The light was there, bathing everything in a golden glow. As I approached it, faint birdsong reached my ears and I heard trickling water, as in a stream. Little footsteps, like sprites dancing, pattered across soft grass and laughter sparkled across the sky like a rainbow.
No, I didn’t almost die from Covid-19 and this was not my near-death experience. But I do feel as though I have been completely focused on finishing an important, colossal task before entering a brand, new world.
I retired from teaching.
So, I feel like I owe everyone an apology for being somewhat silent for a while. I’ve missed you all! But I was consumed by the need to finish my professional race as well as I could. I just could not find the head space to dive wholeheartedly into my artwork until I was satisfied that the other work I had been passionate about for the past 35 years had been completed. It was a necessary pause, and one I am grateful to have taken.
There is always more to each of us than meets the eye, which is one reason I so enjoy getting to know you all through your comments and especially, when you share with me the things closest to your hearts that you wish to have captured in a painting. Maybe it is a good time, then, to share with you a little bit about “my other side”: Leslie, the teacher. Actually, maybe this bit isn’t little, but rather long. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! 😉)
During the first part of my marriage, my dear husband and I moved several times across Canada, mostly because he was in the military and, it’s true: there is no life like it! Some marriages were strained by this type of lifestyle, but ours was solidified. We are a team.
With each move, over the past 35 years, I took on a different teaching position, and so the roles I was able to explore in my profession varied greatly. I do not often talk about my own experiences as a teacher, and I do not share them with you now as some sort of brag. But I am so honoured to have been a member of this great profession for so many years and I have the absolute utmost respect for all the teachers I know. I am speaking in the first person but, in truth, my teaching colleagues and friends, this is us. And this was my experience. It happened to me, but I bet you will recognize yourself in what I am about to share. (I would love to hear from you.)
I was permitted to see through the outer walls behind which we often protect our true selves and was handed the absolute privilege of being invited in to the more personal and often guarded lives of young people, families and colleagues.
I walked alongside those who were grieving sudden unexpected loss, facing serious criminal charges (students and parents), welcoming new family members young and older, accepting altered family definitions and transitioning into new personal identities (children and parents).
I saw through a glass darkly the struggles that those with mental health issues were facing and its tumultuous impacts on children and families.
I witnessed families heartbroken from the downward spiral of enslavement to drugs and alcohol, including an 11-year old who, one mid-winter day, found his father frozen to death on the back steps because he was too drunk to put his house key in the door. And including a family whose father, high on cocaine, had killed someone in a hit-and-run accident and was facing a long jail sentence while his wife and three children faced an uncertain future.
In a police station, because their parents were not there to support them, I stood beside young people victimized by a child abuse ring. They were asked to spend hours looking through hundreds of photos and give statements on each one. They were only aged about 10 to 15.
In a school field, I gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a young colleague on the first day of the school year, in his first teaching position, who collapsed and died in my arms from a pulmonary embolism.
One morning, I protected a terrified teenager from a schizophrenic parent who was angrily jettisoning locker contents into a crowded hallway packed with frightened students.
I dialed 911 more than once when a student with serious health issues collapsed in my classroom and had seizures while their friends anxiously witnessed their pain.
Many times, I cleaned the urine off the classroom floor and helped a little waif-of-a-girl in Grade 2 get into clean, dry clothes: her parents were in the midst of a serious child custody battle and her anxiety was through the roof.
Whenever the need arose, I contacted Child Protective Services. I did not enjoy this.
There was a single, homeless mother of four who needed some quiet help to get groceries when things were desperate. As her daughter’s teacher, I was able to source out a few things from various people from time to time that helped her out. I still treasure the photo her daughter gave me of herself looking beautiful on graduation day. For a long time, she didn’t think she was going to be able to afford to attend her grad, but she did!
One December on the prairies, I spoke with a police officer who was working on a child-neglect case involving a 9 year-old boy who had made himself an igloo that by pure luck he was found sleeping inside, nearly frozen, beside railroad tracks, just to escape from the abuse in his home. His parents had not reported him missing. (His older 17-year-old brother was on probation already for drug offenses and urinating on a police car in defiance, among other things.)
