How and How Not to Be a Good Teacher

I had lots of good teachers on my way to becoming one. My sixth-grade teacher Miss Bordeaux, for example, introduced me to academic rigor. Miss Bordeaux wore starched white blouses and dark skirts and ordered her world and ours. She played soft classical music, she told us, when she first woke up each morning. Then just before she left for school, she switched to marching music. She continued this beat at school, stepping us through our days.

Most kids didn’t like the way Miss Bordeaux went ballistic if you said ain’t, or if you came to school with dirty nails or if you didn’t sit up straight. They especially didn’t like how she made us write papers, long ones, and then filled them with red edits. But I loved to read her markings. She sculpted the junk from what I wrote, leaving it spare and beautiful. Sometimes I noticed her watching me as I read those red marks, nodding her head. In Miss Bordeaux’s room, the air felt fresh, like someone had opened a window. She brought out my mettle. And when I become a teacher, I remember thinking, I want to be like Miss Bordeaux.

But I also learned about teaching from Mr. Mitchell. He reminded me of a chipmunk—short and squat with puffed out cheeks and a thick neck. Even the suit he wore every day looked like a chipmunk—tawny brown, streaked with chalk dust, and flecked from chemical stains. Mr. Mitchell brought no excitement to his class, so students created it by setting off stink bombs during labs and dropping calcium metal into a pen to make it explode like a firecracker.

Mr. Mitchell lectured in a monotone and in circles. Questions threw Mr. Mitchell into confusion. He contradicted himself and repeated himself and tried to find answers in the book. Most of us gave up, especially after we understood his four-day pattern.

On day one, Mr. Mitchell would announce a test and conduct a review no one understood. The second day we’d all take the test. On the third day, Mr. Mitchell would turn back our graded tests, which we’d all failed, and then harangue us for our stupidity and indolence. He’d give us all the right answers for the test and announce a retest for the next day.

We’d drill each other.

“Number 13?” one student would ask.

“Single replacement reaction,” another would answer. But neither knew the question for the answer.

Not that it mattered. When we took the exact test on the fourth day of the cycle, we all earned A’s, and without even reading the questions.

Mr. Mitchell showed me exactly how not to be a teacher.



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