the ones who are really hurt by disruptive behavior: the students who are unable to study and learn because of the disruption.
    The fact that you are reduced to throwing a pen out of frustration because of your severe limitation on discipline speaks volumes. Our children are suffering from lack of discipline and they are not the only ones feeling the effects.
    We are no longer the land of the free and home of the brave – we are the land of wimps and home of the pampered.

    1. Brother #4:

      To be fair, this event happened over 15 years ago while I was teaching at an outstanding private school in Old Metairie, Louisiana. All the mistakes were mine. I didn’t know how to get Hugo to be quiet. I was inexperienced.

      Today, I could come up with 10 different ways to handle the situation, none of which involve throwing anything!

      A lot of learning comes with experience. The problem with teaching is that many teachers burnout before they can get that experience. I was fortunate to have support from my principal, the parent — and even the student, himself! It doesn’t get better than that.

      I was lucky to start my career at such a wonderful place, where I could make mistakes and not be terrified of losing my job.

      Twenty years later, I do agree how students’ sense of entitlement has practically destroyed an entire generation as many do not understand responsibility and have a poor work ethic to boot. And apples don’t fall from pear trees. 😉

  15. This was a fantastic post! I’m trying to think of a specific incident at work that was a real life lesson, but I think for me it’s ongoing. “Taking the high road,” for example — I’ve learned that most people put themselves first, and often just because you stick up for someone doesn’t mean they’ll return the favor, but that also doesn’t mean you should forsake the golden rule. For me, the struggle is finding the balance between being kind and sticking up for myself.

    1. Hi Jules: Finding the balance can be a fine line, depending on where you work. I love putting other people first (it’s a teacher thing, i think). I feel like when you do, it always comes back ten-fold. I never understand people who don’t get that. 😉

  16. Oh, Renee, you were one lucky lady that Hugo’s mom was so nice! My first real teaching job (after subbing for 2.5 years) was in a classroom where the teacher had quit due to a nervous breakdown. It was in a bad area and I was warned that the children were out of control and I would need to be tough. I came in like a drill sergeant, complete with a whistle and stopwatch to control and time their every move. This was a huge mistake because the last thing on this planet that I could ever be is a drill sergeant! (I don’t yell, l like to have fun, and I’m pretty laid back.) I soon found out that a “me against them” approach wasn’t what they needed. It took a while, but I found my groove and we all grew to like and respect one another. Figuring out what “works” can be pretty tough when you’re new to teaching, but it sounds like you learned a valuable lesson.
    BTW–I’ll be sending good vibes your way for a wonderful first day tomorrow! 🙂

    1. Sprinkles:

      Thanks for the good vibes. I’ll take ’em.

      You are right. I was so lucky that everyone was so understanding (and forgiving). It could have been a disaster. And I think if it had happened today — in a different place — I likely would have been fired on the spot. Who would throw a pen at a student? Duh!

      And, as you said, trying to come in with the whistle rarely works. When teachers do that, students suddenly have a common enemy: the teacher! I’ve always tried to respect my students. Truly, I find them endlessly fascinating. I think the day that I lose that interest is the day I’m done.

  17. I’ve never thrown a pen, but OH how I have wanted to. Instead, I tend to be the teacher who gets tears in her eyes – not because she’s sad or upset or hurt -but because she is SO pissed off, her anger has to go somewhere.

    A part of me would prefer throwing a pen to having some unruly kid think he got the better of me. But there it is.

    I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve had many less-than-stellar moments in the classroom and I greatly appreciate your bravery at sharing this one.

    The best lesson from an experience like this is that we’re all human (teacher and student); we’re all capable of error and the important detail is owning it.

    You went to the principal. You called the mother. You were proactive and honest.

    And (hooray) you weren’t fired. More than one person learned something that day.

    And lived to tell about it…

  18. Oh, my! I didn’t think I was ever going to write about this, but this seems like just the right place.

    I was a noob contract negotiator when a new lawyer was hired to work with my group. The thing was, she was both hostile and unable to grasp basic technological concepts, a fairly lethal combination when you’re tasked with approving contracts for new hardware and software acquisitions.

    This lady got under everyone’s skin, but she did something that really bugged the crap out of me one day. I couldn’t let it go, so I got up at 3 a.m., drove to work in my PJs, hacked out a lengthy letter pointing out all the specific reasons for which I felt she was definitely wrong on the specific matter and ill suited for her entire position.

    I finished the letter somewhere around 7 a.m., which I only know because I stopped at Albertsons for a beer. The clerk snidely said, “If you’d been here three minutes earlier, you couldn’t have bought this. Lucky you.” (I said, “It’s a good thing I really need this beer, because you would’ve just had a complaint lodged against yourself, my friend.”)

