I am and will always be an educator. For over 33 years, I taught in the public secondary system in Ontario. As a former school teacher, I still know a lot about many things: Music, English, Guidance, Special Education – the areas of expertise listed on my Teacher’s Qualification Card. I know about rubrics, expectations, accommodations, and remediation. I’ve taken courses in assessment and evaluation. I know about learning styles. I understand classroom management and discipline techniques. I’ve become knowledgeable about literacy. I know how to manage paper, complete reports and use computers.
But all teachers know these things. In their undergraduate and pre-service classes, teachers have all taken courses in how to teach their subjects. They’ve taken courses on assessment and questioning techniques and discipline. They take Additional Qualifications Courses to increase their knowledge. They were good students. Not necessarily the most intelligent or the students who got the highest marks, but they learned how to play the educational game – the game of school.
I did come to the end of my career as a school teacher. I retired! In preparation for that day, I looked back. I relived my journey as a professional — the good memories and the bad, my successes and regrets. And I wondered: what did I know when I started and what had I learned over those 33 years as a classroom teacher?
I thought of doing a Ted Knight speech at my retirement: “It all began in a little one room school house…” Nope. I could see the eyes roll.
Then I thought of doing a Sophia Petrillo- style speech: “ Picture it….a corner curb in the morning, 1954….” Nope. Too many things that my listeners would need the context to get.
After almost 62 years of living – 56 or so of them spent in school either as a teacher or a student, what have I learned about life?
Cherish relationships. I would never trade my friends, my family or my life for fewer gray hairs or a flatter stomach. I like my gray hairs, even though my hairdresser thinks I’m a bit strange about that.
Be kind to yourself. Don’t be your own worst critic. Have the cookie if you want it. Gorge on ice cream for dinner. Allow yourself to have a treat, to be messy, to be extravagant. Don’t fight aging. As whoever said: “We are too soon old and too late smart.”
Give yourself license to feel. I’ve never understood the Stoic way of life. Why is it that adults are not supposed to cry or to be angry, or have a really good belly laugh? I’ve always wondered why it is that adults forget how to play and be silly. My first principal told me that I was silly. When I asked him what he meant, he told me to look it up in the dictionary and I would understand what he meant. I did look it up. Thirty-six years later, I still don’t know what he was talking about.
Remember that if we can’t laugh at our own foibles, if we don’t know who we are, if we try in vain not to be hurt, we will never learn from experience which, we’ve been assured, is the best teacher. We will loose opportunities to grow in understanding, compassion and strength. Our lives will most likely be pristine but sterile. We will never know the joy of being imperfect.
As you get older, it’s easier to be positive. Life, you come to know, is not made up of absolutes. I don’t question what others think as much. I question myself less. I don’t live in that space for as long as I used to. It’s taken me a lot of time, but I now celebrate all of my life and I’m thankful for every part of it.
So, I like myself, finally….I’ve been set free. I love the person I’ve become. I know I’m not going to live forever, but while I’m here, I will not live in ‘what could have been’ or ‘it’s not fair’ land.
And, after 33 years of being a classroom teacher, what do I reallyknow about being an educator? What’s really important?
Well … Here is my sage advice from a school-room retiree to incoming teachers — newcomers to the classroom.
* Plan ahead. Trying to fly by the seat of your pants is dangerous. Inevitably, your pants fall off when you least expect it. And any of us would end up embarr-ass-ed.
* Play by the rules: arrive on-time; look the part; take attendance; get your exams in on time; get the reports done on time; attend the meetings you’re expected to; be a professional. Failing to do these things would guarantee that your time at work will not be pleasant.
* Remember where you are in the educational food chain – you are not a student but you don’t wield any power cards in the school, either.
* Remember what it was like to be a student but remember that you are not a student. You are not a buddy. Students are not our equals. Familiarity really does breed contempt.
* Try to be flexible. No matter how well you plan, things happen. The best laid plans of man do ‘gang after glae’. So learn to roll with it. (For me, controller that I am, this has been one of the hardest but most important lessons.) Stressing out over things you can’t control will not make it all better and change anything. And you use up too much precious energy living in ‘what if’ or ‘what about’ or ‘if only’ land.
* The principal may set the tone for the school but the secretaries and custodians really run the place. Do not do anything which will land you in their bad books. If you do, and you don’t immediately make amends, you might be sorry – your messages might arrive late, or your blackboards might not be cleaned, or the note you really didn’t want to be erased could disappear as if by magic.
