The Last Page

Looking for a Change

By Bruce Taterka '84

“You quit your job as a lawyer to do this?” the sullen 11th-grader demanded. “Did you, like, have a breakdown or something?” I paused from my lecture and surveyed the 26 teenagers in my seventh-period Advanced Environmental Issues class. One student was tattooing his neighbor with a black Sharpie marker; another was furtively text-messaging under the desk; yet another was arranging Skittles by color on her notebook.

I looked at the inquisitive teen and nodded with resignation. “That’s possible,” I admitted, noting an enormous hickey poking above the collar of his Metallica t-shirt. “But why don’t we just say I was looking for a change?”

He laughed. “You’re nuts, Mr. T.”

I am the parent of a teenager. I have two graduate degrees. I worked for five years in the construction industry in New York City. I worked as a lawyer for 13 years. I have conducted business at the headquarters of General Motors and DuPont. I am a member of the Bar of the United States Supreme Court. But none of this prepared me for being a high-school teacher.

As a teacher, you are naked in the classroom. Credentials don’t matter—all that counts is how you perform. Your audience is unforgiving, and they must, by law, return every day for 10 months of the year. While the teacher has an almost infinite variety of tools at his disposal to stimulate, motivate, discipline, and control the class, the sad reality is that the first-year teacher has no experience in how to use those tools. He is like a farmer in a physics lab, a cook in a cockpit. All training is on the job and in front of the class, and the students never forget what happened yesterday, or last week, or back in October. The gaffes and mishaps of the first year stay with you, no matter what.

I have learned difficult lessons in front of the class. What do you do when a 15-year-old faints on a cold tile floor? When one stabs another in the cheek with scissors? When one tells you she is pregnant? There were no pages in the handbook to instruct me.

The first time the main office called my classroom over the intercom I had no idea what was happening or where the voice was coming from; my class of juniors and seniors laughed hysterically for days. When I started the year I had no procedures to deal with makeup tests, field trips, late homework, and the dozens of other issues that popped up every day. I often forgot to take attendance.

I thought I could maintain discipline by treating my teenage students “as adults,” but I failed to understand that they are not. I planned elaborate lessons that flopped; I conducted lessons on the fly that were great. I learned that teenagers have fragile egos and that every word a teacher says can matter. There is no way I could have learned any of this before hand. It had to be learned on my feet.

At the same time that I have been learning my hard lessons I have tasted (in tiny little sips) the rewards. Some of my students have told me they love my class. Others have sought me out at school events and in chance meetings around town, just to talk.

In my first year I started to learn how a classroom works and how I can be an effective teacher. It has been challenging, humbling, and sometimes frustrating, but I feel I am making connections. As I explained to the 11th-grader in the Metallica t-shirt, I was looking for a change. There is no doubt I got one.

Taterka left the firm of Latham & Watkins to pursue a career in education. After having completed his second year of teaching, he has no regrets about leaving the law.