June 21, 2014 by readlisaread
Firstly: This is going to be a long one. You may need to pace yourself.
Secondly: I Google-searched “The Secret Life of Teachers” and got over 61Million hits… but I’m going to use it in my title anyway, even if 61 000 000 people got there first.
Thirdly: This post has it all, and so is undoubtedly trigger-filled. Read with a brave and truthful heart, gentle reader.
And so. At this moment, 41 000 (or so) public school teachers all over the province of BC are on strike. This is the end of the first week of the Full Scale withdrawal of service. I’ve been here before. I’d love to think I won’t revisit this scenario, but with a minimum of 10 more years to work, that seems a faint hope. We’ll see. Naturally, there are conflicting opinions, at least 2 sides to the story, and a general hew/cry/gnashing of teeth, depending on which side you wish to vilify. As I approach closer-to-retirement-than-fresh-faced-naivety, I find it comforting to step back and look at the broader picture. Here is my hope. If you are anti-government, please read. If you are anti-teacher, please read. And no, this isn’t just a lame attempt to get people to read my blog…..but tell your friends just the same….
Here are some things you probably already know about teachers and public school:
- Everyone who has been to school knows exactly what goes on, and is therefore an expert.
- People who were successful in school tend to love teachers, those who found it challenging or confining tend to hate teachers.
- There are a few bad teachers.
- There are many outstanding teachers.
- The public system takes all comers, but does not fit all sizes.
You might be trying to guess what I’m the most upset about in all of this– let me enlighten you straight off. I started teaching in 1992. It was the eve of the “Year 2000” document, and the economy was years away from the drastic downturns that would herald the next millennium. Enrollment was on the increase, and while there had been a surplus of new teachers in the previous few years, I was on the brink of the “best time to be getting into teaching; there is going to be a huge shortage when all the baby boomers retire” (ps: that alleged shortage never materialized). However, while it did take me 3 years to secure steady employment, I never did experience the yearly merry-go-round of lay-offs and recall that most of my younger colleagues have always experienced. (ps: in those days a BEd was a 5 year degree. A short time later, certification required an undergrad degree + a 2 year post-bach program, totaling 6 years of Uni). But here is the important part: In those days, the training/certification program was being improved and made more rigorous, the government initiated a number of programs (such as the Year 2000 and accreditation and teacher training) designed to improve our already stellar system. How can I say it was stellar? We were 2nd on the world stage in literacy and math skills. Educators came from all over the world to see how we did things. Our grads won awards and did cool stuff and were awesome. Teachers wrote curriculum and created assessment practices and shared them, freely. By the way, do you know who was the number one educator of children in the whole world back then? Finland. And this is relevant.
But here is the problem. Things like public education and universal healthcare are costly. And people don’t like paying taxes. And when the Capitalist party starts using words like “Socialists” and “tax increases” to describe their opponents, and promise “economic growth” and “tax breaks”, well, the public starts to think things like: “Gee, I went to school in a one room school house with 40 other kids and I turned out fine” and starts to resist the idea of how much public education costs. And throw in an economic downturn and few wars and maybe some epidemics and some genocide around the world, all of which increase fuel costs, immigration and the cost of living. And this brings us, finally, to my biggest, most heartfelt, disappointment. While BC was once a beacon of innovation and educational excellence, we now are ranking far lower than we did a dozen years ago, and (is it a coincidence?) funding per student is $1 000 less, per child, than the national average. Oh, and not irrelevantly, we also have the highest child poverty rate in the country. I look around this beautiful, resource-rich, paradise and wonder how this has happened. Finland, incidentally? Still top 3.
I’ve had lots of people share their opinions with me about this topic. Naturally, a lot of those people are fellow teachers (we do tend to gravitate to one another). There are numerous blogs and rants and op ed pieces outlining what is wrong with BC’s education system. I’m not going to repeat that here. What I want to express in this post is how it is teachers are just different. It doesn’t mean we are separate or better or more or less than other citizens, we are just different. And it is because of the way we think and act that we can be misrepresented in the media, misunderstood by the public. This particular event that is unfolding right now incurred unprecedented public support and for that I am truly grateful. That gratitude is at the heart of why and how teachers are different.
