Friday, 2 May 2014

To Sir...

Hello Friends.

A late and somewhat somber blog today. Through the grapevine, I've heard that a former teacher isn't doing so well. There's something infallible about teachers that makes news of their life outside a classroom seem incomprehensible, and I say that as the son of my high school English teacher. When I hear news of a teacher's illness or retirement or career change or whatever it is, it doesn't compute. I'm suddenly five years old again, picturing Teacher curling up under her desk to go to sleep every night.

I think it's strange to acknowledge teachers having lives outside of a classroom because their impact on your own life outside a classroom is immeasurable. It's as if your kindergarten teacher exists only to teach you counting and empathy, your third grade teacher to enforce a love of reading, your eighth grade teacher to teach you a love of writing, your high school English teacher to raise you from birth, and your art teacher to show you how much better it is, even as a desperate-to-be-popular teenager, to be an outsider looking in at the world, and recognizing all of its inherent beauty and absurdity.

It's no coincidence, then, that the best people I've ever known as an adult have also been teachers. They are my friends now, and still my role models. My mother is a teacher, and my brother, and my partner. I've known teachers through my retails jobs as they either work while they complete their degrees or, sadly, have had to moonlight as till jockeys because their 60 hour a week teaching job pays so pitifully. Maybe it's this proximity to teachers that still has me believing September is the start of a new year and June the end of an old one, but I think everybody still kind of thinks that.

I've always believed that behind every good person is a teacher, but I've also always believed behind every bad person is a teacher, too. Teachers are everywhere and impact people differently, obviously. But what I can't conceive of is not having teachers at all. Right now I'm a tutor at a literacy centre for adults, which is not the same as being a teacher, and I don't mean to make the comparison, but what strikes me is how many of us take our education completely for granted. People from varying circumstances, even born and raised in this country, won't or can't pursue their education beyond an age that they can get to work. Conversely, the legacy of residential schools in this country will be a black mark on our collective history forever and is continuing to affect generations of people. But I've won the lottery as far as education is concerned, and I have teachers to thank.

Dream: Thank the teachers.

Goal: Unachievable. Like the song says, "How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?" That actually always struck me a weird lyric and a bit perverse, but Lulu was onto something. The scope of a teacher's influence on a person can never be appropriately measured, so how can we thank them properly? It isn't easy, but I'll try.

Plan: Here are some ideas on how we, as a society, can start appreciating the people who build the foundations of that society.

Pay them more. Pay them more, pay them more, pay them more. Teachers, particularly in their first years, make pretty lousy money. The trouble with statistics that appear to prove otherwise is twofold. One, the lists that aggregate "average teacher salary" within a province arrives at that figure by also including principals, vice-principals, and other administrators who make a significant amount more than teachers do, and two, no rubric can possibly calculate money earned based on the hours teachers actually work. Lesson planning, paper grading, test marking, parent-dealing, and all the extra-curricular activities teachers are expected to take on (for no additional pay), means a teacher's day never starts at 8:30 and ends at 3:30. You would never know, for instance, that Jon gets summer holidays. As a professor, he is very well paid, I don't mean to lump him in with elementary and high school teachers in that respect, but his time in the classroom is infinitesimal compared to his time doing prep, research, marking, and smoking a pipe/wearing a tweed jacket (you have to do that when you're a prof).

Parents, chill the f out. I saw a cartoon awhile ago that had two panels. The first panel, labeled something like, "A Generation Ago..." had a parent holding a report card over their cowering child, furious and screaming, "Why are these grades so terrible?!" The second panel, labeled, "Present Day..." had a parent holding a report card over a cowering teacher, furious and screaming, "Why are these grades so terrible?!" The point was that some parents expect teachers to serve their children, rather than instruct them. Teacher's aren't gods, nor should they be expected to be social workers, police officers, life coaches, babysitters, or therapists. If your kid keeps getting crappy teachers every single year who don't "get" him, maybe you have a crappy kid.

Treat the profession with the gravity it deserves. I've definitely heard people say, wistfully, that being a teacher must be so great. Short work days, summers off, and you can get into any school dance you want. I even heard that expressed by education students while I was in university. Things like, "Such and such was hard, but I guess I'll just be a teacher." Those people shouldn't be teachers. The saying, "Those who can't do, teach" is such a tired example of elitist, superior horseshit. It's not a concession when an artist decides to teach art, or an actor decides to teach acting, it's a gift. We should prep prospective teachers like they're going into the army, but with crappy combat gear and no end in sight.

Finally, I suppose the best way to honour teachers is to keep learning, growing, and working hard. I have a lot of student guilt when I realize that I'm not using all that I've learned in my work or my life. I may not be a successful actor, writer, athlete, mathematician, or free period, but I use those skills for something every day of my life. When I think of the particular teacher I'm thinking of today, I can't imagine a student not affected by his passion, were they lucky enough to wind up in his class. That's how I will always feel when I think of this teacher, so incredibly lucky to have spent a little time with him. I know intellectually, of course, that teachers teach thousands of students throughout their careers, that they eventually retire, that they cultivate rich, full lives outside of a classroom. But part of me always thinks, when I pass by a school at night, that those teachers are still there, waiting for a new day, and another chance to change some lives.

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