"What do you teach?" is the wrong question
In my first year of teaching I was twenty years old. In fact, as I stood in front of a class full of students for the first time I had only been twenty for a month and five days! Now, nearly twenty years later, what I remember most about that year is a couple of students and one teacher. Just in case the students are listening I'll give them different names. The teacher's name will not be changed because I hope she is listening. Joseph was the youngest of a number of brothers in a family whose livelihood was caught up in large nets from large boats every evening. He hated reading and his father was not the softest man I had ever come to know. Towards the end of that year Joseph wrote a poem about a rainbow that he asked me to help him turn into a song, which we did and which the whole class learned to sing. I had never seen a kid so proud. Liam was one of Joseph's classmates, and while he enjoyed singing Joseph's song, it was not for his soaring voice that I remember him. I remember Liam because after a phone call from my principal regarding Liam I thought I was going to have the shortest teaching career in the history of teaching! Unbeknown to me, one day as I had ducked out to do some photocopying, as I sprinted down the verandah to the copy room, ran off the however many worksheets I needed and sprinted back to the classroom, Liam had walked to the front of the room and dropped his trousers, done a little jig (and apparently there was a little jiggling as well) and returned to his seat. The principal, a father of one of my good friends from high school, had received a phone call from one very disturbed mother of one very disturbed little girl who happened to sit in the middle seat of the front row. He relayed to me the events that had transpired during my sprint to the photocopier and the distress caused by Liam's little unveiling and suggested I make a call to Liam's father to sort things out. The next day as Liam stood at the front of the class (and his father and the principal stood at the door), he read his apology to his classmates and quietly returned to his seat. I'm not sure what the word is to describe Liam's face at that moment, but whatever it was, I haven't seen it since. Interestingly, I don't remember a single thing about any lessons I taught. I'm sure there were some inventive lessons on place value, maybe some boring spelling activities and maybe even something interesting in social studies. Honestly, I can't remember. I do remember Mrs Middleton, the teacher next door, the one who from then on always looked in on my class as I sprinted to the photocopier. She saved me that year as she "held my hand" and taught me how to be a teacher. And yet, nearly twenty years later the most common wrong question I get asked when someone hears that I am a teacher is "What do you teach?" If you meet someone who is a teacher, please ask the right question. If you are a teacher, please correct people if they ask you the wrong question. The question should be, "Who do you teach?"