What I hope for most for my children when they begin each new school year is that they will have amazing teachers. I want them to have teachers who inspire them, help them to see themselves, nurture their gifts and passions and help them with their struggles. I want teachers who care about my children and value them.
As a principal in a school, I wanted the exact same thing for every child in our care. I would like to believe that each teacher enters the profession with the same hope — the hope that s/he will influence, inspire, support, care and truly see the children before him or her. I know I have used this bell hooks quote before but this for me has always encapsulated exactly what our role is as educators:
To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.
~bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p 13.
I went to my Friday morning spin class this week and one of the songs was Mad World by Tears for Fears (though it was more of a dance version) and although I have heard those lyrics many times (beginning when I owned the Tears for Fears album when I was 14 years old) today the lyrics struck me differently.
The lyrics in the second verse speak to the experience of so many of our students in their classrooms.
Children waiting for the day they feel good
Happy birthday, happy birthday
Made to feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher tell me what’s my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me
For my own children, I believe they still come to school with the hope that they will be truly seen by their teachers. The concept of truly seeing another person took my mind to the movie Avatar. In this movie, the expression to show complete connection with another, beyond love, was “I see you.”
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine if we, as educators, truly saw the students before us? We didn’t define them by our assumptions but by who they truly are — their hopes, dreams, experiences, fears, insecurities — if we had complete and utter empathy for them and assumed positive intentions? If we looked at a child in our class who is known for behaviour or poor performance and had a different narrative? What if we asked our students, What can I do for you? How can I help you reach your goals? What is inside of you that you want to explore and discover? And if we had that conversation with the child’s family…What do you want to see for your child? What are her strengths? What are his struggles? What would help her learn something new? What would engage him in learning?
I always get different reports from my children. My daughter has had a much more positive experience in school than my son has. Max has had a few teachers over the years who picked away at his belief in himself and at times in schooling in general. Now, thankfully, he has also had some incredible teachers over the years and we can use that to encourage him to always enter each year with the hope that maybe this year he will have the gift of a wonderful teacher but it really is getting harder to convince him. The good news is, it doesn’t appear to affect him as it used to when he was younger, but the flip side of that coin is that the reason it doesn’t is because he doesn’t believe in teachers or schooling the way he once did.
After attending his classes this week he brought home a series of behaviour contracts that I had to co-sign with him to indicate compliance with the rules. I don’t even think he read them. It is not as if he has a choice about signing them or not. There were three rules that held more weight than the other two.
- Be Polite
- Be Quiet
- Be Seated
Each of these rules had subsections to clarify what would happen if the signee did not comply and an explanation of the rule itself. So apparently talk is allowed but only when “talking is permitted”. The third explains that the children are not allowed to get up from their seats without permission from the teacher. Can you imagine this? A classroom where talk is limited and a grade eight classroom where students can’t move.
Failure to comply with these rules will result in public humiliation that also has a list of instructions beginning with the student’s name on the board with the possibility of having your name erased if you change your behaviour. If you don’t change your behaviour you will get a checkmark, or two, or three and with each checkmark you get a longer detention and eventually you will head to the principal’s office.
Now tell me, if you were a thirteen year old, would this be something that inspired you? Would it move you to learn? Would you feel engaged? Respected? Passionate about learning? Would you feel seen?
As educators we have to consider what our messages are to our students. How do these messages impact students when they enter in our classrooms and schools with hope and are met with negativity? What culture do we want to create in our classrooms and schools? We need to always be asking ourselves these questions and if our actions don’t align with that vision, then we need to change our actions.
Thinking about my Writing
Whenever I write, I vet my writing through some wonderful friends and of course my family. I want to be sure that my message is clear and that it resonates with the reader in the way I have intended. As an educator, sharing my beliefs publicly, can be daunting. And yet, I feel that sharing my beliefs is something that I am compelled to do.
It is no surprise to me that I began writing a blog after I left a school. In school I had so many opportunities to share my vision — through my memos to staff, newsletters to community, public events, professional learning, our school improvement plan…the list goes on. But as a centrally placed principal, what I have found, is that my job is to support the board’s vision and sometimes, my voice gets lost in it. Unable to be one who “goes silently into the night” I have found that my writing and art have been an outlet for my expression that I longed for after leaving a school.
In no way is what I write intended to target any one teacher but to cause the reader to consider what I have shared with the hope that we can all pause and reflect on the decisions we make each day that affect the children in our care. That’s it really. What I write, I write because I believe in the power of education — not because I doubt it. The question is, how do we use this incredible power?
A friend of mine, Lisa Neale, the principal of Sir William Osler Elementary School in the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board in Ontario, Canada is one of those educators who I feel blessed to have finally met face to face though I have learned from her for some time on Twitter. At the end of this week, the first week of school, she tweeted this image from her front foyer at her school:
— Sir William Osler (@SWO_HWDSB) September 9, 2016
When we imagine what is possible and take actions to make it so, we weild the incredible power of education to do exactly what we hope it will do: inspire, engage, create, and care.
Dr Debbie Donsky, Principal: Learning Design & Development & the Arts-YRDSB