“Hey! Hey Sir!”
Some words just cut right to the cerebellum. ‘Sir’ is not normally one of them, but I was at the Shawville Fair, and ‘sir’ isn’t often used in the midway. I turned, and saw before me a student from ten years previously. We chatted; he was married, had a step daughter, another one on the way. He’d apprenticed, become a mechanic. He was doing well. I was glad to see him.
“So, you still teaching us assholes up at the school?”
No, I was at the university. “You guys weren’t assholes.”.
A Look. “Yes, we were. But there were good times, too, eh?”
Ten years ago, I held my first full-time, regular, teaching contract, at the local highschool. The year before that, I was a regular-rotation substitute teacher. Normally one would need a teaching certificate to teach in a highschool, but strangely enough newly minted teachers never seem to consider rural or more remote schools. Everyone wants to teach in the city. Having at least stood in front of students in the past, I was about the best short-term solution around. Towards the latter part of that year holes had opened up in the schedule and I was teaching every day. This transmuted into a regular gig teaching Grade 9 computing, Grade 9 geography (a provincially mandated course), and Grade 10/11 technical drawing.
And Math for Welders.
The school is formally a ‘polyvalente’, meaning a school where one could learn trades. However, our society’s bias against trades and years of cuts to the English system in Quebec (and asinine language laws which, amongst other things, mandate that only books published in Quebec can be used as textbooks. How many English textbooks are published for a community with only around a million people, full stop?) meant that all of the trades programs were dead. In the last decade this last-gasp program had been established in the teeth of opposition (which meant these students were watched very carefully indeed – and they knew it). Instead of taking ‘high math’ and other courses (targeted at the University bound) these students could take ‘welding’ math. They also worked in a metal shop. If they could pass my course, and pass the ticket exam for Welders, they could graduate High School and begin apprenticeships.
The welding program was conceived as a solution for students (typically boys) who had otherwise fallen through the cracks in the system. It was intense. These boys (though there have been maybe five or six girls in the program over the years) had never had academic success. They were older than their peers, having fallen behind. They had all manner of social issues, family issues, learning difficulties, you name it.
And they were all mine. Not only did I teach technical drawing and math (so right there, two or three hours of face to face time per day, every day) I was also their home room teacher. At our school, ‘home room’ was not just about morning attendance, but was also a kind of group therapy session too. (I say, ‘group therapy’, but really in other classes, there was a mix of years in these home rooms, so older students could work with younger on homework, personal stuff, whatever; but in my class, it was just me, and the welders. We didn’t mix).
I learned a lot about teaching over those two years.
I could tell you a lot of stories of pain and stress. I’ve never been quite so near to quitting, to tears, to breaking down, to screaming at the world. I did a PhD! I was from the same town! I’d beaten the system! Did that not earn me some respect? Was I not owed?
And that was the hardest lesson right there. In fact, although I thought myself humble when I started the job (after two years of slogging in the sessional world, hustling for contract heritage work, and so on), I still had a hard time disentangling my expectations of what students should be from my notion of the kind of student I was. Those first two months, up to Thanksgiving, might’ve been a lot easier if I had.
I also underestimated how hard it would be to earn respect. I figured ‘PhD’ meant I’d already earned it, in the eyes of the world. But I hadn’t counted on the ‘if you were any good you wouldn’t be working here’ attitude that infects so much of Canadian life (and rural life in particular).
Once, one of the students fell asleep in class. What do you do, as a novice teacher? You wake him up. You take him into the hallway to ‘deal’ with him. And then I sent him up to the office. What I didn’t know: his Dad was long gone. His mom was with a new beau, and had been spending every night at the bar. The oil bill had not been paid, and what with it being winter and all, there was no heat. He had been sitting up, every night to watch over his sisters whom he’d put in sleeping bags in the kitchen, in front of an open electric oven. He was afraid of burning down the house if he fell asleep.
And god help me, I was giving him shit for not drawing his perspective drawings correctly, for falling asleep.
With time, I began to earn their respect. It helped that at school functions I had no fear of standing up and making a fool of myself doing whatever silly activity the pep leaders had devised. “He’s a goof but he’s OUR goof!” seemed to be the sense. I learned that I had to stop being a ‘teacher’ and start being these guys’ advocate. Who else was going to stand up for them? Everyone else had already written them off.
In some corners of the school, there was a firmly held conviction that these guys were getting off easy, that somehow what they were doing was less mentally challenging. There were some ugly staffroom showdowns, sometimes. Welding math involves a lot of geometry and trigonometry, finances, and mental calculation. It’s not easy in any way shape or form. Tradesmen in Canada frequently work in Imperial units, while officialdom works in metric. Calculating, switching, tallying… these are all non-trivial things! “Sir, that’s the first time I passed a math test since Grade four” said one lad, around about October.
The first test since Grade four. My god, what have we done to ourselves? None of these students were dumb, in the sense that students use. When I lost most of the class to moose hunting season, when they got back I had them explain to me exactly what they did. Extremely complicated thinking about camouflage, fish and game laws & licensing, working with weapons and bullets… these guys were smart. They never hesitated to call me on it either when what I was saying to them was nonsense or not making sense.
“Sir”, a voice in the back would say, “what the fuck are you talking about?” You can’t get angry about language. This is how they’ve learned to speak. But imagine: a student in your class actually taking the time to explain that they don’t understand, and to show you where they lost you? These guys did that! Once I learned to take the time to listen, they had a lot to say. Would that my university students had the bravery to do the same.
It was never easy, working with these guys. At the end of the year, I was completely drained. A tenured teacher came back from sick leave, and I was bumped from my position. Unemployed again. Look at that from my students’ perspective. Here’s a guy, finished first in his high school, got a phd. Came back home without a job. Ends up working with us – us! – and then loses his job again afterwards. Maybe, just maybe, doing the whole ‘academic’ thing they push isn’t the thing. Maybe, maybe, working with my hands, welding, machining… I’ll always have work. If I can figure out how to plan the best cuts in this sheet of metal so that I don’t waste any money. If I can pass the welding exam. If I don’t get my girlfriend pregnant. If I maybe pass on the blow this weekend and go to work.
Did some of them think that? I’d like to think so. We bickered, we locked horns, but once I proved to them that I was on their side, I’d like to think the good stuff outweighed the bad. I certainly know that it did wonders for me as a teacher. First and foremost, it forced me to get over myself. I learned that:
- nobody owes me anything
- what I was like as a student is no guide to what my students are like as students
- I need to ask how do I make it safe to try something, for students to admit that I’m making not an ounce of sense?
- I need to not assume I know anything about my students’ backgrounds
- I need to make my expectations crystal clear for what constitutes proof-of-learning
- I need to be part of the life of my school/community so that my students see that I’m invested in them.
A few years later, I won a postdoc position at U Manitoba, and began teaching in distance education and online education. That helped me transmogrify into whatever this ‘digital humanities’/’digital archaeology’ thing is. That’s the final lesson right there. I have a PhD in the finer points of the Tiber Valley brick industry. Don’t be afraid to change: your PhD is not you. It’s just proof that you can see a project through to the end, that you are tenacious, and that you can put the pieces together to see something new. Without the PhD, I could never have worked with those boys.
I was glad to see Jeremy, at the fair this year.