One September morning in 1968 I was hitchhiking to my first teaching practice assignment at Laura Secord Secondary School near St. Catherines, Ontario. There was no public transit and I had no car. Despite wearing the 1960s teacher’s uniform—a suit and tie—a procession of vehicles passed me by. Suddenly, a yellow Chevrolet Camaro pulled up alongside and the driver rolled down the window.
“Where you goin’?” he asked.
“Laura Secord School,” I answered.
“So am I,” he replied. “Hop in.”
As we drove into the parking lot I said, “Thanks! I’ll see you in the staff room.”
“No you won’t. I’m in grade twelve.”
If you had asked me then why I had decided to become a teacher, my answer would have been something like, “I don’t know. I wish maybe I hadn’t. That kid has a Camaro. I have a thumb!”
I had no particular interest in becoming a teacher. At twenty-six, I just wanted to have an occupation that provided more personal fulfillment than my current job. After resigning from that business, I took some career tests. The results suggested I should teach. So that’s why I found myself in 1968, hitch-hiking to my first teaching practice assignment. When my training ended in the spring of 1969, I accepted a position at a Toronto high school.
Evaluations were the most daunting part of teaching in those early days. My first appraisal came from the head of the English department. I was teaching a class of grade ten students who didn’t like Shakespeare much. The evaluator entered the room wearing a black suit and dark tie. His black mustache was so thin it appeared as if it had been drawn with a fine-point artist’s pencil. I had the feeling that he might be there as my educational undertaker rather than as a supportive older colleague. He seated himself in the second to last desk from the back of the classroom, in front of one of my young charges. To complete his evaluator’s package, he reached into his black briefcase and withdrew a black notebook and a pen. As he scribbled notations in his little black book, it felt as if I was participating in the last judgment—mine! So intent was he in formulating his commandments for improvement that he failed to notice the student behind him peering over his shoulder to see what he wrote.
“We’ll meet later to talk about the lesson,” he said.
But I didn’t need to wait. The student who had been literally overseeing my review approached me.
“Do you wanna know how you did?” he asked, with a slight grin. It turned out he was a better reader of little black books than of Shakespeare.
Discipline problems are another hurdle facing a new teacher. In my first year, a student wouldn’t stop talking. His behaviour was upsetting. But I was also somewhat afraid of him. He was over six feet tall to my five foot four. After weeks of putting up with this, I nervously ordered him to see the principal. He very reluctantly stood up to leave.
“Why don’t you call your mother?” he snarled.
I felt like doing just that. I knew that my mother would have dealt with him much more effectively. The principal apparently persuaded him how invaluable my lessons were and how they would change his life forever. However, while he caused me no more difficulty, I came away from this experience realizing that he looked “cool” and in control. I did not.
Two years later, I learned to deal more effectively with a different kind of behaviour issue. The students in this class frequently whispered to each other, “What are you doin’?”
It was only slightly annoying but it had the effect which it intended— distraction. Nevertheless, I didn’t rise to the bait. One day a way to deal with the problem came along quite by chance. The ringleader was returning from the washroom. As he entered the classroom, he slipped and fell on the floor. While he sprawled there, surprised but unhurt, I inquired politely, while attempting to imitate the tone used by the offending members of the group, “What are you doin’?”
“Good one, sir,” his classmates shouted out as they laughed hysterically.
The problem was resolved. I had not let the matter fester as I had with the student in my first example, and I had found a way to handle it without alienating the class. They, including the ringleader, were now “on my side.” And this time, I had suffered no loss of face. While all discipline problems would not be so easily dealt with, and a measure of luck had helped to put an end to this one, my response to the “what are you doin’” caper may have been the moment when I ceased to be a “new” teacher, at least in terms of my classroom management skills.
You will recall that at the beginning of this piece, I wondered if my decision to become a teacher might have been the wrong one. Forty-eight years later, do I have any doubts about my career choice?
In 1980 I was spending part of a sabbatical year in London, England. I went into an employment agency to see if I could supplement my income. The agent checked my résumé.
“Is that all you can do—teach?” he asked. “Don’t you have any skills?”
I was taken aback, and quickly left his office. Today I would say this to him:
“If by teach you mean spending my life in a tremendously fulfilling occupation, enjoying the company of enthusiastic young people who are devoid of cynicism and full of fun, who have taught me as I age to be optimistic about life, then I would say yes, that’s my only skill; that’s all I can do.”
Now, at seventy-four, I have decided to stop teaching. My career has been filled with wonderful experiences. The decision to end it is etched with great sadness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thomas Laver is a retired Toronto District School Board high school history and philosophy teacher and guidance counsellor. He has written philosophy curriculum for the Independent Learning Centre of TV Ontario, the Ontario government’s public television network, and was an editorial consultant for a grade ten civics textbook. He has also written for the American Heart Association’s journal, Heart Insight Magazine.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2018 issue.