This post, in response to Stephen Hurley’s recent invitation, is submitted by Michael Harding, a retired elementary school teacher and a regular contributor to VoicEd.
Just before the holidays, I retired for the second time. I have been teaching for 53 years. I am not particularly tired. The flame has not gone out or I wouldn’t be here writing this post. I could probably use health issues as my primary reason for my decision but, in all honesty, I am beginning to feel less than relevant in the 21st century conversation. I am no longer able to keep up with educational research and innovation. As an adjunct professor for the past 17 years I have been teaching student teachers how to teach, but I feel that I am falling behind, especially in such areas as technology in the classroom and the new initiatives around literacy and numeracy. I am now a curious bystander who reads your posts and blogs out of interest, not because I plan to implement any of your brilliant initiatives. I believe strongly that the future of education in Canada is in strong and capable hands and I applaud your efforts. Thank you to Stephen Hurley, Lori Cullen, Sheila Stewart, Mark Carbone, Heidi Siwak, Andrew Campbell and many, many more of you for your creative and provocative thinking and for your passion.
Most of the posts at VoicEd, Teaching Out Loud and other sites in the Blogosphere are dynamic and stimulating essays. They challenge us; they rattle our cages; they shake our branches. They force us to examine who and what we are and where we ought to be going. They help us to focus on our ongoing and ever evolving relationships with children. While most of the posts really caught my imagination I found some of them to be clinical and septic and had little to do with the joy of teaching and the rewards that go with building relationships.
The context of my own submissions focused largely on the efforts of the courageous teachers in the 60’s and 70’s who attempted to bring student centered and self directed learning into the classroom. I still believe that we were on the right path because many of the tenets of “open” education are still in use today. The “Living and Learning” initiative failed because the system failed us, in favour of the $ factor. The experience was joyful in that we were finding new and challenging ways of engaging children.
My most joyful years as a teacher were my classroom years. I will always cherish the fun we had and the anticipation of every new day. Our energy, enthusiasm and joy were infectious and our students had fun because they knew we were having fun. We were not intimidated by a “stifling” curriculum. We had full autonomy. Our classroom was our domain and what happened within those walls was our curriculum. In recent years we have lamented the decline of the “teachable moment”, those times when a spontaneous challenge would present itself and we would set aside the prepared plan in order to take advantage of the unexpected. The following post is one of my favourites of 2012 because it richly describes the joy of teaching and the thrill of the “Teachable Moment”.
My second year of teaching (1961/62) was spent in the farming community of Colgan, Ontario. My uncle, who was the parish priest, asked if I would consider coming to teach at the combined elementary/secondary school in the tiny village of Colgan. It was a collector school to which all of the children from the surrounding communities were bussed. The Ministry of Education was in the process of closing all the one-room schoolhouses in rural Ontario. I was a city kid but I was truly a “wannabe” farmer. I had always wished that we lived on a farm but had only ever visited one now and then. I was 19 years old and I accepted the position with great joy because I was finally going to live and work in farm country. St. James School was situated right next to the church on the hill. Adjacent to the church was the rectory (the parish priest’s house) where I was to live. I stayed in one of the many spare rooms in this massive old house. I was assigned to teach Grade 7.
I soon discovered why my uncle wanted me to come and teach there. The principal, Sister Marius, asked him if he would try to recruit a male teacher for their school. Apparently, in the long history of the school there had never been a male teacher. Sister Marius decided that I would be the phys ed. teacher for all of the boys in both the elementary and secondary sections. I wondered how I could do all this and teach Grade 7 too. She said it would be easy. I would take all of the boys from Grades 3 to 13, all at the same time, for a one-hour phys ed period once weekly. My class was to be 130 boys. There was no gym. There was a modest church hall that held a maximum of 60 persons. We did, however, have a 10-acre schoolyard. (Another story for another time is how I managed to teach phys ed. to 130 boys in nothing but 10 acres of empty space).
But back to Grade 7 and my class of 35 students (which seemed like a breeze). One day the students came back from recess and Jimmy McVeigh was carrying the most humungous garter snake I had ever seen. I hadn’t seen many but this one was right out of a science fiction movie. We measured it at 38 inches in length and its girth was just shy of one and a half inches. (I’m guessing he was digesting a couple of coyotes). I had an empty aquarium in the classroom so we put the snake in that and placed a board across the top with two textbooks to hold it down. The snake was having no part of being a captive so he, or she, simply pushed the board and the two textbooks aside with his nose and began to climb out. We (not me) caught him and put him back in, and held the board down until one of the students ran out to find a rock heavy enough to hold it down.
My planned Health lesson on “How Our Lungs Work” was put on hold in favour of this “teachable moment”. The kids were so curious about this reptile that they wanted to know more about snakes, and how they function. I told them that I would do some quick research and get back to them but for now they could read quietly and take turns going to the glass prison to examine our enormous specimen which they had already named “Reggie” in honour of one of the boys who, himself, happened to be quite long.
I found my “R” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia and began to search for “garter snake”. When I felt I had enough information I called the class back to order. The first thing they wanted to know was “how does a snake move”? I already had that bit of information in my back pocket, but being a good teacher I decided that “discovery” would be the best way to demonstrate the motor skills of a snake. I asked for a volunteer to open the aquarium and bring the snake out and place him on the floor at the front of the room where we could all watch him move. I had asked for a volunteer but no one rushed forward and it sure wasn’t going to be me, so Jimmy, the boy who captured him, didn’t hesitate. Once on the slippery tile floor “Reggie” began wriggling and writhing back and forth. I asked the kids for their observations as to what the snake was doing, and what did they think was enabling him to slither along the floor. As they came up with good descriptors I would turn and write down their observations on the board. While writing one rather lengthy entry I heard a blood-curdling scream coming from beyond the walls of the classroom, and when I turned back the snake was gone and the kids were laughing hysterically. I ran for the door and opened it quickly to find Sister Marius, cowering in a corner of the hallway, back pressed against the wall, hands over her face, screaming, as “Reggie” was side winding his way menacingly toward her. I tried to make light of the moment by asking her if she would be kind enough to bring our snake back because we weren’t finished with him yet. It didn’t go over well. I had no choice but to go over and snatch up the snake. As I did so he whipped around and bit me on the hand. (I wish someone had told me that when you are picking up a snake you grab it behind the head). It really hurt and I still have a scar on my hand as a permanent reminder of this “teachable moment”.
You can only imagine the groveling I had to do to get back in the good graces of Sister Marius.
I resubmit this story to you as a reminder of the joyful side of teaching. It is my profound hope that more of our authors and readers at VoicEd will join with me in sharing their joyful classroom experiences. Please share your humorous and lighthearted stories with us. I hope you enjoyed this one. I also hope that you will tolerate the musings of this old timer in his recollections of stories and anecdotes from days gone by. If nothing else, perhaps my experiences will resonate with you and help you to plant seeds for the 21st century garden. Thank you for reading my story.