The Politics of Teaching

 

Rarely does a student remember every teacher.   But, one stands out in my mind and I would like to thank him. My favourite subject in school was creative writing because it was the only subject that allowed us to be ourselves, free of the obligations and restraints of “English Curriculum Requirements”.   Mrs. Lyons in grade eight encouraged this type of writing in English class and read some of my pieces aloud. Then, again in grade 11 a real writing course was created by Mr. Fleming, a jovial and delightfully humorous English teacher, who allowed us to experiment with language and our own ideas, free of the criticism of sentence structure and dogma. He danced into the classroom with a broad smile and was always so endearing and respectful of all of our writing. I don’t remember him ever giving “grades” on a piece of writing …..only reassuring, encouraging comments.

Thanks Mr. Fleming (Cedarbrae Collegiate 1975) because of you, I am still writing.

Unfortunately he often endured painfully sarcastic remarks and mean spirited pranks from rude teenage boys. I never got over the hurt and shame that Mr. Fleming experienced when some foolish boys covered him in water. I have always thought this was one of the most spiteful acts. This act of meanness was never funny and it has stuck with me. Mr. Fleming quit teaching. He quit. He walked out the door and never went back. One of the few teachers I loved and he hated teaching. I met him several years later and he told me his story. I should have learned from his example.  But more about that later.

I understood his reasons but, I understand them even more profoundly now that I have been a teacher. That is what got me thinking how does a teacher ever know if you cared about what they did? In fact what real reward is there in teaching besides the gratitude of your students? One of the reasons for today’s  blog would be to encourage others to think about positive teacher stories.  Hell, maybe that’s why I am driven to write this.

Problem was that the only thing I ever wanted to do was become a teacher. My favourite game from the age of 8 was “School”.   I made up texts and spellers for my little sister and loved coming up with imaginative games. I love children and I especially enjoy the children who are unhappy or struggling. They in fact became a focus of my passion. I knew that many of the children with strong home experiences needed me less. I always made sure that they were served well and worked very hard to create activities so they could fly with ideas of their own.  But the really needy kids were often so desperate and lonely.  Their lives did not seem fair.

Child development and child psychology are fascinating subjects to me.  I spent a lot of free time reading about the best way to “teach a child drawing” or developing reading activities that were original and interesting and coming up with writing ideas that inspired kids to creatively reflect and then write.  Some of my most troubled students often enjoyed expressing themselves in a way that gave them some power.  Writing can be extraordinarily satisfying if it is about something you are passionate about.  It wasn’t hard to find a subject that these kids were upset, anxious or excited about.  As long as you did not prescribe the parameters.
I love a child’s honesty and eagerness for life and believed that I could make a difference. The crazy thing is I wanted to be the best teacher ever. High expectations of myself would never allow me to accept an unhappy or bored student in my classroom. I thought I could change them all into eager attentive students who were motivated and excited about learning. I was excited and they would be, too.

My energy level in the classroom and highly adrenalized state would eventually become my minefield.   I was able to keep up this intensity for many years but eventually a change would become inevitable. I was never bombed with water like Mr. Fleming was – I was too busy bombing myself with inner criticism and doubt. There was a voice inside me that said I just needed to come up with the right lesson plans, the right spark that I was sure was inside each student of mine.

In the early years I taught kindergarten in a small country school. I had already put in 4 years of supply teaching in order to gain my own classroom so I was ecstatic. I really cannot explain just how happy I was to finally have a room of my own. Those early days are held fondly in my memory but, already I was quite surprised by the lack of supplies and books that existed in many schools. I had a lot to learn.

Many Kindergarten classrooms in Ontario are under funded and small. In fact, many classrooms are a dishevelled mess because the task of keeping them tidy and clean is an extremely onerous task and when a teacher transfers they generally take all of their supplies with them. Why wouldn’t they? Often they have paid for them out of their own pocket.

My classroom was hard work and I was often mistaken as the janitor because of my rolled up sleeves, overalls and bucket carrying.   Teachers spend their own money.   Lots of it.   I often supplied all of my own children’s toys, puppets, puzzles, books, new dolls that didn’t look like they had barely survived Hiroshima, clean stuffed animals, math manipulatives, teacher‘s resource books to the tune of several thousand dollars. We have all done it. Teachers are generally very dedicated individuals and when they first start out they are incredibly tenacious and passionate about kids and teaching.

