Friday, 2 May 2014

Just a teacher

Miss Hartford and one of her track stars, Willy Lappenbush.
Willy passed away last year.
I started teaching in Sexsmith Alberta in 1980. I loved my school and my students.  It was a school where the kids did not have locks on their lockers because...well, why would they?  

I was a teacher librarian. I was 22 years old. I was innocent and enthusiastic.  I coached Reach for the Top. I was advisor for the yearbook. I had a very bad school choir. I coached track. I supervised school dances. I taught debate and English and creative writing and library skills and journalism and outdoor ed and consumer ed. I took the fan bus to watch the Sexsmith Sabres play in the Mighty Peace Football league-even though I had no idea what a "down" was.

Senior high kids asked for help with physics. I had no idea what they were learning. I would get them to explain what it was they didn't understand. I would rephrase their questions. They would thank me for helping them find the answer. The principal would drop by and ask. "Miss Hartford, why are there so many teenage boys in the library?"  Well...first of all, you assigned them here on their spares.  And second, should I remind you?  I am 22 years old.
At a colleague's wedding.

We had a young staff. Every Friday was "POETS" - "Piss On Everything, Tomorrow's Saturday" at the Sexsmith bar. We shared strategies and success. We commiserated over our challenging students. We talked about frustrations and failures and the funny things that happened that week. One day a kid threw a desk at a teacher. One teacher told his students there was a contest between the teachers to see who would get the most Christmas presents. It turned out not to be him. We talked about the kids from LaGlace whose moms made them go to church every Sunday when they were hungover and the the kids from Teepee Creek where it was said the three Rs were "ruttin' ropin' and ridin'" and where you might go to a fight and a dance would break out. In later years former students would join us, awkwardly. Including that kid who threw the desk.  

We celebrated "no bus" days when we could get caught up with our marking and get ahead with our planning and the principal would take us to the truck stop for lunch.  We reveled in teachers' convention when we could go for a drink after work and a restaurant for dinner. We cheered with our students when they achieved success and wept with them when one was lost to suicide or another was killed in a highway accident.

Mostly, we worked. We tried new techniques and joined committees and went to conferences and took notes at in-services and learned new technology. We might have been naive, but we were not fools. We knew what we did was not glamorous or well-respected. In a community fueled by oil and gas, being just a teacher wasn't much of a job.

I left Sexsmith in 1986. I have not taught in a traditional classroom for almost 30 years. Some of my  colleagues got tired of being just a teacher and moved on, moved up, or moved out. Like me, some moved to a non-traditional teaching environment. But others stayed and many of them have begun their transition to retirement.

To those front-line teachers, I salute you. I salute you for your dedication and your wisdom and your compassion.  Most of all, I salute you for your courage. I salute your for the courage to stand in front of a classroom day after day after day and share ideas and try to inspire and try to prepare your students for this uncertain life. Courage to build thousands of relationships that may never last more than a semester. Courage to try and courage to fail, and courage to get up the next day and try again. Courage to politely listen to parents and administrators and government officials tell you that everything you have done is wrong and then to go back and try it differently- and courage to stick to your guns when you know your way works. Courage to hear that your students are now doctors and scientists and owners of successful businesses and you are still just a teacher.

And I thank you. I thank you for walking beside me on the first steps of my teaching journey. I thank you for being there to share the laughter, for providing a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. I thank you for pulling together when times were hard. And as you move forward in your life's journey, be proud. Yes, you are a teacher. But just a teacher? 

Oh no my friends, you are so much more than that.