Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The New Definition of Veteran Teacher

By on June 2, 2009

I have been teaching for 10 years.  I have mentored teachers, become Department Head, sat on committees, presented at conferences, and taught upwards of 2500 students ranging from 3rd grade to 12th grade.

But all of that does not make me a veteran teacher.

What makes me an official veteran teacher is the fact that I have hit my memory wall.  The computer that is my brain is beginning to empty the trash, student by student at a time.

This is the first year I’ve been approached by past students I cannot name.  This is also the first year I still don’t have some students’ names memorized.  Yes, it’s true; it’s May, and I still get those two girls mixed up in Period 2 and those same 3 girls confuddled in 4th period.   Don’t look shocked.  I mean, don’t I get any credit for having the rest of my 237 students down pat?  No?  Damn.

I’ve heard some teachers blame the students for our eventual glitches in our programming, as if it’s the kid’s fault that they don’t stand out enough to catch our attention.  But I know this isn’t true.  After all, it’s as much up to the teacher to bring out a student, as it is for a student to do their best for the teacher to see.  And this year I dropped the “bringing out” ball in ways I haven’t before.

It worries me.  Is it a harbinger of things to come?  Am I destined to lose my vital antennae too?

Yet this disintegration of memory also demands that I hone certain skills in order to hide my idled brain:

* While calling on raised hands, my inner monologue says things like,”OK, Heather, stop calling kids by names two students prior to calling on girl #1.  Start pointing thoughtfully to possible participants to embed your ignorance in an innocent list of ‘you’s.”

* I call specific names with my head lowered, looking intently at some piece of paper or other on my podium to hide the fact that my eyes go to the wrong girl EVERY TIME.

* I ask other students to ask so-and-so to come up to my desk.

I have tried rhyming their names.  I’ve tried seating charts.  I’ve tried comparing their features to those of celebrities, past students, vegetables.  It’s just that…my file is full.

I’ve always prided myself in remembering every student I’ve ever taught.  In the past, I’ve been able to brag that I can detect any past student, even though the  middle school face morphs over a single summer into an entirely different member of the human species.  I can still find the name, saga, past accomplishment, and topic of their fall narrative, somewhere in the bone structure that was once my student from long ago. Not so any more.

I have officially become one of the glazed over legions of teachers who, when met with a smiling past student out-of-context, responds with the generic, “Oh, Hey!  I haven’t seen you for a while.  How are things?.”  This student appears from out of nowhere, leaping before you when you least expect it: a waiter at your local restaurant, a judge in the league’s speech tournament, a coach in your child’s little league.

The student’s face may drop just a little at this response, expecting more.  If you have the guts, you fess up and say, “I’m so sorry, what was your name again?”  The student claims sympathy and understanding, but I know that it’s just a pretense for their disappointment.   After all, through you, they are learning a lesson in life that you the teacher never wanted to teach.  They are learning that while you had an impact on them, they may not have had as huge an impact on you.  

Or rather, they once did, but then life came along and took away their memory, leaving their impact behind.



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  1. David Cohen
    June 3, 2009

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    Sad, but true, you’ve revealed some of our secrets here. I find that I often recognize the student and can even recall something about them, but the name is the last thing to come back to me. Sometimes I take a premature guess and get it wrong, but the last time it happened, her little brother ended up in my class the following year, and at back to school night, I was able to apologize via her parents. “Tell Lia I’m really sorry I called here Sarah when we met at the grocery store last year. I realized my mistake as I drove away, and I’ve felt bad every since!”

    But on an equally important side note – how can you possibly have that many students in a year, or over your ten year career??? That seems like an impossible load.

  2. tweenteacher
    June 4, 2009

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    Did I do the math wrong? I am an ELA teacher after all. It’s approximate, but I figured it out by looking at 36 students, 6 periods a day (7 this year), I’ve taught 8 years of summer school (full class load), there’s there the classes I taught on my weekends for my first 3 years and the clubs I ran after school for 8 of those years. So multiply that by 10 years. It’s possible I computed wrong, but it’s in the range of 2300 – 2600 kids. Right? How many have you taught? Maybe this should be the new way to think of teachers. It might hit a different chord if we all walked around with numbers on our chest. Maybe then people will understand a little more. Maybe the number speaks louder than words.
    Loved your story. It’s hard not to carry around the guilt.
    aka Tweenteacher

  3. David Cohen
    June 4, 2009

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    Hey – I teach English too, and your math is fine! I meant “impossible” from a work standpoint – sorry for the ambiguity. I was just stunned at how many students you have. How can you be expected to do your best work with that kind of load? I don’t know if I could do it all. My highest student load ever was around 150-160, and that was when I taught 6 classes instead of the typical HS load of 5 classes. For about half of my public school teaching career, I’ve had 9th grade English, with state funding for class-size reduction (20:1). And I teach in a district that wanted to extend that somewhat, so there’s local funding to keep sophomore English classes in the neighborhood of 25:1. Then, I became an academic advisor, which means I teach four classes instead of five, and serve as the primary counselling/advising contact for about 70-75 students in grades 10-12. So, while I’ve been teaching 3-4 years longer than you, I’ve probably had 55-60% as many students.

  4. Ms Cornelius
    June 16, 2009

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    Oh, thanks so much for this! I thought I was losing my mind! I have now realized that my struggles with remembering every kid’s name is not just me! Thanks thanks thanks!!!

  5. Mike Albert
    June 20, 2009

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    …. and I thought it was just me

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