At Least They Didn’t Fire Me: Reflections on Work and Learning

David B. Cohen, NBCTJanuary 2, 2019

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My earliest experiences in the workplace occurred back in high school, and each setting provided some memorable failures. As a volunteer in our local hospital, I made mistakes like goofing off in a wheelchair trying to improve my speed going up and down an isolated basement corridor. A more unsettling mistake was my clumsy and protracted effort to tell an elderly, agitated, blind patient why I was delivering a newspaper to her room. My first paid work was doing some filing in my dad’s medical office. I developed a crush on the office accountant and when work was slow I sometimes tried to impress her with my suave sense of humor – until my flirtations earned me the chastisement of the office manager.

After high school, some of my summer jobs included a few short stints in various retail and service jobs. The worst was my job in the store room of a major clothing retailer; I didn’t take to the work easily, and their idea of employee training was telling me “Speed up,” as if the mere command would prompt me to unload shipments, unpack boxes, and organize inventory as quickly as my experienced co-workers. I was more motivated to quit than to improve, though I did stay for a couple months. I had more fun as a sports reporter at my college radio station, and was elated to land a feature interview with Chick Hearn, the legendary voice of the Los Angeles Lakers for many years. I went to meet him prior to a game, and was so nervous interviewing my idol that I forgot to start my tape recorder.

All of these failures occurred when I was near the age of my current students (all seniors!), and when the opportunity arises, I sometimes share with them one of these stories, or others. I also related some of these stories to colleagues during a recent night out, and began to consider more carefully why I find it beneficial to talk with students about these experiences.

First of all, telling a funny story with a little self-deprecation thrown in can be good for teacher-student relationships. Many of my students also have jobs, and so we can bond over some of the common pitfalls of entry-level work. It’s a way to offset some of the teaching interactions that involve authority, correction, or the delivery of unwelcome news. Knowing our students is essential to good teaching, and positive relationships make the classroom safe and pleasant. We know intuitively that students learn more when we share a positive relationship, and there’s research evidence to back up that intuition.

Sharing these work-related stories involves more than humor and relationship building, however. It’s a chance to consider the reasons that we work, and the inherent honor and value in any hard, honest labor. It’s a chance for students to think about and perhaps articulate the connection between short term and long term goals, and an opportunity to share non-academic life lessons that we can all relate to.

Ultimately, however, those life lessons can still be connected back to the classroom. Though it seems too obvious to state, I can point out to students that teaching is my job, and like my other jobs, it required me to weather some early challenges before reaching an accomplished level of practice. And even if it’s a job I’m now skilled at doing, it still involves occasional mistakes, some failures, and continual learning.

My learning is most pronounced when I ask students to attempt projects and assignments that are also new to me, so we find ourselves learning together. When students have wide ranging options and autonomy in various aspects of their work, I’m pressed into the roles of fellow learner and coach, rather than instructor. When I don’t have all the answers, or refrain from suggesting any, we can delve into the process of learning, making a few mistakes along the way, together.

In just the past few weeks, I’ve struggled alongside my students trying to find the best sources for research projects about international literature and cultures around the globe. We’ve had to figure out strategies to generate effective search terms, and select the best search parameters to produce manageable and useful results. While I have the advantage of more experience with these tools and this type of research, students continually choose topics and cultures where I lack any expertise; they often know more than I do on that front, and so if I’m called upon for help, I’m likely to struggle alongside my students for a while, talking through our shared learning process.

Want a few tips? How do you make sure that your search results for Indian culture and assimilation come back relating to people from the Indian subcontinent, rather than the people of Native American tribes? It seems so obvious in retrospect, but I had to fail a few times while helping a student before we realized that the key was searching with the word “India” rather than “Indian.” Another oddity, one I uncovered on my own, was that a Google search for “Russian poets” or “Russian poetry” yields better results than a search for “Russian poems.” Теперь вы тоже знаете! (Now you know, too!)

When my students are older, and looking back on their high school years, I doubt that many details of daily lessons will stick with them. My hope is that they’ll recall learning alongside their English teacher, and remember in some way the emerging understanding of how our struggles and occasional failures set us up for success. And if they can tell a story or two, throw in a little humor, they might just pass those lessons along as well.

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David B. Cohen, NBCT

David B. Cohen is a National Board Certified English Teacher and the Blog Editor of The Standard. Cohen taught high school English for 12 years in Palo Alto, Ca. For several years, Cohen co-directed a teacher leadership network called Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). That experience gave him opportunities to learn about and work with teachers from all over California. Having worked with a variety of other networks and organizations, and having built relationships with individuals and groups around the state, Cohen is currently working on a book about excellence in California public education. Follow him on twitter @CohenD.