Friday, April 18, 2014

P: Pearls of Wisdom

As I continue to press forward with my education-theme blogs, I do so with much humility.  I would never want to give the impression that by seeking to provide you with insight as to the inner-workings of the public education system that I view myself as being on a higher intellectual plain; a modern wise man of the mountain.  I will admit to acquiring a certain amount of wisdom and skill over the course of my career but, first and foremost, I have always been and, remain so today, a student.

Although I have certificates on my wall stating that I have completed courses of study, my real education has come in the company of some of the wisest people I know; fellow teachers, parents and my students.  They have been the real experts who have helped me learn the things I need in order to help others grow as learners and as people.  They have been the real experts who have fueled my motivation with words of encouragement; in times when I had strayed from the proper path and at times when success was obvious and tangible.  These experts have helped me to be a better teacher, father and man and, to them all, I owe a debt of gratitude that I can never full repay.  The best I can do is to keep striving to help others, as I have been helped by them. Hopefully, that will be suffice.

There have been many lessons that I have received from parents along the way.  Parents are my co-stakeholders in the process of educating any given child.  We both want what is best and, when working together in an environment of mutual respect, we can help each child grow in ways that best suit them. I have learned many lessons; some antagonistic, as detailed in my very first blog post for this challenge but most have been lessons given in the spirit of co-operation.  Examples of this involve students who have entered my classroom with physical or intellectual challenges.  I am not a doctor so, having the insights of the family as to what works best and what doesn't work at all, usually ends up being most helpful.  I appreciate having parents inform me of upcoming life changes for my students such as, getting/losing a pet, moving away, going on vacation, impending divorces, family illnesses and so on.  All of these things can alter how a child behaves in class. If I am in on those details then, I can interpret a child's actions more intelligently and humanely and react accordingly.  Some times, little Johnny justs needs someone to talk to and, on those days, a good teacher lets the work slide and provides the counsel required.   I am most grateful to all of the parents who have taken the time to talk with me and share with me their thoughts regarding their child.  I am a better teacher and a better parent because of those good examples.

In school itself, no one teaches on an island of isolation.  Our classroom doors may close from time to time but, we never teach alone.  The responsibility that we, as teachers, bear is enormous and, as such, it is with steely resolve that we attempt to do our best for our students, each and every day.  Working in partnership with each other helps everyone involved.  We share lesson ideas with each other.  We share resources and point out new books or websites that might be helpful.  We discuss the students endlessly; providing mutual support during those trying times when a student struggles and we don't seem to have an answer to turn them around. Sometimes, simply being in the presence of a skilled teacher is enough to help elevate our own skill level.  Here is such an example of that:

My first paid teaching assignment was in a Grade 1-2 class at Regal Road Public School in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My classroom had a million dollar view of the downtown and many a day I lingered in my classroom at dusk, just to watch the city sparkle.  

However, the view was, perhaps, the best part of being in that room that particular year.  While I had written all the essays, completed all the reports and passed all of the tests in Teacher's College that qualified me to be a licensed, certified teacher, the truth was, I had no idea how to run a real live classroom.  So, when I was given charge of 23 Grade 1 and 2 students; 18 of whom did not speak English as their first language, it didn't take long for my pie-in-the-sky lesson plans to give way to confusion and chaos.  Classroom management isn't the sexiest topic when it comes to teaching but, like the foundation of your house, if you don't have good classroom management practises....and, I didn't......then you, quite literally, are on very shaky ground.

Across the hallway from me was a veteran teacher named Lucy S.   She has been teaching for over twenty-five years and had acquired a reputation for excellence but, also, for hoarding.  Her classroom had the look of a Costco wholesaler on steroids.  There were floor to ceiling shelving units all throughout the room. These units housed bins of buttons, milk bag tags, scraps of felt and other types of cloth, used crayons, toilet paper tubes and so on.  When I was first hired, the Principal took me on a tour of the school. After leaving Lucy's room, he asked me what I thought. I told him I thought the room was really crowded and full. He laughed and said that I should have seen it before the Fire Marshall made her remove four van loads of boxes and bins the previous week!

By comparison, my classroom was empty.  I had acquired no blocks nor boxes of buttons or many books of any sort.  My classroom was fairly empty but, just the same, it was always messy and in disarray. Lucy, on the other hand, had her classroom running like a Swiss clock.  Her students knew where to find everything and where to put it back when they were through. Her classroom hummed with activity and good humour. My classroom was, quite simply, a disaster.

Finally, one morning, as another lesson dissolved in tatters, I looked across the hallway to see her students painting murals of undersea habitats.  The work was lovely and the students, industrious.  Swallowing my pride, I left my classroom and crossed the hallway. My students poured out behind me. I stood before Lucy, who was sitting in a lawn chair, observing her students and making anecdotal observations for her assessments. I asked her how she did it, pointing to her hard working students.   She paused thoughtfully and then replied that she couldn't tell me at all.  In my mind, I was furious.  I desperately needed help and here was this veteran teacher saying that she couldn't tell me how she had gotten her class to work so well; especially amid the mounds of bins and boxes strewn around her classroom!   But then she smiled and said that she couldn't tell me because it was all a result of the kids.  When I looked at her quizzically she elaborated and explained that the one piece of advice that she could honestly give me was this:   always listen to the kids.  Listen to their conversations and questions. Listen to their ideas. Listen to their complaints. For, by listening, a good teacher learns when to extend an activity or provide further explanations. By listening, a good teacher can avoid tasks that don't interest the students and focus on those topics that do.  But, it all begins and ends for teachers by simply listening to the students.

At first that advice didn't seem to be what I needed that very day to turn things around but, the wisdom of those words became rooted in my brain and I began to do things differently and, over time, change began to occur.  For one thing, I began co-planning with the kids. For instance, while I knew what skills I needed to cover, I now talked to them about whether they were interested in dinosaurs or outer space or castles. The kids felt as though they had a stake in what was happening in the classroom and I got to create Units of Study that generated high-interest and garnered increasingly better academic results.  Classroom management improved and our classroom routines became more consistent and, as such, the classroom became a better, more academically-interesting and enjoyable place to be for me and, for the students. 

I am a much wiser and more confident teacher now, in Year #26, than I was that first year. Fortunately for me, I have been able to learn from a great many skilled educators, like Lucy.  I am still surrounded by brilliant educators today and learning more all of the time; particularly when it comes to Technology and the Arts and Special Education.  I am thankful for every new learning opportunity because they help keep my skills current and my interest piqued.  Long after many teachers have begun to grow a little long in the tooth, I'm still learning and growing and having fun with the kids in our classroom.

Finally, I will end with my most sincere and heartfelt of tributes and that is to the students I have had over the years.  They have been my greatest teachers.  I have had a veritable smorgasbord of personality types walk through the doors of my classroom lo, these 26 years.  I have met the cocky and the timid, the messy and the neat, the intelligent and those who struggled, the thinkers and the blurters, the nerds and the jocks, bullies and victims, the self-motivated and the tremendously lazy.....I have met them all and continue to do so today. But, because of them, I have borne witness to a myriad of ways that people interact with one another or solve mathematical puzzles or express themselves in words or in Art.  I study them and talk to them and, more than anything, I listen to them and, as a result, I learn so much that is helpful to me in my pursuit of being helpful to them.

One is never too old to learn, as long as you are open and receptive to the notion that everyone around you has a story to share and wisdom to impart........all you really have to do is be willing to listen.

Thanks for hanging in until you got to the end of this post.  I appreciate your efforts and would love to hear what you have to say in the comment box below.  Thanks, as always, for reading my work.  :)