Classroom Perspectives

Teaching the Teacher: Reminders

Teaching the Teacher: Reminders

By Cameron Conaway

We are going to fail. Our lesson plans won’t connect with students. Our students won’t grasp our sharing of concepts in the way we learned them. There will even be times when we give the wrong advice or none at all when most needed. Gatorade commercials remind us how even Michael Jordan missed game-winning shots.

Our world is one where, sometimes, we are in the classroom so much (even when we’re thinking about it at home) that the last thing we want to do is talk about our teaching failures. Through our students, however, we can be reminded of the struggle to understand that failure will always be part of how we better ourselves. Students can be our Gatorade commercial.

While a graduate student, I struggled deeply as student, writer and teacher. My fellow grad students were older and had been studying the craft of writing much longer. Intellectual intimidation coupled with daily rejection letters from literary journals, and I began to lose what little confidence I had. Others and myself scrutinized every move I made on the page. I didn’t trust that anything I wrote had any merit. Scrutinizing can be great in moderation. Too much too early can crush the spirit. Eventually the essay or poem needs to be released, sent into the world as is. Michael Jordan can pump-fake and know it worked because he saw the defender bite. Writing is far less tangible. Luckily, I had incredibly inspiring students at that time. They were young women incarcerated in an Arizona juvenile detention center.

Classes were taught with the girls circled around me, several security guards encircling them. Through sharing their emotional stories, they recognized that others had failed them, but, more importantly, that they had failed themselves and others. Humans are such social beings that sometimes it’s only when we can trust others that we can trust ourselves. One student shared how she stabbed her parents for drug money. Another related how she joined gangs as a coping mechanism to avoid being raped by her uncle. During one class I titled, “Empathy in Poetry” one girl, through her tears, admitted to the class that she didn’t trust herself, that she feared she’d always be a failure. Others echoed her until the entire group of fifteen admitted they didn’t always trust their actions.

“Mr. Conaway,” do you?” they said. “Do you trust yourself?”

I said, “In some, well, I guess I…. Actually, you know… no. I don’t trust myself. I wonder if the awards I won were luck. My writing embarrasses me. I don’t trust that I made the right decision to pack up my life in small-town Pennsylvania to move all the way to Arizona for a degree in poetry even though I don’t have any money to begin with. I trust you all more than myself. I’m only motivated to get up in the morning because I fear failure. I don’t even trust that I’m a good teacher.” My vision blurred with tears, but I saw the silhouette of the crying student raise her hand.

“Yes?” I said.

“Even Lebron James fails you know, but he still puts his jersey on and comes out for the next game.”

Cameron Conaway was an instructor for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program. During his residency he taught in diverse environments throughout Arizona–from the Tohono O’odham Native American Reservation to lower income high schools, from University Honors classes to juvenile detention centers. His book, Until You Make the Shore (January 2012, Salmon Poetry) grew out of his experiences teaching inside the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center in Tucson, Arizona. He is currently studying Muay Thai kickboxing in Thailand thanks to the sponsorship of To ask Cameron questions or to join his team, connect with him via social media at

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2 comments on "Teaching the Teacher: Reminders"

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  2. Guy R. McPherson

    Thanks for another great essay, Cameron. Those days in detention were formative, at least for me. The part of my former life I most miss is the girls in detention and the guys in jail. Here’s a memory for you:

    My last words

    by Little Cloud

    Sadly this’ll probably be the last time you hear from ‘Little Cloud’ for those of you who remember me. But I hope the words I’ve written will have a lasting effect. But this ‘sister’ can only hope. My last words of advice:

    1. We may all be badasses but it’s OK to cry

    2. Don’t give up, it only takes one voice to change the world

    3. Even though we are convicts we still are human

    4. You are loved, whether you think so or not, us writing to you proves it

    5. Listen, for you never know what good you’ll hear

    6. Make a difference just because you can

    7. People will forgive, especially when you think they won’t


    9. Believe

    10. Keep an open mind because doing so will open worlds you never knew

    11. How ever long it will be, one way or another you will be free (especially those of you sentenced to life)

    12. You aren’t stupid, retarded or dumb, those people who say you are, are

    13. Don’t forget ‘Little Cloud’ Ha Ha 🙂

    14. We all have the right to grow and change

    15. No time is wasted, as long as you feel & really learn

    16. Breathe

    I’m crying as I type her words. She’s fifteen years old and already wiser than me, not to mention just about everybody else I know. I suppose hard times will do that for you.

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