On Being a Teacher/Learner…

Their little voices banter back and forth as I flit from desk to desk. Like a mother robin tending her young.  I duck my head in and out, gauging the activity.  Monitoring the learning.  Watching that things are progressing.  Teacher stuff. They, my little brood, are discussing something- and there seems to be a disagreement that is arising.

“So-and-so thinks he’s the teacher,” a little voice says accusingly. He waits for me to pounce on the unsuspecting little rogue. Setting paths straight which have gone awry.  The accused says nothing in his defence.


I do know what is meant here: my role is the teacher character. Their function is to be the student. This is how it works in school- someone has to be assigned the role of facilitator or learning will become haphazard.  And someone has to be on the receiving end or the endeavor will be pointless.

Won’t it? That’s certainly what is often thought.

I lean down, trying to process my thoughts quickly. On the spot. My answer: to explain that we are both teacher and learner in this classroom. Even Mrs. Gard.

How easy it is to forget this truth.  The reality is we are always learning.  And we are not always needing a teacher so as to engage that process.  And true enough: there will be times that my experience will be such that I can share in my knowledge and thus “teach” the others in my life.  This shift between teacher and learner is fluid.  It is hard, at times, to know where one begins and the other ends. Even my thesis advisor reminds me of this in her latest email: that in graduate school, I am to be simultaneously both a learner and teacher. Of course. We state this in theory, but I often wonder whether we as adults make this a concerted practice. To what extent do we truly believe that our children teach us?

In thinking about this, I have compiled  a list of some things I have learned from my students.  In no order of significance:

• The rules to the game jacks
• Sign language
• How to dance with inhibition
• How to listen
• The best way to position a cup of juice, carton of chocolate milk or a water bottle so that it will indefinitely fall to the floor and make a giant puddle
• The characters on Mario
• How cats get fixed
• That certain words must never be rhymed unless one wants to live with the consequences
• That certain words have more than one meaning, depending on your family upbringing
• How to care for children who’ve witnessed abuse
• What sand sounds like
• How not to colour inside the lines
• Why hugs are important
• That grief can be felt in the very young
• Why teachers must be, as much as is possible, a stand-in for Mom, or Dad or Grandma or any other viable guardian because kids need someone they can count on. And teachers are certainly in a great position to be all that and then some.

I am ever the learner. Some days, I feel the burden of such overwhelms me. Great is the responsibility of needing to learn. To know. To find understanding. To become more aware. And huge is the expectation to learn everything I must know. Even in compiling a list such as I have above, I am in awe of what I do not know about my Splendid Seven:

• What fears they have of starting Grade 1?
• Why children sweat so much, even at the tender age of 6?
• How come they wipe their noses on their shirts?
• What details of their morning I am missing, leading back to before they got on the bus?
• What home is really like?
• Their greatest hope in life
• Their truest thoughts about me: the good, the bad and the downright ugly
• What they feel like when they are alone
• What they wonder about growing older
• Why they pick their scabs

I am ever the learner. But I am also a teacher. Two worlds collide even as a perfect collusion is formed.

Their little voices banter back and forth as I flit from desk to desk. Like a young robin looking up from the safety of the nest. I am five again.   Curious and full of wonder.

And I am ready to fly.

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Lessons Learned {during playground duty}

His little body tells me he means business. He power-walks away from me, even as I call out his name: once, twice, thrice. And then some more. He hears me, but he’s trying not to listen. It is apparent that he perceives my constant calling for he moves purposefully ahead, making an ever-widening arch as he moves around the periphery of the playground.

Like he has somewhere to go.

I follow, but I do not run. And as I go about this awkward pursuit, I continue to call. While he continually moves out of my reach. We continue this dance-like charade until I get close enough for him to hear the calm in my voice. The care and the compassion. I call out again, indicating my desire to talk it out. Indicating my desire to listen. And this time, he allows me to catch up to him. I see, as I near, that he is fearful. Anxious. It’s been a long day, and it’s not even half over. He tells me what has happened. And indeed, his story matches up. He admits that first his mistake was accidental. But then he says “the bad stuff came.”

My heart aches for him.

It is a long road to travel when you are only five. Lonely and anxious and unsure.

Our schools are bursting with children that present with different needs and requirements. Some children come hungry: we feed them. Some children come filthy: we wash them, or teach them the ways to clean themselves. Some children come with precious little of material value to call their own: we provide clothing, backpacks, shoes, mittens, skates, splash pants and the like. Not to mention all the other stuff we offer that would seem to define us as teachers: reading, writing, ‘rithmetic. But what of the children who come lonely…what is there for them?

What do we offer the lonely?

The reason I feel I have stayed with teaching, why I continue in the classroom- has been for the little moments I have been given in which to gaze uninhibited inside the heart of students like the Boy in my story above. When the guard is lowered and I am allowed privileged glimpses into the depths of the soul: my own soul is fed. I am redeemed. Liberated to be the teacher I dream of being. For I want nothing more than to share in the journey. To share in the process of discovery. It is what keeps me here, inside the school milieu. It is what I love.

I have felt of late a certain sense of lacklustre in my teaching. A loss of passion. As an educator, I have been going through the motions, for lack of better words. The same routines, the same schedule. Even speaking the same uninspiring words as I facilitate learning from the teacher’s seat on the worn, blue mat. And although there has been nothing changed as far as the demands of my job, something has certainly changed somewhere. Somehow.

Within.

True, life is certainly busy and hectic, but not more so than any other moment. What I believed has changed is me. I have felt like I am losing interest, losing a sense of the significance for why I am here. For why I am where I am. I have lost my sense of place. And this loss has had the effect of causing me to feel that I am just putting time in each and every day. Biding the time until the day is over. Believing somehow that this is all there really is.

Until Friday. Until I looked into those sad, brown eyes last Friday.

The turning point for me personally was the opportunity I had to turn a mundane chore into an opportunity for possible transformation. And the while one would hope for transformation for those you assist in learning and growth, the real transformation was for me.

To elaborate. Outdoor duty is a time when teachers take their shift of playground supervision. It is invariably a time when tattle tale-ing hits with full force, while accompanying this rite of childhood is a fair bit of injury and sometimes blood. Two weeks ago, a little girl who already had a broken arm fell off the monkey bars on my watch. I had spoken to her just moments before, turned my back, and then she climbed up the monkey bars and promptly fell to the ground. One never knows what will happen on the playground.  It is both an exciting and terrifying venture at one and the same time.