As I was walking along the picket line the other day with my friend and colleague, we were chatting about two of our classes that we had taught together, the activities and curriculum we had designed for it, the successes and the tweaks-still-needed. Our strike shifts are 3 hours daily, and as my friend and I walked and chatted, I seemed to have a sort of meta-view of the experience. We walked and “talked shop”, cars passed us–if they honked or waved, we waved. If they called out encouragement to us, we shouted back “Thank you!”‘ s and waved and smiled and walked on. There were a few thumbs-down, and “one-finger salutes” and disgusted shaking of heads, but not many. For the negative outbursts, we didn’t interrupt our conversation, just shrugged and walked on. Every few minutes we would pass another team of 2 or 3 educators walking together. My awareness started to take in snippets of the conversations that we overheard. On a different day, with a different team, it might have been different, I thought, so I paid attention all week, and took advantage of scheduling changes to walk with other teachers. Without fail, the majority of conversations I was participating in or overhearing were about our practice. Not our job, not our employer, and not often about specific kids, but about our craft. How would you change that lesson? Have you read this book? How does that activity work? Do you remember that Pro-D session? How have you liked using this textbook/that kind of technology/some form of assessment? We don’t turn it off, and even when we are participating in some form of activism, we buy in to the opportunity to imagine the possibilities of improvements, not get mired in the negativity of worse-case scenarios.
That is not to say that words don’t hurt. Some of us keep up with news blogs and social media pages and read the comments, good and bad. Some of us avoid it all together. No one likes to be poorly thought of, but teachers take criticism in a whole different way. To be criticized, especially falsely (ie, “Teachers only want more money, they don’t care about the kids”) goes right to the core and moral centre of who we are, not just as professionals, but as people. We aren’t just Bob who works as a Teacher, we are Bob the Teacher, or even Teacher Bob. I suppose there might be some people who went into teaching for the summers off and the 6 hour days (total myth, incidentally, but that’s for another rant), but I don’t know any of those (imaginary) people. Granted, I know about 500 teachers, so maybe my sample size is too small. All of the teachers I know well, and count as friends, are in the game for the same reason I am: We have to. Not because we can’t do other things, not because we just sort of fell into it by accident, but because one way or another we experienced that moment of perfect clarity when we realized that this room full of learners needed us to teach them. Some of us have a passion for teaching the learner, and some for teaching the subject, but in either case, the common denominator is passion.
I taught English 9 for the first time in my career this year. I love literature and poetry and writing, and was stoked to get to share that with my students. Consider the picture, for a moment: A few dozen 14 year olds crammed into my computer lab (because that is the room I taught in, and right next door my friend was teaching her English class in the library, because there were no other empty classrooms); all with preconceived ideas about English class; some with resistance or even fear of reading or writing or both; 7 ELL kids, 2 LD kids, 3 kids with abhorrent attendance; a handful of struggling learners; a couple of gifted learners, and bunch right in the middle, poised to be enthusiastic, or completely turned off, depending on how I ran the show. And so, I opened with a poem. “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. I introduced it as a poem I had learned of when researching Nelson Mandela (and some had seen or heard of the film of the same name), and I told them that I intended to share poetry with them regularly. And some of them groaned and flopped their heads down on the table, some of looked cautiously interested, and the rest were somewhere in between. Now– here is the thing about passion and teaching: you can’t fake it. Sharing maudlin tales from the trenches is easily overdone, and not my intention here, but I share the make up of the class because that’s just reality, and share the moment because it is the essence of what it means to be a teacher. I ignored the groans, addressed the room, and recited those powerful and deeply meaningful words written almost 150 years ago. And when I got to the last two lines, I was moved to tears as I always am:
“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
At that moment, IN that moment, a teacher is not thinking “Oh yay, it’s almost 3:00!”, nor are they thinking “That one kid has a bad attitude”, and they are also not calculating how many days they have until retirement. A teacher is not even thinking about showing emotion to the class, or worrying that students will be amused or horrified or embarrassed by it. A teacher is opening his or her heart and shining a light on what is possible–that even if poetry (or art or math or metal work) is never going to be YOUR thing, find something that you are passionate about. Be the best.
It’s in the faces of those one or two or five kids I reached that day, it’s in the face of the kid who comes up to me in the parking lot of Tim Horton’s and shows me his first car, or first child or just says “Hi, do you remember me?”. And we do. A Teacher remembers. And when that 17 or 20 or 25 year old you haven’t seen since grade two or grade ten asks you that question, and even if it takes you a few moments to ramble about in your head, filled with hundreds of kids’ faces, and you reply “Of course I do, Samantha/Lukas/Sarah/Thomas”, they experience the truth of that moment, of the passion you have always felt, that you don’t just teach, you are a Teacher. That is the real magic. That is why we do what we do.