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The Start of a Calling

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I walked into the classroom. Twelve desks and chairs were piled together and pushed against the wall. The blackboard was bare with no chalk or erasers on the tray. The cabinets were empty. The walls were barren. No books or materials were anywhere in the room.  And I was supposed to welcome a class of twelve boys, aged thirteen and fourteen, in just a week.  I had no idea what to do.

It was the day after Labor Day, 1969. I had been married the Friday before. and then drove from Cleveland to Austin, Texas to start my first teaching job at the Texas School for the Deaf. I had never taught before and did not have the foggiest notion of what a teacher was supposed to do.  There is an adage that advises to "fake it till you make it."  But I didn't even know enough about teaching to figure out what I needed to fake.

So how did I ever get hired?

The previous March I was anticipating graduating from college and in the process of looking for a job. I had heard that the School for the Deaf was hiring teachers for the 1969-70 school year. I applied.  I remember the interview:

"How many deaf education courses have you had?"

"None."

"Okay, how many just general education courses have had?"

"None."

"Have you had any courses at all that relate to teaching?"

"No."

They hired me anyway. Sometimes opportunity comes even when one is not qualified for it.

I had three attributes that swayed them. First, I was fluent in sign language. When I was a sophomore in college, I needed to work full time to pay for my education. I became a houseparent manager at the School for the Deaf on South Congress Avenue in Austin, not far from St. Edward's University, a small liberal arts college where I was going to school. With another college guy, I helped to oversee sixteen teenage boys who were deaf and attending the boarding school. I lived full-time in the cottage with the boys for a year. In the process, I became adept at sign language since I had to communicate with the boys and the deaf staff every day. I became so fluent that I even acted as an interpreter at times for others. For example, there were times when I accompanied the boys to the 9:30 mass at a nearby Catholic Church and would interpret the priest's sermon. I actually hated doing this since the priest who presided over the service would often talk about money to the congregation, even though all the kids from the school who were Catholic and therefore attending the mass did not have a nickel to spare. So, the priest would tell me to simply make up my own sermon, while he talked about tithing, or raising money for a mission, or the latest capital campaign. I got good at signing as I encouraged the kids watching me to do well in school, listen to their teachers and especially pay attention to their houseparent managers. 

Second, I had demonstrated as a houseparent manager that I could interact effectively with teenage boys.  I could communicate quickly and easily, solve disputes, encourage constructive behavior and help them develop positive habits in the social setting of the cottage. I liked working with them.

Third, I was a man in a largely female teaching environment, and the School was looking for more male role models, especially for teenage boys.

So, they took a chance on me. Surprises me even today that they did. 

I did not think much about the depth of my ignorance until I stepped into that classroom and realized I was pretty much lost. Fortunately for me, someone else was not. Mrs. Carrie Abbott supervised the department in which I was to teach. It was a new department on the campus that brought together kids with learning challenges in addition to deafness such as visual problems, behavioral issues and attention deficit disorder. Mrs. Abbott was unique in the deaf community since she was a hearing person raised by deaf parents. She had an unshakeable commitment to deaf education and a passion for providing the best learning experience possible for the students under her care. Her wiry frame hide an intense level of energy. She became a mentor to me just when I needed one the most.

Truth be told, I think at first she was more worried about the students in my class than about me. I think she was determined that my students would not have a lost year in their education by being with a someone who did not know what he was doing. So, she provided a crash course for me in teaching and got me as ready as she could.

I did have a few things going for me that I think gave her hope that I would not be a disaster and that I might even be able to be an actual teacher. 

I listened and learned.  I asked questions, even the dumb ones, and applied what she recommended. I took her advice on how to set up the room, on writing and revising the lesson plan for the week, on preparing materials and activities to utilize during the class day, on ways to assess performance, on how to keep a grade book, on how to anticipate disciplinary situations, on how to keep students engaged.  During that first week and first month, she came by to observe me every day, and we had an evaluation session at the end of each day. 

Just as important, I had a lot of energy.  I enjoyed being in the classroom and relished the challenge of keeping the attention and engagement of each and every student. I liked the performance element of teaching. There was a child psychologist who evaluated each teacher at least once each semester. After his spring evaluation of me, he told me that after sitting in the back of my class and watching me, he left exhausted. When I asked why, he said that I was an engine of enthusiasm that was hard to keep up with.  

I was comfortable with the unexpected. On the first day of class, a student a bit bigger than I stepped out of his chair, got down in a three-point stance and charged me. He wrapped his arms around my thighs, pumped his legs up and down, shouted and then returned to his chair. He could have easily tackled me. Instead, he just wanted to show me how proud he was of his prowess as a player on the school's football team.  Best to hold judgment, I realized, on student intentions.

I learned some things from Mrs. Abbott that have stayed with me as I have experienced other students at other levels in many other classrooms.  

There is no substitute for preparation. Having a firm grip on the material, thoroughly knowing what you are planning to do, anticipating what may happen, and reviewing content over and over again, all make for a more productive teaching and learning experience. 

Listen to others with more knowledgeable and experienced than yourself. Their insights, know-how and lessons learned improve one's own performance. Humility in assessing one's capabilities goes a long way toward improving them.

Energy forgives a lot of sins. Even though I did not know a lot about the art of teaching when I started, I came to realize that energy and enthusiasm are force multipliers and can be contagious.

The Texas School for the Deaf gave me an opportunity. Mrs. Abbott gave me guidance, encouragement and support.  It's hard to ask more than that of any organization or of any person.

I got through that first week and first month. I taught at the Texas School for the Deaf for two years.  Toward the end of my second year, the administration of the school offered to send me to Gallaudet University in Washington DC, the federally chartered university for the deaf, to get advanced degrees in deaf education and administration. Mrs. Abbott recommended me.  However, I decided to take a different route in my teaching career and into finding a calling.  But that's a story for another day.

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