“What’s a paragraph?”

It was mid-September. I had just set off from my house that morning on foot, living only a couple of blocks away from my practicum school. I was dressed in my best teacher clothes, a long-sleeve collared shirt and dress pants, and walking in the pseudo-September heat that would have been welcome had I not been obligated to dress the way that I had. I had been assigned to a set of grade seven English Language Arts and Social Studies classes for the week, younger than my comfort zone — which has been grades 9-12 — but young enough that they had not hit that “I hate the world and everything in it” phase, which had made my first few days a surprisingly pleasant experience.

The idea of the one-week practicum for student teachers is to experience how a teacher sets up and begins their classes, what to do and to say in order to ensure success for the rest of the year; the practical knowledge of teaching that never seems to be covered in the faculty. During this initial week I had the rather unique experience of not often seeing my practicum teacher, who was often called away on various administrative details that are the bane of a large school’s first week of classes. I imagine that, had I not been there, she would have come up with a way to solve these problems without leaving the classroom but, as it was, I was continuously left in a room with 20-something pre-pubescent children in the first few days of their secondary education without a semblance of a lesson plan.

This would have been fine . . .

Unfortunately, the few times that my supervising teacher did enter the class, she was a strict, seemingly bi-polar disciplinarian, and I was left, quite alone, to enforce her somewhat unfair punishments, one of which meant staying with a young boy in detention while he finished his homework assignment from the previous day. I had a strong interest in his completion of this assignment, as I was unable to dismiss him and go home until he finished, but he just sat there, completely nonplussed, twirling his pencil between his fingers and staring blankly at the wall. A regular occurrence perhaps, but I wanted to leave. I sat down beside him and asked where he seemed to be having trouble. He stared, if possible, even more blankly at me than he had been at the wall. I asked him again, “You understand what you are being asked, right? You’re supposed to write a formal paragraph on what you did yesterday.”

It was here when he looked up at me, with his wide, innocent eyes and asked me, with absolute sincerity, “What’s a paragraph?” I froze. The definitions, forms and significance of the assignment were now the furthest things from my mind, I momentarily grappled with the concept that a student, in his seventh year in the educational system, could be unfamiliar with the concept of a paragraph.

I knew I had insulted him, hurt him even. Students are exceptionally talented at perceiving a teacher’s faults. They know when we are bullshitting, they know when we are unable to answer their questions and they know when they are being belittled, however subtly or unintentionally it may be.

Most students entering the faculty of education, in my experience, come with an aura of confidence, some bordering on arrogance. After all, we are all university graduates, all of whom have the mentality of a person that wishes to spend the bulk of their lives telling people what to do, how to think, and the meaning of right and wrong. In previous articles I’ve detailed faults with the educational system, or aspects about the faculty of Education that have had a negative impact on students’ transition from high school to university. In my own brief experience, this incident I’ve just related to you was the first in which I was at a loss for words, the first where I did not have an answer readily waiting, and the first in which I saw a look of despair within the eyes of a student.

So maybe, just maybe, the fault lies not with the system. Perhaps the flaws and the injustices that my peers and I have criticized over the past couple of years have grown out of our own inexperience and arrogance. Education students may still be the first to say that the faculty of education is not what you think, that it is a long series of hoop-jumping; an endless cycle of journals, reflections and repetitive lectures that seemingly invites criticism. However, I am now only months from graduating and only now realizing the possibility that I can be wrong, that I am not infallible.

So maybe, just maybe, the two years of hoop-jumping will not have been in vain. I can only hope that not all teachers out there had to crush a student’s pride in order to realize that fact.

Jesse Beach is struggling with his apparent fallibility.