A Professor’s Journal: An inauspicious beginning

I entered into my calling to teach with trepidation and I still get shaky when I walk into my Murray State classrooms each day.

Each week, I am able to enter a room filled with young and able scholars. I unlock the door to the Faculty Hall classroom and unload my books and folders and artifacts on the desk at the front of the room.

The desk is complicated; one side is made up of an adjustable desktop that the professor, if astute enough, may position at just the right height to accommodate bifocaled eyes. I can just see myself one day, repeating what happened to one of my retired colleagues. Having failed to master the contraption, while attempting to adjust the desktop to a suitable level, I have the thing slam precipitously down on my finger. I will step backwards in pain, planting my right foot into the trash can located conveniently behind the desk. By the time I can extricate myself from the trash can, you stunned students will sit there transfixed observing the intricate dance by the middle-aged wonder at the front of the room. Surely your tuition dollars did not cover such a spectacle.

I know from my own real-life experience just how precarious a classroom performance can be. I walk into the class with my notes neatly arranged in a folder and my thoughts rigidly ordered in my mind. I notice when I walk into the room that a fresh packet of chalk is arranged in the tray under a freshly dusted chalkboard. Everything seems to be in order. I take up a pristine piece of dustless chalk and with the first swipe at the board break it into five or six shards. I can never get the hang of writing with chalk, yet another reason why I have converted my class outlines and images to powerpoint slides.

Things could be worse. I could replay my first day of student teaching at Bellevue High School in Nashville. On that day, I marched into the classroom all full of myself, not much older than the 18 year-olds I was to teach. Today, I know how much I need to learn about technology; my son and daughter taught me well enough that their father is indeed a Neanderthal, or Luddite, or both. Back in 1978, however, I just knew that I was on the cutting edge of the use of technology.

I had decided to abandon the chalkboard for the high tech overhead projector. (Hey, I hear your snickers). I placed an outline of the day’s history lesson on a transparency on the overhead and then made notes with a non-permanent marker as I taught. With such a system I could remain facing the class, rather than risk a barrage of spit wads with my back turned toward the students.

On that first day of student teaching, I walked confidently into the classroom in coat and tie, only to find the overhead placed on the floor beneath the chalkboard. To place the thing in its proper place on the stand I bent down—and here was where I made my first teaching mistake on that first day of student teaching, a day that the real teacher, Ms. Fanning, had entrusted her World History class to me, a senior student teacher from Belmont University—I bent down, back end facing out to the class.

The loud ripping noise as the seat of my tight pants ripped open caught my attention, I think, before even my students could fathom the moment. Of course, in due time they did realize what had happened, to great hilarity. For the rest of that first day of student teaching, I wrapped my sports jacket around my waist and taught very carefully, making sure to face my audience all the while. Of course, I had the overhead projector in front of me and did not have to resort to the chalkboard behind me.

Such is the inauspicious beginning of a teaching career. You can see how I entered into my calling to teach with trepidation, and you can see why I still get shaky when I walk into the classroom each day.

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.