Welcome to the No-Slacking Zone

When my students hear that I love teaching, sometimes the education majors loudly proclaim their intent to become a teacher. I love it when they label themselves right on the first day; those who choose to become educators will benefit from an added incentive to succeed—my extra-detailed scrutiny of their work, and their work ethic.

Why do I do this? Because as teachers, they will be models to kids. I know my expectations shouldn’t be any different for education students than they are for students of other areas of study, and when it comes to writing assignments, all the essays are judged by the same rubric, but ed students inherently make a promise to be good students. Therefore, my expectation for them to turn in their very best work goes on high alert when I hear, “I want to be a teacher.” You do? Wonderful. You’ve just entered the no-slacking zone.

However, they aren’t always the perfect students. A while back, I had one student I’ll call “Frank” who came to me after the first class, very eager and wide-eyed, and said, “I’m majoring in History, and I’m going to be a teacher.” We proceeded to discuss some basic teaching techniques, and I told Frank that if he ever wanted to talk more about teaching, I’d be glad to. Frank practically skipped out of the class, he was so excited. This enthusiasm lasted about a month, which really surprised me. I thought that with his level of excitement, Frank would be one of my best students. Alas, after a few weeks, Frank was visibly distracted, looking on his phone during lectures, not taking notes, skipping class, and generally treating me with disrespect. Frank would drag himself into class ten minutes late, flop into a chair, and pull out his phone, which I had asked him three times to stop doing. “You’re going to be a teacher, so you need to be a good student. You can’t expect your students to behave differently than you model for them.”

The light went out of Frank’s eyes. When the next paper was due, I got a rushed, lousy attempt at writing on which he obviously had spent all of 30 minutes. For the next assignment, instead of an essay, I got a document with a two-line excuse on it. Then he stopped coming to class.

I don’t know if this young man is still planning on becoming a teacher, but when I got the first bad paper I thought, “And this is the model for our future generations?” The nerve of this guy, with his crazy-excited first-day commitment, turning in junk writing.

I try not to take these things personally, but it’s hard when it appears a student is deliberately choosing to fail. Frank didn’t pass my class, and unless something changes, I don’t see him making it through Colorado’s rather rigorous teacher education and licensing programs. How will he survive student teaching in a high school? Kids can be so cruel to new teachers; I’ve even had some, during my first year, tell me, “We made the last one quit, and you’re next!” Student teaching is not like college classes. You can’t just stop going if you fall behind.

And what happens if Frank actually gets hired? I shudder at the image of him up there at the front of the classroom, phone in hand and feet on the desk, ignoring a chaotic class that has no interest in learning. We’ve all had that disaffected teacher who relied only on tests as measurements of our proficiency in a subject—and that is the subject we remember least.

I have always feared scholastic apathy. Is this disturbing behavior a trend? I’m also afraid that students who express an interest in teaching as a career may be seriously disillusioned by the time they finish their education program, finding it too much work. Others I know get through the program only to get a horrible first-year assignment and end up burnt out after nine months. What a waste of good potential.

One good teacher can make a huge difference in a student’s outlook on learning, though. I recently attended my high school reunion, and as we were on our way out, a party crasher who thought he was blending in said, “Didn’t you just hate our English teacher?” I said, “Actually, I had three great English teachers in high school. They are the reason I became one.” I smiled sweetly and walked away. I am still in touch with two of my English teachers and have thanked them for inspiring me to continue their legacy. The biggest compliment I get is when someone says, “You’ve inspired me to go into teaching.” I have? Wonderful. Welcome to the no-slacking zone.