Mr. Wood's Race
My race began…
in the fall of 1977 on a cool, overcast day in the San Francisco Bay Area. I sat in my battered 1970 blue Volkswagen bug in the parking lot of a junior high school, listening to the Steve Miller Band on my cassette player and re-thinking my career choice. My four years at Berkeley had prepared me for many things but not necessarily being a substitute teacher for three dozen seventh graders. Still, I needed the money—the $38.50 from this gig would fill up my gas tank four times—so I grabbed the boxy briefcase I had borrowed from my dad, an accessory that I hoped would make me look older and more distinguished, and walked to the office. Little did I know that the race I began that day would be a marathon: a 38-year career in teaching.
I strutted to the office in all my polyester glory, nervous about my assignment, but confident I could both manage my class and impress the principal, who would, after seeing me in action, undoubtedly offer me a full-time teaching contract at a whopping $11,500 a year.
When students began trickling into the room I tried to look stern and authoritarian, and after the final bell rang I stood behind the teacher’s desk and commanded them to sit in their correct seats, rattling my briefcase for emphasis.
They were silent. The class was mine… at least temporarily.
It was during those first few moments of class, literally the first five minutes of my teaching career, that I learned one of my most important lessons as an educator, one that guided me for nearly forty years. The lesson? You can’t be too prepared.
I had thoroughly reviewed the lesson plans left by the regular teacher and was absolutely ready to conduct the class, but, in my hubris, I neglected to pre-read the class roster, the list of students’ names. On that roster was the name of a Hispanic girl, Letitia. I began to take roll by reading the class list and easily and correctly called out the names of students... until Letitia. I should have said La-teesha, but instead, sounding out the name phonetically, I called out “La-tittie-a.”
I was mortified, she was distraught, and the boys in the class were in hysterics. The class and my career seemed to be over, but both were really just beginning.
I retired last year, having spent the majority of my 38-year career teaching at a high school in a small city in California’s Central Valley. My final year was perfect: great classes, gifts and honors from the school and students, an award for teaching, and a killer pirate-themed retirement party. It was the capstone of a tremendously fulfilling career.
That last year, as I’ve come to realize, was also a great milestone in my life. It marked the end of an era, the completion of my life’s work. The disaster of Letitia was bookended by a rewarding farewell tour and I have spent the past twelve months quietly reflecting on the lessons I learned from a lifetime in education.
Growth comes through reflection rather than experience.
My dad told me the story of a disagreement he once had with the service manager of an auto dealership. When the manager insisted he was right because he had “twenty five years experience in the business,” Dad’s response was “You have one year of experience twenty-five times.” In my professional life, the best colleagues weren’t those with the longest tenure, but the ones who would reflect on their practices, admit their mistakes, make adjustments, and strive for improvement. That’s what everyone should want from a teacher or a friend or a family member.
People do change.
Adolescents oftentimes seem to be mutations of the species—moody, insecure, irrational—but over time they do grow up. This fact is lost on some of my colleagues who still see a 25 year-old former student as that petulant, self-absorbed girl who sat in the back of the classroom a decade ago, yawning loudly and inspecting her split ends. People change; they adapt to their surroundings and circumstances. No one can stay the same and thrive.
Give people the benefit of the doubt.
When I was a young teacher, I was strident in dealing with students who were disrespectful, or who slept in class, or who didn’t do their homework. Over time I began to realize how little I knew about the lives of most students. Were some of these ‘bad kids’ homeless or abused? Did they have to work to support their families or care for their younger siblings? As I matured, I began to teach the student, not the subject. Even today, when dealing with people who are belligerent or sullen or moody, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Keep things in perspective.
Not all of my lessons were successful nor could I help every kid who walked through my door. I failed many times. A fellow teacher—and good friend—suggested I look at my classroom from a different perspective. A baseball player who is successful one out of three times is a great hitter, but a surgeon who performs at the same rate is a miserable failure. My friend made me see that my success rate could never be 100%, but level of effort could always be 100%. Not every lesson would be a home run, not every student would be reached, but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t try. If you do your best, your best is good enough.
Relationships mean everything.
Several years ago, one of my brightest students suddenly began appearing in my classroom every morning before school. She usually worked on homework, but we would oftentimes discuss her other classes or her exploits on the softball diamond. She sought me out years later and explained to me that her father had abandoned the family that year and she considered my classroom a refuge and our conversations a welcome distraction from the chaos at home. I had no idea, but from that time forward, I vowed to build relationships with my students and to create a safe haven for them in my classroom. Even today, I am careful to nurture the most cherished relationships in my life with God, my wife, and our family.
Keep your sense of humor.
I have found that nothing can defuse a tense situation or break the ice or put things in perspective better than levity. I always tried to explain to my students that anything humorous is also tragic; something funny always involves the misfortune or failure of another. And since we all fail, we need to find humor in our mistakes and foibles. I’m convinced the ability to laugh at yourself, even under the most trying circumstances, is the key to a long and happy life.
Reaching a major milestone in life should have been a joyous occasion, but for me it was bittersweet, and, at first, my adjustment to ‘civilian’ life was difficult. Accustomed to the bustle of school, the regimentation of time, and the constant interaction with hundreds of students and dozens of adults, I found the sudden quietude and freedom both unnerving and restricting. Simply put, I was lost for several months, questioning my decision and my value as a person. Then I realized my goal was never to reach this ultimate destination, but to do my best and enjoy the journey along the way. And that I did.