Deena’s story as told to Caroline Siler
Growing up I never realized just how human a teacher is in their lives and in the lives of their students.
The first time I realized the humanity of one of my own teachers, was in seventh grade. It was a real shock. I went to see my brother who worked at the local grocery store and saw one of my teachers. In her hands . . . toilet paper! I was mortified! I looked away as fast as I could. I was so embarrassed.
When I got home, exasperated, I told my mom what I saw. She shook her head and said, “Deena, you need to mellow out. You needed to see that, didn’t you?”
She was right, I did need to see that. I grew up in a small town and was raised by two parents who taught me to give teachers the utmost respect. I was taught to never question them and expected to only say, “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” in their presence. I never thought about the fact that they too were as human as I was. I never thought that I could relate to my teachers. From that point on I realized that it was silly for me to have put my teachers up on such an unrealistic pedestal.
Funny enough the teacher I had seen at the store became my favorite teacher, and as I worked through college and became a teacher myself, I modeled my teaching off of her. In class she always wrote us little notes in the margins of our papers. We started a dialogue in my papers and with time we were able to see more of our similarities than differences. It was nice to see how we related in life and to learn we had been through some of the same things in high school and life in general. I kept every paper I ever wrote for her class. Her gesture always stuck with me. I find myself now writing in the margins of my own students papers, so they can have those personal moments with me too. Little did I know that this lesson of vulnerability from my favorite teacher would be applied in a much different way in the future for one of my biology classes.
When I first became a teacher I wanted to be and seem as professional as possible. As time went on I had mastered the content and became more comfortable, which was exciting, but wanted to find a way to have better individual relationships with my students. One day I was playing an episode of “Forensic Files,” at this time we were still using VCRs, so I started the tape and began giving instructions while the introduction played in the background just as I had done so many times before. But this time was different. As I was speaking my students were completely riveted by the TV. I looked around the room and there were students who began to laugh; others, their faces were horrified or in total shock. Confused, I looked behind me and saw that what was playing on the TV was not “Forensic Files,” but a video of me singing a song years ago.
In the video I was wearing a ball cap backwards with my glasses on and no makeup on as the camera was close up on my face. None of my students had ever seen me look so silly in my life. Mortified I shut the TV off as fast as I could while my students lost it. I ducked behind my lab desk not knowing how to recover from such an embarrassing moment and after a few minutes I stood up with my face bright red, not yet sure how to face my class. A boy then got out of his chair and hugged me and said, “I so needed that today; I was having the worst day of my life, and now it is turning out to be the best day.” That moment was my connector for that year and that class. Before that moment I was known as the “intimidating teacher,” because I always asked questions to try to figure out how much a student really knew, and for a lot of students that is scary, because no one likes to be wrong or give the wrong answer.
For the rest of the year that class knew if they gave the wrong answer it was okay because they had seen that I could embarrass myself and recover from it, so they could to. They were happy to know that they would not be judged. The story soon became a piece of folklore in the school that new student’s year after year heard about. The vulnerability from my embarrassing moment paid itself forward a million times and I’m thankful for that. I have realized that sometimes I am the only person who has told a kid all day to have a good day or that I may be the only person giving a student positive attention.
Kids just want to feel safe and if for ninety minutes a day my students feel that no one is going to make fun of them or point out their weaknesses while they are learning, I’ve done my job.
Deena: I am a science teacher with 27 years of experience and a passion for the complex process of helping kids recognize their potential. Celebrating my colleague through this process has been a blessing.
Caroline Siler is a volunteer coordinator with The Facing Project. She recently received her BA in creative writing from Ball State.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.