The Fall Saga: Part 1

With the summer behind me, I was determined to focus on the positive and excited to move forward. That is not to say that I wasn’t having a positive experience, either. The workload was hard and there were certain frustrations, but I expected a certain amount of adversity. Over the summer, we’d mostly focused on social justice issues related to the classroom. We’d also dipped our toes into theories of learning, but it hadn’t been a focused and purposeful kind of learning. Instead, we’d spent a lot of time talking about how we, as the most gifted and passionate teachers-to-be in the history of pedagogy, would somehow change the world for students in a way that other teacher, bad apples to the core, had never done. We had not, I felt, troubled the waters of real teaching.

But now I had an exciting placement in the field. I was getting to know my CT (cooperating teacher). She seemed welcoming and very laid back. When I met her for coffee the first time, she texted through most of the meeting while apologizing for texting and complaining about how her menopause was giving her hot flashes. She had a wonderful classroom, too. After 20+ years of teaching, she’d acquired a small library right in the classroom. She worked with 6th grade reading workshop, which was a core class similar to English language arts, but with more choice reading. I spent a week in August touring the school, helping her set up the room, going to staff meetings, and the open-house night for new 6th grade students and their parents.

I felt really on top of the work. It felt I was more connected to my placement than other members of my cohort were to theirs. The students didn’t start until September 8, so I had about two weeks of getting to know the school and to start planning lessons with my CT. As time went on, my CT seemed impressed with my work ethic and my desire to take on as much as possible.

Some students in my cohort weren’t so lucky, and didn’t get placements until October. Two other members of my cohort were placed right down the hall from me, but I rarely saw them. Sometimes I would talk to them about the field placement but it seemed like it was a different world for them.  They took a lot of sick days, or left early for appointments, or just had days where they didn’t have to come in because there wasn’t much for them to do. I don’t mean to disparage them or be petty. God knows they still had a lot on their plates. But I’m one of those guys who rarely gets noticed. I work hard. I try to be as friendly as I can and to care about people around me, but I am not flashy. I thought maybe, just maybe, I’d found a calling that I was good at, and that people would respect me for.

And then it went to Hell. There was a mandatory workshop on co-teaching for all teacher candidates. Our CTs were invited although, unlike me, they were paid $75 and it was optional. Classes at my placement didn’t get out until 4:15, but the workshop started at 4:30. I raced up back to campus, arriving late at around 4:45. But my CT didn’t show up until after 5:30. When I asked her if she’d gotten stuck in traffic, she said that she’d stopped at the PSU bookstore to shop. I was a little miffed, feeling this wasn’t the most professional move. But I also understood; we’d both arrived at school at 8:15 that morning and this was a chance for an underpaid, overworked teacher to make an easy $75. She seemed very disengaged throughout the entire exercise, and made no bones about it as she kept asking me, “when does this thing get over?” and then rolling her eyes and sighing when I told her I thought it ended at 7:00 p.m.

The workshop instructors had each table group do one of those very “teachery” exercises; each group reads a different section of long text and then draws an image to show the rest of the class as they explain the concept. After making our picture on a sheet of butcher paper, my table group all refused—like children—to go in front of the class.  My CT looked embarrassed, as if getting up in front of a class was a new and challenging experience for her.  I did it alone.  Again, I was mad. But as a teacher candidate, I have very little power, so I just brushed it off.

As the meeting ended, my CT seemed relieved that the very long day was coming to a close. We joked around a little bit, both clearly tired and annoyed at the silly workshop that helped very little and wasted our precious time. Then she teased me about something and said I was doing a good job. We seemed to be having a really good moment outside of the workplace, and we were both tired from a long day and mutually commiserating. I took a calculated risk and dropped my professional demeanor for just a moment, teasing her back and telling her she was a “ball buster.”

“What do you mean by that?” she asked. I explained that after my very first time teaching a lesson, she’d turned to me and asked ominously, “how do you think you did?” rather than just building my confidence with compliments.  Then I assured her I really appreciated the feedback and the high expectations. She laughed, and told she would continue to have high expectations. Then she touched my shoulder, smiled, and told me she’d see me Monday.

