BY: Robbie Iobst
Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.
~Phyllis Theroux, Night Lights
My teaching career lasted nineteen glorious years -- actually eighteen glorious years and one year of stupid mistakes. It all started with me sitting in the principal's office, desperate for a job.
"You teach English, Robbie?" He was a short, stocky man with kind eyes, but was obviously tired.
"English is what I want to teach. I have an education degree with minors in English and speech."
He made little noises, as if he were trying to keep himself awake as he read my application and résumé. My eyes skimmed his office looking for a distraction to the war zone of nerves inside my brain.
"Is that Family Feud?"
A framed picture of five men lined up at the game show hung on his wall.
"Yes, my brothers and I were on the show."
"Did you win?"
"No, but we had a great time."
My nerves retreated behind friendly lines, and I began talking about TV. Soon we were laughing like old friends.
"You know what, Robbie? We're also looking for a drama teacher. I see that one of your minors was in speech. Drama and speech are really similar, right? Would you be interested in teaching drama as well as English?"
I'd never taken a drama class in my life, but I smelled employment.
I had three classes that year. First, an English class made up of twenty-seven juniors and seniors, mostly boys, who'd failed English at least once. And after lunch I taught a beginning drama class and then advanced drama.
I entered my first English class determined to be Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love. I was going to take my downtrodden ghetto rebels and turn them into citizens with hearts and dreams.
Contrary to the plan, my students were suburban and affluent. Most of them owned either a Porsche or a BMW. But still I had a mission. First battle: to win them over. Easy. I would use one of my greatest assets. I would smile and inspire them.
I walked into Room 219 and smiled widely. With a West Texan accent, my sweet-as-pecan-pie self drawled, "Hi, ya'll. My name is Miss Floyd and we're going to have so much fun."
Swift, knowing glances were exchanged between classmates and my fate was sealed within the first ten minutes.
That year in Room 219 was bumpy. I didn't know how to discipline. They didn't know how to behave. Occasionally, one of the worst of the lot, David, would somehow get into the classroom and set our clock ahead ten minutes. I lived and died by that clock, so when it said time for class to end, I trusted it. More than once, I let the class out to roam the grounds before lunch.
In my attempt to build a curriculum for these students who had failed English in the past, I decided to teach a unit on living life in the real world. This had absolutely nothing to do with English, but I was changing their lives, not just making sure they knew grammar. In that unit, I decided that I would teach salad making. When Poitier did this in To Sir, with Love it was a great success. But my galloping gourmet lecture in 219 didn't go so well. The students thought I was joking. Make a salad? You want to teach us California rich kids how to make a salad? My lesson only lasted fifteen minutes.
"Um, okay everybody. Study hall."
This was my answer to any class that went short. It was also my answer to any class for which I wasn't prepared.
One day, I'd planned to start reading a book. But when I arrived on campus, I found that copies of the book hadn't arrived yet.
I guess I might have earned a couple of extra points if I'd actually made sure they studied. But they weren't the studying kind. In fact, not studying had landed them in my class to begin with, so I let them sit around and talk.
We were having study hall when a woman I'll call Mrs. Pritchett, the curriculum development director, walked in and sat down.
"Can I help you, Mrs. Pritchett?"
"Do you have lesson plans?" Her request came through her nose. Her lips barely moved.
"Sure." I found them for her. "But the books didn't come in."
"So what are you doing?" I wondered if it hurt when she spoke. "I'll observe from here."
I was placed on scholastic probation after that. The good news was that they assigned a mentor to me who actually gave me ideas for curriculum. The bad news was that I'd already established myself as a too-lenient teacher who really didn't know a lot about teaching.
Drama was difficult, but got better with time. I bought a book on how to teach it, which I kept with me always. I faked it when I could and asked for help when I really needed it. I'm happy to say our first play was a big hit. After I had one under my belt, I fell into a rhythm of joy and work and relief. We would stay after class for rehearsals, and we naturally became quite close.
They called me Mom (even though I was only twenty-six), and we laughed about everything.
Unfortunately, my inexperience got the better of me again. The rules about student/teacher relationships had been laid out to me clearly. But I began spending a lot of time with the kids outside of school and even went to a movie -- which was strictly forbidden -- with two senior boys from my advanced drama class.
I ended up on probation for the second time that year. Even so, my principal offered me the drama position again for the following year, but only if I'd also teach music.
I declined and left the school. Later, I'd see him almost yearly at countywide school functions. "Hey Debbie," he'd always say. "How you doing?"
I never corrected him. It comforted me to think that that awful first-year teacher was named Debbie and not Robbie.
Fourteen years after my first year as a teacher, sweet poetic justice with a splash of irony visited me. During teacher orientation, one of the rookie teachers came up to me. He was tall and in his early thirties.
"Hello. I don't know if you remember me, but my name is David. I think I owe you an apology."
At first, I didn't recognize him, but as he explained, a bell went off.
David had been one of my English students that first year. Indeed, he was the ringleader behind the clock re-setting.
"David, it's okay. I made so many mistakes that year. I learned the hard way. So you're a teacher? How long?"
"This is my first year."
It was a wonderful moment and I laughed out loud.
"Oh David, God is going to get you back big time."