The Life and Calling of a Teacher

It’s snowing.

He and I walk a stretch of icy road, heading down to the bridge below the farm. Blizzard warnings have cancelled school across the Island, so this is our P.E. class for the day. Cabin fever never hurt to act as motivator for a teenager to spend time with their mother.
I ask him the question, and he’s thoughtful in his response.
What is the most important way your teachers can show you they care? Because I want this to be practical- I want this to be real. I really want to hear his answer, if this is going to guide my lived experience.
He responds- the words, not shocking in their revelation: I want them to be understanding- and nice. An answer quick and to the point. He doesn’t mention initially his fine teachers’ collective breadth of knowledge, their expertise. The lessons they’ve taught or the curriculum they’ve unpacked. His answer doesn’t reference the lectures, the assignments and projects.
But he does talk about the relationship. Their ability to care. Words that confirm what I am beginning to understand about caring, compassion and kindness- about transparency and thoughtfulness. Words that confirm to me as a teacher the heart of the matter about teachers and the relationship they have to their students. That is, what really matters to our students is who we are. Not what we do.

It was fall of my Grade 12 year, the year I remember as ‘The Move.’ My father having been relocated in his job as a pastor packed up our meager family possessions and moved his wife and four children minus one over the course of a weekend. It sometimes takes a weekend to unravel a family. And at other times, it just takes a moment.

I alone remained behind, determined that I wouldn’t be leaving all I had known and loved. Sixteen is a brazen age. It’s old enough to know that one couldn’t leave behind their childhood memories. Their home, their life. And it’s old enough to stay behind. But it’s not quite old to know exactly how to pull it all off. My parents in their wisdom allowed me the choice to remain behind so long as I chose to live with a family friend. Someone they trusted. But I was on my own when it came to paying rent and looking after essentials. I agreed to their terms and so it was decided. But the day they pulled out from the driveway of our first family home, moving van loaded up with my childhood toys, my bed and dresser, van full to the brim with my four younger siblings and weeping mother- that is a day that will forever be imprinted on my memory.

I lasted until the following Monday evening when I finally caved, coming to my senses as well as the bittersweet realization that I needed to be with my family. I needed to go home, whatever that meant now. There was a scramble- a gathering of my own small assemblage of life possessions and a drive from one province to another. Which is to say, I found a way to reunite with my family a few days later, as bittersweet as that reunion might have felt in those moments.

That move crushed me- left me feeling as if the bottom had fallen out from my world. And it left me to cope with the difficult task of starting over, starting fresh at a time in one’s life when they should be celebrating the finish line.

I found myself in a brand new school. A strange place to find yourself when you are sixteen, in love and at the pinnacle of your school career. Starting over- it was humbling. Perhaps what I needed, although I wouldn’t have said so then. I went from knowing everyone to knowing no one. From being part of a crowd to feeling outside the crowd. I went from having a presence to feeling invisible. But at the time, I would have readily admitted it was my worst sixteen year old nightmare come true.

Somehow I managed to pull things together enough to make it work. I made a few friends, did well in my courses and tried to keep up on the news from my former school and friendship circle, places and people I identified in my heart as my real home.

There were a few classes in the new school that I did enjoy, especially one taught by a Mr. T. A funny, earnest man, he infused life into the classrooms with his stories, his wealth of knowledge and his love of all things chemistry. And I can’t remember at what point in the semester he called me down to his classroom for a chat, but I will never forget the care and concern in his voice. Somehow, he had seen me there in the back row of his classroom, hiding underneath a veil of resentment, fear and insecurity- angry that my life had been interrupted. And in spite of it all, he made a point of looking past the image so as to connect with me. Letting me know that I had potential- that he saw the best in me at a time in my life when I couldn’t see the best in my circumstances.

Mr. T was unforgettable. Was it the chemistry lessons he delivered? The curriculum outcomes he covered? Was it his vast knowledge and seemingly infinite understanding I remember? What was it exactly that forever etched his impression on my memory?

What I remember now as a teacher myself was his smile. His laughter. And I remember that he saw me.

There are times in our service as teachers when we set aside the act of doing for the sacred work of being. When lessons and lectures, activities and testing are momentarily shelved, playing second fiddle to the art of listening. When caring is the curriculum, and life is the lesson. There are times when we see that our noble profession is more than mere passing on of knowledge. A routine work of filling empty vessels. And those are the times when we see through new eyes- our students. See them as people. As possibility. We see them for the potential they truly are. Those times remind us- it is the care we infuse into our work that makes the difference.

