Unfairly Maligned

Early on, I made a comment on Steve Whitmire’s blog in which I told only the slightest details necessary to get my point across.  But I think the stories might have more meaning if I go into more detail.

Here is how I started out my original post.  (Remember that this post was made on July 19th, right after Disney and the Hensons had ganged up on Steve and attempted character assassination on him):

“I can’t say that I know what it’s like to have my name publicly dragged through the mud,” I said, “but I do know what it’s like to be unfairly maligned.  As a student teacher, and later as a graduate teaching assistant, I had students who, in talking about me to my supervisors, misrepresented statements I’d made so that I sounded like some sort of cruel, unreasonable harpy.”

I don’t know how many of you reading this will know how the student teaching system works.  Perhaps you had student teachers in school, perhaps not.  For all I know, it works slightly differently in other countries.  

The idea is that, as an education major getting ready to graduate, you spend some time–probably about 8-12 weeks–in an actual school, in an actual classroom, working alongside a cooperating teacher.  You, as the student teacher, start out by observing the cooperating teacher, and then you gradually transition into doing more teaching, with the cooperating teacher acting in more of an observational/supervisory/advisory capacity.  Towards the end, you take on most of the responsibility for teaching the class or classes.

The day in question was towards the end of my student teaching term, so I had taken on most of the responsibility for teaching two sections of ninth-grade literature.  My cooperating teacher was gone for whatever reason (out sick, I suppose, but I don’t remember for sure) so the school had arranged a substitute.  I had already made a lesson plan for that day, for the two sections for which I was responsible, so having the substitute didn’t change anything.

The substitute was an older lady, and somewhat formidable.  I got the impression that she had been substituting for a long time and had learned not to put up with any crap from students.  But she was perfectly nice to me.  She understood that I had my lesson plan for the day and she was willing to give me the space I needed to do what I needed to do.  If anything, it meant less for her to worry about, too.

I had come across an uncharacteristically serious essay by Dave Barry about his visiting the site of the battle of Gettysburg and the crash site of United Flight 93 (which is nearby).  My lesson plan was to read it to the students and then have a discussion.  I had all these discussion questions written out and everything.

Unfortunately, the students weren’t very engaged with the discussion.  The substitute saw this and asked if she could interject with a story–I don’t remember what it was supposed to have been about; she had visited one of the sites or something.

I didn’t know what to do.  On the one hand, what she had to say sounded interesting, and maybe this was one of those teachable moments that they talk about how you should just go with them.  On the other hand, I had this lesson plan that I was expected to get through before class was out, and I was only halfway through my discussion questions.

So I made what seemed at the time like a reasonable compromise.  I said, “Oh yes, I would be really interested in what you have to say, but I’m sort of in the middle of something now, so do you mind waiting until I get to the end of it?”  She smiled and said okay.

As it happened, we didn’t have time at the end of class for her to tell her story.  I was very disappointed because I was genuinely interested in what she had to say, and because I felt sort of bad about putting her off.  She didn’t seem to mind, though, and at the end of the day, we parted on good terms.

Well, when my cooperating teacher came back, one of the students in the class told him a version of what happened, but in this version I had been rude to the substitute when she had asked to share her story and had told her to shut up.  Which I hadn’t said at all.  I never told anyone in that classroom to shut up, not even the ones who deserved it.  But the substitute wasn’t there anymore to corroborate my story, and no one else in the class seemed bothered about it one way or the other.

Fortunately, the cooperating teacher knew his students and knew which ones to take with a grain of salt.  He listened to both sides of the story, and then said something noncommittal about how it’s interesting how two different people can remember the same incident in two entirely different ways.  That was basically the end of it as far as he was concerned, but for the rest of my time student teaching, this particular student never missed an opportunity to rehash the story about how I had been “rude” to the substitute.

When I was in graduate school, I had a two-year teaching assistantship.  The TAs were responsible for teaching almost all the sections of Composition 101, i.e. freshman writing.

It was an uncomfortable position in which to be.  In the first place, Comp 101 has got to be the least interesting course ever devised by the mind of man, for the teachers as well as the students.  No one earns an advanced degree in English with the thought of, “Oh goody, now I can teach Comp 101!”  Therefore, having a graduate program in English was a boon for the full professors because they got to slough off the responsibility of teaching Comp 101 onto us.

In the second place, the English Department was under a lot of pressure from the university at that time to raise the test scores for freshman writing.  When we were having workshops prior to the start of classes during the second year of my assistantship, the head of the department came in to give us a brief talk, and she was very distressed that USD was third in the state in freshman writing test scores.  Of the two schools that were ahead of USD on the list, one was my alma mater, and the other was in my hometown, so I greeted this news with more enthusiasm and less concern than she thought seemly. But I think that neither she nor the University were really seeing the forest for the trees on that issue.  Neither of the two schools that were ahead of USD on the list had a graduate program in English, which meant that they had full professors teaching Comp 101 instead of graduate students.  Some of the graduate students that USD had teaching 101 hadn’t even had prior teaching experience before becoming TAs–although I found out, to my chagrin, that prior teaching experience wasn’t necessarily an advantage in that regard.  But…it was simultaneously funny and frustrating to watch the head of the department figuratively pulling out her hair trying to figure out why USD only had the third highest writing test scores in the state when it (supposedly) had the best faculty, when it was so obvious to me that the answer was, “try having your so-called ‘best’ faculty teach 101 and then see what happens!”  The only other public university in the state with a graduate program in English was SDSU, so as long as we were beating them–which we were, hahaha–I’d say we were doing okay.