Recess playtime is a bit unconventional when compared to school norms. Because the playground is a place where risks can be taken, where learning is done through play, where social interactions are at the forefront and where inhibitions can be lowered, play offers opportunity that the classroom doesn’t. But it is also a place where children can feel more vulnerable, for various reasons. Given that the duty teacher is only one person, and that the playground is a big place with seventy or eighty little people running around, a lot can go right. But often even more can go wrong.

What I have found about recess playtime is this. It is the greatest opportunity for me as a teacher to observe children in their most natural state. And added to this: I am at my most relaxed, feeling none of the pressures to meet outcomes or standards or to teach to differentiated learners. Kids love to play in all the same ways. It is very freeing as a teacher to be witness to this wonder. But my greatest joy has been in helping children who need a little extra love and understanding. It’s why I love duty the most.

When I see the opportunity to connect with children and use this time to enable them in their growth and development as individuals, I take it. I use duty to do what I really love to do: help children grow their hearts. That might be allowing an anxious child to travel with me around the playground, holding my clipboard. It might mean taking the time to settle a disagreement between two or more friends. Or what it is often becoming is a chance to observe students who are finding it difficult to connect with other students and thus making this time of supervision a chance for me to help these students solve both little and big problems, as they arise.

I’d like to say that the Boy had a better day after he and I chatted. I’d like to say that he came to a better understanding of himself and others as a result of the incident on the playground. I’d like to say that he resolved to find a way to connect more easily with other children and that he let down his defences. And I’d dearly like to say that the students involved with him were willing to wash the slate clean. I’d like to say that our infrequent encounters on the playground paved the way to continuous, visible growth in emotional and mental well-being for this young child. But the truth of the matter is: he had a very difficult afternoon, as I came to find out in speaking with his teacher.

And so it goes.

But this I know: no kindness goes unnoticed. And no thoughtful, caring gesture is soon forgotten. There will be other Fridays to come. More duty days in which to build his trust. And while there doubtless will be more incidents and pursuits, there will be small victories along the way. It’s a journey with a climb. Or maybe this process of learning is more like a building a house on a solid foundation. We are laying the framework, he and I. And it is not a race to perfection.

It’s a slow and steady process to building more awareness and understanding. And we all know- anything worth building takes lots and lots of time.  And love. Must never neglect the role of love in building the life of a child.

It’s what really matters.

Where We Are Headed… Thoughts on Teaching in the 21st Century

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p.13)

 

I am swabbing spots all over his chest with a Polysporin-covered Q-tip. Just moments before, he had come to me complaining of itchiness. His chest- sweltered with raw, open infected sores instigated by mosquito bites. A day prior, I had sent him home. The itchiness had been getting to him by mid-afternoon, and without anything to treat the infected spots, the two of us were at an impasse. So, his mother had come to retrieve her boy and mend his angst. As they were leaving, I looked at her and said, “Send along some ointment tomorrow, and I will do this for you.” I realized that this was a minor inconvenience for a busy mother- to pick up an otherwise well-child and take him home simply to apply medication. So, I offered to do it for her, so long as I had her permission and the medicated cream.

Later that evening, the mother wrote me a short message, and in a few simple lines, she conveyed to me her appreciation for my offer to act as nurse for her son. It was apparent that this was not something she would have expected from me, his teacher.

I thought to myself, as I read her short note: “I wouldn’t do anything less than care for this boy’s needs in the ways that he requires caring for: I love this child. I am his teacher. That’s what I do.”

But I wonder: even as my heart is calling me to care for my students in the very ways I care for my own four dear ones at home, is this what I can do realistically? As more and more of my time is being eaten up by demands that are outside my control?

A day later, I sat beside a dear friend in the front seat of her SUV, and I looked her in the eye when I lamented, “Perhaps I would renew my joy in teaching if I was able to simply care for my students, and worry less about all the other junk.”

The junk. That’s what is getting to me. Which is to say, the stuff that is weighing me down.

Junk/ Stuff. The stress over meeting outcomes and curricular goals. The stress over covering the curriculum. The stress over benchmarks. Stress in keeping records, both formal and otherwise. The stress in dealing with other stressed colleagues and students. The stress in planning and readying my classroom after hours, late into the night. The stress by way of new systems of monitoring and assessment brought on by our school boards. The stress in dealing with behaviours. The stress in dealing with unknowns: unknown diagnoses, unknown future job placements, unknown situations, unknown variables. The stress in participating in meetings and in realizing deadlines and living up to expectations. The stress of being all things to all people. The stress. All combined, these stressors have the effect of making us as teachers feel smothered and disabled in doing what we really want to do: care for the little and big people who face us day in and day out inside the four walls of our schools.

Because teaching is primarily about caring for people. Or it should be.

My work feels less and less sacred all the time. More and more rote and routine. More constrictive and prescriptive. More stressful and demanding than ever before. More top-down controlled. Which is not to say that it was ever easy- it’s just getting harder.

Teaching is a challenging career- and it’s not because of the kids.

It’s challenging because of all the other stuff we teachers have to deal with. And it’s challenging because we have neither the time nor the expertise to be dealing with some of the situations we are dealing with. What we really want to do is get back to basics. Teaching for life-long learning and then cushioning all that educating inside a generous portion of simple, genuine caring. Caring deeply for our students’ minds and the learning that takes place there, even as we care for their tender, fragile hearts and souls. Where the real living takes place.

The other day, I was finishing up my lunch when a colleague offered to take my class for a few minutes so as to allow me a couple extra minutes to eat my lunch. I took him up on his suggestion. As I was going back to my own classroom, I had stopped in the office to collect my mail when I noticed a line of children waiting for the secretary to take them into the staff room and heat up their lunch. Added to this group were others: waiting to use the phone and waiting to see the principal. I could see the anxiety building on the secretary’s face. It is a busy enough job to look after the administration of the day-to-day runnings of an office and school to add to that the role of nurse, cafeteria worker and counselor. I offered to take the students and teach them how to buddy up with a Grade 6 student who knew how to operate the microwave, thus alleviating the secretary of the taxing job of heating up lunches. That I was able to take the time to do this was thanks to my dear colleague who offered to take my own students for a few precious minutes during his own prep time. So that I could then be free to help the secretary.

