Monday, November 10, 2014

Every Teacher Should Be Bad at Something

Like most teachers, I've worked at a variety of side jobs, from radio dj to musician to newspaper columnist. But I may have learned the most from my time at a catalog order call center.

This was not one of those cold call phone banks, but a call center where customers called us to place their orders. Our job was to get the ordered placed as quickly and pleasantly as possible, then provide them with a few opportunities for further purchases at the end of the call. Our job was to try to get them to pick up another item or two, and then "while their order was processing" (it was all on computer-- we were already looking right at it) try to sell them either a shop-with-us club membership kind of thing, or a kind of medical supplemental insurance. I worked at the job a full summer and through many months part-time thereafter.

I was not good at this job. I was bad at this job. I was punctual and never missed a shift, which they liked, but I was a terrible salesman.

Now, I'm not a master of any of the trades I've messed with. I'm an okay musician, a passable writer, a fair-to-middlin' radio guy-- the list of things that I can do well enough goes on and on (nor am I by any stretch of the imagination the best teacher in my building). But I had never done a job before at which I was just plain not good.

It wasn't long before I noticed how Being Bad was affecting me.

I came to dread being there, walking through the door, driving the car to work. While there, I wanted to be somewhere else. There can be big down time between calls; rather than just sit and soak in the place, I would throw myself into reading. Any distraction-- a chatty caller, an entertaining co-worker-- was consuming. I would negotiate deals between myself, my bladder and the clock (forty-five more minutes and I will go pee).

Part of my brain just wanted to somehow discount the whole experience, to come up with ways to dismiss what I was doing so that my failure was somehow proof that I was smarter or better or cooler or just generally above this. If I could treat it as a ridiculous joke of a job, the fact that I wasn't any good at it wouldn't matter. If I could find flaws in the people who were long-time successful employees, then I wouldn't have to feel bad about myself. A part of my brain dropped whatever it usually did and devoted itself full time to creating excuses, both macro and micro, and another portion started working full time on odd routines just to give me back some sense of control over y situation. A part of my brain was doing anything it could to avoid reaching an unwelcome conclusion about myself based on my apparent inability to succeed at a seemingly simple task. A part of my brain worked on telling me reasons it just didn't matter that I wasn't good at this-- after all, the real part of my real life was outside the company's four walls. I knew I was a perfectly capable, intelligent human being with a useful array of talents-- but none of them were doing me any good and it was hard to not frame my mismatch for the job as a deficit on my part.

After a while, I became used to failing. When the screen popped up that held my script for selling the club membership, I would flinch and just try to get through to the moment when the customer would reject my offer and we could move on. The more I failed, the more it was impossible to imagine anything but failure, and the more I envisioned failure, the more I wanted to avoid entering that wrestling match with the job that I just knew I would lose.

My employers were great. I was gently coached, pleasantly directed, and given encouragement. It did not help.

There is just a spiritually corrosive quality to having to go back, day after day after day, and throw yourself into something that you aren't very good at. Yes, I'm sure I could have grabbed my bootstraps or sucked up my testicular fortitude or put my head down and driven through--and I knew that, and the fact that I couldn't do any of that just became one more badge of failure in the job.

However, the whole experience did have one useful aspect, because I realized right off the bat who also dealt regularly with feelings like mine.

My students.

This is why I now say that all teachers should not only get a job outside of school, but also have the experience of being bad at something.

My lower functioning students have to get up every day and go to a place where all day long, they are required to do things that they are bad at. They have to carry the feelings that go with that, the steady toxic buildup that goes with constantly wrestling with what they can't do, the endless drip-drip-drip of that inadequacy-based acid on the soul.

It's up to us to remind them that they are good at things. It's up to us to make a commitment to get them to a place of success. It's up to us NOT to hammer home what they already know-- that there are tasks they aren't very good at completing.

I don't know how much longer the company would have tolerated my low bonus sale numbers, but my lack of scheduling availability was enough to end my phone career. That's okay. The extra money was nice, and I have no doubt that being a bad telemarketer made me a better teacher. And I have some great stories (you have not lived until you have helped a little old lady order a personal intimate massage device by phone), but I will save those for another day.


  1. Beautiful article; made me teary-eyed. Sharing with everyone at my school.

  2. Wonderful article. Should be required reading for every student teacher. I feel I was a better math teacher because of my problems in fifth grade. I could understand not getting it and could tray another way and commiserate with the kids in the class.

  3. I connected well with my struggling math students because I didn't get math until I began teaching it. My lesson: patientry reteach using different strategies and have students teach. They learn much like I did!

  4. When I was teaching elementary school art at a parochial school, in order to become a full time member of the staff I had to teach Spanish. Thank goodness it only lasted one year because I don't speak Spanish and I was a TERRIBLE Spanish teacher. When my students struggle, I always remember this experience and tell them about my failure.