Over the weekend, I got a call from my cohort leader asking me to tell her what happened at the co-teaching workshop. I was confused and thought she’d called the wrong person. She explained that my CT had complained to another teacher, who had passed the message along to my cohort leader (who was her personal friend). Apparently, my CT had been offended by my “ball buster” comment. I’d completely forgotten about it. On Monday I went back in and met both my CT and my cohort leader to have a conversation about my actions. I apologized. Once I’d clarified what I’d meant (again) she asked, “can you think of a better way to say that for next time? Because when you said, ‘ball buster,’ that has a real sexual component, and that’s not something I think you should say to your boss… Because I am like your boss.”

What the hell? I clearly misread the state of our relationship, but it seemed like an honest and understandable mistake that I wasn’t likely to repeat.

Blood rushed to my face. “Look,” I said, my voice starting to shake, “I’m a casual guy. And maybe that term is just part of my vocabulary and part of where I’m from. But if I offended you, I apologize. At the time, I was just teasing, and I really did mean it to be complimentary. In retrospect, what I said was wrong, so if I made you uncomfortable, I’m very sorry.

Then she hit me again, saying, “Well, I was kind of surprised because I was expecting a text over the weekend from you to apologize. But I never got any message. That made me feel uncomfortable.”

I apologized again and said that I simply hadn’t known I’d offended her.

“Well, ok, then. I accept your apology.”

After that, the field placement became increasingly uncomfortable. I felt humiliated, not only by what had happened, but by the fact that my CT had gone to another teacher and my cohort leader. I later found out that she’d also spoken with the principal about it, too. Complicating the matter further, I had an evaluation from my university supervisor later that day, who was also notified about the issue.  I already felt very off-balance from that morning. I was nervous, and my observation did not go very well.

I kept thinking with the passage of time things would improve, but it seemed at every turn I found only shut doors. One day the traffic was bad. When I arrived, I bumped into one of the other teacher candidates walking into the building at the same time. We chatted as I walked to the staff room to put my lunch in the refrigerator. I walked straight back to the classroom.

“I was expecting a text from you,” my CT said, without preamble.

“Why?”

“Well, you are usually… right on time.”

I looked at the clock. I was 6 minutes late. And this was still an hour and 15 minutes before the first class started. It wasn’t like she didn’t know I always walked to the staffroom first, either.

A couple of weeks later, traffic was bad again. Keep in mind, my morning commute was about 45 minutes. I made sure to send a text that I would be “maybe 5 minutes late.”   No response. As it turned out, the traffic cleared and I arrived 10 minutes early. My CT said nothing, but still treated me with cold disdain as if I had been tardy yet again. As time went on, it became more and more awkward to be in the same room together.

My CT also seemed to be in the classroom less and less. I would arrive to find myself working with a sub, but she wouldn’t give me notice or tell me why she wasn’t there. It became hard to compete my field-based assignments, too. I had to collect permission slips from one of the classes, so that I could video the class and analyze the teaching. Since I was only in the school two days a week, she said she would hand them out while I was away. She didn’t. They sat on my desk for over a week. She never found the time to squeeze it into a lesson, even when I was there. When they were finally handed out, she wouldn’t make the effort to collect them, remind the students, or have the students write down in their planner.

One day I had to shadow a student for the day as part of an assignment. I spent the entire day following him from a dull 6th grade remedial math class, to a tech course, to another math course, to a dismal science course. His last class was back in my CT’s classroom. She was out for the day again. The day had been incredibly boring and I’d had a lot of weird looks as I escorted the student to lunch and recess. I also didn’t know what was going on in my classroom, since I’d been out all day. With lots to do on my own and no chance to actually talk-shop with my CT, I decided to leave early. I checked with the sub, made sure the class started their silent reading, and then left about 30 minutes before the end of the day. I texted my CT to let her know I was leaving early. No response. Late that night, I finally got a text back saying she “didn’t agree with my decision” and that it didn’t matter if I was tired; I still had to be there for the entire day.

