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by Tom Rademacher

I’m in a new school and in a new role. Last year, I had known many of my students for years, or had taught their older siblings or cousins. Last year, I heard a Senior grab a Freshman having a hard time and point me out, “that’s Mr. Rad,” they said, “he’ll fight for you if you ever need anything.” Last year, I certainly wasn’t cool, but I was maybe a cool teacher, and definitely a teacher who cared.

This year, I am with a whole new group of kids. To them, I’m a bad teacher. This year, the kids don’t know me, I don’t know them. This year, my kids (like lots of kids), have no reason to give automatic trust or respect to the random white dude standing in the hallway (in fact, have lots of reasons not to). This year, there are students who ignore me when I ask them to get to class. This year, there are students who make actively disgusted faces at me when I say “good morning.” This year, I heard an 8th grader say to a 7th grader, “I don’t like that dude, he’s creepy.”

This year, the kids don’t even know I’m a teacher.

It is October and I feel like I’ve done almost nothing. I know that not everything about being a bad teacher is my fault, but hey, don’t worry, it feels that way.

All this is familiar. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from ten years of teaching, it’s that everyone gets to be the shitty teacher sometimes. Whether you are new to a building, a grade level, or a group of kids, or the things that always worked suddenly don’t, or some part of the ecosystem of your school has been disrupted by forces out of your control, we get to a point where we have to start over and re-learn the work.

If I’ve learned anything else, it’s that it gets better if you care the hell out of some kids. I know for some of these kids, we’ll laugh at some point about how much they don’t like me now. I know for some of these kids, I just need to stand in the direct line of the worst they’ve got and show them I have no intention of leaving, that I may look like a lot of bad teachers they’ve had, but I’m not here for any less than everything about them.

For now, I am tested. I am a believer in relationships, and I’m deeply uncomfortable with school systems that put the power of punishment too easily in the hands of adults. Still, when I go up to the group of kids in the hallway and tell them to get to class and they ignore me, when I hear racist jokes or see hateful messages written on bathroom walls, I know I wish I could threaten them with something (except I kinda don’t believe in detention, and I really don’t believe in suspension, and, often as not, nothing’s going to get better from punishment that wouldn’t get better faster if we were better at making kids feel like they belong where they are).

I see the appeal. I see the appeal of a system that removes the kid who swears at the teacher to let the teacher teach. I see the appeal of a system that values teacher power over student humanity. It would be easier for me to be a bad teacher.

Still, I know it will be better, I know I will be better. Now that I’m a bad teacher again, I have to be very careful about what kind of teaching I get good at. If I fall into the fear/anger/loudness/power/control trap, then I will grow into a teacher who is dangerously effective at harming kids. If I work at fighting for kids, at trusting the best parts of them, I may just get good at this again.

So, I look for little signs of the teacher I want to be. Last week, students were doing the sort of high-energy high-volume hands-on stuff I feel like kids should always be doing always, and one student was drumming. As I walked past him he waved me over, handed me his drum, showed me how to hold it, let me drum awhile with him. I walked off a little misty in the eyes, pretty sure I’m getting to be a little bit less a bad teacher every day.

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Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is the 2015 Minnesota Teacher of Last Year. He writes about teaching.

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