Such is the life and calling of a teacher.

Dear Student Who Feels Defeated

To The Student That Feels Defeated,

You are sitting there at a table or a desk- you might be reading, writing or maybe working at something else, depending on the given day. You look up and catch the teacher glancing your way; so you try to show her with your eyes that ‘this just isn’t making any sense’. Try to send her that message. Because it’s just a mystery to you that people understand this stuff. A complete puzzle.

You watch your friends who find it so easy- math, writing, reading, problem-solving, figuring things out. They seem to do everything so effortlessly. But to you, each task just feels like one, long endless riddle- with no apparent solution.
Feels like one long, drawn-out visit to the orthodontist.

Or maybe it’s during gym class that you find things challenging. Maybe it’s music or science or French that throws you off your game. Maybe it’s after-school when you are at basket-ball or soccer or another extra-curricular club that you find yourself not measuring up to the rest of your teammates. Maybe that’s when you start to find your confidence slipping. Maybe that’s when you feel like you can’t compete.

Maybe it’s more to do with fitting in and finding friendship, or it’s that feeling of acceptance in being part of the crowd. That’s what you are missing. Maybe you just feel like you are the odd-one-out left to stand awkwardly watching from the sidelines. The person who never gets a call after school, a text or an invitation to the group chat.

And so you get home at the end of each school day and you sit at the table with a bowl of cereal and a glass of chocolate milk. And you try to make sense of the fact that you feel stupid/unliked/unpopular/incapable- while the rest of the world does not. While the rest of the world just keeps moving on. Understanding everything that you do not, doing everything you can not, and including those people around you of whom you are not- while you’re left standing on the outside.

It feels like everyone else is accomplishing stuff while you watch on helplessly, feeling useless. And while life just continues carrying on, you feel more and more defeated. More and more deflated. Cause it feels like you are the only one falling back, falling behind. Even while everyone else in the world is occupied with ‘getting ahead’- making sense of the world and everything in it. Yet meanwhile, for you- it all just feels so difficult. Life feels so hard.

And you feel so stupid.

Dear Student who feels this way, can I please tell you that you most definitely are not?

Not stupid.
Not dumb.
Not unintelligent.
Not brainless.
Not unloveable.
Not incapable.
Not a failure.

You are not.

True, you are struggling with this hard thing in your life- this mountain that seems to consume you. But one day soon, it will no longer be there. You will have climbed and conquered. And you will then be free to see life another way, from a different vantage point. One day soon you will look behind you and see that this mountain was just a small anthill. Something so small from your position, that it will almost seem insignificant in hindsight. And you will turn your eyes back around after seeing that you made it over, and see that before you is what you were waiting for all along. See that you arrived. That’s the beauty of moving forward.

Because right now, you are in the middle of living out the battle. Life is hard because it is suppose to be sometimes- it’s suppose to be hard at this time and place in your life. And quite honestly, life is hard because there are hard things to go through, hard things to understand, hard things to figure out. But these hard things are making you, shaping you, creating in you: perseverance, resistance, resolve, determination, strength and will power. For in living out the hard stuff, we come to see ourselves in different ways- realizing that the moments when life is at its very hardest are often the moments and the times when we grow and ‘become’ the best. Your time of becoming your best self is right now.

Don’t give up on that vision.

Yes, your hard time might be now. But tomorrow is already on the way, almost here. And just like every time before, you can do this. Just look how far you’ve already come. You can accomplish what you set your heart on. So go ahead- prove it to yourself.

Never forget, I’ve got your back. The rest is in your capable hands.
Never stop believing.
You are capable, you are able.
You are.

Love,
Your Teacher

On beginning readers as well as lifelong ones…

I was blessed to have grown up in a household of books and I am sure my mother read to me from the womb. While I cannot remember the first time or first times I was read to as a child, I can remember the moment that I learned to read independently. That moment was life-changing for me- unforgettable.
I was five or six years old, half way through kindergarten, and at the time, we were on vacation at my grandparents house. I was alone in the upstairs bedroom passing the time, and for whatever reason, I had a book that I was looking at- which in one moment I wasn’t reading for message and content- and in the next moment, I was. It was like I went from darkness to light. I still remember running downstairs to tell my family that I could read. Still remember the excitement and pride and absolute wonder at it all.