As I again made my way back to my own classroom, the custodian abruptly stopped me while I was walking by the downstairs girls’ washroom: “Would you look at this!” she exclaimed rather brusquely. I peered into the stall where she was positioned over the toilet. There, floating inside the bowl, was a wrapped sandwich, a granola bar and a juice box. Fully intact.

“This has been happening almost daily,” she grimaced.

“I’ll report it to the principal,” I countered. “We’ll get to the bottom if it all.”

As I again started out, this time to find the principal, I started thinking that this was a problem, with a little time, that could be nipped in the bud. Just by way of a good old-fashioned detective eye.

I started into a classroom, asking if anyone was missing a lunch. Everyone was happily eating away. But the next room I happened upon, the teacher met me at the door and immediately communicated to me that she had a hunch it might be someone in her room. A certain person who had been missing their lunch for the last couple of days.

Sure enough, it was that certain person.

And this discovery made all because I had the time to pursue a problem and find a solution for it.

Time is really of essence. But so is love. When teachers have both time and love, powerful things happen.

Students are cared for in ways that they would otherwise not be cared for.

Students learn things they would otherwise not learn.

Problems are solved which would otherwise not be solved.

Answers are found which would otherwise go unresolved.

Children are happier.

Teachers are less stressed.

It’s a win-win for everyone. An absolute no-brainer.

Unless we allow teachers to get back to the business of doing their sacred work of caring for children and students, in ways that their teacher fore-bearers did back in the day, we will be set on a collision course to derailment.

Derailment of our teachers’ sanity.

Derailment of our students’ achievement, in more ways than just standardized performance testing.

Derailment of our classrooms, which will look less and less like learning environments and more and more like sterile testing laboratories.

Derailment of our very educational system.

We are on a collision course and what is set to collide are the expectations that the Powers to Be have for our schools with the health and well being of our teachers and educators. Something’s got to give.

It always does.

And if I were to surmise what that might be, what’s going to give: from personal experience, I’d have to say it’s going to be our teachers.

Heaven help us. That’s about the only hope we have left.

Twleve years Later, You’re Still My Baby Girl

Daughter, you are now twelve. Such a tender, impressionable age. You are in between two worlds from which you still slip so seamlessly. The confident role model. The energetic gymnast. The mature older cousin. The fun-loving friend.

The Big sister. The Little sister.

And all the while, you are still my baby girl.

I could say that I don’t know where the time has gone. But really, I do. We have spent it well, you and I. We have packed into your short twelve years as much fun as a girl could expect to have at this young age. Camping trips, picnics, play-dates, visits to the park. Library outings. Fun park excursions. Summer boating escapades and winter sledding adventures. Skating on the river. Lazy afternoons whittled away at the log cabin- in the water, on the raft, lying helter-skelter on the hammock. Afternoons sitting with a book or two on the creaky porch swing that graces our own veranda. And hours and hours and countless more hours spent bouncing on our faithful trampoline.

We have both spent many more hours at our school, in the piano studio, at the soccer field, in the rink and in various gymnasiums. I have watched you blossom as an athlete, musician and student. I have observed you as a community leader, a student leader, a friend, a cousin, a sister, a granddaughter, a great- granddaughter and an assistant coach. In each role, you excel.

You have had many interests, many passions and many areas of expertise over the years. And I am at times in awe of your easy style, your ability to roll with the punches. You are so beautiful, so full of life. And in spite of the fact that your height has nearly matched my own, there are still times when I nearly forget that you are almost a teenager. Although those moments are fewer and fewer all the time. And as your mother, I know what lies ahead. I was a twelve year old girl once myself.  Young, eager and waiting.

Time will only fly by faster now that you are twelve.

Guard your heart, dearest daughter.

Guard it with your life, your soul, your all. Do not entrust it to just anyone. Your heart is so precious, so exquisite. It deserves someone to care for it of equal worth. Equal exceptionality. So easy it is to let down the defences and find what is most precious to us has been taken away- lost forever. Guard your heart and always be aware. There are those who do not appreciate the rare value and tremendous worth that we see, we who love you so.

Do not sell out, give up, put out, hand over, release or let go of that which we have cultivated in you for safekeeping. You are so precious. Never forget this truth.

A young friend, a childhood playmate, came knocking on our door this evening- a boy. The same boy, I might add, who walked through a snowstorm so as to hand deliver a tub of carefully wrapped eggs so that I might finish a recipe for banana-chocolate chip muffins to share on a cold winter’s evening. The same boy who made a little snowman with your youngest sister that snowy evening. And the same boy who I drove every second day or week to kindergarten, six short years ago.

Again- where does time slip off to in such a hurry?

Tonight, he was the consummate gentleman. He had a card for you, which he walked over from the house next to ours, only a field away.  A walk made in twilight so as to deliver in person, hand-written birthday greetings. I was struck by the sweetness and sincerity in his demeanor. And while I realize that this was purely a platonic gesture, it gave me pause to consider the kind of boy that I would wish for you. When that time comes.

A boy who is kind. Like your father.

A boy who is respectful, considerate and courteous.

Someone pleasant and friendly.

Someone who truly sees you as unique and special.

Someone remarkable- just like you.

I don’t want to make this short list into something which has as its intent to handpick for you a suitor- that wouldn’t be fair. Darling, I trust your judgement- you are very wise and discerning, even at this fresh age of twelve. I know well your own astute sense of what is best. But I guess what I am trying to say is this: that as your mother, I too want the very best for you. I always have. And I can’t stop wanting this now, even as I see you starting to slip into greater independence.

Happy Birthday, my sweet middlest daughter. You told me tonight that you feared slipping back to the ordinary tomorrow, settling back into your role as “that middle daughter” again. You could never be anything less than my sweet, amazing, beloved Maggie. And being in the middle only means you have been sandwiched in love, enveloped in devoted adoration.

Love to you forever and always,

Mom

To those who’ve been shamed, let me be the one to say…

“You’ll never amount to anything. You’ll never be much. You’re a problem child.”

So he was told.

I had forgotten, but she reminded me yet again as we were talking: about the cruelty of  words and how shattering they can be when ill-spoken. When hastily proffered. When handed over without any thought or consideration to the receiver.

