How NOT To Make A Good Impression First Day Of Teaching
A bike, rain, linen trousers and meeting the boss for the first time yields....
Teaching at any level, particularly if you have limited experience can be daunting and anxiety provoking, particularly on your very first day. Here's a story of of my first day teaching a month long summer course for college instructors.
I remember being excited when I got the phone call that I was being hired to teach a group of college instructors on instructional methods. As a graduate student I need the money, but it was my first "longer term" teaching gig -- a chance to show off how so very smart I was to the world.
Scary, too. The assignment was located a good thousand or so miles away from my home in Toronto, and I was hired based on some phone conversations and on the basis of my paper qualifications. No face to face meetings at all, so there was a lot of pressure not to let down the college, the hiring manager, and of course the adult students.
So, I get it all sorted out, the curriculum, the equipment for videotaping lessons in class, and so on, and even figure out how to get my precious bicycle shipped out. At that time I was an avid cyclist, and used it to get around the city. And off I went.
Readying For The Trip In To The College
I had never been to Winnipeg before and had no idea of where anything was. I'd managed to get a map and plan out a route, but as I'd flown in the day before class was to start, I'd had no chance to meet or talk to anyone at the college.
So, first thing in the morning, I look outside where I'm staying, and it's pouring down rain. I mean pouring. Undaunted, I tell myself that I've often ridden in the rain. Not a problem.
So, I gather up my nice beige linen trousers, and my working jacket (think a bit of Don Johnson in Miami Vice), put them in a plastic garbage bag, and load everything into my backpack.
Off I go.
I ride and I ride. I think I've gone too far, thinking I've gone past the college. I ride back the way I'd come. Finally, I look at my watch and realize I have only a few minutes to get to the college.
I do what no man has ever done before. I ask a bystander for directions. He says, "Oh, you were almost there. It's just about a block past where you stopped".
When I finally arrive at the college, I lock up my bike, and try to find the office where my new boss is anticipating my arrival. I now have about two minutes to find the office, change clothes, and get to the classroom (I have no idea where that is).
I manage to get to the office. I walk in. I stand dripping water onto the carpet in front of a rather stern looking dowager of a receptionist who looks me up and down, and says: "Yes?"
I think she thought I was a courier.
I explain. I ask where I can change and she leads me to a shared office towards the back, and says she'll notify the director that I have arrived so he can rush me to the classroom where my students are waiting.
I quickly take off my sodden clothes, and strip down to my underwear, which, as you will see, is thankfully NOT a thong or something exotic. I'm standing in a puddle of water and clothes when the office door opens and in walks a fellow. Nonplussed he extends his hand and says: "Hi, I'm John. I think we're going to be sharing an office".
"Um. I'm Robert. I'm teaching general instructional methods."
"Good, he replies. I see you are getting ready so maybe I'll just toddle off. Good luck. I'm thinking you might need it."
He goes out. I'm thinking, that went well all things considered.
Then, someone else comes in - well dressed middle aged man. The boss. The director. I'm in the middle of pulling up my pants.
"Hi, you must be Robert. I'm George. It's great to meet you finally...uh...but you'd better hustle because you are already late to class."
I do up my trousers, get my sports jacket on, and George brings me to the classroom.
The Grand Entrance
The door is shut. That's not good. I'm ten minutes late. George pats me on the shoulder, tells me he's sure I'll do a good job, and walks off. Me, I take a few deep breaths and just before I open the door to enter, I do what many male teachers or trainers do just before beginning.
I check myself over. Yup, fly is done up. Jacket buttoned.
Wait. What's that? It's a wet spot. Wait, it's in the crotch area. Oh my goodness, I can't get the jacket to cover this up. It seems to grow in front of my eyes. It's the size of my fist now.
Run. I need to run. No, not that. I HAVE to go into the classroom, and I have to do it now. Nothing for it.
I open the door. I walk in. Fifteen adults are staring at me. The greet me by looking at my face (I think that's good). But...wait, their eyes seem to be moving downwards. I could be imagining it. No.
