Rising to Significance

My neighbour, Barb, and I walk every Saturday morning.  It is not a long walk, but it is always “significant”.  There is a word / concept that we focus on during our walk and begin on one end of the spectrum with it and explore it until we are on the other side. Yesterday, our topic was the difference between success and significance. 

I found it very easy to wrap my head around this word when I began to think about what it would look like to be insignificant.  This concept was easy to explore as just the previous day I overheard a couple of my students talking about their childhoods.  Their conversation was so sad that I became quickly overwhelmed with emotion.  Both young men had been abused and neglected by their parents.  What had happened to them, when they were at a time in their lives when their families should have been supporting their development of self-worth, traumatized them into believing they were not significant in this world.  Consequently, their lives had been spent looking for significance – but in the wrong way. 

At school, both boys demonstrated they were, in fact, very significant.  Their thinking was deep – their understanding of issues was deep – their contributions were deep. They were far, far, far away from being “in”significant.  I remarked to both of them how impressed I had been with their thinking and that they were very wise for their years.  I had no idea what power this one little comment would be.  One young man responded, “That is the first time in my life I have ever had anyone tell me that.  If I had had encouragement as a kid – someone to tell me that I was smart – someone to tell me I was worthwhile, I would not have had so many problems in my life.  I have never thought I was smart.  I have always felt insignificant.”  As a teacher, I now expect great things from these young people – and I fully expect them to rise to the occasion. 

Another young lady in my class struggled with her life.  She did not have an easy childhood either.  Her role models were more impressed with a bottle of booze than they were with her.  Again, did she feel significant in her life?  Throughout the year while attending school, however, she found her value.  It was not an easy thing to find as it was almost like having to cut through impenetrable layers of insults her parents had wrapped her in.  I wouldn’t imagine her parents set out to make her feel insignificant – but it would seem that insignificance breeds insignificance – it is a culture.  Over the course of the school year, this young woman was made aware of her contributions to her own life, her son’s life, and her school life.  She gave more of herself to the school community and the community responded.  She became a leader.  She became significant.  She was invited to be the valedictorian. 

What are we to learn from this?  As a teacher, I feel like I can finally put a name to what I do in the classroom; I help people to see their own self-worth — to see that they are significant.  I help people to see they have value. 

Where do we first begin to realize our own worth?  How significant are we to ourselves, our partners, our families, our county, our planet?  When we can find our place in each of these levels – will we be more likely to feel a greater sense of empowerment?  If every person in the world rose to significance – maybe the world would be a better place to live.  Maybe government would be less corrupt, maybe the environment would be less stressed, maybe individuals would suffer from good mental health?

One thing I do know, however, is that one gets what one gives. Those young men and that young woman made a difference in my life.  When they began to realize their own significance, it became more clear to me what my role was as a teacher – and that I too, am significant. 

Categories: Life's Lessons, Teaching | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Are you literate?

This was the question I challenged my English class with – and it without a doubt more of a challenge to answer than any of them really understand. 

Literacy happens when one can fully function in the context of his or her own environment.  What may mean literacy to a student sitting in a fully resourced family may mean something completely different to a student who is in his late 50s, having been recently laid off, injured, and diagnosed with a serious illness – oh, and is responsible to provide for his family.

I am touched by the number of students I teach who are able to function – daily – on an empty stomach, a monthly allowance that cuts so close to the bone there is barely enough money to scrape by.  So many of them suffer from what I am convinced is stress-related illnesses. 

The Ontario curriculum has outlined expectations that students need to meet so that they can be declared literate.  My question remains, how can one dictate what literacy is to the general public – a one size fits all kind of mandate?  Does everyone really need to know how to write a paragraph?  Does everyone really need to know the rules of possession?  I remember years ago when I did not see the sense of teaching students how to write using cursive writing – when computers were much more efficient.  A vice-principal of mine saw a different angle – in that all students should learn cursive writing – computers may not be handy.  Today, I begin to understand Alvin Toffler who suggested that English and math should not be taught in isolation.  Topics that need to be introduced to students include things like adolescence and current events – citizenship.  I am not sure – but I think to be fully meaningful – education should be sensitive to the context of the student.  If the student functions fully in his or her own environment  – then they are literate. 

For the student who is fighting cancer – he should know all about the health care system and treatment options that are open to him – not how to paragraph.

For the student who struggles with depression – she should know all about the treatments that are available – not just in Ontario, but around the world – not how to paragraph.

For the student who is about to be a Dad – he should know what kinds of responsibilities he is about to take on – how to manage money, cook, parent – not how to paragraph.

Not that paragraphing is wrong – it is simply a symbol of things that are expected and mandated in education that may not fit the bill for everyone in terms of meeting their literacy needs. 

I don’t know – but I certainly do question – and in education I think that makes me literate. 

Categories: Teaching | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

I don’t think Dad would be happy about that!

“Dad”, I said, “Why did you want to be a part of the war?”

“It was exciting, Stacey.  Everyone wanted to make a difference in the world and we were young enough and cocky enough to think that we would never die.”

I guess doing things because you want to make a difference is an eternal theme.  That’s why I teach.  I want to make a difference in my students’ lives.  I want to help them realize their full potential so that they can make a life for themselves and for their children.  And, in some cases, I do think I make a difference.  Although, it is not always immediately evident.

I, and my colleagues, find ourselves in a bit of a pickle these days.  We are busy getting on with our making a difference when – bang- we are side-lined by criticism and judgement.  And it has nothing to do with our own ability to teach.  It has everything to do with perception.  The labour dispute between teachers (the teacher’s unions) and the Ontario government has become an elephant in the classroom.  It does not belong there – there should be no dispute.  The pickle part of the matter is that I feel caught in the middle and am being split and quartered by both union and government.  What’s worse is that media has not even recognized that I am being so severely severed.  I am being painted with a brush that labels me “greedy” for more money.

I am happy, in this economy, to have a job.  I am more than happy with the salary and benefits I receive.  I have worked for nearly 25 years in education and have earned by “wings” per se.  New teachers have to begin at the bottom and through hard-work and energy and love, will learn skills that will make them become better teachers – worth more pay.  This is the way it is.  And I don’t know anyone I work with that begrudges this process.  I remember as a beginning teacher struggling to make my rent, car payment, and student debt repayments month to month.  School was expensive and long.  I did the time.  I paid my dues and now I am entitled to enjoy what I have worked so hard for.

What I am not thrilled about, however, is that it seems the institution that guarded our rights as workers in the past, has lost it’s ability to negotiate rights.  This is not through their own doing, rather, a government that has disenfranchised the very people who forged it’s election.  How did that happen?  How is it possible that, in Ontario, citizens are worried about losing their democratic rights?  It is more troubling to me that the climate is one of distrust than anything else.  This is not the same government that my Dad put his faith in – and fought overseas for.  It can’t be.  Dad wanted to make a difference and the government supported him.  I am saddened by the fact that I too feel my work is important and I too can make a difference, but mis-representation by government and media has mitigated my abilities.

My purpose in the classroom each day, is to help students find ways that they can identify their own strengths and weaknesses, to find their way in the world so that they too can feel purposeful, respected, and worthy.  That is why I teach… not for money, as the media and government have claimed.  I know Dad would not be happy about that lie.   Nor am I.


Categories: Life's Lessons, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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