I texted back to apologize, tell her I valued her guidance, and that I hadn’t thought it would be a big deal. Then I asked if we should talk about. She didn’t want to, so I dropped it. The next week, I walked into the classroom to find another sub. I was annoyed that my CT never communicated with me and she chose to send her lesson plans to another teacher instead of having me handle it. It took 45 minutes for the sub and I to find the lesson plans, since we didn’t know they’d been sent to another teacher.  Once we had the plans, though, I had a pretty good day without her in the classroom. I got to run the class and the sub was helpful and friendly. He knew my cohort advisor, and he left really positive feedback about me with both her and my CT.

The next day, outdoor school started. The two other teacher candidates in the building and I had talked about going to outdoor school, but then we realized we’d also be missing 18 hours of class, and it just wasn’t do-able for the entire week. We decided to go up for the first day only. I’d tried to communicate with my CT about it, but I with her missing from the classroom and me doing observations or shadowing students, I hadn’t seen her in two weeks.

When I had found a moment to talk with her about it, she pushed it aside, telling me to arrange it with one of the other cooperating teachers, who was in charge of organizing it. She didn’t seem interested in discussing it, but I told her I would just go for the day, and that I’d drive myself up.  I spoke with the front office and the other CT to let the school know I’d be there.

I drove up to the camp, which was about an hour drive for me. When I arrived I got a text message from my CT asking “Are you coming to outdoor school?  We’re about to leave.”  I texted her back saying that I’d driven myself up, and that I’d talked with the other CT about it (as she’d asked).  I knew my CT was in charge of driving up behind the school buses with the medicine, so it didn’t surprise me that she hadn’t left yet. But then I waited in the parking lot in the woods above the campsite– like a child predator– for well over an hour; no busses, students, or teachers showed up.  I texted my CT asking if they were almost there. No response.

At last, the busses turned up.   As it turned out, the busses had been running late, completely unrelated to me, but without even a quick message from anyone at the school, I’d felt increasingly anxious that I was in the wrong spot or that I’d caused the delay.  One of the teachers got off, saw me, and immediately said, “Oh hey! We didn’t know if we were going to see you.” The smile slid of my face.  What was that supposed to mean?

“What can I do to help?” I asked.

“Oh, there’s not much to do. The camp staff kind of takes over from here,” the teacher said. And he was right. Teenagers working at the camp took the students to their cabins.  Two other teachers and I went to a meeting to run over some logistics with the camp supervisor, but I had no actual role in the meeting. I simply sat on the couch. My CT arrived about hour after the busses had. I helped her and the other teachers carry in their sleeping bags and backpacks. That was the end of my duties. I spent the rest of the day awkwardly wondering around looking for something to do and shooting hoops alone with a flat basketball on the camp court. Eventually, my CT let me go at around 3:00 p.m., telling me she’d see me next week.

And the next week was where the long, uncomfortable field placement finally came to an end.

The tension had become thick in the room, especially over the past few weeks, but I decided I would turn it around. Outdoor school was over. It had been two weeks since I’d “cut class.” I’d done a few day of observation of other teachers and shadowing students, which taken me out of the classroom. Now, it was time to get down to get back on track and just work through the discomfort until we’d both settled down. I plastered a smile on my face and warmly said “good morning!” as I walked into the classroom.

“Hi” she said coldly before turning away and ignoring me.

“What are we doing for the day?” I persisted.

“ Well, silent reading to start, as always.”

I started to falter. Wondering what I could have possibly done wrong this time, I started unpacking my computer case and waiting to follow her lead.

“Let’s sit down and plan for the day,” she finally said. I wasn’t fooled. When I’d first started the placement, during the honeymoon period, we had done this, but ever since the “ball buster” comment, the planning had stopped. I took a seat, waiting to see what was coming.

photo credit: Nicholas Erwin via Flicr

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