“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.” – bell hooks
As I sit here writing this, I’ve now completed 1/3 of my first practicum placement. Tomorrow morning, I will co-teach my first lesson. It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly three months since Orientation Day at York. I wouldn’t say that I was nervous, per se, but I was definitely unsure of what this year would (and will) bring me. Like my fellow Teacher Candidates (TCs), I was ready to get the year rolling. But what would the students be like? Would I get along with everyone, or get eaten alive and become a CPA? Would I enjoy it, or would my nearly decade-old dream of teaching crumble? I worried about all of these things as the summer was ending, to be sure, but one question seemed to keep coming up. Would I like my Mentor Teacher?
Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.) programs place every student with Mentor Teachers (MTs) for their in-school placements. Each program carefully considers where to place you, taking into account everything from your teaching subject(s) and education philosophy, to your age and experience, and how those might relate to various MTs and school communities. As a fairly outspoken proponent of democratic education – emphasizing the doing of democracy on a daily basis – I must admit that I was scared I’d get a teacher I didn’t gel with. I don’t mean to disrespect various teaching philosophies and styles – some of my favourite teachers have been very much in the old ‘gatekeeper’ style. But that’s not me, and it’s not how I want to operate as a music educator, so I was worried I’d spend my year in a philosophical wrestling match with my MT. I was dead wrong!
The day I first walked in to George Webster Public School, I felt my worries (at least the MT-related ones) melt away. My MT, Mr. Lewis, is a few years older than me, with about seven years of teaching experience. We made a little bit of small talk in the morning, but after mentioning my social justice focus while introducing myself to his (our?) Grade 8 core class, we immediately hit it off. During his prep period, and into lunch, we talked about our perspectives on social justice education, and about how far we can take our ideas within the school system. One of the great dilemmas that seems to motivate/haunt both of us is the question of whether or not social justice is even possible within the context of public education. Our conversations do sometimes take a turn toward the hopeless (what is it all for?), but we always come back to hope. A simple idea, to be sure, but a powerful one. Hope is contagious, and Mr. Lewis exemplifies it every day. Stupid questions? Never heard of ’em. Mr. Lewis is open to all sorts of ideas, and when students answer a question ‘wrong,’ he tells them something like “good job, but try again,” thereby showing students that they are valued and intelligent. I vividly recall being made to feel inferior when I couldn’t grasp certain concepts in my elementary and middle school years. Not only does my MT not do this, but he is in fact actively hostile to comments like “how did you not get that?” I’m inspired by his dedication and positivity, and I sincerely hope to live up to his example in the months and years ahead.
“I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope.” – Cornel West
(Please enjoy this song by Gregory Porter. It’s really meant a lot to me these last few weeks!)
The teaching profession, perhaps more so than any other, places incredible emphasis on the idea and practice of professionalism. Although most jobs have minimum requirements in terms of punctuality, attire and behaviour, teachers are (rightly) held to a very high standard. We must be compassionate, fair and decent to all we encounter throughout our educational journeys. Whether we work with them for years, or teach them in a single class, people expect great care and professionalism from teachers, and we have a moral responsibility to provide that.
To my mind, the most important aspect of being a highly professional teacher is not what you learned in teachers’ college, or how many AQs you have. I believe that equity is the key to being a great teacher. We hear the word ‘equity’ so often that it can sound like sloganeering, particularly from teachers and administrators who are often caught unawares of the ways in which they re-inscribe oppressive practices. But being aware of one’s life experience, and how it gives one power (I say this as a white male), is only the first step on the road to equitable teaching practices. If we intend to do right by our First Nations students, for example, we have to move beyond the territorial acknowledgement, and towards (at the very least) incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing into our classrooms. I will be writing much more about my thoughts on equity throughout my time in the B.Ed program.
I will also say, from my experiences as a student, that extra-curriculars may be the most important part of professionalism for teachers. Though it certainly is not a requirement (and in fact teachers should be paid for it, but I digress…), extra-curriculars are often a great source of empowerment for students. When given the space and resources to explore non-academic and non-traditional resources within the school community, student and teacher perceptions of ‘the possible’ within public education expand, and we inch closer to a just society. It’s my hope that my classmates and I continue to develop and alter our perceptions of the professional responsibilities of teaching, and so become fuller teachers and human beings.