Lasting Impressions

One of the most frightening things about being a teacher (or a parent, too, I would imagine), is the realization that the words you say, the words you don’t say, the things you do, the things you miss because you weren’t paying attention, the jokes you make, the opportunities you misuse–all of it has the potential to change a person’s life. I mean, this is true of our interactions with everyone we meet, but it’s especially scary when we think about children and teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them. One word, one action could change them forever. It could change their course. Do you all feel the weight of that the way I do? Words are so, so powerful.

Now, I recognize that God is gracious, and he is in the business of saving us from our own selves constantly, and for that I am thankful. I also am pleased to have seen the evidence time and again of his turning evil for our good.

Looking back though, I really do wonder at the sanity of anyone who would have thrown my 22-year-old self into a classroom to teach 30 students spanning 3 grade levels, 6th, 7th, and 8th. I have no idea what they were thinking. Honestly. I have no idea what I was thinking agreeing to it.

But there I was, fresh out of college. I was the only one in the school with a teaching credential, but it was just a piece of paper. There were teachers there wiser and more knowledgeable than I’ll ever be; I’ll save my rants about the joke of credentialing for another time. But suffice it to say, it is a joke. The piece of paper did nothing to prepare me for what I was about to experience.

Thankfully, I was able to teach a few classes I was actually qualified to teach, so that was nice. But as is the case with still many private schools around the country, often teachers end up teaching so much they’re also unqualified to teach. Often teachers are learning right alongside the students. That was me for at least a few subjects, and I’ll gladly admit it. There’s a lot I did by necessity and not by choice.

Still, as I said, God is gracious. And honestly, I don’t know that I could have learned as much any other way than having simply been thrown into it. Having just gone through the circus that is the education program, I had a fairly contrarian approach to it all and favored what I thought were more traditional approaches. I was opposed to group projects and believed strongly in direct instruction models. I believed teachers were supposed to be masters and not simply facilitators, and I thought my main job was to inspire excellence. I was tough on that first and second year of kids. I didn’t give them study sheets, I expected college level essays, and I wasn’t really big on extra credit. I gave zeros for late work until somebody pitched a fit to the administration. And guess what? Some of the students met my expectations (which says a lot about what kids are actually capable of and at what ages). But looking back, I do wonder if the rigor crushed any of them. Did I make any of them hate learning?

We all have memories of words that people have said to us–words we’ve never forgotten. Some of them good and some of them bad. Am I one of those voices in any of their heads? I still wonder, especially about those early years, before I developed a more balanced philosophy of education.

I am blessed to still know many of my former students, and I’m thankful that I was just one voice in their education and not the sole one. Still, the sense of relief I feel when one of them comes back to me and assures me I didn’t screw them up, is really pretty fantastic.

One girl who was a 7th grader in my very first class went on to earn a full-ride scholarship to Carnegie Mellon and is now CEO of her own company. She’s also one of my roommates and one of the badassest chicks I know. But a year or two ago, she told me a story–a memory from junior high art class.

She said she was rushing a drawing project to be done before class was over, and I walked over and took it away from her. I can’t remember if I tore it up or threw it away, but whatever the case, I told her it was no good and that she had to start over.

As she was telling the story, I could feel my heart sinking, wondering the sort of lifelong damage I had inflicted. I started to apologize, but she stopped me. She said she remembers going home and working on the project for 3 days until she had a finished product she was proud of. And then she thanked me for making her try harder and for not accepting crappy work, because it made her realize what she was capable of.

Whew. There’s another one I didn’t psychologically damage. Thank you, Lord.

But I still felt awful about it, because there was a lack of graciousness in my approach. In our book club a few months ago, we read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which is about an authoritarian mother and her two daughters, and just last night I watched Whiplash, a story of a relentless and abusive instructor and his student; both of these examples, though they produced a level of success, took risks with human souls that should not have been taken. There’s a fine line between inspiring excellence and simply crushing a person beyond all hope. These sorts of stories remind me that we need to be careful with the lives that are put in front of us. I think too often, we are careless. I read and see things like this now, and I cringe. At what cost do we accomplish our goals? What cost is too high?

But as I’ve already said before, God is gracious and God is good. And he takes all of the events of our lives, especially the bad situations, and turns them into this thing called experience, and that experience often turns into wisdom, and that wisdom when practically applied makes the world better over time, especially as we talk about it and share it with others.

I’m not certain I’ve never emotionally damaged a person. In fact, I’m sure I have. I’m sure most of us have. It’s so easy to be selfish and unkind and sarcastic and whatever else we are. The challenging thing is to do and be the opposite of those things, and that starts with learning to control our eyes, and our ears, and our mouths. To listen and to speak graciously. To pay attention. Man, oh, man, we all still have a ways to go, don’t we?

Beka Johnson
Beka Johnson

Beka is the Director of Inbound Marketing for a fintech company in the Seattle area. She loves dabbling, reading, scheming, writing, and dreaming up ways to make good things better. When she’s not working, you can find her digging up all sorts of adventures in her new city.

Related Posts
Showing 2 comments
  • Doris Johnson

    Becky (Miss J), I get why you feel you were inadequate in the beginning. 22?! Whaaat. I did not know you were that young when you started teaching! I certainly could not have taught 6th-8th graders at that age.

    But honestly, you were one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. And I really mean that. You were the one who first taught me how to think deeply about things; how to get outside of my own little bubble and really look at the world. I could go on and on about all the things I learned from you during those three years…. but instead, I’ll just tell you– I am so thankful to have been your student. Thank you for not giving up on us and for bravely pursuing what God called you to do at that time.

    You really did change my life, in the best way possible.

    (^and that’s all you– that has nothing to do with the fact that I met my husband through you. ;) )

  • Mae Batista

    While you were worrying about educating us I was so thankful to have a teacher who knew about Fight Club and Death Cab for Cutie. ;) Jr. High was so hard for me, but it wasn’t because of how much you expected from us. It was hard because I was finally learning about theology, something my church at the time neglected to focus on. It was thought provoking and you made us answer tough questions and do our own research. I was rebellious, but loved the education I was getting. It made me excited for high school. I think you worked hard to help each of us grow in whatever ways we needed. It’s because of your teaching in jr. High I became inquisitive and realized that forming an educated opinion was vital. You did more good than I think you know. :)

Leave a Comment

Carnies and RobbersThe Other One Percent