I have cleaned. I have cleaned again. I have even hired someone to clean the classroom because the dust and dirt on a daily basis was making me ill. I was sick almost all of my teaching career and I have seen others who were sick as often as I. I have seen children return day after day, some for the entire winter with colds and lung infections that were so bad it was hard for me to believe they were still standing. I often prepared a sick bed in my room. There are no longer any nurses available to teachers and kids like there was when I was a child. Our system is in need. Our kids are suffering. Is anybody listening?

I had an easel made. I bought a sound system, cd’s, and ordered weekly from the Library Resource Centre head office. The LRC was and continued to be a huge source of inspiration and real help to me. The staff were helpful and had their sleeves rolled up – they were not giving lectures and telling you what to do – they worked with you. The list of necessary supplies goes on and it became a considerable expense. Teachers are not satisfied with boring, monotonous, dirty classrooms. We all want an inspirational environment for our kids and for ourselves. I won’t and did not survive in a climate of despair anymore than my students could.

Kindergarten and young children in general are undervalued by most adults. They just don’t get it. What more can I say – most parents are surprised by the reality of a child. I wish four year olds could blog. I seriously wish this was possible. While a child is in the early years parents may be attentive but, once they are through that sometimes stormy and difficult period, parents often get very busy with their own careers and lives.   Talking about kindergarten or small children at a party is a sure way to stand alone – believe me I’ve done it. Nobody wants to talk about the serious lack of supplies and experiences available to our 2 – 5 year olds. They will give it lip service, only if it gets them votes but, don’t ask them to get involved in any tangible way.
Many kindergartens exceed the limit of teacher student ratio – what is safe and fair for the children. And let’s face it, many kindergartens and daycares in Ontario are seriously lacking supplies and ingenuity. Let alone the fact that as far as I am concerned, the situation is dangerous.

I have a great deal of derision for our educational system. There has never really been a time in my life when I thought public education was working. We won’t spend the money. We don’t really care because if we did you would not have huge fancy office buildings set up for adults with not one child in sight. Any downtown area is usually completely free of children. Very early on I realized that the “system” was really just a holding tank for young people, a babysitting service if you will. Eventually it became impossible to put a lot of thought into the creation of materials that would inspire enthusiastic young minds. There were always just too many of us.   Let me be clear here.   Most teachers are in the business because they love learning and generally are very fond of children. Frequently teachers get into the career because they want to see change. The problem is that real change in the current system is impossible. The politics of teaching has become a burden that is killing our creative minds.
So why am I writing this? Perhaps young parents and teachers will react and start having a closer look at their child’s day. I encourage you to ask questions of your children and seek affirmative answers to tough questions with administrators. We need to support our teachers, but ask tough questions at the board level and with the Provincial Government. Maybe we need to rally and protest. You saw how much good that did PCVS. And blog I guess. Write about it and talk about it.

5 thoughts on “The Politics of Teaching”

  1. This is a thought-provoking piece, Kathryn. As someone who is still “in the trenches” I agree with your sentiments. Knowing you as a friend rather than through teaching, I have no doubt that you changed the lives of more students than you know. I’m sorry that your teaching journey was a difficult one. Many are. With love and respect, Julie

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  2. Thanks for sharing, Kathryn; it was very insightful. I can feel your passion for children in your writing. I agree about our culture of “invisible children”. I daydream about a more family-friendly Peterborough, and wonder how that can happen? I also daydream about inspiring others about the wonders of young children, as it is a passion of mine. Somehow, remembering the simple joys that were easy to delight in as a child has given my life more meaning and grounded me — maybe this can help others too? -Alisha (Baseball)

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    1. Yes Alisha. This piece is not about my struggles as a teacher. I loved teaching and was passionate about it ~ my main complaint is our culture of “invisible children”…what a great way to describe it! Maybe the title for my next post. I am concerned about the lack of funding for children, the lack of warm meals for hungry children and the lack of understanding from so many who are not involved with children in any way. And the indifference. I am hoping that this kind of writing will inspire others ~ particularly teachers, parents and young people like you to speak up for our kids.

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