I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a teacher. I was never the kid who forced friends and siblings to sit in front of garage sale chalkboards and endure spelling lessons. In fact, I was much more likely to be found rollerblading around the kitchen island (in preparation for my future career as a derby girl) or singing Broadway hits alone in my bedroom (Joseph and Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was the show that taught me the happiest place on Earth is inside of a musical).
It’s funny because, even though I didn’t always know which direction I was headed in professionally, my mom did. Even as I was taking regular kitchen countertop corners to the hip bone and penning my own showtunes, she’ll tell you that she knew one day I’d be a teacher.
“It’s a mom thing,” she always says.
In all honesty, I didn’t even know I wanted to be a teacher as I was actively becoming one. Like a lot of people, I saw teaching as a career that was relatively easy to get into and similarly easy to learn how to do well. I figured that spending the requisite 13 years as a student in a school system meant that I understood the basics and could figure out the rest along the way. I mean, of course I could try my hand at it if I needed to. How hard could teaching be?
So, when at 25, I came across an ad for a position as an elementary school Spanish teacher, I applied. I thought teaching would be a decent way to spend my time as I figured out how to either, a) get into Broadway (without being able to sing, that is), or b) found a veteran derby girl to take me under her wing. I was fluent in Spanish, good with kids, and had like 17 years as a student under my belt.
Really, how hard could teaching be?
I got the job and went to Home Depot a week before my first day searching for a cheap carpet scrap. The school’s administrative assistant, who had given me a tour the day before, said that my classroom would be more inviting to students if I covered some of the cold hard linoleum with a rug scrap. It would be especially more comfortable for the kids during circle time, she added.
I picked out a piece of grey acrylic carpet, waited for it to be cut to size, and hauled it off to my classroom. I then spent the next two hours measuring out long strips of two-sided carpet tape and bonding the rug to the floor. When I finished, I sat on my new carpet and looked up at the SMART Board with my hands in my lap.
I took a deep, cleansing breath. Yes. I was ready.
(I was not ready.)
During the first week, instead of teaching my students numbers and colors in Spanish as I had planned, my students taught me just how cunning an eight-year-old can be. Their trickery made me squint. So much cunning in such small bodies. I had not anticipated this.
My carefully chosen and positioned carpet was the source of even more surprises. Instead of students calmly sitting on it with their hands in their laps waiting to receive the lesson of the day, they had transformed it into an instrument for surfing across the classroom floor. Without my knowing, they had picked at the carpet tape little by little during circle time. By the second week of class, they had succeeded in separating enough tape that the carpet was no longer stuck to the floor.
Students would then come into class and, feigning enthusiasm for circle time, run full-speed to sit on the carpet and ride it as far as they could across the classroom. I’d drop all the papers I was clutching for the upcoming lesson (that surely wasn’t ready) in horror. I’d then remove the offending children from the rug and work to quickly reposition it and collect my papers before being overtaken by the crowd of fidgety third graders behind me waiting to get into the classroom.
By day six, the weight of my lack of preparedness for the year ahead sank all the way in. The kids I taught were quick-witted, intensely wiggly, and there for a good time. Their name-switching, paper-tossing, white-board-remote-hiding antics left me feeling insecure and exhausted. I remember being in bed and out cold by 7pm almost every night of that first year.
But one day toward the end of week two, I came ready. I stayed up late the night before to create a lesson about travel, and made sure to take advantage of the SMART Board by creating little icons that students would have to come up and move around.
They were going to love it.
I anticipated that each trip up to the board would take 45 seconds and created enough slides to be confident that the lesson would last at least 40 minutes.
Once the lesson was underway, everything was going great. In fact, I was having the best ten minutes teaching that I had ever had. All the kids wanted to come up to the front and move the little planes and trains on the SMART Board. They were trying to use Spanish more and more. They were having fun and learning. I was doing it! I was being a good teacher. The only thing was, the students’ enthusiasm had them moving quickly.
It was only taking each kid about twenty seconds to get up, move their little icon, and sit back down.
I did the math in my head to figure out how long the lesson would last at the rate they were moving. I realized that it wouldn’t be nearly long enough and that I had no plan B. Teacher survival instincts that I didn’t realize I had began to kick in. I tried to slow each student down by asking an unnecessary amount of questions before they could sit back down, but they were on to me. They mumbled answers to my irrelevant questions as they continued their way back to the rug. There was no break in the action between each student finishing their turn and another round of hands shooting up in hopes of be chosen for the next question.
A student came up and answered the final question. I plastered a close-lipped smile to my face and held it as I glanced at the clock.
THERE WERE TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTES LEFT OF CLASS.
We all sat unmoving for a second as everyone realized what was happening. What seemed like in unison, the entire class made eye contact with me, cocked their little heads to the right and raised one eyebrow.
I heard the western showdown music begin.
A bead of sweat rolled down my brow and I tried not to draw attention to the fact that I was using the sides of my pants to wipe the moisture from my palms.
“Okay, everyone, what we’ll do now is…”
“IS THAT IT!?”
“WHAT ARE WE DOING FOR THE REST OF THE TIME?”
“CAN WE WATCH YOUTUBE?”
One student got up and began to stretch. Another followed suit.
It only took about fifty seconds for full chaos to be underway. Time slowed and my body became rigid from the neck down. My head snapped from side to side as I tried to take in what was unfolding in front of me. I scolded students with a detached voice I didn’t recognize that lacked the volume needed for this quickly deteriorating situation.
I thought of the day that I filled out the application at my kitchen table.
“How hard could teaching be?” the voice in my head mocked.
The scene that unfolded around me came back into clear focus. Students had moved to different corners of the room and took turns running and jumping onto the rug with their knees bent and their arms stretched wide to either side.
I was going to need more tape.