* Remember that you are an educator not merely an instructor. Educators are not the subjects they teach. Rather, help students to become life long learners. Help them to learn how to act on their own and yet also play nice with others. Whether through the subjects we teach in class or the activities we foster outside of class, we help our students to grow in knowledge and understanding of themselves and the world.
* Remember that, more often than not, it’s what happens outside the classroom which provides opportunities for the greatest learning. Education is not only that which happens while learning math or science or music or English or art. It is also that which happens in being part of a musical group, being a member of a team, helping on Students’ Council. Education – learning – doesn’t only happen as we march forward on a sidewalk of sturdy pavement (read curricula and course profiles, assignments, tests and exams). Education also happens in the cracks – the connecting spaces between periods, and subjects. And like the cracks in the pavement, it’s this education that often has the greatest potential to trip us up if we don’t pay attention to all of our surroundings. Mary Catherine Bateson made the point that the greatest potential learning happens when we open up our peripheral vision and broaden our perspectives.
* Be mindful of your words. When I was in grade 9, we used to complete these vocabulary development exercises from a book called Words are Important. As I’ve thought about it, I know that words are important. Be mindful of how you speak to your students and about your students. Take care in how you communicate with your colleagues. And don’t forget how you communicate with yourself. Put downs and negative thoughts don’t fix things and, inevitably, they colour how we look at our world and ourselves in it. So knock it off!
* Remember that it is not about you. Life is not a conspiracy against you. Educators work in a business which deals with people and people are messy. What happens is not a reflection of you. In fact, the only things you can control are those things you do or think or say. You can’t control what others say or think or do. It’s such wasted energy to even try.
* Ask for help when you need it. You don’t know everything about teaching. Heck, we don’t know everything about living. Teachers are not god. They’re not meant to be. Asking for help, I’ve come to know, is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It honours those about me: I trust them enough to be there for me just I know that I will be there for them.
* Share. I blessed my former Department Head for the English department in which we shared things. Become an advocate of R and D – Rip off and duplicate – only remember to always acknowledge the source because we frown on plagiarism. As Tom Lehrer would say, in The Great Lobochevsky – always call it ‘research’.
* Don’t make assumptions. It’s when we don’t have as much information as we can possibly get that we can say or do things which will require fixing. Ask questions. Get the facts. Be Joe Friday! “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
* Be kind to yourself. Teachers are human beings first – sons or daughters, mothers or fathers, friends, brothers or sisters. Remember that you are not alone. As John Donne wrote: ‘No man is an island.’ We are part of a whole.
* Celebrate your students – their quirks, their energy, their successes. I remember the people I have taught, not the things I taught. As I look back on my career, it is the people I carry with me.
* And while you’re at it, celebrate yourself. We live too much focussed on the things that don’t work. We wonder why a lesson which worked yesterday, goes over like a lead balloon today. Sometimes, things just don’t work and we don’t know why. Sometimes, we have students who make lousy choices and we are not able to help them understand that they have other options. Sometimes, as Forrest Gump said, “It happens.”
* Always try to do your best. But recognize that what your best will look like will not always be the same. But if you’ve tried your best and done the best job you know how to do, you can’t ask more of yourself than that. If you’ve done your best, then you will find that you won’t beat yourself up for what happens. Remember, we will never be able to plan for every eventuality. Life is messy. Do your best and hope for the best.
* Never stop learning. Never lose the passion for what you do. I always told myself that when teaching became just a job, I would leave it. I’ve been blessed that through all the dreck and mishigoss and putting up with those who find it sexy to bash education, it was never that. I know I was meant to be an educator. I left the formal form of education but I have not stopped being an educator. I never will.
* Keep yourself open to opportunity. But it helps to have the wisdom to say ‘yes’ to the opportunities with which life presents you. I will always remember a very wise friend of mine who reminded me of that. I’m thankful that I’ve started to say ‘yes’ to opportunity.
* Don’t be afraid to take risks. Trust your professional judgment. FDR said” Do something. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, do something else. But do something!” Good advice. And a participant in my doctoral study told me that it is easier to ask forgiveness than beg for permission. These two ideas go together, I think.
* Finally, always remember that what you do makes a difference. You may not see it happen. But you affect the future of every student whose life you’ve touched. And that’swhat’s really important.