Today, my kindergarten students got their very first guided reading books to take home with them for homework. I brought the books out and told them what we were going to do- that we were going to read some books together- with them reading alongside me independently. And one Little Guy piped up, “But I can’t read yet!” I assured him that he most certainly could, and that they had been reading for quite some time (that is, reading our morning message, sight words, word work, letters, words in Big Books, environmental print, etc.). But I got what he was saying. This time, it was different. They had an actual book in hand and it was their job to do the reading- not mine. We got started and within minutes, the students were noticing words and letters and pictures…and low and behold: they were reading!

They were READING.

We read the book through three times together on our classroom rug, and they read it on their own twice. And the pride that we all felt was palpable. I could hardly contain it myself! Thankfully, a colleague dropped by to relieve one of the educational assistants for a break, and I was able to nab her and share with her this most transformative of moments. I was bouncing, I was so excited.
I can only imagine those students tonight as they read to their moms and dads and significant others in their lives- reading school books out loud for the very first time. To me, it is a milestone up there with walking and talking. I would like to think today is the first day of the rest of their lives spent as lifelong readers. I hope that they always find joy in reading- joy as I saw on their faces today.

It never fails to move me to watch a child read for the very first time.

Safe Havens and Soft Landings

You know, I have had many people tell me over the years that they could never be a teacher.  Could never do my job. That they don’t have what it takes. That it is too demanding in terms of the behaviors and the complicated issues children present. Too hard on the nerves. Too taxing on the stress levels. Never mind the additional stressful academic responsibilities that come with the job.

Honestly, it isn’t the easiest profession. It isn’t the easiest calling to be drawn to. It hasn’t been the smoothest sailing I’ve ever known. There are many challenging days, many hurdles to jump. Many deep waters to traverse.  There are many moments when I wonder myself. That all because: it is hard being there for people, day in and day out.   Hard staying the course when the ride gets bumpy.  And truth be told, the ride is very treacherous.  And all because there are so many variables.  So many children with so many stories.  For in our classrooms, there are children who have seen things I will never know about in my lifetime. Who have heard things I will never hear. Watched things transpire that I can only envision in my worst nightmares. Who have lived lives in their short years that I will never live.

It isn’t easy being a kid at the best of times. Try being one at the worst of times.

There are days when these same children come into the classroom and they just your push buttons. They try your patience and test your resolve. They act out, cry, push, scream, whine, slap, punch and spit. They holler and run. They pull things off the walls and shove things on the floor. There are days when you just want to give up and walk out the door.

There are certainly days when you wonder why you ever thought teaching was a good idea in the first place.

But sometimes, there are days when everything comes together for you.  When the pieces of the puzzle just FIT. When there is clarity and everything murky is finally clear. Days when something happens and a door is opened, a view is granted into the inner sanctum of a child’s private life. And you see for the very first time why it is, this child is angry. Is hurting. Why it is this child is wounded, frustrated, broken and scared. And all of the moments that happened before- when you thought seriously about pulling out your hair and giving up the fight- those moments are all but forgotten.  All but a memory. Because you’ve just seen a child for who they truly are for the very first time.

Seen that their anger is just a disguise for pain.
Seen that their screaming hollers are sometimes a cry for help.
Seen that the physical aggression they exhibit is sometimes a response to what they know as familiar.
Seen that their hurtful words are just the everyday vernacular of their private world.

And in those moments of clarity, you realize: I am a safe haven. I am a lighthouse- a beacon of hope. I am a soft landing for this child. And I am such so that when they come to school, when they come to my classroom- they know they are loved.  Know that they are protected, accepted, wanted, appreciated, valued, enjoyed, liked and seen. They know they don’t have to be afraid. Don’t have to fear.

Because here…they are safe.

That is all I could ever really hope for as a teacher- to be a safe haven and a soft landing for my students to fall on. A person they know who will be there for them, each day and every day… through all the moments, both shining and otherwise.  There to be a caring, loving presence in their lives.  Unwavering through the storms.

As a teacher, it’s all I ever really needed to be.

{photo retrieved from crislorenzana.wordpress.com}

The joy of field trips…

Retrieved from Johnston’s Schools website

I came home tonight after watching a killer last set in my daughter’s volleyball game (please do not ask a whole lot of questions about the first four sets, ‘cause that score was kind of private) to which I heard the following anguished cry from Youngest not even five minutes after lighting the home fires:

“Mooooooooommmmmm….(heave, heave, sob, sob)…..I just….(sobbing) burned down my house on Minecraft…accidentally. And it was my favoritest house ever. And I just had made it…..(sobbing).”

