Students, parents provide awakenings for new teacher

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As a first-year teacher, thousands of miles from home and teaching students I had never met before, I had a vague understanding that the job would be difficult, challenging, even a little intimidating at times.

Arriving on campus, working with a variety of gifted students, struggling students and thoroughly average students, I knew my work was already cut out for me, which was more than you can say for my classroom bulletin boards.

You never realize the difficult things someone does until you try them yourself, cutting 10-inch letters out of construction paper with children's scissors being one of them.

My first attempt at a high school classroom bulletin board was treated with serious derision as my students mocked my choice of colors and shapes - a hodgepodge of green, purple, white and pink stars with an inconsistent border and 3-by-5 cards. These colors and patterns could just as easily have been describing my daily shirt and tie combos - also treated as a source of hilarity for adolescent girls, always keen to tell me when I was clashing.

As the weeks progressed I learned to take my lumps from students who wanted to test the new teacher, developing a thicker skin each month.

But while the students became easier to deal with, another group became increasingly difficult to understand. Learning to interact with parents is one of the most challenging parts of being a teacher and one which I could never have truly prepared for.

One morning in September, I had a particularly interesting time trying to convince a mother of two that her daughter would not become a seductress simply because she read about one in the "Epic of Gilgamesh" that I assigned.

Another parent did not want a son to lose points because of spelling, which I assured them would be difficult in a language arts classroom. Others made sure to tell me how pleased they were that I was teaching their child how to write a proper essay, and, to be honest, the compliments were often just as shocking and awkward to receive as the reprimands. Most of the parents thought I was a student, even with my collared shirt and necktie.

I assured them that I was indeed the recipient of a graduate degree and had been in college for a nearly embarrassingly long period. However, understanding that I was not teaching in the college that I had just graduated from was another rude awakening.

Requiring 16- and 17-year-olds to read Milton's "Paradise Lost" in its entirety might not have been the most considerate choice, but they did seem pleased when I told them that they will never read anything that hard for the rest of their lives.

Little did I know, but there were plenty of other things happening at school, just as challenging as comprehending 17th-century epic poetry.

I will never forget when one of my students in a leg cast, who had, not coincidentally, found himself in one too many physical altercations at the school, came to me with a problem.

Only a couple weeks before being asked to leave the school for fighting, this young man had unleashed a stream of obscenities online, later seen by his girlfriend's mother.

His next decision was quite admirable. He wanted to write a letter of apology to the woman and had composed a short but respectful address. When the student came to my office and asked me, his English teacher, to proofread and edit his letter of apology, I began to see the true value of being a teacher.

I knew that while this boy probably wouldn't remember some of the finer points of citing his sources in a five paragraph essay, I had a chance, for 20 minutes in my office, to show him that not all adults want to get students in trouble, sometimes we just want to help.

Martin Surridge, who was a Walla Walla University student, now lives in Georgia.

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