And how excruciating when those words are held out to a child, a teenager: as evidence of their failings, flaws and weaknesses. As evidence of their shortcomings. When spoken as a statement to their individual worth. A testimony, if you will: to their person-hood. And when these words of shame are spoken by a teacher, no less: the damage they inflict is often irreparable.

“You’ll never amount to anything. You’ll never be much. You’re a problem child.”

Those words- they have still, at times, been spoken.

And he’ll never forget those words, no matter how much time and space come between. She’ll always remember. For they are there. Forever imprinted in his memory. In her memory. Impressed on his subconscious and thus filtered in and out through his more aware consciousness in the here and now. She’s trouble- or so she thinks; and so she’ll spend the rest of her days either seeking to live up to that reputation or finding a way to prove them wrong.

It’s how the story goes.

And to those students dealing with their own insecurities, anxieties and fears about who they are and what they might become, this is either a death sentence or a fire lit beneath them. A motivation or a deterrent.  It’s pivotal.

This piece of writing I’ve composed: it is not a reprimand to students- goodness knows there are enough of those out there to fill a book. This is a reminder to those of us as teachers to choose our words carefully before we speak them. We can never get those words back again. This is a memo to those of us who educate: to watch our collective tongues. Carefully. To form our opinions with awareness to those around us. To say what needs to be said, but to do so respectfully. With dignity. In honor of the life that stands before us.  For all life is worth that at the very least. Is worth a semblance of regard, out of respect, if nothing else, to the person and all those others they represent. The parents, family and friends. A person is not an island. And words have a ripple effect. Do not think they will fall like a stone to the bottom of the ocean. They will be carried away on the waters and they will oft be repeated. And never forgotten. Do not offer words without thought to what message those words are truly conveying. Words can have more than one meaning. And what we think we are saying lightly can be taken heavily by the hearer.  And buried deep within.

This is a message to we who are adults- we are the forerunners. We have been there before. We know the pain of derision, the wound that is a sarcastic comment spoken in scorn. We remember. And so, we who know better must live better. We must watch what we say and say it with care. There are others listening. Believing what we say. Taking it to heart.  Living up to it, those words.

“You’ll never amount to anything. You’ll never be much. You’re a problem child.”

To that one who has had these words flung in your direction, let me be one to stand up and boldly say:

You are more than the sum of one man or woman’s opinion. You are more than one person’s point of view. You are capable. You are able. You are competent. You don’t have to live down, stoop low to anyone’s minimal expectations of who they think you’ve been destined to be. Prove them wrong. Be more. Do more. Live for more. Aim higher, reach farther. Be inspired to make the change you need to make so as to become the person you were born to be. It’s in you.
You can do this. Be the person you were made to be. The sky’s the limit. And you’re full of potential and possibility.

You’re amazing, I know you are.

Believe it.

I do.

Is missing school a disaster?

“The loss of these last five days has been a disaster, with the loss of instructional time…and we need to gain back as much (of that time) as we can.” P.E.I. Minister of Education, Alan McIsaac, as quoted during a CBC radio interview which you can listen to here

 

We have accumulated thirteen storm days thus far this school year. Meaning, there have been thirteen non-consecutive days thus far in the school year here on P.E.I. for which school has been cancelled due to this unusually brutal winter we are having in Atlantic Canada (a winter which seems to be equally as brutal in much of the rest of North America as well, I might add). Last week, added to the mix a total of five consecutive days of cancelled classes, stimulating much talk in public and private circles which concern themselves with educational matters. Talk by people concerned with outcomes and expectations. People concerned with time off task and focused in-class instruction. People concerned that ‘students not learning within the four corners of the school walls must then not be learning’. People concerned with the matter that students need to be in school, not whittling their time away doing what kids like to be doing, whatever that might be.

Yes, there have been lots of missed classes. Extreme weather conditions being the reason for such. These weather conditions can and may include blowing snow (thus reducing visibility), snow accumulations exceeding 10 cm, blizzard conditions, freezing rain or poor road conditions (impassable laneways). Fortunately, we have not gone so far here on P.E.I. to sacrifice student safety for the almighty tax-dollar. Or should I say: we haven’t done so often (there was that one day, but that was back in February- we have moved on since then). Thankfully, there would not be too many people here in our parts who would fault the schools for cancelling classes, but there are always a few who believe that classes must be made up. In other words, compensated for. By way of a sacrifice of some sort on behalf of the teachers and the schools. Which is to say, that something has to give. For that money has been invested in student learning; there must be a way of making good on our students’ education. So as to not lose said valuable education to such an unpredictable winter.

It has even been said, as evidenced in the above quote, that missing school is a disaster.

Thus, when school is cancelled to this excessive extent, there are often calls from the public that the School Board and government examine the school year thus giving consideration to whether or not the days allotted to instruction should be extended. Or at the very least, giving heed to the preservation of such instructional time via cancellation of any upcoming scheduled professional development days or other holidays in light of the missed class time. Class time deemed suitably important in that missing such time which would have been spent achieving curricular outcomes and meeting grade level expectations is too great a trade off. Thus, the reason for extending school years, decreasing P.D. days or cancelling holidays.

The debate for me is not the loss of professional development so as to preserve instructional time. If there is a benefit for students and a way to show good will to the public, I am all for that. What bothers me about all the debate and hullabaloo are comments like the Minister’s above which infer that missing school is a disaster (of epic proportions). Which, I would submit, it is not.

What is worthwhile? Knowing? Doing? Learning? And where?*

If you live here on P.E.I., there are a few things worth knowing. One of which is how to survive an ice storm (in which there is a pretty good chance that the power will be lost). Here’s what my kids learned last week about that worthy topic:

  • Board games are just as fun as video games
  • Snow forts are fun and challenging to make
  • Homemade donuts are just as good as Tim Horton’s donuts
  • Reading a book is both challenging and rewarding
  • Charades is a fun way to spend time with your family
  • Fireplaces are both cosy and warm
  • Melted snow can allow one to flush a toilet

 

And low and behold, my kids were not the only students learning last week. I met up with a friend in the grocery store the other day and inquired about a Facebook photo she had posted in which her daughter had rigged up a warming rack and candles so as to cook a can of beans during their family’s foray into powerless living. Her daughter played around with her design until it was just right and she eventually cooked a warm meal for her family using flame and metal. Ingenious. Did a teacher stand hovering over her micro-managing her design? Did someone grab a textbook so as to show her what to do? Was she told she needed to read the theory behind such a contraption first so as to make it work?

