Once, many years ago, I was arguing with a colleague. I have no idea what we were arguing about. I am sure, however, that I was as much to blame as she, if not more so.
We were having a hard time that year, and I wasn’t handling it well. She had been a teacher alongside me for several years, but recently had taken a promotion to become the instructional coach over my department. Our relationship, previously healthy, was not holding up to the change. I wasn’t jealous of her move, to be clear—rather, I now think that I saw her as having abandoned us “in the trenches”— left us to do the hard work of teaching while she offered advice from afar. This is an entirely unfair view born out of professional immaturity; she is now a principal and, from all accounts, a good one.
We argued a lot that year, but I will never forget one particular disagreement. I was standing in her office, complaining about something or other, and she looked up, completely exasperated. “Wamsted,” she said, “all I know is that if my son went to school here I would never let him be in your class.”
It felt like a punch in the gut. I paused mid-breath, all thoughts of my next move in the conversation completely vanished. Tears welled up in my eyes as I moved back towards the door, muttering something as I made my exit. I went back to class—literally across the hall from her office—and entered a room bustling with students.
This was, by far, the worst moment of my career. And yet, embarrassed and ashamed, I went right back to teaching class as if nothing had happened. I did my best to forget the whole thing.
Recently on the “8 Black Hands” podcast, in a round table discussion on what we can do to make schools better, Sharif El-Mekki advised all teachers to reach out proactively for feedback. Noting that so much of what we do goes unobserved by our administration—who might be in rooms with us for only a few hours a month, usually when we’re on our best behavior—he encouraged those of us who were serious about getting better at our practice to reach out to the people who know us best—our fellow teachers and, more importantly, our students.
I immediately remembered this long-ago argument with my colleague. Why had she said what she said, I wondered? I am ashamed to say that I never asked her for clarification. Not only did I not enter back into that discussion, but I also did my best to run out the clock and avoid her for the rest of the year. I was relieved when she left our school; I felt like I was able to breathe again. And yet, in what could have been a teachable moment I learned nothing.
Perhaps it is not too late to reach out, although I wonder if too much water has passed under that bridge. Maybe I will contact her; her number is probably still buried in my phone. I know for sure, though, that this year I am going to follow El-Mekki’s advice and reach out for feedback at my current school.
I will set up a simple survey for my students to complete—anonymously, of course—and I will make time to have candid conversations with colleagues, especially the ones that teach the same students I do. After all, every teacher knows how much students like to dish to one teacher about another. Simply walking into another teacher’s room and asking, “How am I doing?”—it could be revelatory, especially in this pandemic year where our cracks might be starting to show.
I may never know what was going on between me and my colleague a decade ago. Maybe she was talking about the way I taught math, or the way I taught boys, or the way I taught Black students—or possibly some toxic combination of all three. What is clear, however, is that she seemed to know something about my practice to which I remained in the dark, and I should have had the courage to pursue her for this knowledge. I can’t continue to make this kind of mistake; this year I will do differently. The children matter too much for me to be afraid to ask hard questions about myself.
A few years after that terrible argument I had a curious class. One of my students was the cousin of a colleague; I got an email about the connection in the first week of school. In the same room was the son of another colleague, a man I had known for over a decade—the student told me who his dad was the first day of school. A few weeks into the school year I was surprised to get a message from another colleague about his daughter; she was also in the class, but their shared last name hadn’t registered during the craziness of the start of the year.
Twenty students in the room and three of them related to colleagues—I wondered, what were the odds? As the year wore on I heard from students and adults alike that I was doing well meeting their needs, and I beamed. Though in no way repairing that long sundered relationship with my old instructional coach, this year was a signal to me that I was doing all right—that I was indeed the kind of teacher who could be trusted with the important job of teaching young minds. After all, my colleagues had power in our building and knew best who they thought could do a decent job for their kids. I was honored that they chose me; the entire year felt like a kind of forgiveness.
I have been teaching for 15 years now, and almost a decade has passed since that terrible day with my colleague. It remains the worst moment of my career, but I am pleased to be able to say that I bounced back. No amount of success, however, can cover my need to continue to improve; if I don’t, I’ll end up in something like that office again. I need to be the best possible teacher for all students, every time, and the logical way to continue in that upward trajectory is to ask for help. Even if I’m not sure I’ll like all the answers.
This is as good a year as any to start asking a hard question: “How am I doing?”
Jay Wamsted has taught math at Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta for fourteen years. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines, including "Harvard Educational Review," "Mathematics Teacher" and "Sojourners." He can be found online at "The Southeast Review," "Under the Sun" and the "TEDx" YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “