Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The First Class

The recent report of the Task Force on Teaching Excellence got me thinking about my own education, and reminded me of an article I wrote many years ago. Read it and ask yourself "what is teaching excellence?"

I was having dinner the other night when Bad Moon Rising came over the radio. "That's Mr. Hilton's favourite song!" I cried. Mr. Hilton was my Grade 5 teacher. Fresh out of UBC and filled with youthful vigor and untested theories about what could be done in the classroom, Mr. Hilton challenged every notion I had about what a classroom was and was not. I didn't like him. In today's parlance, he was "outside the box." Way outside the box.

I had good teachers during my early school years. Mrs. Caldwell was the classic little old lady teacher. Mrs. Teeple kept her class of 42 in line with a stern, yet loving hand. Mrs. McKibben, my Grade 3 teacher, was young and fun. Mrs. Parmar was serious and orderly. In those classes, we sat in rows. We wrote neatly. We did book reports and memorized times tables and sang songs. We were grouped for instruction according to ability. We were in a box.
But Mr. Hilton! In math, we worked at our own pace and were rewarded with candy for our successes. He made a big, vertical box with sliding doors. If you got 50 percent, you opened the bottom drawer and got a treat. Sixty percent got you a better treat in a higher level drawer, and so on. Those of us who hit the 80s never quite figured out why he never refilled our drawer, but as I think back, I realize that none of us tried to go for the lower mark. In our social studies unit on First Nations' peoples (called "Indians of North America" in those days), we were divided into groups and built structures. To the janitor's distress, hay bale houses, willow huts and tepees filled our quarter of the open area. We cooked traditional dishes, wore costumes and gave guided tours to the other classes.
Aside from being creative with the curriculum, Mr. Hilton entered into our personal lives. He delighted in challenging our assumptions and our ways of doing things. He outraged us by telling us we lived on the prairie when we knew there were plenty of trees around. He insisted on grouping us according to his own plan—weaker students with stronger ones, unpopular with popular. It seemed so unfair that I was paired with Debbie, who could merely draw the pictures for our report while I did all the "work" of writing, even though I couldn't draw a stick man and Debbie's delicate pastel drawings greatly added to our project. Mr. Hilton also secretly asked the most popular girl in the class to include a shy and friendless girl in all activities—a plan that backfired when the truth came out.
When the year ended, Mr. Hilton gave us a survey on his teaching for the year. In our youthful year-end enthusiasm, we gave him an overwhelming "two thumbs up" and were rewarded with his presence in Grade 6 as well.
As I said before, I didn't like Mr. Hilton. I wished desperately for someone different to be my teacher in Grade 6, but it was not to be. I craved a return to order and gold stars and picking my own partner. It wasn't until I began my own teaching career that I began to appreciate what Mr. Hilton was all about. Sure, he made mistakes—big ones. But he showed us that you have to take risks to make gains. For the less able students, he provided opportunities for a different kind of success. For those of us who were teachers' pets, he showed another way. He taught us how to be uncomfortable—that neat rows and routines were not the only way to live. He taught us how not to conform and, for me, how to work with someone you don't like. They say that teachers never forget their first class. That's the year we experiment and test and play around with all those theories and ideas we hope will work—the year we enter our first tentative relationships with our young charges. I wonder how well Mr. Hilton remembers his first class? I know I have never forgotten it.

Shortly after this article was published, my grade three teacher, Mrs McKibben, forwarded a copy of it to Mr. Hilton, who had become a school administrator and had recently retired.  He wrote back to me saying he still had the final report cards of his first class!
Originally published in the ATA News "Moot Points" column, summer 2002