 

No. She just did it.  All by herself.  Fueled by her own desire to solve a real world problem related to her lived experience.

 

I do not mean to undermine our elected government officials and their priority placed on schooling. However, I do not share the same alarm with them that missing schooling is a disaster. If innovative, creative thinking is the result of a few missed days, then I say that was time well spent.

 

*Reference:  The questions you found me asking have also been asked by William Schubert (University of Chicago at Illinois)  in his article What is Worthwhile: From Knowing and Needing to Being and Sharing.

A challenge and response: Must we choose between Love and Academics?

I really appreciate my friend for challenging my thinking, as you will come to read below.  I am providing her challenge to my thinking and perspective along with my response to her.  This welcome challenge was issued to my last blog post regarding What is Worthwhile Knowing: A Teacher’s Perspective.  I would readily open any feedback you might have to offer by way of challenge or rebuttal.  Thanks to everyone who reads my writing.  I welcome all your views.  Iron sharpens iron.

To me:

I get where you are coming from- and I agree- students learn more effectively when they know that their teachers care about them. But as a parent I don’t send my child to school to primarily feel loved, he has that from me, from everyone in his life etc- what I send him to school for is to learn and to reach his full potential. That to me is the priority. Sometimes I feel that we are moving too far away from that since there are so many children who aren’t getting the love that they need from their families. But I really feel that we have moved too far. Our academic standards have greatly decreased…students reaching university in 2013 are not as prepared as they were in 2005. We need more focus on the academics….not less. I see it at the university level- our students are not as prepared for higher learning as they were 10 years ago. This is what we should be talking about- because the education system is failing their future learning potential. Sure they feel loved….but they can’t perform simple math or spell….by grade 12….this is a major problem! This is the reality that we need to correct. You may be on a different end of the spectrum being in kindergarten where feeling secure and loved is extremely important….but I don’t think that it is the universal focus of sending kids to school…at some point we have to shift more towards the academic side. I am sad for students who I meet in my class who are very intelligent, but have not been academically prepared to fully access all that they could from university. The education system is failing those kids. My favourite teachers from school are not the ones who made me feel loved….but who stretched my mind and expanded my knowledge beyond what I thought I could know- they pushed me to be who I am today and to them I am grateful.

 

To my friend: I appreciate that you wrote me with your perspective. And I appreciate that we both have different perspectives- unique to our own understandings, backgrounds and situations. It is good for me to be challenged in my thinking- to push myself to understand the ‘why’ behind my writing, of late, about love and care. About curriculum of the heart. It is something I feel so deeply about that at times I need to step away from it- step outside of my own thinking- and examine it with new eyes. New perspectacles, if you will (to use our favorite blogger’s analogy).

You mentioned that you “get” where I am coming from, but I wonder if we can truly ever get something like this. I think we have to believe it. You state that “as a parent I don’t send my child to school to primarily feel loved, he has that from me, from everyone in his life etc.” I am glad that your son has that. Many do not. In fact, it is not the norm to have what your children and my children have for experience. Two parents in the home who are university educated, double incomes, every opportunity. A comfortable lifestyle. Values that support life-long learning and ambitious achievement. These things are not the norm, as you well know.

That being said, I agree that even for those parents sending their children to school who are not in your or my position, those parents still might echo your sentiments: that they aren’t sending their children to school primarily for love. They might even agree that they are sending their children to school for the very same reasons that you state: to further their academics. Widen their possibilities. Further their potential. Whether or not parents are sending their children to school for reasons that reflect your stance or reflect mine, the fact of the matter is this: children and students learn best when their learning is cushioned in an atmosphere of love, care and compassion.

What is love? Am I talking about warm, fuzzy, sweet-talking love that always pleases? Am I talking about feel-good, low-pressure therapeutic love that focuses solely on self at the expense of all else? What is love, anyway- it means so many different things to so many different people. What I am talking when I refer to love in my writing is that which is the deepest emotion known to humankind: something so over-arching, all-encompassing and profound that it permeates our very being. When I speak of love, I am talking about everything that is good in this world which could be then funnelled into our being. So as to inspire, motivate, compel, arouse, encourage, stimulate, provoke and stir up whatever might lie dormant within us. Whatever might lie fallow. Whatever is ready for awakening.

Love as an emotion is often highly undervalued in education. Sure, we embrace it in its place: but it is always put into its box and asked to sit there until it might be of use. It is not always on top of everyone’s list of priorities when it comes to academics.   In fact, love might very well be at the bottom of the list for some, as you have expressed. It is so often undervalued through statements that contend that it is a poor reason for a teacher’s purpose in offering an education to their child. After all, and you are right here: our job as teachers is to deliver curriculum. Teach the standards. Expound the outcomes. We are expected to deliver on the core fundamentals of a solid education: the arts and the sciences. And in doing so, prepare our students for the workforce.

But what if love was the standard by which everything else was measured? What if love made me a better teacher? What if love made my students better students? What if love made people better, just through experiencing it?

What if the love I showed in my care and concern for students then allowed me to, in love, inspire them to have a passion for language, for prose? For nuances in language? For poetry, literature and classical writing?

What if love opened a door to enable me to share with my students a passion for mathematics? For precision and exactness? For reasoning and rationalizing? What if love paved that way?

What if love gave me the inch that could buy a mile? What if love was what every foundation I built upon? What if love was everything? In everything, through everything about everything?

What if love was everything?

Can we ever really know for sure if it was what really made the difference- or not-when we who have always known love are the ones calling for less of it? We who have always had love at our fingertips saying it is unnecessary? When we who are deeply loved, who have always had love at our disposal, are saying it is the drain on academics and learning? Keeping us from excelling? And by what standards, I might ask? Are we really in any position of saying that love isn’t necessary, in such sweeping statements, when we’ve always had enough ourselves? What if your call for less love was the unravelling of that one student who could have been destined for great things. But because love was removed, then became a hardened, bitter being?

Who are we to say?