    After I awakened, fuzzy-headed and not especially happy in the tummy, I realized what I’d done and wanted to quit on the spot. I faced the fire nevertheless, and was glad the lawyer had such a record of crazy (after only a month or two on the job!) that I kept my job and we worked on ways to get stuff done faster and with less crazy in the middle.

    Oddly enough, I took a course called Crucial Conversations and ended up later being called on by other folks to ask her questions . . . since I was the only one who could do so without having fire breathed upon me.

    Hoo-boy, did I ever learn a lot from all of this!

  19. Another great post, R.

    I have lots of near-fail stories. One that comes to mind right now is going through a 12 minute parent-teacher interview talking about “Matt.” At minute 11, I realized I was talking to the parents of Matt L, not Matt M.

    Needless to say, I now start every parent-teacher interview with, “Your ___’s mom, right?”

    1. Oh Lordy!

      That would be awful. Especially because you probably only have about 15 minutes with each set of parents and starting over would have really made you fall behind. Not to mention, you just spilled everything confidential about the other kid to the wrong parents. Maybe you could have told Matt M’s parents Matt L’s shizzle and told them to talk amongst themselves.


      I love you for getting the humor behind the horror. 😉

      Have a great academic year, my sweet (and only) friend in Calgary.

  20. During my first year in Istanbul, I taught at a private school for grades 6-11 (the equivalent of 7-12 for the U.S.) The students were very difficult to manage for all of us, but as the only foreign teacher, I had a worse time of it at first. I took a lot of cues from my Turkish colleagues, especially the female ones. My direct supervisor would often tap her hand on the small glass window that was at the top third of every classroom door. She’d use the back of her hand so her ring would rap against the glass, making a more noticeable, sharp noise without having to tap harder against the glass.

    One day, during a class with 8th grade students, I was employing this technique but apparently, I don’t know my own strength. I put my hand right through the glass. Luckily, my face was turned so I had a second to wipe off the astonishment, hide the obsenity I mouthed, and turn around with my stern “Look what you made me do!” Twenty-five chins were on the floor when I turned around to face the class.

    The supervisor came in to yell at the class, make sure I was okay, and get the janitor to clean up. The next day, the class gave me flowers to apologize for being so hard to control. They weren’t perfect after that, but they were a lot better to deal with.

    So I guess my act of inadvertent destruction was actually the right thing to do 😉

  21. A while back, I worked at my church. I guess some people would say it’s a mega church, but they are wrong. Anyone who’s been to a real mega church would never call a church of 2500 people mega…anyway…at the time we had small groups on Thursday nights, so many of the girls in the office used to bake during the day so that we could bring something to our small groups.

    I decided to bring something that I was, and still am, famous for: apple pie.

    Now, one thing I forgot to mention is that in those days our pastor was on television. (He isn’t anymore because we stream our services live online, so why pay all of those expensive tv bills when you can stream your services online?) He happened to be taping for television in his office, which happened to be right next to the kitchen.

    What I didn’t count on is that my apple pies ALWAYS spill over. So, while the pie was baking the juice was spilling over which is causing billows of sugary smoke to pour from the oven. The sprinkler system started to consider turning on.

    As I ran through the hallway, my pastor’s wife noticed the look of panic in my eye.
    “What’s wrong?” she asked.
    I beckoned her into the kitchen . She is so kind and gracious. She just hopped onto the counter, opened doors and windows and started waving like crazy. All we could imagine is foam from the sprinklers all over the television equipment in the room next door.

    Lucky for me, they didn’t come on.

    What did I learn from this experience? Always put a cookie sheet under my pies, that way I can scrape the syrup off occasionally.

    1. Holy crow, Kim!

      That is a great story! And what a “sweet” lesson. Get it? A “sweet” lesson. I love that.

      Also my pies always overflow, too. And I always forget the stinkin’ cookie sheet. Good thing I only make them in October. Whoo, that’s just around the corner, isn’t it?

      Maybe I’ll remember the cookie sheet this year because of your story.

      But probably not. 😉

  22. I still like throwing things at students. Erasers and candy are pretty safe. I also like to stack Starburst on top of the shoulders of snoozing pupils. That’s always hilarious, especially when they wake up in the middle of a candy shower.

  23. I remember the first time I taught and how I threw a blackboard eraser at one of my students because he was so disruptive in class. Surprisingly, he became one of my “favorite” students after that eraser-throwing incident. I remember he was so shocked but after a few seconds he also threw it back at me. He later apologized and I apologized too.:))

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