This School Year, Be That Teacher

There were wide eyes, excited faces, and hugs given to familiar friends and teachers. Parents snapped pictures to be posted to social media, buses were unloaded and class line-ups were formed. Last Tuesday, the excitement of the first day of school was palpable at Holy Family School. The enthusiastic bounce in the students’ steps towards the school showed eagerness to learn, hope of a new beginning and brains ready to be ignited. The bounce in my step reflected my excitement about the year ahead.

Prior to the first day, I spent two weeks setting up my classroom. Bulletin boards were painted, cupboards were organized, and finishing touches made to ensure a warm and welcoming learning environment. For teachers, however, the beginning of the school year is much more a matter of mental preparation, than simple classroom design.

A new assignment, new school, and new group of students had earlier in the summer lead me to wonder: What most defines me as a teacher? My conclusion? I am not defined by 18 years of teaching experience and certification in Special Education. Nor by my experience teaching in an inner city school, where 59% of my students were designated exceptional learners. The layout of my classroom, the resources and books on my shelf do not define me. What defines me is being mother to my son, who is identified with a learning disability.

I have walked the learning disability journey with him. Every day at school, I carry him in my heart. He taught me everything I need to know about teaching.

My son’s greatest strengths are not ones measured by the traditional curriculum, or documented by standardized tests. He is personable, empathetic and helpful to all. I’m his parent, but he is my best friend, and I am utterly proud of the person he is, has always been, and is becoming.

It was not a shock to me when he was diagnosed with a learning disability in Grade 2. We had been through support services even before school started. But, there, sitting at the school conference table, going through the testing results,  everything turned on me. There, I was. A resource teacher, who had sat through countless feedback sessions. But, this was different. This was my heart we were discussing.

As the test scores and percentages were read, the tears began to stream down my face. I had hit unfamiliar territory – this was my son. Low auditory memory, low visual memory. How was he going to learn in the classroom? While I had walked this path with him since Kindergarten, the scores put a number to the severity of his issues and the depth of the struggle he was to continue to face on his academic journey.

As he entered the junior grades, expectations grew, the learning gap widened, and his self-esteem collapsed. Despite the best efforts of a team of talented teachers, my son was in the proverbial leaky boat, far from shore and taking on water. Every day, I told him, was a new start, a new opportunity. Every night, he would cry – anxious, exhausted and overwhelmed. At this age, he had become more introspective, compared himself more to others. His learning difference was an obstacle he felt he could not overcome. Many days I wondered whether I was doing him more harm sending him to school, than keeping him home.

So much is said about the gift of failure, but many students have seen too much failure. That is all they focus on when they think of themselves and their own learning. This was my son.

The resilience and grit associated with growth mindset can only manifest themselves if a student is not heavily burdened and weighed down already. Years of struggle, failure and disappointment take a toll on a student. They dampen the kindle, and sometimes extinguish the fire to learn.

The greatest challenge a teacher faces is mustering the capacity to rekindle the flame in students whose kindling has been dampened already. But, it is possible.

This year, as my son enters Grade 10, he is excited about the start of school. With a few exceptions–minor bumps in the road, and ongoing academic challenges–the anxiety, and issues of the past have been overcome. I am so grateful. Grateful for his efforts. Grateful for the many teachers with the Ottawa Catholic School Board who accompanied him on his journey.

Consider Ms. Beth Finn, his Grade 9 Geography teacher. By listening to him, and understanding his need, she alleviated the stress. In her classroom, despite heavy content, and her high expectations, he comfortably took risks and truly learned. I know this because everywhere we travelled this summer, he drew attention to the landforms and geographic formations, naming and dating them. On our excursions, I felt as if I was on a field trip with him in Ms. Finn’s class.

Clear evidence of learning? Yes! By eliminating barriers to his learning, Ms. Finn created a safe place for him to learn. She let him know, “You’ve got this.” Her compassion made the difference. In her class, he was learning enabled.

As the new year starts, every teacher wants to be THAT teacher, including me. Be the teacher who reduces the stress to enable your students to learn. Remove the barriers to learning by creating a safe place for students to be themselves.

Be the teacher who finds the anxiety, and finally puts it to rest. Teach students that their worth is not tied to test scores, but lies within their own character. Be the teacher whose students value learning, not just grades. Let them learn the value of making mistakes, but that they are not simply a composite of their own failures. Most importantly, don’t ever make the curriculum or the pressures of the profession become more important than the students sitting in front of you. A student’s self-worth and emotional well-being are the most important thing, every day of the school year. Be the teacher that maintains the energy of that first school day – the enthusiasm, hope and faith of each student, not just during the first week, but throughout the year.

To be the teacher we must walk a complicated path, that at times is both invigorating and tiring, inspiring and challenging. We must accept that some days are better than others. That there are many needs and personalities in each classroom. That all of us are human.

When I cannot seem to reach that one child, who, like my son, needs to be reached, I draw strength from the words of the Dalai Lama, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

My words and actions, and those of my colleagues, are paramount and transparent to students at all times. We have been “Sent to be the Good News”. In that spirit, I commit, with my words and actions, to inspire, gently guide and keep the fire of learning burning brightly in every student in my care.

I will do my best to be THAT Teacher.