Hate the saying “Those who can’t do, teach”? Well, hopefully after reading this article, you’ll embrace it!
We all have things stacked against us. Reasons why we aren’t as successful at something as someone else. This article is about tuning into those struggles and increasing those “teachable moments.”
I grew up as a middle child with divorced parents. Although I come from a very loving family, what I lacked was confidence and the ability to accept myself for who I was. This resulted in a lot of self-doubt and missed opportunities, simply because I didn’t think I was good enough. When I was in high school I fell in love with cooking and food science through an amazing Home-Ec course I was taking at the time. This course made me want to become a nutritionist, but when I researched the classes I needed to get into the science-based university program, I decided I had to change fields. I was never good at science and math courses—most of my marks were passing, or just passing, and I even failed a couple of courses. So, because of my negative experience with these subjects and my lack of confidence in my ability to become successful in them, I had to change my career plan.
My next passion was kinesiology. I loved learning about exercise and muscle groups and thought I could make a career out of this, but again, the prerequisite for a kinesiology university program was getting 80s in high school biology—I barely got through grade 9 biology and decided never to take it again. When it came to math and science concepts, I struggled—I just didn’t get it.
In high school, I got by with averages in the 70s. In my era, we had grade 13, or as others know it, OAC. After this year we were supposed to decide what to do with our lives, and I spent my high school years realizing that some doors for me would be closed because of the things I couldn’t do. Now, at this point, I need to make the distinction that these were things I “thought” I couldn’t do. True enough, math and science subjects never came easy to me, but I was stuck in a belief system that I would never get it and I didn’t have the confidence to excel in these areas. So I decided to try something that involved another passion— travelling.
When I was 18 I took a basic “How to teach ESL” course over a weekend, got a certificate, and started applying. None of my first choice countries were interested in an 18-year-old with no teaching experience (go figure!). But one was! China. I started corresponding with a school in a remote city that really just wanted someone whose first language was English to come and teach conversational English to Chinese high school students. This is where my passion for teaching began. I discovered what it meant to relate to students who were struggling with things. Because of the language barrier, I learned how to explain things in more than one way, and I was treated to a culture that was driven to learn and do whatever it takes to become successful academically. When I was in China I decided that teaching was what I wanted to do as my career. This was something I knew I would be good at and was willing to work hard to make it happen. I believed in myself at last!
So, while abroad, I applied to several universities, and got accepted at only one—Trent. I wasn’t at all mad about not being accepted at other universities. I didn’t have great grades. I was very, very thankful that I got accepted anywhere! And Trent was perfect. I did my Honours degree in English and in my fourth year applied to multiple universities for Teachers College. Luckily for me, part of Trent’s requirement was to write a short letter about previous teaching experience and they consider this as part of the application package. Well, in this case, I had a lot going for me and once again was saved by Trent University. In Teachers College I excelled. The best thing I had going for me was my ability to connect with my students, but I also did well on my theoretical assignments because this is where my passion ignited.
At this point, I had spent most of my school life just going through the motions. Completing things because I should, and pursuing different interests because my initial ones weren’t achievable. I spent a lot of my life learning about things that I couldn’t do (or thought I couldn’t do), but I didn’t give up. Going through these experiences developed my grit and ability to be resilient—a characteristic of a growth mindset. I now look for these qualities in my students and know how to recognize them. I also had parents who never gave up on me. They let me try different things if something didn’t work out and also never stopped believing that I would be successful in something. When I got into teaching, these life skills became my mantra.
When a parent comes to me and shares that they are going through a divorce, I can identify with the child. I know that their world is shaken up and their ability to produce the work they are capable of may be compromised, but not because they can’t do it, but because they are going through so much turmoil. I still believe in them and make sure to build them up as much as I can for the time that I have them. I also know that some of my students may not have someone at home who encourages them, so I make sure I do that for my students every day. I had an amazing teacher in grade seven and eight who wouldn’t let me believe that I would be anything less than amazing. Students need to feel this in order to be successful at whatever activity they are participating in.
So, I have a message to teachers—feel like you’re in the profession because Plan A didn’t work out? Then own it. Take your interests and incorporate them into your lessons—students will love to hear your backstory and will be able to relate to the fact that things were a struggle for you too.
Trust me, those things that you feel like you failed at, make you a better teacher. I know they did for me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lindsay works in the Upper Grand District School Board in Ontario. She has been teaching for twelve years and is currently in a special education role. She is an avid Harry Potter fan, loves learning about growth mindset, and has a passion for health and fitness.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2019 issue.