I am not a December baby, but my birthday is in the latter half of the year, the second week of September. This fact, combined with an uninterrupted passage through secondary and post-secondary education, meant I was merely 22 years old the first time I stepped in front of the English classes which made up my teaching assignment. I had the fortune of landing my first job in a small BC community, and this meant I was offered a teaching assignment which would have likely taken years to secure in a larger centre. It seemed rookie teachers, at the time, typically did not teach senior courses. The result of this good fortune meant I was in front of ‘children’ who were only four years my junior. I struggle to match the faces of recent students with their graduation year, and I cannot always recover their names from the thousands on file, but I remember my first English 11 class very well… especially Adrian.
I have shared before the story of my move from the lower mainland to small town BC. It was something of a culture shock, to say the least. It took some time to get used to the absence of traffic lights and the presence of moose. I learned the value of a block heater and the irrelevance of a briefcase. However, it took some distance in years for me to appreciate the flip of that coin: the greenhorn city boy, clearly out of his element. From my students’ point of view – especially Adrian’s – I was ripe for the picking.
Before I get too far into this narrative, let me clarify that Adrian was not a bad guy. In fact, I liked him. I appreciated his sardonic wit, and he was among the few students shorter than me. Without intent to vilify him, I would call Adrian the class clown; and, often, I featured large in his jokes. As a young man, lacking confidence and in an unfamiliar setting, I began to dread Block A and the weeks when it appeared four times in our 5x8 schedule.
I could share many examples of Adrian’s misbehaviour, but one comes to mind which well illustrates Adrian’s clowning. During my practicum, mentors stressed the importance of creative lesson planning and preparing engaging activities upon which to build the learning. To that end, I often incorporated activities which called for movement and were noisy. Just such a lesson was underway in Block A when my Principal Louise Burgart visited my classroom. Her visit was not formally evaluative, but I was nervous, nonetheless. As she was speaking to me, the buzz of the students was rising to a high pitch. I could not make out what Louise was saying. With the intent to demonstrate my authority and control of this classroom, I decided to get the group’s attention and quiet them down. So, I barked out, “Hey!” or, “Class!” Only, it did not come out deep, loud, and commanding – I had yet to cultivate my teacher voice. In addition, I was a little stressed, the tension locking up my vocal cords. I was able to make a sound, and it was heard over the din of the room. Adrian heard me. From the back of the room, he turned around and said, loud and clear, “Wow! I thought that was a woman!” I had no comeback, and feared my Principal would be disappointed in my weak discipline.
It was not long into the fall when I stood one morning in the photocopy room, staring at the machine as if it would magically produce an English 11 lesson for me. The night before, once I had finished my marking and planned for my other classes, I had turned my attention to Block A. But the well was dry, and every lesson idea that formed in my imagination dissolved again when I thought of Adrian. I could not face the morning unprepared, so I did not allow myself to sleep. Instead, I turned on MuchMusic, hoping for inspiration. Haywire was on heavy rotation. I finally fell asleep around 2 am, curled into a foetal position in the glow of the TV. And, it was the next morning, in that copy room, where my colleague offered the second-best piece of advice I received as a rookie.
He had come with his own blackline masters in hand and casually asked how I was doing. In a moment of weakness – or perhaps it was bravery – I told him the truth: I was not prepared for Block A, and it was first period this day. His face gave no insight to his thinking, but he told me to “wait here.” A few moments later, he returned with a file folder of exercises. They were simply worksheets to reinforce writing skills. Nothing exciting, or necessarily engaging. He handed me the file and invited me to copy the entire inventory; he even pointed out a set of exercises I could use immediately – this morning – in Block A. His advice was something like this: “You don’t have to try and do backflips every day. Don’t make these exercises your bread and butter, but it’s okay sometimes to resort to a simple structured lesson. The bell will eventually dismiss this class. And believe me: you’ll remember the lesson far longer than they will.” And he was right. First period came and went, and the sky did not fall. Even Adrian was quiet and focused on the task at hand, occupied if not engaged. It would not be often that I resorted to a doorhandle lesson, but I now knew I would come through alright.
Adrian kept me on my toes, but I came through the school year alright, too. And, I survived in part due to the best advice I received that year. It came from Louise, my Principal. I had a few conversations with her in the months before Christmas and, during one of them, she offered this advice: “You catch more flies with honey.” Now, she was not advocating for bribery or sweetness. She was telling me that reprisal and humiliation will not foster relationships. Long before education became highly attuned to it, Louise was advising compassion as the foundation for discipline. Her words and her mentorship have served me well these many, many years.
The collective wisdom BC Principals and Vice-Principals hold is vast. It was this week during Coffee Connections that I overheard our members sharing sage words of guidance. Among the gems, I heard, “Look for the positive, the negative will find you” and, “We can say we don’t know all the answers” and, “I felt that it (working 6am-10pm each day) was heroic.”
If you ask me, candid conversation about the work we do is a great way to start the day with colleagues. We have two more Coffee Connections scheduled this year, June 1 and June 15. Maybe we’ll see you at one, and feel free to bring a friend!