It’s interesting how these funny little things follow me around- just begging for me to write about them. We were at the dentist today about a permanent tooth that Daughter had broken two weekends ago on a Saturday afternoon. How do you tell the inquiring dentist that your child broke said tooth playing “Abduct the Baby” with her little sister? It’s just not the normal excuse. And just for the record, the dentist did ask. (I was very vague). I mentioned this all to a friend at the store and she said that her child had also had a similar catastrophe, only to another part of the body while straddling the black bin in their driveway, singing at the top of her lungs.

I could just totally relate- neither one of us thought either occurrence was less than normal. But I guess the average person does not live this way.

So what this story is REALLY about is our school field trip today. Wow, just wow. Where do I begin…? For the record, the above stories were just my warm-up.

How does one frame a blog article about a field trip adventure in which a bus full of three kindergarten classes of children ages 4-5 is pulled off the road for an hour and a half because its crisis exits are screaming “Emergency! Emergency!” in a language all their own? How do you even start discussing bathroom issues? Or temporary bushes with prickles that can serve as the restroom when all else fails? Thank goodness for Kleenex.

All I have to say is this: to those passer-bys that saw a woman jumping up and down, touching her derriere, rubbing her belly and then doing scissors jumps/jumping jacks, you try entertaining 35 youngsters for an hour and a half on the side of the road. I dare you. It’s a game called Simon Says and kids love it. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

Okay, seriously. I am just so thankful for the neighbors who saw me (obscurely, I swear) hiding in the bush with one Little Person and then kindly offered their “facilities” to the rest of the kiddos on the bus. Thank you. Words cannot express… I am sure I looked like a wild woman because at the time I was also trying to protect said child from the dog that kept barking at us from across the road. I was sincerely concerned for everyone’s safety, not the least of which was my own.

Back to the woman across the road. She was simply the best. And what she did was humbling, it was simply just too kind. (Now that I think about it, were we doing them a favor by removing ourselves from the bushes on the sides of their road?) At any rate, that woman deserves a Good Neighbor/Good Citizen award- she was amazing. Simply above and beyond amazing. She turned her television on, offered us her washroom (which we paraded in steadily for the better part of an hour, boots, dirt and all) along with water to drink from her kitchen faucet. And she trusted us enough that she left and drove off with all of us still on her lawn. I mean, really: where but the country would this ever happen. We then continued to enjoy the property, playing numerous games of Duck, Duck Goose and the afore-mentioned Simon Says until the Department of Transportation showed up in all their glory after having got lost a time or two on the back-roads of P.E.I. and generously fixed the bus

It was a time. A TIME I say. I sure had fun.

Needless to say, I had planned a full slate of activities for the day. I am nothing if not a glutton for punishment. I had invited a professional chef to come into the school and bake apple pies with each of my students as a surprise for their parents. Boo hoo, ’cause that unfortunately never happened. But then again: the apples were not ‘all there’, shall we say, by the end of the day anyway (became the snack); even if they had been, cooking pies in a half of an hour would have been even an absolute miracle even for her and she’s one of the most amazing chefs I know.

So, it’s been a slice. A slice of every kind of apple I know, including Honeycrisp (which the bus driver ended up finding and picking for me after I had run all over the orchard looking for them during my five minute break (or I could call it my ‘break your neck’ as that’s my kind of luck), I spent my time aimlessly running around the orchard only to find these beauties were growing in the row marked “Jona Gold”. So that’s how they keep ‘em a secret. Who knew.

Can’t wait for the next field trip.

On Intelligence

Someone asked me once whether I felt a certain child we both knew had intelligence. Not a question I get asked every day. Not a question I appreciate, to be honest.  Needless to say, this question was alarming to me on many levels, not the least of which was that it was asked of me by another educator, another teacher. Someone who should know better than to ask. A person that should have known: intelligence is only part of the picture. One piece of the puzzle.  And thus known that there are many, many intelligences to consider when discussing intellect. Truth be told: a child’s intelligence is not a topic two professional educators should be discussing when there are hosts of other issues more deserving of their time and thought. More deserving of their endeavors.  For each student who shows up in our classrooms is capable and intelligent. And each has an intellect, having been endowed with God-given gifts, talent and ability.