You are right- love isn’t everything. There is also pain and sorrow. There is hatred. There is always an equal opposing force to everything we know. And I could say that we can teach without love, but then the door is wide open for anything else to move in. Anything else but love. And while you claim you didn’t need love, and I am assuming that you are implying here that some teachers might have adopted stances that were quite the opposite to love: for some students, this would close the door to learning. And quite possibly forever. I am glad this was not the case for you. This wouldn’t apply across the board, however. What works for one scenario might not work for another. But we all need love. We certainly don’t need hatred or ill-will. Nor do we need hardness and rigidity. While learning might still transpire, it does in spite of these qualities. Not because of them. Unlike with love which paves the way.

As for taking that chance- of doing away with love in favour of dry, rigid adherence to the standards: I am not willing to take that chance. So I continue to offer love. And offer learning and opportunity to my students in as passionate a way as I know how.

So, what about academics. We are in the business of learning. How can I the teacher find balance between my call to love and my job to teach? When I offer love, I find that my passion for learning is that much easier to transmit. When I show care, I have won my students’ confidences so that I can then offer instruction. When I value their opinions and thoughts, I find they are stimulated to think above and beyond what I ever dreamed possible. When I open the door, and I know they trust me, I also know they will follow. And sometimes they even lead the way.

Why are students not ready for university, as you have so aptly pointed out? One cannot argue with statistics. But maybe they can offer some plausible reasons for such. My belief is this: I feel that quite possibly we have not offered enough in the way of love. Perhaps students haven’t known the freedom to explore, to climb to lofty heights and ambitions. Perhaps love never paved the way. Maybe students do not know the grace that is compassion-perhaps if they did we would see more students moved towards social justice and outward thinking. Perhaps students have not been shown the generosity that is passion and joy for learning. There might not have been allowances made for outside the box thinking. There are a multitude of reasons for why the stats are what they are.

Perhaps schools have failed our students in not preparing them for university. And perhaps we have also failed in not offering them a curriculum for life in stressing the importance for love to underlie their very existence.

Perhaps if we focused more on love, we might see changes that surpass even our own expectations: for learning, life and love itself.

What is worthwhile: A Teacher’s Perspective

Not long ago, I wrote an article called “What Students Remember Most About Teachers” to which I received a phenomenal response from my readership. I continue to hear daily from people with stories to share about the teachers who made an impact on their lives- hear from those as well who share about the teachers who have chosen worthwhile ways in which to interact and be with their students, in the day-to-day lives of their classrooms. Last week, I received this comment, a comment which stopped me abruptly in my tracks, causing me to consider to an even greater degree the message behind that article I had written. Here is the comment in its entirety:

I’m new to the world of teaching – just finished my internship in a lovely kindergarten classroom. However, at the end of my experience three months ago, one of my students unexpectedly passed away. It has had a profound effect on my view of a teacher, but it has been difficult to put into words how my priorities changed.

This letter explains it.

To me, it is of course important to cover curricular objectives and make sure students are learning and growing. That is what teaching is. However, at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is that my students enjoy themselves and know that they were cared about. Because if, god forbid, it is their last few weeks on earth, I want those weeks to hold as much joy as possible.

I know that’s not quite where you were going with this letter – but it rings true anyway. Thank you.

As I read this teaching colleague’s letter written personally to me, images immediately conjured up in my mind of the horrific days just a little over a year ago whereby I found myself to be in a very similar place as she finds herself now. Because at our school, a sweet little boy just down the hall from me, one grade level up- fell ill and later died on the heels of a busy school week. He was in school Friday, dead on Saturday. No warning. One last picture taken the day before, during Show and Tell, to hold a lifetime of memories. In fact, I sang and played the piano at his funeral. Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. How can one ever forget the image of a small casket holding one so precious, so full of potential and promise. It is a mother’s worst nightmare. And although I was not his mother- nor was I his classroom teacher, I am a mother to four other sweet children whom I held that much more tightly, that much closer because of this tragedy. And teacher to countless others I call my own. I hold these all a little closer, a little tighter, now that I know better. Now that I know more. Because one never comes through an event like that unscathed. Unbroken. It was heart-breaking- words fail to adequately sum up the emotions that were experienced at the time.  Experienced still, for many of us. It affected all of us in our school- and indeed in the surrounding communities as well. Such a profound and senseless loss.

And when one has experienced loss in such a way, I don’t think you ever look again at things in quite so casual a manner. No longer are you asking the same questions, going through the same rote motions. Habitually living your life. Rather, you ask yourself this: if this were my childrens’ or any one of my students’ last day here on earth, would it be a pleasant, happy, peaceful one for them? Would I in any way be a hindrance to them in living out their last moments here on earth with joy and hope? Would I actually be a help, offering them kindness, love, compassion and concern? Would their last day on earth be the best day imaginable, the most fulfilling one possible: and all because I stopped to consider what might be the most worthwhile way in which to spend that day with them? All because I chose to show care and concern over frustration and impatience? Important considerations for teachers to keep in mind. Because when it comes down to it, it really isn’t about the curriculum we teach: it is about the heart with which we teach that curriculum. It’s about the love we show in our words and in our actions.

It’s really about love, when all is said and done.

Donald S. Blumenfeld-Jones poses an important question in an article on curriculum as to what the right question must be for determining curricular studies. In order to get at what is important- what is CORE in terms of schooling and time spent “on task”, one must first ask “What knowledge is of most worth? Or even, “What knowledge can we not do without?” In other words, what is worth giving our time and attention to- our thoughts and intentions towards- in terms of learning.  In terms of mental, intellectual and physical growth?

William Schubert in his article “What is worthwhile: From Knowing and Needing to Being and Sharing” poses thoughts on what is worthwhile in terms of learning. In terms of needing. Experiencing. Doing and being. In terms of becoming. And he extends these thoughts to what’s worthwhile in terms of sharing. In terms of contributing. What is worthwhile in terms of wondering. In other words, what is worth spending our precious time on earth as we live life, from second to second. Minute to minute. Day to day. Year to year.

We only have this one opportunity: what is worthwhile doing and being while we’re at this job of living our lives? Or as teachers, we only ever have the day we are in RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT with our students: we are only ever guaranteed that one day in which we are living. Are we doing our utmost to make that one day the best one possible for our students? As if it could be their very last?