In the third place, the Director of Writing, who was in charge of the teaching assistantship program, was a new hire with lots of innovative ideas about how he was going to reinvent the writing department, and his main goal was to have all the Comp 101 classes work on a portfolio system instead of having each essay and writing assignment be graded individually.  This was supposed to be more efficient for some reason; I never really understood why.  All I know is that few of us had worked with portfolios before and didn’t really know how to do it, so he had to teach us in order that we could teach our students.  This also meant that he wrote the syllabus for us and insisted that we all adhere strictly to it.  And let me tell you, the only thing more boring than teaching Comp 101 is teaching it to somebody else’s syllabus.

There was one particularly harsh rule in the syllabus: because of the whole portfolio thing, any student who didn’t have all of the work that was due by midterm turned in at that time would automatically fail the class.  I thought that was unnecessarily cruel and arbitrary; what if there were extenuating circumstances?  Like a family emergency, or some other unforeseen, unavoidable event?  In retrospect, I should have spoken up; I should have at least asked what to do in an event like that, but I seem to remember that the syllabus said “NO EXCEPTIONS!!!” on that particular point, and in spite of the fact that it was the second year of my assistantship, I still felt quite green and inexperienced at teaching.  So I didn’t say anything and hoped it wouldn’t be an issue.

Big mistake.  If there’s one thing I learned during this whole experience, it’s that the things that you hope won’t become an issue almost certainly will.  Sure enough, I had a student who was going to be gone for a school-sponsored activity over midterm, and we did have a discussion about when she was going to get her stuff turned in, and I certainly thought that we had arranged for her to turn it in before she left, but apparently she had a completely different idea.  

When she came back after midterm, she tried to turn in the stuff that was still missing, and I tried to explain to her that I couldn’t take it.  She was very upset about it–understandably so, I might add.  I was upset about it, too.  If I had been teaching to my own syllabus, I of course would have factored in some wiggle-room for just such an emergency, but I was stuck teaching to somebody else’s syllabus, which clearly said “NO EXCEPTIONS!!!” with regard to this one particular rule.  I felt as though my hands were tied.  The student kept pleading with me, and I just had to keep reiterating, “I’m sorry but I can’t accept this; it’s clearly written in the syllabus.”

It’s so obvious to me NOW, of course, what I should have done (and it only took me twelve years to figure it out).  I should have had the student accompany me over to the office of the director of writing, where we would have explained the situation and had him make a judgment call.  That way, even if he had stood by what he, himself, had written in the syllabus, at least he would have been the bad guy instead of me.

As it turned out, the student had more sense than I did in that regard, because she marched herself right over the to writing director’s office in tears–understandably so–and told him that I had slammed her paper down on the table and shouted, “YOU FAIL!”

Needless to say, I never did any such thing.  But I had no way to prove it.  No one else was in the room where it happened.

I’m not sure now whether he believed her or not, but in any case, in spite of the rule that he HIMSELF put in the syllabus and forced the rest of us to follow, he did NOT fail her. His response to the whole thing was that he would put her in another 101 class to finish out the rest of the semester.  That way he got to play the good guy, the reasonable authority figure, while I got to play the shrewish, unreasonable harpy, even though it was his own unreasonably Machiavellian rules that I was trying to follow.

(By the way, I never heard how being switched into another class worked out for the student, but I hope it turned out okay.)

To be fair, I don’t know if he apologized to the student or made it clear to her that he had written the rule that caused all the trouble.  He certainly never apologized to me or acknowledged that he was in any way at fault.  His attitude seemed to be, “Oh, you’ve caused trouble for me, but I’ve cleared it all up now.  No harm, no foul.”  I didn’t appreciate being made to feel as though I had done something wrong when I was only following his stupid rules.

It was so disheartening.  The first year of my assistantship, it had seemed that he was on the same team as us, that he supported us, that we could trust him.  After this happened, I felt that he had turned on me, that he had “thrown me under the bus,” as the colloquialism goes.  I felt betrayed, and that I couldn’t count on him anymore to have my back, and that I was suddenly on my own:

It got to the point where I wondered if I ought to start making audio (and possibly video) recordings of all my interactions with students, just so I would have some objective proof with which to back myself up, since I couldn’t count on anyone else to do it.

And that’s the story of why I decided not to be a teacher anymore.

So right now, Steve is being characterized by Disney and the Hensons as some sort of diva, acting entitled to make outrageous demands on account of his (former) status as the performer of Kermit.  I, for one, take these claims with not so much a grain but a block of salt, like the kind that you can buy at Menards for your livestock (assuming that you have livestock).  I’ve been in situations where innocent things that I said were blown all out of proportion and used to sully my good name.  I suspect that that’s what’s happening in Steve’s situation right now, and I can’t help but empathize with him.

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