Decades ago, in an environmental geography class, the professor talked about what happens within the meeting-space of two different ecosystems: where prairies meet mountains, or ocean meets the shore. He demonstrated how such places have more life-forms — flora and fauna — than each individual system, and as a result are more diverse, vigorous, and dynamic.
While I don’t remember much else about that class, that piece has stayed with me; it is analogous to so much else in life, be it a shelf filled with books from all continents, a band with a dozen musicians instead of a trio (I remember a large band in Austin, with a full-size harp next to a clarinet and electric guitar), food with a long list of ingredients… Life is short, and there is so much to be enjoyed and learned. Bring it on!
We need to go deeply into diversity and explore guts, minds, and hearts.
A Bachelor of Education in my mid-forties
I decided to give up teaching post-secondary as an underpaid contract teacher and move on to a Bachelor of Education program. My thinking was that I could add my voice to writing instruction, as someone who had published children’s books, and taught writing. My sons were growing up, and I knew I would miss being around younger people; I love the observations of children and seeing them grasp new ideas. (Although no more than seeing their in-born ideas affirmed, too.) With a graduate degree in writing, even the starting salary would be good for me, a writer. It seemed like a solid decision. I was even accepted into an “Arts in Education” cohort. It did seem that life was about to take a good turn.
I proceeded through the program, one of only two “mature” learners who were also parents of young children. Other than the two of us oldies, the cohort was aged mid-20s to early 30s. I didn’t think it mattered, beyond the fact that on Fridays when we were finished for the week most went for a beer, and I rushed home to make dinner, clean, and ascertain the hockey gear was ready to go for Saturday’s games.
The program went well, and then it was time for the final practicum.
After so many years of teaching myself, I couldn’t help but be cognizant of the pedagogical choices made by the sponsor teachers and faculty associates, who were supposed to be guiding the process, as well as the administration folks in the school, the principal, and VP.
As weeks passed, I realized — as I had before but not to the same degree — how teaching causes you to question all you know, and habits and patterns. Teaching demands that you look deep into your core: are you a person who likes to dig? Who wants to slow down to absorb the value? Do you simply like to “get through?” Do you think each and every child is an open book? Has the knowledge to share? Is innately “good,” “bad,” “lazy,” “imaginative”…
Your knowledge and your beliefs bubble up into full-on sunlight when you teach. Then a magnifying glass comes over the whole.
In the education program, we would be shown the optimal lesson plan… and expected to fill-in-the-blanks, and create identically patterned plans. It didn’t matter what we saw under the magnifying glass in full light; we were to keep to the plan. I was told to wear an old-school watch on my wrist.
We were told that teaching at the elementary level is to be “engaging.” After several months in the program, this appeared to be a euphemism for “entertaining.”
I looked around at the young adults in my cohort, who seemed to have no problem with this; they did not question that 11 minutes is enough to absorb some grammatical knowledge and that one should raise one’s voice and make big motions to grab attention, and make a point… To me, this smacked of something beyond “engagement” to downright coercion at points. And so much of what we were being told seemed to me to be about stuffing words (in a timed and timely way) down throats, hoping they might come back up the way teacher-I intended.
None of it sat well with me. And when I tried it out (sorry, kids!) it felt false to me. I’ve always thought that one should teach from their very core. I’ve also thought that children have amazing shit-radars and can sniff out any whiff of falseness. And that it is imperative to respect not only where they are at this very moment, but all their possibilities, too. There was a day toward the end of my second practicum, when one courageous nine-year-old looked directly at me, and said, “That’s not like you,” about some action I’d taken. I loved that kid at that moment; he was so right and so wise. (Even though he made me want to bawl and scared me, too.) And when I looked deeply into the eyes of the young people I was working with, I saw that in each of them. Even as I heard the word “lazy” in the teacher-lunchroom.
So I continued to question: How can you set out learning pieces in the 3, and 7, and 11-minute increments of those boxes in a pre-set lesson plan?
It’s a very long story, but suffice to say I was failed not only for the first long practicum but a year later again for attempt number two. That boy’s eyes are still with me, and on me: That’s not you. That moment was a turning point, a point of looking deeply inward. And that’s what I want most for students: a growing understanding of who they are, what they are about.
What those institutional folks are looking for in an Education program
For anyone trying to make the decision to enter the teaching profession for young learners, there are things you should know.
