“Think of a teacher or a coach who had an impact on you”.
In a recent presentation I gave to a group of coaches, I asked them to grab an index card, and write down the name of their best teacher, coach, mentor. On the other side, they wrote what made that person the best. Was it a particular characteristic? Was it what they said? What they did? How they carried themselves?
This question usually elicits the best teachers, the best coaches. I get back a deck of index cards, and later in my hotel room, I go through them – baseball coach, math teacher, basketball coach, “my pops”, grandma, boss. I try to see if any themes emerge: caring, passionate, enthusiastic, believed in me, always there for me. In my two hands, I hold at least thirty people who have made someone else’s life better.
Yet, sometimes, bad coaches and bad teachers have more impact.
When I was 16 years old, I joined a gym, and booked my first session ever with a personal trainer. He gave me a program to follow and showed me how to use different machines. While using a leg extension machine, I saw my quad pop – I have never noticed it before. “What is it?”, I asked, poking my thigh. “That’s fat!”, was the trainer’s response. “That’s what you want to get rid of”. I have not even considered that my thighs were fat, before he suggested that they were.
Few years later, as part of a membership package to yet another gym, I was offered a free “fitness assessment”. A female trainer put me on a scale, and asked me to hold two handle bars in front of me. Few seconds later, the machine spit out a paper receipt with my height, weight, and estimated body fat percentage. It read: “32%”. The trainer explained to me that, according to the machine, I was “obese”. Key point… I now know for sure that I could NOT have been more than 22-23% BF at the time. Yet once again, I was told I needed fixing.
A decade later, a client asked me if she should send me her weight every day. When I probed as to why she’d think that, she told me that her former trainer asked her to text him every single morning with her weight that morning. Based on that number, she got one of two responses from him “good girl”, or “fat pig”.
As a teenager, I attended six different schools in three different countries. I have had dozens of teachers. Most of them were perfectly nice. I liked them fine. Some were boring. Others were mediocre. Some were boring AND mediocre. Some faces come out at me from the past, if I really concentrate and pull on the image, but others stay firmly in the dark and blur together. I do not remember them. Yet, the teachers that truly stand out were extraordinary – both good, and bad.
Mr. K was slim, bordering on thin, of average height, and an asshole. It was harder to see the asshole part when I was sixteen – teenagers tend to assume that there is something wrong with them, rather than with others – but even then I had my suspicions. Now, I am absolutely sure.
I hated Mr. K.
He taught Gr. 10 English, and I still remember the first time he made fun of me.
It was December, and I had my winter boots safely stored under my desk in a plastic bag. Was this a thing in your school – changing from winter shoes to indoor shoes? It was in Russian schools, so it’s possible I just brought this habit with me. Mr. K made sure he pointed out to the entire class that the plastic bag was from LCBO, the liquor store in Ontario. Everyone laughed. I must have been in Canada for a whopping four weeks at the time. I didn’t even know what LCBO was.
“Think of a teacher who had an impact on you”.
He definitely had an impact. I felt even more alone, even more awkward. I felt helpless. Not speaking the language strips you of intelligence. You lose your formal education, you lose your sense of humour, your sharp wit. I lose my sense of self, my sense of identity when I can’t express myself verbally.
I have since been a teacher myself, and whenever I think of Mr. K, I cannot help but wonder… what kind of teacher does this? It just seems so unnecessarily cruel.
I wish I could ask him, but today, I don’t even remember his last name.
For all I know, he is old and frail. Or dead. Although he is probably only in his mid to late 50s now. He could be dead. A girl can hope. Cancer or heart disease can strike at any age. Or maybe he died in a freak accident. Got stabbed by a former student, perhaps?
Nah. I would have read about it in the news. I am sure he is still kicking.
I’d like to know what he was thinking. Was it fun? Was it exhilarating to watch me not understand? To listen to my classmates laugh with him? Or, perhaps, he was just bored? Did my classmates realize how mean that was at the time? Was there someone in the class who was not laughing? Was it a he or a she? What was he or she thinking, observing this situation?
Mrs. C was tall, and large, and kept spilling out of her tight skirts. She wore her straw blonde hair in a flat bob, and made us read Shakespeare, where the entire class took turns, reading sentence by sentence.
When it was my turn, I nodded off – sleep deprived from the two hour commute. Once I fell into such a deep slumber in a math class, that when I woke up at least twenty minutes later, there was a puddle of drool on my notes, and a half-dried up contact lens stuck to the page. I spent the remainder of the day blinking helplessly, and mostly keeping the now-unarmed eye shut, as I couldn’t see much without my contacts.
“Wakey, wakey, Kate!”, Mrs. C yelled, as I blinked myself awake. The class roared with laughter. Mrs.C was the teacher that made me realize that not all teachers like children.
I thought it was strange at first. Why go into teaching? Then again, these teachers probably used to like children in the beginning. And then children behaved like… children. The teachers got tired, got bored, got fed up.
People forget that they can leave. They like it at first, then they do not mind it, then they mildly dislike it. And then one day, they turn into teachers who make fun of immigrant kids in their classroom for nodding off during a Shakespeare reading, or bringing in their winter shoes in a bag from a liquor store.
The truth is that there have been significantly more good teachers in my life than bad ones. I hope that’s the case for you also.
I’ll write about the good ones next.