I walked outside to the back of the school field with my entire class of grade 6 students with precious cargo in an old plastic ice cream container. Even though they all begged me to keep them in the classroom because none of their mothers would let them keep them as pets, I tried to explain how the swarming, smelly mass of baby snakes were meant to be free.
In amazement, I watched as a beautiful, heroic young student who was facing a life-and-death health struggle transformed her own pain into numerous community service initiatives to ease the pain and suffering of others. Her sunny disposition and joy were radiant, and I will never forget her courage.
I locked the doors of my classroom to protect my Intermediate students inside from a student suffering from autism who was in a very loud and violent rage while tearing apart a classroom across the hall. The students tried to carry on with their work, while sitting quietly, shocked and a little frightened to hear the screams and sounds of things hitting walls and being broken. In a different school, I phoned the office staff to inform them that a student suffering from autism had “done another runner” and his EA (Educational Assistant) was running after him again now, somewhere in the neighbourhood. On yet another occasion, I listened to a single, exhausted mother with two children with autism sob as she pleaded for help that we were unequipped to provide. Families who are dealing with autism desperately need more resources, support and respite.
I took my students outside in sub-zero temperatures into a wind-blown and snow-covered field to wait until the fire drill (perhaps planned, perhaps not) was over and it was deemed safe to re-enter the building. In an effort to ward off frostbite, I told them to huddle closer to the ground in a large group, and they did, shivering. This happened many times.
Sometimes, there were distinct cultural differences that impacted the future of a family. I recall an incident where a beautiful, obviously intelligent, young, smartly dressed woman arrived for a post-report card interview, accompanied by a female friend wearing more traditional garb. She was there because her daughter did not show her report card to her parents because it had straight A’s and one C+ (which I had given her). She explained through many tears and without hiding the desperation in her voice, that she had 4 daughters and her husband had brought the family to Canada in hopes of a better life. At first, he had a job but was currently unemployed and now just spent the day smoking cigarettes at home. In her home country, girls were unvalued, and her mother-in-law was applying a lot of pressure to her son to bring the whole family back, but to leave the wife in Canada since she gave him no sons. The only recourse she had was to show her mother-in-law that her daughters were successful and thriving in Canada, so little did I know that this single C+ could potentially sever this mother from her 4 beautiful daughters forever! In short, the daughter redid a few assignments to bring up her mark and the final grade was both earned and more acceptable to help ease the mother’s dilemma. Then and only then, did they show this report card to the father. I cannot imagine the stress in that unhappy home and I often wonder whatever happened with them in the long run.
Resources and space were often the issue, or lack of them. There was the time I taught an entire grade 12 French course to my tiny class of two students on the stairs of a school or in a corner of a corridor because there was no classroom space available. (Yes, they passed.) And also, the time I taught a grade 5 class of 10 students in a small, private school in a tiny space that used to be a storage room, like a large closet. Or, when I ran a high school Art Department with zero dollars for supplies in the budget. I taught grades 6-10 simultaneously in a construction trailer, parked in a rear parking space rented from a local church. “Recess” was spent playing hockey in the parking lot.
Once, I went with grade 11 and 12 students to our school’s sister school in Japan, and, as a guest, taught a class whose students did not speak English or French and where I refused to let a handful of students sleep on the desks. Using a sense of humour, I somehow got them to pay attention. (I only found out later that these students were apparently quite notorious gang members, which explains the satisfied delight I saw creep across their own poor teacher’s face at my disciplined approach. I guess I was untouchable as a foreigner in the classroom, but he wasn’t. I think he was afraid of them.)
There was never enough time. I often sat up until the wee hours of the morning, marking my students’ work, because when I got home after work I was busy looking after my own family and had to wait until everyone was asleep before I could finish my day’s work. I am sure there are many teachers like me who silently do “night shifts.”
One day when working in a lower socio-economic neighbourhood in a small prairie town, my thick, warm, handmade Icelandic sweater was stolen from a gym during the start of the winter months, but I only suspected who the culprit might have been. Not long afterward, sure enough, I saw this very student wearing it…I knew she did not have a winter coat. I was secretly glad she was warm and said nothing.
And so it goes. These are just some of my memories and experiences from over the years.
