After teaching for a major portion of my working life, it was not a simple transition into retirement. Teaching so long puts you into a lifelong “teacher mode” that is difficult to shake off when you stop working.
In my experience, being a teacher means you are a teacher twenty-four hours a day. You are a teacher when you shop for groceries and run into parents or students. Some parents want an interview in aisle four of a local store. You, politely, move on. You are a teacher on a charter flight to Hawaii when a tap on the shoulder, followed by a comment “Is that you?” instantly vaporizes the “getting away from it all” intent of the trip. You are a teacher when you get a “hello” while walking down the street in a nearby city.
In my 37 years of teaching I was a member of innumerable committees, led countless Christmas concerts, conducted hundreds of parent-teacher conferences, wrote over thirty-three hundred report cards (carefully worded of course), sponsored student council meetings, attended professional development workshops both as a participant and as a presenter, sat through endless staff meetings and enjoyed new student teachers who I helped to integrate into the work force. The rewards of the hard work and time spent doing my job made it all worthwhile. I recently met a former student who I, honestly, did not remember. The last time I saw him, he was a lot shorter and a lot younger. This tall man in front of me was asking if I remembered him. Well, I didn’t. So, after several leading questions, I finally remembered him and I thanked him. He looked quizzically at me for a moment and then I explained that it was the students who kept me active as a teacher. It was the students who kept me alive professionally and it was the students who gave me the rewards, every day, for being there and showing me that they had learned something that would help them to navigate their lives in a positive and constructive fashion.
That is what teaching is all about. I worked with a collection of young people who looked to me to provide the building blocks, the construction of events that would help them to live a productive life.
It is also a tremendously important job. I saw the kids in front of me more hours every day than many of their parents did. I could never understand the stresses that two parents, both on different working shifts, had to deal with just to make ends meet so that they could pay the mortgage and keep food on the table.
I would be there in the morning in the “kitchen” in my classroom. I had a microwave, a small fridge (gleaned from Scholastic Book points) and a panini press which I would use to cook sandwiches for the kids who wanted them at lunchtime. I was also sure to get the kids who had not eaten breakfast down to the “Breakfast Club” so they were more ready to tackle a new day. It was alright to eat in class and have a water bottle ready for a sip. I had coffee on my desk so I would explain that, as long as it didn’t get in the way, they could do the same. Over the years I never had a problem with food or drinks getting in the way.
These are tasks that teachers have taken on in recent years. A teacher has the legal position of being “In loco parentis.” You are the parent in the classroom. Any conscientious parent would, given the resources, supply their kids with food, water and comfortable surroundings. So, it seemed to me to be a natural progression to do the same in the classroom. A student who is hungry does not learn as well as one who has been fed. A student who has a burning problem in mind cannot learn unless that problem has been dealt with. Students who have a cold are not going to test as well as if they had been healthy, had a good night’s sleep and were dressed comfortably. I was sure to have creative games, mind boggling puzzles (for which you got prizes if you solved them) and endless snacks, free pencils, erasers (all personally supplied) and games galore. There was one administrator who said to me, “I am giving you two hundred dollars for classroom supplies. I was thrilled. After submitting a receipt for a chocolate cake, he said that he had to, regrettably, take back the money. One of us didn’t get the motivation behind teaching that class.
There was a memorable student who showed up late one day. He arrived about ten o’clock, with his little sister in tow. He had spaghetti sauce stains on his T-shirt from dinner the night before. I greeted him and asked why he was late. His answer is permanently burned into my memory. He said to me, “My parents were up late partying. We slept in but I got my sister up and we walked to school.” (They had missed the bus.) I got down on my knees and I hugged him. I took him to the principal and he shared his story. I told him that he had made a decision to take control of his own education. He knew where he wanted to be. He smiled because he knew that I really cared.
There was a “Wall of Fame” in my classroom where pictures of the class were displayed carrying out a multitude of activities throughout the year. The kids liked to see their pictures displayed. It gave meaning to their lives and a reward for doing a good job.
Even the quiet kids were on that Wall of Fame. Each one of them had something to contribute. Each one of them had self-worth and deserved a spot on that wall. Each one of them left a legacy for the next group.
One time a student yelled, “That’s my dad!” He had recognized his dad on the Wall of Fame. I had taught his dad in my grade five class years before. I have many years of “Wall of Fame” montages. My intent is to donate them to the local museum as a display.
As I left my teaching profession, I had a parent come up to me and ask, “What are you going to do now?” I listed several possibilities but he said to me, “You aren’t finished yet. Teaching is in your blood. My son still talks about you. He is 28 years old and he still talks about the things he did in your class.”
This made me pause and reflect. I am very sure that there are many teachers out there who have had similar experiences. Teaching is one of those professions that gives you tremendous rewards. People pull you aside and tell you what your teaching has meant to their children. You hear from someone you taught twenty years ago and you get a thank you.
In these days, when there is a dramatic change to the school curricula, when there is a new “top down” method of administration occurring in our public school system, you need to remember the reasons that you got involved in our profession. You need to remember the basic goals that you had in mind when you decided you wanted to teach. You need to reflect on your successes and remember the kids who have taken the time to say, “You made a difference in my life.” Each one of those comments is a reason to go on, to hold your course, to reflect on your goals, and to resist changes that you do not agree with.
You are a teacher. It is the most important job on the planet. Everyone remembers a teacher that made a difference. Everyone remembers a teacher who affected their lives and gave them the choice to go on and do what they wanted to do with their lives.
You are that teacher. You are the one who can make the difference. You are the one who can help them make that happen.
You are a teacher. Go on and make that choice worthwhile.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Murray is a Prime Minister’s Award winning teacher with thirty-seven years of teaching experience in the upper intermediate area. He is past Vice-President of the Vancouver Island North Teachers’ Association, having held chairs in Social Justice and Health and Safety. As the Vancouver Island Co-ordinator for Destination Imagination, Greg has an effective practical variety of teaching strategies to keep kids interested. Now, as the President of the North Island Retired Teachers’ Association, Greg continues to add his expertise to educational areas.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2017 issue.