Call that what you may; I call it intelligence. Because every child is able.  Every child CAN. And every child has capacity- ability, clarity and certain aptitudes- certain leanings toward learning and understanding. And every child has an interest in varying topics and knowledge that serves their particular intellect. When teachers make judgments about students in this way- as we often do when comparing one student to another student for purposes of understanding, assessment and evaluation, we quite often fail to see the best in these individuals. And thus fail to see these same students’ potential. The possibility that lies in their ability. Because here’s what we miss in these situations: the fact that everyone has intelligence- it’s just that we’ve been given different kinds.

Intelligence is obviously not the same in everyone.  Thank goodness for that.  What a boring world this would be.

Because intelligence has traditionally been measured by narrowly defined standards- standards that accept commonly accepted academic goals in subject areas like language and math as being the most important criteria by which to measure a person’s smarts, we often don’t recognize intelligence as being varied.  And by that, I should add: we don’t appreciate and value those variations. We do recognize intelligence as being widely interpreted, but we only favor certain interpretations. For the standards that prepare students for the workforce are what we typically equate with intelligence- those academic pursuits associated with our school system. These are the standards that prepare students for a life of employment and labour. Standards which are measured and compared and found wanting, but nevertheless- still pursued.  That’s the intelligence we value.  Not the wide breadth and depth and extent of what intelligence CAN be.

It’s time we saw intelligence for what it truly is: diverse and wholly worthy in it’s variation.  It’s time we remembered that everyone has intelligence.

That student with the blank stare in your history class- they are a gifted sketch artist.

That child who is only approaching math expectations on the standardized test you just issued- she is a brilliant gymnast.

That boy who never answers a question in class and seems to fade into the woodwork- he’s a fabulous piano player.

And that bubbly girl who talks unceasingly every time you turn your back- she’s someday going to blow your mind with how she’ll end up changing the world.

We can’t believe fully in our students and simultaneously feel pity for them. Care is not pity. It isn’t weak-spined, sympathy that reaches out to the less-thans- the weak and deficient. No, that’s not care. Care is strong enough to surmount the odds. Care calls us to believe in the best each child has to offer- and it requires of us a new way of thinking.  And care knows better than to feel sorry for anyone when believing in them is so much better.

It’s time for a renewal of sorts.

We must care enough for our students to see their ingrained intelligences, whatever form those intelligences might take. We must care enough to care to change our own narrow forms of thinking.  And care enough to be open-minded, gracious, loving and hopeful in our perspectives.  We simply must care enough.  The rest will take care of itself.

After all, when we believe that all children are intelligent, we offer hope and future to our students beyond the narrowly-defined futures that await them within traditional understandings about intelligence.  All students have intelligence. It’s up to us to help them discover how.

And it’s up to them to use their varying gifts and talents, knowledge and understanding…to make this world a better place.

Believe

They showed up one morning. Could have been any morning, really. And there they were. Bright eyes, smiling. Hello, Mrs. Gard and then the pause. Waiting for my response. Their faces searching mine for that encouraging smile.

Do I believe in them?

He fell asleep every single day in my history class. The room was dark and calming, a glow from the overhead bulb the only light. His long hours at the fish plant gave him little time to sleep. Little time to be the teenager he should have been.  Little time to care about facts and dates.

Did I believe in him then?

The boy and his mother walk the halls. It’s his first day of school ever, coming up this Thursday. There are fears and worries, but mostly just excitement. Everything is new and inviting. School is cool when you’re four.

Do I believe in him?

Do I believe… in them?

Teachers: we have children who will walk into our lives, into our halls and into our classrooms in the days ahead. They will have stories and experiences, expectations and worries- hopes and fears. They will have dreams. Dreams they believe in.

Do I believe in them?

We have children coming who will challenge our patience, try our tolerance, question our leading, test our resolve. Children coming who will make us laugh and make us cry. And some who will make us want to shelter them with everything we’ve got. These children- they will work their way into our hearts. Will work their way into our world. We will come to love them like our very own. We will teach them, listen to them, care for them, nurture them, inspire them, learn from them, hope for them. And when we have to, we will fight for them.

And all because we believe in them. Because we care.

Do you believe?

Do you believe in them?

For if you do, they will believe in themselves too. They will believe they can.

And because they can, they will:

Learn.

Grow.

Understand.

Discover.           

Mature.

Develop.

Into the amazing, creative human beings they were meant to be. And they too will inspire and encourage others to believe in themselves. To believe that they too CAN.  And all this because YOU believed. Because we as teachers believed in them.

Believe.

Because that’s one small step we teachers can take to make the incredible happen.