For years the smell of Cinnabar cologne by Estee Lauder caused a spike of cortisol in my bloodstream. It was the scent I wore during my six-week stint of student teaching, and it called to mind the terror of facing 30 pairs of eyes staring expectantly at me as I stood at the chalkboard in a high school classroom. I have heard student teaching referred to as a baptism by fire, and I wholeheartedly agree with that characterization.
Although I was supposed to be the teacher, I was facing a steep learning curve of my own. Armed with some educational techniques and a course on child psychology, I was expected to fill 50 minutes five times a day with meaningful English lessons. I soon learned that the best way to keep a class under control was to have more than enough activities to keep us busy right up to the ringing of the bell. I spent hours preparing lessons with what I hoped would be ways to engage the interest of a group of teenagers. Doing so, I realized that you never learn a subject so well as when you have to explain it to someone else – in my case, many someone elses.
It was unnerving to stand in front of each class day after day, sort of like performing on stage but with give and take from the audience. These kids noticed everything – a run in my stocking, a quaver in my voice, a nervous glance at my notes, and even whether I had worn that same dress just the other day. One student seemed to protest my very existence by turning sideways in his chair every day and looking out the window for the entire class period.
The stress did not lessen when I began my first teaching job at a suburban high school. On the first day, a student skeptically questioned, “How long have you been teaching?”
“Three years,” l lied through my teeth.
As I gained experience and confidence in the classroom, I realized that there was even more to learn from my students. During discussions about literature, I would find myself musing out loud, “I never thought about that,” when a student took a view of the work that was outside my own research and analysis. They were fascinated about the “old days” when the first man landed on the moon, and I was interested in their lingo, music, and popular culture.
The students in my classes kept journals, and I would spend time each week reading and commenting on what they had written. From these journals, I learned about the many emotions, pressures, and difficulties they were facing outside of school. Sometimes I wondered how some of them could pay attention to vocabulary or grammar lessons when they had so much on their minds.
I loved “my kids,” and that is how I thought of them. I baked them cookies. I attended their school events. I tried to help each one realize his or her potential as a writer, speaker and thinker. My father once told me he thought teaching was a noble profession, and I think he was proud of me for my commitment to it.
When my first class of freshmen graduated, I was so proud and also grateful to have been part of their lives. I have learned over the years that the positions of student and teacher go back and forth, that we get as much from young people as we give to them. I hope this realization has made me a better teacher and a better parent.