More than anything, they want teachers who follow the rules. Without questioning.
They want teachers who are great herding dogs: the sheer amount of time spent on learning the intricacies of lining up young people to proceed down a hallway in the proper manner — that is, one behind the other, no reaching out to walls or ceiling, and with absolute silence. Order. Correction. Constant reminding of who is the boss and appropriate conduct.
It became a metaphor. It grounds the hierarchy that forms the basis of our society. It’s a rare young person who can say, “This isn’t me!” and not have that thought punished in myriad and seemingly invisible ways.
I learned that humiliation is a teaching tool used by even the so-called good teachers; it is an expectation. It is a significant part of the training, though it is called by other words.
Ultimately, I realized that with both of my sponsor teachers, their goal was to re-create their teacher-self in me, the mini-me-s of the education world.
My cohort-mates in their 20s and 30s, even after missing practicum days, coughing up late assignments, running into problems… they were passed and allowed out into the world to teach. They all mastered the art of the hallway walk-and-herd.
I also observed that those who seemed to me to be subversive teachers — the teachers who took time with thoroughly exploring subjects, and ignored the clock over student needs; those who spent extra hours in their classrooms over the staff-room; the list is long… but these teachers did not take on student teachers. Why was it I had the distinct feeling that they understood to fly under the educational radar, and avoid the observation that sponsor-teaching brings? I still feel grateful to these teachers, out in the world, who put child-learners first, who strive to meet individuals’ needs, and understand that box-ticking is not the optimal way to do this; those teachers make all the difference in a child’s life.
Listening closely to my sponsor teachers talk about their sponsor teachers, made me realize they too had been cast in the image. An inheriting line, one after another… and so on and so on… right down to the Adam and Eve of all teachers. With that apple. Except they didn’t bite… being rule-bound and all.
Let’s open the doors!
How, I wonder, can we speak to “diversity” in education when we work within a system that cannot tolerate the least bit of “diverse”? (We do need to remember that “systems” are still human-based — we should not be condoning “systemic” anything, not until we turn it all over to AI. And that will be a sad day.)
If I take 25 minutes to make a point in my lesson (and then make a decision to cut some other piece in my day to make up the difference), why not? If I decide to let a lesson stretch to allow all the voices and exploration, until every child is caught up in the collective acquiring of wisdom… why not? (When you are teaching and you look around at engrossed faces and realize the learners want more time with this… why not?)
Similarly: if I ask questions of the quiet and knowledgeable child… is that not a choice? I had one young female student, who was both bright and so shy. Each day, I made a point of finding or creating some opportunity for her to speak. It was slow progress. After four weeks of effort, she raised her hand one day and whispered in the quietest voice, and I was so grateful. My thinking was that this was her grade four years; if she could build self-confidence in her knowledge, and learn to speak up, now, before grade six — that nightmare year (to my mind) for girls — that would be so good.
That afternoon my sponsor teacher asked why I was bothering with this student every day — but she did not wait for my answer. Instead, she instructed me to ask questions of the “extroverted child who does not know the answers” as a point of class inspiration. She said that this was the optimal, “best-practice” approach, and would make real use of my time.
I was stymied. Mostly by the fact that we could not have a conversation about this, about choices. And why we could not simply be different in our approaches. My thinking is that over the course of thirteen years in elementary and secondary school, learners have a myriad of teachers, with different approaches, viewpoints, ways of being in the world… and from all of these, a young person grows and ponders. And learns about their own self. Having teachers who hold different ideas and approaches models acceptance and listening.
I was in my mid-forties, and my thinking was not even challenged, but simply shut down. By the end of both practica, I was physically ill and had cohort-mates taking anti-anxiety medication just to get through their student-teaching weeks.
Why are we not questioning a “system” that demands this of people? If grown adults cannot function in such a classroom, why do we expect it of young people? Really, toward the end of my time in the classrooms, I was left with the question of how do children and teens even get through these years?
I am left with the thought that it is not enough to give lip service to the idea of “classroom diversity.” We’re only at a starting point of talking about student identity and background and ways of learning. Lip service, for the most part.
But for the education system to really change, there needs to be diversity of thinking/processing/approach within teachers and school administration. We need to cultivate real acceptance, openness.
We cannot do the same actions and re-create the mini-me-s of sponsor teachers, and then expect different results, growth, and lasting change.