I made my teacher's life miserable, but now I'm walking in her shoes

I’ve been teaching for more than 25 years, and over the years I’ve had the chance to reflect on the kind of student I was. Not in the academic sense, but in the personal sense. What was it like for my teachers having me in class?

Mrs. Burke is a teacher I think about quite a bit. I know I made her life miserable because my brother stayed in touch with her for awhile and she told him that I did.

My first time in one of her classes was U.S. History. I took it in the summer, thinking I’d try to stack up courses and graduate early. Little did I know what summer school was like. Hours upon hours of b-o-r-i-n-g. Truth be told, my classmates were the worst part of the class. Mrs. Burke was only an adult standing in front of the room.

When we were studying the Labor Movement, I decided to stir up trouble and proposed to Mrs. Burke that I’d start a student union in our classroom. She practically dared me to try. So, I did. I rounded up a handful of pathetic classmates, we detailed our grievances and went to the Principal to plead our case.

I don’t remember what any of the grievances were, but to make the whole union thing work, Mrs. Burke was definitely “management,” and, hence, our enemy. As I recall, the Principal was amenable, played mediator and resolved our differences. And, of course, everyone else in class got the same resolution. A handful of us did the work, and the whole group profited. Boy, did I learn about unions.

And, then, there was Psychology, which I took with my brother and several friends. We were smug, smart aleck, and sharp as tacks. Mrs. Burke, yet again, was the adult in the front of the room.

Our chairs were arranged in an L. Those of us on the short leg had the side view of Mrs. Burke unless she walked over and stood in front of us. She frequently did that, in fact, which limited our snarking.

When we studied behavior modification, I decided, yet again, to put theory to practice and convince all of my classmates sitting in the short leg section to test the theory. When Mrs. Burke came near us, we would look away, disengage, daydream, look as bored as possible. When Mrs. Burke moved to the long leg section, we’d perk up, take notes, ask questions.

The goal: see if we could get her to stay over in the long section. We succeeded, too. Except there was that awkward moment when she looked over at us and said, “Oh, I see what you’re doing.”

I’m not sure what it was about Mrs. Burke that provoked me to such behavior. I didn’t do these sorts of things in any other class. I used to think it was because I took a special dislike to her. I thought of her as arrogant and disdainful. She had a withering look that she’d turn on us. She did not find me funny.

When I think about her all these years later, from my perspective as a teacher, I have to wonder how much she really was the provocateur. I wonder if she saw a spark in me and egged me on in her own way.

One job of teaching, at least from where I sit, is to create some discomfort in students, to challenge them. I wonder sometimes if she intentionally provoked me. Maybe her arrogance and disdain were ways of drawing out my own and saying, “Show me what you’ve got.”

I certainly caused discomfort for her and provoked her. I don’t remember that she ever really was provoked though. She was pretty game. I can’t imagine many high school teachers would tolerate a student creating a union in their class. I suspect she saw the powerful value of a real learning experience.

I didn’t stay in touch with Mrs. Burke, and I regret that. I would like to have had the chance to tell her that I’ve walked in her shoes. I walk in them differently, but I have empathy for her now that I didn’t have then.

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Every month ChicagoNow bloggers participate in “Blogapalooz-Hour,” We are given a prompt at precisely 9 p.m. and conceive, write and the publish the post exactly one hour later.

Tonight’s topic: “Write about a friend or acquaintance from your childhood with whom you’ve lost touch.” You can see all the posts from tonight here.

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