The Rookie Year

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The consequences of not having the right stuff and being alone in a room with 35 kids in a holiday mood are so appalling that within the first week or two, most would-be teachers get the message that it's time to make a hasty exit.

I remember once reading a book about World War I in which the author notes that the greatest percentage of casualties occurred among new recruits within their first or second week out of training camp. In the trenches, you had to be a fast learner in the art of survival.

I know this may be a gruesome comparison, but something of the same is true of teaching. A new recruit, freshly minted out of ed school, has to learn very quickly if he or she has what it takes to handle classes of high-spirited kids and to organize and deliver lessons that hold their interest. Of course, teachers always are refining their skills as they go along, but the basics have to be there from the start.

The consequences of not having the right stuff and being alone in a room with 35 kids in a holiday mood are so appalling that within the first week or two, most would-be teachers get the message that it's time to make a hasty exit. Back in my day, that meant heading back to papa's hardware store and leaving the fate of Silas Marner—as I was a high school English teacher—to someone else.

The chairman of the department at my school loved to tell the following story. On the first day of a new term, he found a rookie teacher puffing away in the men's room. Asked why he wasn't with his class, the neophyte replied that the kids had been misbehaving, and he wasn't returning until they were ready for him. Needless to say, he was an early casualty.

An incident in one of Evelyn Waugh's novels vividly illustrates how desperate the situation in a classroom can get for an inept newcomer. The hero's first class degenerates so rapidly that he can get a semblance of order only by offering a gold sovereign to the student who writes the longest composition— regardless of merit. Considering the salary he's earning, it's no surprise that the fledgling teacher leaves the profession long before the last chapter.

Of course, everyone's baptism of fire is different, and rookies have to adjust in their own ways to survive. One of the first things I learned was that every school has its own culture and that, if you want to get along, you'd better go native as quickly as possible.

For example, I was guilty of a terrible gaffe during my first lunch period, way back in the '50s. After I finally found the teachers' cafeteria, I dropped into the first empty seat I saw—at a table near the door. Looking around, I noticed a female Calvin Coolidge impersonator sitting across from me, disapproval flashing from every furrow in her face. "This is the women's side," she hissed through tightened lips.

Having nurtured the fantasy that my lunch periods among the intelligentsia would be intellectual feasts—mini-salons with the resident Madame de Staël of the French department trading bons mots with the Oscar Wilde of the English department—I thought she was joking. Then again, there was something writ large in her face and tone indicating that she was as likely to joke as I was to run a four-minute mile.

One quick look around told me that, by gosh, she was right. I was on the women's side! The other half of the room looked like a stag line at a pedagogues' cotillion. So with my tuna fish sandwich in disarray, I fled to join the guys before I was stigmatized forever as an uppity, shameless male consorting in public with women. It was a close call.

But, of course, the biggest challenge for a new teacher is learning to live with the kids. Something I discovered, right from the opening bell, is that it often pays to have extremely dull senses—to be diplomatically blind and discreetly deaf—and to not pounce on every note that is passed or go ballistic after every whispered "This is boring," as though it's a frontal assault on Western civilization.

Within a day or two of that first year, I had a key to the men's room, a supply of yellow paper for surprise quizzes, a handle on all of the kids' names in my classes, and knowledge of the quickest way to get from one classroom to another. I also was growing increasingly deaf and blind, which is just the ticket for survival in the academic trenches, where if you make it through the first year, you've earned the right to tell combat stories to the next batch of raw recruits.

But then one day, about a month into my first term, as I delivered a class- stopping rendering of Marc Antony's famous speech, I saw that what I was doing was not in any way related to trenches and combat. It was more like show business. Those first weeks of trial, error, and confusion had been a kind of out-of-town shakedown for the real opening night. Today Julius Caesar, next term Macbeth, then Hamlet. I had signed on for an extended run. The kids hadn't seen anything yet.

Vol. 13, Issue 8, Pages 40-41

Published in Print: May 1, 2002, as The Rookie Year
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