Recently, our staff celebrated the beginning of the year with a gathering at a beautiful home on a beautiful day. We walked down the path to the beach and some of us braved the cooling water to swim or kayak, but most of us simply stood together in the late afternoon sun, looking toward the sea. And then, of course, the conversations that had begun in admiration of the end of summer day faded to the usual: I have Jimmy in my class this year; what are some strategies for working with him? How are you starting math? How do you include Jack? What can you tell me about Jenna? I’m worried about her.
No matter how early I go to school, I’m not the first one there. No matter how late I leave, someone else remains. Last Sunday, when I went to prepare for the week, over half of our staff was there at the same time. Whenever I send a query to my principal late at night, early in the morning, on the weekend, she responds quickly. Over the summer and every weekend, I exchange ideas with my intermediate colleague. She’s always ready to think, wonder, worry, plan, and ponder with me. If one of my students has difficulties, a whole team provides loving support. We have a food program in the morning, snacks provided at 10:00, a lunch program, a bowl of fruit in the classroom to ensure the kids have something to eat before they go home. My assistant watches the children if they come in late and makes sure they've eaten. We have a room filled with clothing in various sizes so that our students have shoes and warm coats and clean clothes to wear. Our non-enrolling teachers are continually on alert to provide as-needed emotional support when crises emerge. A team works relentlessly with the community to connect, to organize services, to gather resources. The whole staff meets regularly to build consistent language and strategies to support literacy, numeracy, social and emotional learning.
I could go on.
But here’s the tragic part. So many of our students still struggle with basic literacy and numeracy despite our best efforts. So many cannot yet manage their anger or their anxiety in ways that don’t harm themselves or others. When you look at the “numbers” at our school, from the Fraser Institute, for example, you would say that teachers aren't doing enough at our school. You would say, it’s shameful how we are failing the children.
Here’s what failure looks like. This is the story of one child in my grade 7 class. He is soft-spoken and friendly. He tries very hard to pay attention. He is reading at a beginning of grade 2 level and he is only just starting to write letter sounds. What’s wrong with this school, you might wonder, that he has made so little progress? You should have seen him in grade 1, one teacher said. He simply screamed and flailed the whole year. He had a full-time EA who spent most of the time simply holding him tightly so he wouldn't injure himself and others. In his short life he has experienced more trauma than most of us can even imagine. His progress is little short of miraculous, thanks to the extraordinary committed work of the staff at my school. But the “numbers” tell only our failure.
I wish that our community, our province, our country, the world would support education and teachers who give their hearts daily to support students. Of course teachers fail every day. I have 25 students right now with a range of abilities and a multitude of roadblocks to learning. I am continuously failing. I know that I don’t meet all their needs. I’m not even sure, right now, as I struggle to find my way, that I can. Even if I try all the strategies in every book. Even if I work more than the way too many hours I already work. Even if I were the best teacher in the world. Will more ideas help? I doubt it. More advice? Unlikely. I am drowning in information, recommendations, tips and lists.
Here’s what I do need right now. Kindness. Acknowledgement. Appreciation. A high five. A hug. And faith that everyone believes I am doing my very best. It's hard not to become discouraged. But it's easier when you know that people believe in you, that they believe your best will yield results. And our school? Our school needs its name in lights, a banner bigger than any rock star's, a standing ovation, a prize more prestigious and venerable than the Stanley Cup.
And one more thing: we need hope. I need hope. I need to continue to hope that one day soon we will stop “fixing” classrooms and teachers and start working as a community to find more sensible, plausible and honest ways to truly support and educate all of our children.