“You Always Say That…”

I was recently watching the FIFA world cup with my 14 year old brother and a commercial came on for coke. It depicted a varied group of little boys running around playing soccer through city streets. I commented “Where are all the girls?” to which James laughed and said ‘you always say that’.

‘You always say that.’

With that comment, my sweetheart little brother who wouldn’t hurt a fly effectively dismissed and de-legitimized my question. Thanks to the white male privilege he doesn’t really understand yet (and of course was only present here in a very diluted form), he was able to dismiss my albeit minor protest with a little laugh. I have a bit of a reputation in my family for being the one who makes a stink about feminist or racial issues, and there’s usually some teasing and eye rolling when I launch into a tirade, and that’s ok because they still show me respect by listening.  But I fear for James and the little conversations like that make me more and more aware of the desperate need for privilege education in our society, especially in rural white-dominated areas.  Our kids, especially the white ones and the boys, need to understand what societal privilege is, how they have it even though they never asked for it, how to acknowledge its presence, and how use it to help those who were born with less.

James is a good kid with a big heart and I have faith he’ll figure it out. But his big sister will always be in the background trying to make sure he uses that heart to understand his place in the world and make it a better place for others.

 

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The Most Important Teaching Tool You’ll Ever Need.

Leah's gift

On the last day of my internship in a high school English classroom, one of my students gave me a card and some chocolates. You might think ‘ok great nice gesture’ and then move on, but you’d be wrong because this ordinary act was actually a powerful demonstration of the power of caring. This is why:

This student, let’s call her Leah, is in the Gr.10 Applied English class that I have been student teaching in for 7 weeks (for those who don’t know, ‘Applied’ classes are for students who struggle with school and/or are focusing on going to community college rather than university). At the start of my internship, she wasn’t there and I didn’t meet her until about a week in because she had decided to skip class for a week or so.  This was her second high school which she moved to after being expelled from her previous one for violence.  I later found out she lived with her mother who had a DUI and required Leah to be her designated driver when she was drunk, which apparently happened quite frequently. The family had no father and very little money. Leah’s mark was at 30%-the lowest a teacher can give out, almost entirely due to her absences and just not handing anything in. However, after my associate teacher called home a few times and the end of the school year approached, Leah decided that she did want her English credit after all, if only so she didn’t have to come back next year. She started showing up a little more and occasionally handed something in.

After Leah actually started showing up to class, albeit always late, I got to know her a bit more. She was a sullen, angry girl who only ever talked about why people were irritating her and how she had been expelled from her previous school.  My associate teacher, the classroom’s educational assistant, and I all attempted cheerily to build relationship with her and encourage her to hand work in.

Every class I made sure to smile and ask her how she was, and always respond positively when she said something negative. This has generally been my tactic for all my classes when kids complain about something: don’t deny that the student in question is upset and is right to be upset (or irritated or peeved or whatever), instead focus on shifting it to the positive, demonstrating the power of a positive attitude rather than just telling the kid to suck it up buttercup.

Gradually, oh so gradually, Leah’s attitude started to change.  It was mostly subtle-at first she didn’t talk about being angry as much and didn’t snap at things the other students in the class said. Then she started handing in work regularly. And slowly, her mark went up.  She started smiling more and skipping less, and generally was acting more friendly. She even came to class while her friends skipped, and on time no less.

Then one day a couple weeks ago the class got an updated mark.  Leah marched up to me and proudly informed me her mark was at a 50% on the dot.  Out of all 70 of my students over the 3 classes, she was the most proud of her mark that was barely a passing grade.  And you know what? So was I! For the rest of the term she continued to hand in work and kept me updated of her rising mark (‘Miss, I have a 54%-that’s another 4 whole percent!’). We chatted and joked and talked about English and I told her how amazing her turn-around was and how proud I was of her work, continuing to encourage her to keep going.

