Let’s face it. Teaching is not for everybody.
As I have told many soon-to-be university teaching-program grads: “When you begin teaching, you have five years to discover if you are a teacher. If you suspect you are not, find something else to do. But if you discover that you are a teacher, you’ll never want to do anything else.”
I could dispense that advice with a clear conscience because that was my own experience.
As a successful musician in the 1960s — with a backup teaching degree — I knew I was dissatisfied with that life and wanted a job that would bring different challenges every day. I had accepted a high-school teaching assignment more as a side job than anything else. But I discovered that teaching kids was really what I was cut out for.
In a classroom, there was never a dull moment. With a room full of diverse personalities from different family backgrounds, there was always something going on.
As a teacher, I watched students learn and grow while at the same time other students struggled. I was always asking myself: “What do I have to do to make this work?”
There’s no experience nearly as satisfying as sharing with a student that light-bulb moment when everything finally clicks.
Watching incremental student growth and success is an immeasurably rewarding experience, and the reason I would be a teacher for the next 35 or so years.
I developed a new respect for other professions — doctors, lawyers, engineers, electricians (and newspaper editors) — who constantly need to keep up with new developments in their field.
Over my 35-year teaching career, education evolved in a number of new directions, all of which had an influence on my (hopefully) evolving classroom practice. If I expected kids to grow and develop, I could expect no less of myself.
And here is where I ran into a problem that I never really resolved.
Teaching is almost always practised in isolation from advice from more experienced professionals. There was many a time when I would have benefited from having an experienced and successful teacher who would watch me teach a lesson and then provide his/her perspective.
Did I introduce the topic clearly? Did I demonstrate the topic and then allow for guided practice by the kids? Did I constantly check for understanding?
Teaching is, to some degree, a very technical performance, but even the most adept performers, whether athletes or stage performers, have a coach they can turn to for advice. Teachers usually do not.
All that said, the most important characteristic of a successful teacher — and thankfully I fell into that category — is that they have to like kids.
Kids, without even trying, are funny and unpredictable. Sometimes I would have to stifle a laugh as students did something in class. Other times, I couldn’t help but join the class in fits of laughter at something that a student said or did.
But even the youngest first-year teachers need to remember that they are the adult, the role model in the classroom. It is not always easy to see, but kids do look up to a good teacher.
Sometimes — and this was certainly my experience as an elementary school principal with a talented and committed teaching staff in a rough neighbourhood — a teacher is the most stable influence in a student’s life.
There is always the strong possibility that something a teacher says or does will make a lasting positive impact on a student, even a class full of students.
That is an awesome, almost scary, responsibility that goes well beyond teaching the basics or anything measured by standardized tests.
Teaching, both in “the now” and in retrospect, can be very gratifying when a student from 50 years ago gets in touch because your name appeared somewhere in social media or attached to a newspaper column, and says “thanks for setting me on the path you did — what you said made all the difference.”
No, teaching is not for everybody, but here’s a thought for any second- or third-year undergrads out there — B.C. is now about 500 teachers short, so give teaching some thought.
You don’t know the fun you are missing and, if you turn out to be a teacher, you’ll never regret your choice of profession.
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.
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