I have been stuck. This is my first blog effort in about a month. It is, by far, my longest time away from public writing and it has been challenging to write. While I know some might have hoped I would write about the job action that has cast a cloud over the BC public education system, there is little I could add that would not just be more noise. So, with less writing, I have been reading more. And, something I read finally gave me the momentum to become unstuck.
I stumbled my way to the blog You Suck, Sir from a local Vancouver teacher. As he describes the blog, “My students are funny. Sometimes, it’s intentional.” The blog is a collection of stories from the English teacher’s class over the last two decades — some absolutely great writing. He recently wrote a post answering a question about having a teaching philosophy.
Great question. And I was reminded of it tonight when I got in touch with my sponsor teacher from 1995. He’s well into his retirement now but he was a legendary teacher in his day and head of the English department in our city’s largest high school. He took me under his wing and I got to observe how a master teacher runs his class. And I’ll be honest: I didn’t see anything. I had to report back to my faculty advisor all the things I’d noticed in terms of methodology and classroom management. But I didn’t “see” anything. It took me a while to realize why: he made it look easy. He had internalized everything a teacher is supposed to do. I even confronted him about it one day to ask which educational philosophy he abides by, and he answered: “Listen to what they’re saying.”
This IS the challenge of teaching. Maybe other professions have similar challenges, but it is difficult to define powerful teaching. It is this blend of art and science the masters weave so effortlessly. I grew up in a house of teachers. I can remember from a very young age watching my mom and dad prepare lessons. I knew they were good at what they did — I would hear it from my friends on sports teams and others in the community about how much they liked having my parents as teachers, but it was difficult to really understand exactly what they did that made their classrooms work. As I started my teaching career I would try to emulate how I thought they would teach; it was tough because there is just no ‘how-to’ recipe for our profession.
Returning to the blog, the author distills three main ideas:
1) If you can’t address a student’s immediate needs, he won’t be available to your teachings.
2) Do not compromise a young person’s dignity.
3) Do not take anything personally.
Continuing his observations about his sponsor teacher:
The teacher I mentioned at the start of this, my sponsor teacher, said something that I’ve carried with me to this day: “I would do this job for free if I didn’t need money.” At the time, I found this statement disturbing because there was no way I’d do it for free. But I see now that he was talking about joy. There is joy to be had in this career. There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing a student suddenly “get” a concept she’d been struggling with. There are few things more smile-inducing than watching your grade eights help each other out with assignments while joking around with each other. And the pure happiness of watching them really, truly enjoy learning—man, that’s the reason I returned to teaching after an eight-year break.
It is interesting the conversations I would have had/still do have with my parents about our profession. They love the craft. The would shun any attention for what they were doing — they weren’t doing it to be noticed, they were doing it for the students and their commitment to teaching. It IS a pretty special profession.
The author finishes with words that are so true, “Teaching is about being a learner yourself. That’s why, when it comes to being an effective teacher, we have to listen to what they’re saying.”
I have tried (and will continue to try) to use my blog to tell the many stories of students, teachers and others in our system trying new things and making a difference. And, like my parents, most are not looking for any attention, but it is still kind of nice when someone notices.
I guess I saw that firsthand this past week. I have spent a lot of time with my dad recently, he hasn’t been that well and we got to talking about the blog post on teaching philosophy.
It was pretty special because the sponsor teacher that the author, Paul, was writing about was my dad.
Keep Well Teacher Friends. The joy will be back.
Update – August 11
My dad died last week, just a few days after his 72nd birthday. You can read more about him here. I am so glad that I got to share this post with him and I am so appreciative of all of the comments. It is nice to know his story connected with so many of you.