So on that last day, when she sheepishly brought the card that spelled ‘To’ wrong and the chocolates wrapped in already used tissue paper to the front of the class, you can understand why my heart sang. She wrote in the card that it was from the whole class but signed her name after writing ‘I’ll miss you!’ at the bottom of the card.  I gave her a hug, told her I was proud of her, and wished her all the best, trying to hold it together and not cry.

With all of this, I’m not trying to say that Leah’s life was transformed. I’m not saying she’s going to get on the honour roll one day and become a doctor and save the world. What I am saying is that she changed, and that most of that change came from herself but maybe part of it came because her teachers cared about her and demonstrated that care. And I feel so privileged to have been able to be even the tiniest little bit a part of that.

 

Caring matters and it works and it helps people, regardless of your job or situation. Care for people and watch them grow. Trust me, it’s an amazing feeling.

‘You’re Studying What?!’, or, How to Talk to Postsecondary Students About Their Futures

This week is my final week as a student teacher teaching English to 14 year olds at a local high school.  I’ve been there for 7 weeks, and it has been one of the best and most affirming experiences of my life. I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was 12 but this experience of actually teaching has confirmed that this is what I am meant to do. I loved every second of it, from the lesson planning to the marking to the answering questions at lunch to the attempts to get the class clown to finally shut up and listen. I love it I love it I love it.

I can deal with the ups and downs of teaching teenagers Shakespeare all day long. You skipped class and expect to hand it your work late? Let’s talk. I have to teach a poetry unit that features as diverse a group of poets as possible to a bunch of kids who don’t care? Let’s get googling. My marking pile is so high I have to stand up at my desk to talk to students who approach me with a question? Looks like I have a busy evening ahead.

I can handle these challenges and more because they are exactly what I signed up for when I applied to teacher’s college.  Every job has pros and cons and the day I decided to become a teacher I also decided to put up with whatever that means, good or bad.

The biggest challenge has nothing really to do with the education system at all. It’s everyone outside of it.  Specifically, the people who love to look on from the outside and ‘say it like it is’ (ie. ‘I’m going to be rude then laugh at the end of it so you can’t get mad’).

90% of the time when I tell someone I’m getting my teaching degree to teach high school English and History, I get some sort of variation on the reaction ‘Ohhh…good luck getting a job’, usually accompanied by a patronizing tone of voice or a stifled sneer.  Once a woman laughed out loud derisively directly in my face.

I live in Ontario, Canada, and right now there aren’t that many jobs in a large portion of the province.  Basically, ten or so years ago the government thought the Baby Boomer teachers were on the cusp of retirement so they offered them great retirement packages and opened wide the doors to teacher’s colleges.  BUT the Boomers never retired, so all those fresh new teachers came on the scene expecting jobs that hadn’t emptied and created a glut that is still getting sorted out. So yes, if I stay in Ontario it will be difficult for me to get a job right out of school. And yes, I’ll probably have to substitute teach for a few years.  And with the economy the way it is right now, a lot of people in every discipline and profession are experiencing a lot of the same struggles.

Because I’m in university, I have a lot of friends studying obscure and impractical things like Celtic Studies or 18th German Literature and we all joke together about our future unemployment. But you know what, at the end of the day we are all sacrificing A LOT  of time, money, and ourselves for the choices that we have made so that we can study what we are truly passionate about. And we know what the job market is like without every person over 30 who entered the job market easily at a time of growth reminding us sternly as if it’s somehow our fault. I believe that God has a plan for my life, and that he is my ultimate provider, which includes my future employment.  But I’m imperfect and not immune to fear, and I have so many friends who don’t share the hope we all desperately need that I cling to during difficult times.

 

The moral of this story is that if a young person comes up to you and tells you what they are studying or what they want to be there is never never never ever a reason or a need for you to criticize their choices unless you are their parent/guardian or are paying for it.  Trust me, we know what we are getting into. We’re the ones facing the mountains of debts and bills we have no idea how we will pay. Please don’t be the person who makes fun of me for pursuing my aspirations and my attempts to help make the world a better place. Choose to spread hope and support and positivity, because we know exactly what we’re facing out there and it’s scary. Don’t just remind us of the problem, help us find a solution.