Seeing I couldn't think of anything else to say, I figure to do what my mentors told me. Just keep going. never stop.
"Hi, I'm Robert Bacal, and I'll be teaching the class for this month. And THAT (I point down) is NOT what it looks like".
There's a pause. Everyone looks. I'm not used to being crotch watched. And then the entire class breaks into very loud laughter.
I start laughing. I still have a wet spot that looks like I messed myself, but now we are all on the same side, having a good laugh.
Part II: I God Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade...
Since this is part of a series on "what makes it all worthwhile", I'd like to share how this turned out, and why this apparent disaster was easily worth the anxiety.
Before that, though, let me explain, exactly HOW I'd managed to walk into my first day of class looking like I'd had an undesired urinary event.
It's The Damned Underwear
When I packed my dress clothes into my backpack, I put them in a plastic bag to make sure they didn't get wet. (Smart, ain't I?). What I hadn't thought about was a change of underwear. On one side, it was a good thing my co-worker and new boss didn't discover stark naked when I changed into my work clothes, but on the other hand, they were absolutely sopping wet.
Under a pair of very light colored, summer weight dress trousers.
You got it. Somehow the moisture (rain, I must reiterate) in the underwear leeched through making the large expanding wet spot where none should be publicly visible.
OK? It was rain. Really. Yes, I was anxious, but not that anxious.
What Made It Worthwhile
The "students" in the class were new and less experienced college instructors who HAD to attend my class as a condition of their employment. That would be in the month of July, a rare wonderful month in Winnipeg. Nobody there wanted to spend three hours a day inside with me, when they could be fishing, or going to the beach or just having a beer.
The class was comprised of people generally not used to sitting in classrooms as students. There were a few chefs, teaching cooking at the college, three heavy duty mechanics, and generally, people who were not keen on book learning.
I was warned beforehand of the composition of the class, and I'd have to work hard at keeping them "present" mentally and physically.
The Best First Impression I Could Possibly Have Had
The month went well. No, it went phenomenally. I think part of that was because within the first 30 seconds, the class viewed me as a regular guy, not some boring egghead from Toronto.
I can't take credit for the choice of riding my bicycle to the college on the first day, or indeed, the bad weather. I'll take minimal credit for the line "That's NOT what it looks like". But not much.
The bottom line was that I couldn't have made a BETTER first impression for this group. No way. No how.
The Guy In The Wrong Classroom
At the end of the first class, I'd dried out some, and one of the participants came up to me, and asked if I had a minute. Sure.
"I'm Murray, and I realized during the class that I'm in the wrong room. I'm actually signed up for "Instructional Design, and I guess I got into the wrong room."
"Well, OK. Murray, glad to meet you, but is there some reason you didn't realize this right from the start?"
Murray responded: "Well, I did, since you mentioned the class name, and wrote it on the board, but...well, I just had to see how this was going to turn out. So I stayed the whole three hours. Do you think I can take this course instead? I figure if you can handle a urinary accident, I can learn a lot from you."
That's how Murray came to become a student of mine for the month, and for the time I was there, and for several visits after, a friend.
(Sadly Murray was diagnosed with a neurological disease a few years later and passed away before his time)
His decision to become a participant in this, my first major teaching assignment, helped me to realize that I had chosen the right profession. It made all of the "stuff" worthwhile.
Oh, and how was my relationship with my new boss? Excellent, wet underwear not withstanding. He hired me for seven years of summer session work, and then eventually, for a temporary assignment supervising high school teachers, leading to my permanent move (at the time) to Winnipeg.
What Else I Learned
One of the best things about teaching at any level is that if you are open to it, you will learn as the students learn. There's always something to be understood, about people, about oneself, about the world.
- that despite my tendency to be a shy introvert, I could "break out" of that shell in front of groups if only I would stop worrying about how people would perceive me. Letting go...being forced to damn the torpedoes, helped me find my "teaching voice".
- that when you break down barriers between teacher and students, everyone wins. Standing above students, figuratively is one way to do things but if you stand WITH students as a regular flawed person, it works.
- that you should never teach in wet underwear.