The general public has little awareness that these types of experiences are taken in stride by teachers. Educators are not the cliched role-models they are often made out to be, who gloat about a two-month holiday and are generally society’s inept scapegoats. I am not. Teachers’ hours are not 9-5. Yes, they are fallible, but not through lack of trying or caring or giving of themselves. Teachers truly are highly trained, compassionate professionals who model learning throughout their own careers. One of the things that always angers me is the expression “If you can’t do, teach.” Nothing could be further from the truth. To teach requires not just professionalism but also courage and an immense belief in the potential goodness of others, and in the right to an education for all, no matter what.
Teachers who truly have what it takes, will take a job where the job exists, and be fearless in expanding their own horizons. Often, before finally being awarded a full-time contract, they will work in the profession as Occasional Teachers, Long-term Occasional Teachers (full time or part-time), and in more than one school at a time, or even all of the above simultaneously… for years. This alone demonstrates flexibility and commitment.
Now, in this era of abrupt change due to a global pandemic, the increased focus on mental health issues, increased awareness of the right for human dignity and opportunity for all, decreased freedom of respectful speech and the increase of political correctness which changes with the wind, and the augmented need for more access to technology and resources in education for a rapidly changing world, never has the role of a teacher been so NECESSARY.
Today’s teacher is like True North on a compass. They do not need to have all the answers, but they do need to provide a safe environment for open discussion. They will find the answers. We can all count on our teachers to be there no matter what. The Covid-19 situation has just proven this, yet again.
Through all these changes, kids are still kids. They need acknowledgement, encouragement, unconditional love and affirmation. They need discipline and redirection at times and celebration for their hard-earned accomplishments. (To “honour” them with platitudes is to weaken their resolve to strive and it is, instead, to solidify their understanding that they are entitled regardless of their input.) They need teachers who will enable them to develop their critical thinking skills, to fearlessly explore their creative imaginations and courageously risk sharing their unique ideas with others. They need teachers who will help them to weed through propaganda to discover for themselves the truth of a matter, to speak with careful discernment but first, to listen with respect, especially when disagreements arise.
The ultimate goal is that our children will become intelligent, compassionate, respectful and healthy contributing members of humanity. (It isn’t just about the “A, B, C’s” although there is that, too.) That is what good teachers intrinsically know. It is why they “teach.” It is a commitment and a calling. And it is NOT for the weak of heart.
So, to parents whose child is still in school, here are a few tips for you. (Many of you probably already do these things, but here you go anyway.) It isn’t always easy to get to know your child’s teacher, but it is always worth it. Please, do not take your child’s teachers for granted; rather, send them encouraging emails. Attend interviews to discuss your child’s progress. Be open when they show you, with evidence, a side of your child that you may not yet have seen. Use that information to build your child’s character. Follow up. Be a partner with the teacher. Always be polite. Never judge a teacher before you have heard what he or she has to add to the discussion. Do offer to contribute gently used recyclable materials to classroom supplies. Offer to accompany the class on field trips where extra supervision is needed. Share great experiences with your teacher’s boss. Attend special events that are open to the community, like Arts Shows, plays and concerts. Thank your child’s teacher for providing extracurricular opportunities for your child, especially since to do that for your family meant the teacher spent many hours away from their own. Smile at the teacher. Say a kind word. It really does take a village to raise a child, and teachers are already committed to this for your children. We are on the same team.
So, this is a glimpse into “my other side”: Leslie, the teacher. I have been passionate about this profession, on so many levels. I have LOVED working with all my students over the past 35 years and have truly been fortunate to meet many wonderful parents and families! As for my teacher-friends and colleagues, I am deeply honoured to have been counted as one among you, in such a noble profession.
So now, I am retired from teaching, at least teaching like I have in the past. I am going to continue to keep learning and figuring out down which path I should take my little bag of tricks from now on. Nothing learnt is ever discarded.
I hope to open a new Art Studio, move with my husband to be closer to our children and grandchildren, volunteer, and catch up with old friends. I am looking forward to the end of this global pandemic, and to the time I can once again continue my one-on-one ArtpARTner workshops which are so rewarding and so much fun! I am excited about having art workshops for small groups of adults in my new studio. I think, then, that my future artwork, teaching and learning will go on, and hopefully grow into something that brings lots of smiles and joy to many people.
I leave you with these final words, from Paul writing to the Philippians (Phil 4: 8-9). “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
Wishing you all birdsong, laughter and rainbows. Peace to you all, my friends.