Saturday, 26 October 2013

What do teachers do?

I'm going to stray outside of the triathlon world for a minute. The government of Alberta has really given little or no thought to education recently. We live in the richest province in the country and class sizes are growing and wages have been frozen. It is for this reason I'm seriously considering leaving the profession and pursuing a career as a firefighter. I wanted to explore what it is that I even do for society that the government would disregard my profession. We've all had teachers so there is a cursory understanding of the job. You plan lessons, you do marking, you take attendance; all the really exciting stuff. But it's the things you don't see that make a teacher's legacy. Being a teacher is not glamorous, it is not heroic and at the end of the day you don't have anything to show for your labour. I think that's probably the worst part of my job. The lack of evidence.

One of the summer jobs I held going through university was working on a concrete crew putting in sidewalks and bus pads. In a way I got more out of that job than I do out of teaching. I still drive past certain locations in town and proudly boast that I put that sidewalk there and it's still standing. Something I did is tangible and can be used. I don't have that in teaching. Not very often anyway.  I've yet to walk down a hallway at a school and overhear a student explaining to a classmate that "the way Mr. Hackett explained the Industrial Revolution was life changing." At best I'd get to hear, "at least that class wasn't too terrible."

I think some of the greatest things that teachers do go unheralded because the people who need the help the most have no one to tell. If you're one of the thousands, or probably even millions, of parents that ask your child what they learned at school on a given day you're already ahead of the game. The fact that you cared enough to ask puts your son or daughter in a position of power. There is a force at home echoing the desire of the teacher to "get to class and get your work done." I can't express how deflating it is as a teacher to make a phone call home to inform a parent that their son or daughter needs to make some changes to either their behaviour or their work ethic and to get the impression that it is just not a priority in that household. I often liken educating a student to creating a diamond out of coal, it requires pressure from all sides to transform; if the pressure is only coming from the teacher with no parent good. Vice versa, if the parents are really pushing their child and they're not getting the support they need in the good. It must be a concerted effort from all sides for that child to succeed.

The students, I believe, that get the most from a teacher are the ones that have nowhere else to go. I've been told that I'm a popular teacher and that kids like me. That's really cool and makes my job a lot easier. However, I estimate that in my 10 years of teaching somewhere between 2500 and 3000 students have passed through my class and I suspect I've only had a dramatic impact on less than 100. That is because in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada we're very lucky compared to the average population of the world. We are a rich, safe, healthy nation with well below average concerns. This means that most of our students come to school clothed, fed and rested. For the average student in Edmonton they can walk into any classroom and be taught by some of the best educated teachers in the world and it wouldn't matter who it was. This allows us to give a little extra time to those that really need it. The ones that maybe slept on the street the night before, or the ones that had their parents spend the last of their money on drugs so there's no food in the house. This is where teachers earn their money.

There are a few great days for teachers; having a student come back, look you in the eye, and sincerely tell you that they were on the wrong track but something you did hooked them and actually changed their life. I've had this happen three times and it is an amazing feeling. It can be something as innocuous as having welcomed them every morning, or it could be a more meaningful gesture like finding them clothes or food, but whatever it was, the actions you took made such a profound difference to this student that it changed the direction of their life. This is not humbling, quite the opposite in fact. It makes you feel like a friggin' super hero!

In addition to those visits I've had a few students that have picked me to share some of their darkest secrets. This can be a very tough situation for both of us. It might be the death of a parent, a pregnancy scare or something that needs to be dealt with criminally. Regardless, these are the things that you aren't taught how to deal with in university but are the most important moments of your career. It is these few opportunities where your instincts and decisions can have a lifetime impact for a very vulnerable person. I can only hope that my tutelage and mentoring have led these young people in a positive direction. Whether it was just being a sounding board for their anxiety about becoming a parent or helping them navigate the government system to get assistance to leave a bad home situation, the role I played was a crucial one in their life.

It is not always as simple as dealing with a student's personal problem. Without a doubt the saddest and most meaningful day of my career was the day I was asked to eulogize a student. Craig played on my football team the year prior and apparently I had made such an impact that his mother felt I would do his memory justice. I was honoured to be looked at in this light, that something I had done put me in high enough standing that I was asked to speak at his funeral. It was surprisingly easy to write Craig's eulogy; in retrospect I think it was because I had taken the time to get to know him so the memories I spoke about were my own and were meaningful. This is one of the moments when you understand your impact on your students.

I find it funny that, essentially, I am paid by the government to teach a group of students a certain set of curriculum and do all the associated planning and marking. And I carry out my charge dutifully and to the best of my ability. However, the greatest impact I have in this world almost never happens during a time that I'm being paid. It is almost exclusively outside of the classroom. Whether it's a lonely student that finds me outside of class time, during my volunteer coaching, or on a trip to Europe to see Canada's World War I and II battlefields, that is when I have my greatest impact.

If you're in a position where you start to question, "why do we pay these teachers so much, they just teach our kids some basic things and then go home at 3:30. Plus they get the summers off" pat yourself on the back because you're probably a really good parent. I'm being serious, if the only role a teacher plays in your child's life is that of educator you're doing most of the heavy lifting and you should be commended. However, you need to know that there are going to be a number of students in your son or daughter's class that do not have the privileged upbringing that your child has. There will be teachers that are making secret deals with the cafeteria to feed them, or bringing clothing from their home so that they have a warm jacket to wear when it starts to snow. You won't know about it because these teachers will just do these things because it's right and it's what needs to be done so that child can learn but it is happening.  

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