Finding a Professional Identity as a Teacher

When I was 11 years old, my favorite teacher was Mr. Coolio (not his real name). He was a young first year teacher, who smiled easily and didn’t shy away from throwing out a curse word or two to make a point. He’d crack sharp-witted zingers at students when they wouldn’t pay attention, which I thought were hilarious, even when I caught a few on the chin myself. Most importantly, love him or hate him, it felt like he wasn’t trying to be anyone but himself in the classroom.

Then, one day, he showed up to class without greeting anyone, which was odd because he usually high-fived us at the door. His posture was unnervingly straight and he held a grim frown the entire time he gave instruction. I almost thought he was doing a bit because how unusual it all felt. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dismiss it as a singular off day. He never cracked another joke in class. In fact, and I know this may sound dramatic but I swear it’s true, I only saw him smile one other time the rest of the school year.

It was a shock. The students would continue like before, trying to joke around with him, but the tone of the classroom had completely shifted.

After enduring a couple months of classes in this heavy, humorless atmosphere, I actually approached him about it. Keep in mind, I was 11 years old so I didn’t have much experience communicating what was on my mind, especially to adults.

It was almost the end of the day, and everyone was turning in their classwork at his desk. When I brought my paper up, I mustered up the courage to ask, “Mr. Coolio? What happened to you?”

He looked back at me puzzled and said, “What do you mean?”

I persisted, “You used to joke around with everyone. But now. You’re like, pissed off all the time. Why did you change so much?”

I remember distinctly he looked away for a second. He opened his mouth as if to answer, but then stopped. Then he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Mr. Milani. Get back to your seat before I write you up.”

It might’ve been the first time anyone’s called me Mr. Milani. Can't say I loved it.

I never found out what really happened, but I still remember how it made me feel to witness the spirit of a teacher die.

Looking back now with the weight of experience in the classroom, it seems obvious what probably happened. A sharp-witted zinger must’ve hit the wrong student at the wrong time. Or a colleague voiced concerns about inappropriate language in the classroom. In either case, a complaint was probably filed, and the school had to give him a stern warning. A sudden fear for livelihood would shift a person’s behavior pretty dramatically. Honestly, whatever happened, it’s clear students shouldn’t feel attacked in the classroom and teachers should model self-control in how they use language.

When I was a new teacher I initially struggled to find my professional identity. I floundered back and forth along the spectrum of being either too relaxed or too strict. I felt like I was just acting like what a teacher sounds like, and questioned if I should be myself at all. It was miserable.

But then I remembered Mr. Goswick. If you put a gun against my head today, I couldn’t tell you what subject he taught, but I still remember how I felt being around him, both in the good times and the bad. The memory prompted me to step out of myself and focus less on how I might be perceived and more on being sensitive to how my behavior shaped the student's experience in the classroom.

I didn’t keep up with Mr. Coolio, but I hope he eventually found a middle ground where he could find joy in teaching again. I wonder if I had a conversation with him today, would he tell me what went on in his mind when I asked him, "what happened?"

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©2024 Milani Creative LLC. All Rights Reserved