Today, we are on our thirteenth storm day. Meaning, there have been thirteen non-consecutive days thus far in the school year here on P.E.I. for which school has been cancelled due to this unusually brutal winter we are having in Atlantic Canada (a winter which seems to be brutal in much of the rest of North America as well, I might add). Currently, there have been five consecutive days of cancelled classes, stimulating much talk in public and private circles which concern themselves with educational matters. People concerned with outcomes and expectations. People concerned with time off task and focused in-class instruction. People concerned that students might not be absorbing information and skills within the four corners of the school walls, thus they must needs not be learning. People concerned with the matter that students need to be gaining knowledge in school rooms, not whittling their time away doing what kids like to be doing: whatever that might be. There will be calls that extra-curricular activities should be cancelled and that there must not be any wasted instructional time.

But what is really of most worth will never be discussed: that is,  that students need teachers for more than merely instruction. They need teachers because teachers care. Care about them. Care about their person. Care about who they’ve been, who they are now and who they will one day become. Care to listen and to offer advice. Care to empathize and offer compassion. Care in little and big ways. That’s because teachers are interested in students as people- not just as consumers of knowledge. Not just as sponges who must soak up information. Buckets to fill up with important knowledge and skills.  Teachers care about students because intrinsically we believe deep down that what is of worth knowing the most is this: our students.

We want to know our students.

And while we might be taken to task on matters of educational import, matters of the heart are really where it matters. And those matters are what teachers like myself will continue to spend their time on in spite of the call to “time on task”. Because what is of worth your last day of life should ever be in our minds: should be ever compelling us to stop and take heed. We have no idea how long- how much time anyone on this earth will be given. If this were the last day for anyone in my circle of influence, I should hope that the time they spent with me was worth their while.

Was worth spending it with me.

What a precious responsibility we have been given.  May we never take it lightly.

What is of most worth? Is it love or curriculum? Kindness or literacy? Compassion or numeracy? Empathy or time on task? Teaching to the test or teaching to the heart? The answer to each of these questions lies somewhere within us all. It is up to us to answer the questions wisely and carefully.

And the ways in which we answer these questions speak directly to where our heart is calling us.  That is, speak directly to whether our heart is calling us toward love or away from it.

It’s a Hard Knock Life

Three Stories That Prove I Am A Bad Luck Magnet:

1.) We arrived home from our 2014 March Break trek to N.C., U.S.A., pulling in Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. From the minute I opened the van door, I hit the snow/ground running. And I didn’t stop until I had most of the bags unpacked and put away. Things were pretty much back to normal by the time I went to bed that night, minus a suitcase that sat in the hallway upstairs for the better part of a week. Anything that could be stowed or shoved out of the way was, so as to buy me some precious time.

In some ways, it was like we had never left. Life falling back into a rhythm of fast pace hectic mayhem. Such is the busy life we lead. Sunday was church and the Ice Show, which consumed most of the day. Monday was school and meetings and piano lessons. And course readings late into the night. Tuesday was more of the same with the added bonus of a course exam by Skype that night with my professor. Since lunch time was taken up by meetings/preparations (as was more of the same after school), I had made up my mind to go home and make supper then head back into school at 6:30 to finish up the last minute preparations prior to taking the Skype call.

Everything running on schedule, I got supper started and made, and then decided that in order to save time, I would eat later. So I headed into school as planned at just an hour and a half before the exam.

The school was a quiet place to be- no noise and worries. Just peaceful silence. I settled in to read over my papers and print off my notes. When I was ready to leave, I locked the office and got my coat on. I had twenty minutes to spare. Everything was running on schedule. That should have been my first clue.

I was just about to leave the building when I put my hand into my pocket to retrieve the keys, only to discover: I had no keys. No keys. No KEYS???? To say I freaked out is an understatement. And to say that this really wasn’t that much of a surprise is telling the honest to goodness truth as well. I looked up at the clock. There was not a minute to waste. I ran back up to the office to see if I had happened to leave the van keys in the door, but unfortunately had not. I ran back downstairs to see if they were anywhere in my classroom. Not a chance.
I looked near the phone. Nothing. And then, I started to panic. I had no keys and an exam that would now be starting in 15 minutes, thanks to my dim-wittedness and lack of attention. In a moment of clarity, I dialed my Husband’s number and then completely unravelled when he answered the phone.

“I left my keys in the office,” I spluttered. “Come get me.”
“I’ll be right there,” the reply. Sweetest.man.ever. What I ever did to deserve him I will never know. I could almost see him rolling his eyes at me over the phone line. That this was happening to me was certainly no coincidence.
Because of course, these things ALWAYS happen to me.

While I waited for my Knight in Shining Armour to arrive, I desperately dialed my principal to see if I could avoid embarrassment in the morning and have him run out, unlock the office door, and allow me to slink out of the school with my keys in hand. No harm done. No one would ever know the difference. Alas, I could not get through his phone line, try as I might. It just kept running a busy signal.

I paced back and forth, knowing full well that I now had under ten minutes to make it home in time for that exam.

Finally, our truck appeared, barreling down the road; Husband pulled into the parking lot. I rushed over, grabbed the keys and took off in a record-breaking sprint for the van. T minus 10 and counting. I drove home, trying to pace myself and calm down from what could have been a full-blown anxiety attack. By the time I got to our driveway, I had resigned myself to the fact that “whatever will be, will be.”
I arrived home at 7:59. Walked in the door. I put my hands into my pocket, just a natural instinct. A reflexive gesture. And what do you know?

There were my keys. In my pocket. Exactly where I had put them twenty minutes earlier. Isn’t that always the way?

Knock one.

2.) I was loading the laptop in preparation for the Skype call to my professor. Ten minutes into the wait, I realize that maybe I am missing something here, as I am getting no calls. I check my e-mail and find out that my prof has already sent me two messages trying to figure out where I am in Skype-land. Turns out, there are twenty other people with the same Skype address as we have. I didn’t realize that there were that many Brian Gards in the world. Fifteen minutes after our exam is scheduled to begin, I finally clue in to the fact that I am the one to make this call. And so I do.

Knock two.

3.) Every week, we have at least one major liquid spill in our classroom. You’d think I’d learn. You’d think I would’ve bought a mop bucket by now. And you’d think that after a while I would have some sort of a slick system devised. But apparently, this is par for the course in Kindergarten, as I have come to learn. So it was on Tuesday that we had two chocolate milk spills in the span of an hour, causing me to wonder if there is such a thing anymore as powered milk. If so, I am buying shares in the company.

