Author & Teacher

Back to School

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On May 9, I officially become a student again. I have been accepted to UBC’s MFA in Creative Writing (Optional Residency) Program which means I will be short on money and time for the next few years. I’m nervous, but I’m also excited to be entering a post-secondary program where I will hopefully be able to gain and apply new knowledge in creative writing. Getting my Masters’ will also help qualify me for an admin position at my school board.

Once again hacking through the red-tape jungle of university admissions, I thought a lot about my undergrad experience and how unprepared I was after four years of university to actually do the job I was trained for. My university was, and is, highly regarded in Education. However, when I stood in front of my first class – combined 3/4 French Immersion, twenty-eight kids, eight in Learning Support, I realized I actually knew very little. When I look back, I am embarrassed at how green I was, how completely lost. All the lesson planning and “mini-lessons” in university didn’t prepare me for the paperwork, the home issues, the discipline issues (my first month, one student stabbed another in the back of the neck with a pencil – not something I prepared for at my Institute of Higher Learning.)

In the staff room the other day, a few teachers were talking about the education program at one of our local universities and how Ed students don’t get any classroom experience until the end of their 6 or 7 year journey to become a teacher. That’s changing, as the other university in town is switching back to a 4 year program with actual face-time with kids each year.

First-year teachers are often overwhelmed when they actually hit the classroom. It’s too bad, because they have so much to offer when it comes to new pedagogy and classroom management ideas. When they do come up for air, it’s to ask for help, or to volunteer for more! extra! curricular! activities! because that is how they make an impression on their principals.

The other night, a friend came over. She is a Master Teacher of Science and Math. We discussed the latest challenges facing our board. We talked about bigger class sizes (teachers complain, but studies show that it doesn’t really impact learning) but in the end, we came to the conclusion that it’s all about the teacher. In her words “If the school boards could get rid of the dead weight and hire keen, willing people, we would all be more successful as teachers.” What do we mean by dead weight? Teachers who still teach like it’s 1985. Teachers who think worksheets and rote are the way to go. Teachers who are there to collect a paycheque, get their summers off,  then a pension.

I finally had the chance to see the education documentary Waiting for Superman. (Read about it here , too.)Even though it is based in the US, it’s a real eye-opener. The filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim, challenges us to stop looking at the huge problem in education in terms of the millions of schoolchildren that are out there, but to take it one child at a time. And so he does just that, showing us how it goes for a few of those children. And even though in Canada we have many more supports and rights to ensure a “good” education, I can tell you that there are lost children just like those under-privileged kids right in my own suburban, middle/upper-middle class neighbourhood.

Many teachers feel they have the right to their jobs, and the union backs this up. Once you’re permanent, you’re in. The superintendent of schools in Washington, DC made a good point. Teachers should have to prove themselves to gain the privilege of teaching children. I believe it should be the same in Canada.

There were many interesting points in the documentary (see the stats on how many doctors and lawyers lose their jobs due to ineptness vs. how many teachers). For me what really stood out was the difference in success rates (students who graduate) at schools that state “You will succeed, you will be prepared to go to college” as opposed to schools that basically shuffle them in through the front door, out through the back, dust their hands off and say “My job here is done.”

We need to raise our expectations for our kids. We need to put resources in place to push them higher.

We need to bring in the best teachers, and support them so they are not burned out by their second year.

We need raise our expectations for our teachers.

We need to raise our expectations for our parents.

We need to continue to make professional development a focus.

We need to realize we are all stakeholders whether we have children or not. (Even if you are childless, you are paying for this through your taxes. You have a say.)

You should see Waiting for Superman. It doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s a good wake-up call. For me, I am more determined than ever to change the way our students experience learning.

It will be a long road, but I am hopeful the journey of completing my Masters’ will bring me to a place that I can be effective at an administration level to help arrive at a solution.

Because as Mr. Geoffrey Canada says in the documentary. “Superman isn’t coming. It’s up to us.”

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