Knock three.

And there you have it.  My three stories that span the perimeter of one day in the life…of a woman with a few hard knocks.  It’s a hard knock life, boys and girls.  But it ain’t so bad as I make it sound, really.

At least I still have my sense of humor.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What’s love got to do with it, anyway? Got to do with education? Got to do with teaching?
What’s love got to do with it?

Everything. It’s got everything to do with it.

I am delivering a dynamic lesson on adding detail to writing. It has spanned two days of teaching, and I have covered the gamut. I have used mentored text. I have used my own illustrations. I have allowed more than enough time for the students to think through, talk through and share ideas. I have all the bells and whistles- anchor charts; word walls; alphabet and number charts; soft music. Nice sharp pencils, which I just barely finished sharpening this morning. In spite of the rush. The classroom has even been designed so as to be conducive to writing. We have a writing centre and various writing stations, but there are of course other spots in the room that a writer could settle down for a productive writing session. I can’t imagine what stone I have left unturned.

“Okay, everyone!” I urge. “Let’s get writing!”

And with that send-off, I see the students scatter into all four corners of the room, ready to write. And I think to myself…”what a wonderful—“

…wait a minute.

All but one has settled down for that intended writing session. There is always one.

In a matter of minutes, I can see that the best laid plans are still only plans. For this little writer has not been inspired to write today much more than a scribble. And when I approach and ask why, I am met with a bit of defiance. A little bit of defensiveness.

And some little feet propped up on the table.

This was not what I envisioned the writing session to be.

No not at all.  Rather, I had pictures in my mind of children, heads bent low over papers, hands moving furiously. But never did I conjure up images of students sitting back, smug looks on their faces. Telling me “I’m done” after three minutes have barely passed since the send-off.
This is not what my ideal vision would be under any circumstance.

I approach the student quickly and ask how the story is unfolding, as we have spent considerable time developing the idea for this book that he is making. He points to a circle on the page. I ask what it represents. “A circle,” he says smugly.  I am not ready to admit defeat, so I probe further.

“What is it suppose to be?” I ask.

He looks at me and shrugs.

“A circle,” he repeats.

I know and he knows- that the story he had told me he would working on today was about a movie he had seen over March Break. He had left our gathering place on the blue rug with ‘next steps’ already in place. But here we are- with circles that look more like scribbles than they do circles. And these ‘circles’ are covering his page.

It’s easy to forget that teaching, like all of life, is not about us. It’s not always a rejection of what we hold near and dear to our hearts when plans fail to follow through. Sometimes, it’s just that people are different. Some of us enjoy writing. And some of us do not.

I later talk to this student’s mom about our writing session, and in the process I realize a few things.

I really like this boy. A lot. And the more I try to understand him, the more I realize I can accept him: just as he is.
• I need to work harder at helping this student see the value in writing. If what we are doing is not connecting, there needs to be another way. Another approach taken.
• This student is more than just a would-be writer. He is a comedian, a reader, a brother, a son. He is a strong personality with the ability to stand his ground. He isn’t easily persuaded. He has resolve. This child is going to be fine- so what if he decided this week to just draw circles? Next week might be a whole different ball game.

Which brings me back to my first question: what’s love got to do with it all?

There are many aspects of my job that I am required to do. I am required to deliver curriculum. I am required to teach certain skills and knowledges. I am required to prepare my students to enter the next grade- the next level. The next unit. I am required to look after my students in their parents’ absence. Overall, I am required to begin preparing them for life. Real life.

But in all the descriptors that I have been given, no one has ever required of me to love them. Interesting, really. Their parents have much the same job as mine, but love is always underlying the relationship. Why is this so? And why is it not something we think that we as educators should be compelled to feel as well?

In spite of this fact, I find that love happens anyway. We come to love our students, in spite of ourselves. In spite of the odds. They wrap themselves around our hearts and we are not easily able to let them go. We think about them after the buses pull out of the parking lot. We consider their needs as we prepare lessons for the next day. We care about their lives as we make after-hours phone calls. We enjoy when we run into them at Wal-mart on the weekend.

We end up loving them. We really do.

Because in the midst of teaching and facilitating and preparing and instructing, I find myself caring about the students I teach. In the midst of guiding and disciplining and leading my students in key areas of fundamental learning areas, I find myself empathizing with them. In offering to assist them during writing workshops, I find myself coming to understand them better. In watching them discover key math principles, I find myself delighting in their learning- appreciating the young wonder that is a five-year old mind. In listening to their stories- as told by them and by their families, by their parents: I find myself coming to love these children. As if they were my very own.

I can’t get them out of my heart. It’s about love, really.

And even though I am passionate about writing and reading and math and science- and passionate about learning in general: I am more passionate about people. And I have come to believe that my calling is relationship, not teaching. The teaching is secondary to my calling to connect and relate and commune with those little people who show up in my room every day. It’s about reaching my students through relationship so that I might later on influence them to use their learning to develop their own relationships with people they trust. So that they might come to see that getting an education is about finding ways to connect with people in the world around them. So that they can thrive and flourish in this wild and beautiful life we have been blessed to live.

It’s about using the learning of writing so that they can then encourage, persuade, inspire, motivate and compel.
It’s about using the learning of math so that they can then reason, problem solve, analyze and explain.
It’s about using science to wonder, imagine, discover, uncover, explore and investigate.
It’s about using social studies to remember, consider, understand, appreciate and recollect.
It’s about making school a place that we learn the art of relating to people so that we can use the knowledge and skills we learn there in that place we call school- so that we can then go out into the big, wide world we live in with other people, and use those skills to better the world around us.

So that we can transform the world through love.

Through LOVE.

So you see, love has everything to do with it. Without love as the basis for learning, how are students to then know that love underlies everything we do? Everything we learn? Everything in life?  Love is everything.

And love has everything to do with it. For without love, writing is just a subject. It’s just writing.  So is reading and math.  They are just a skeleton.  Love makes them whole.  Breathes life into them and makes them come alive.

We will have more writing sessions much like the one I have described above. I realize this. I am no naïve fool.
But what else I understand- what I know for sure about our future sessions is this: I teach people, not subjects.  I teach boys and girls, not writing.  I teach human beings full of potential and wonder and possibility.

So when we have those kinds of days, we’re going to get through them. Together.  And always through the power of love.