Teachers have still not reached an agreement with the Government of Alberta, and are withdrawing many services to students as a result; for example: supervision of field trips, graduation events, concerts, etc. Regardless of how the situation is eventually resolved, it is certain that for many students the effects of this year will have a lasting impact. My daughter and I were talking about teachers this evening, musing about what makes a teacher special or memorable. She was having trouble remembering the names of some of hers, and was surprised that I still had very clear recollections of many of mine. These memories remain clear, not necessarily because of exceptional teaching skills, but because each teacher said or did something that influenced my viewpoint in some significant manner, either positively or negatively.
I do not remember my Grade 1 teacher’s name, but I do remember clearly the day she passed out some insurance forms for us to take home. I was already a proficient reader and immediately studied the form to see what it was. She noticed, and in a puzzled voice said, “Debbie, can you read that?” I told her I could read a few words, and she made me prove it. When I insisted I could not read the ‘big words” she said “I don’t believe you:. keep trying.” She stood there silently prompting me as I finally managed to read the whole document out loud.
She obviously took her job seriously, because over the next few days all I recall is being summoned to the principal’s office repeatedly for tests, and next thing I knew my Grade 1 teacher was telling me that I was too advanced for her class and that they would be putting me into the next grade. One day the Grade 6 teacher came in and took me out of the Grade 1 class, seating me on a stool in front of her Grade 6 class. She then had all the students read different sections of a textbook out loud. After they struggled and stumbled over the words, the teacher gave the book to me and announced, “Now, listen to this little Grade 1 girl read”. I read it flawlessly.
At the time I was just a little kid proud to be able to show off my reading ability to others. As an adult I look back and shudder at the hurtful embarrassment this display must have caused for those Grade 6 students in that class. How humiliating to have your teacher bring in a small child to show you how inadequate you are! No doubt she did not intend to cause distress – but she taught me a lesson, one that admittedly I only learned years later – you do not teach by humiliation.
My Grade 2 teacher (whose name I do not recall) was part of the ‘teach by humiliation’ school. She looked at this upstart from Grade 1 and decided to teach me a lesson by belittling everything I did. She made me feel like I was totally undeserving of having “skipped” into her class, and took every opportunity to make sure I felt dumb and remained at the bottom of the class. My Grade 2 teacher was my first experience with people who derive pleasure from putting others down.
My grade 3 teacher, Mrs. Adams, had a reputation for being really mean. She was an older lady who had been teaching many years, and put up with no nonsense. I entered her class apprehensively, always very careful how I behaved. My most profound memory of Mrs. Adams was Remembrance Day. I was brought up in a pacifist religion that considered patriotism wrong, and on Remembrance Day when everyone else would rise and observe two minutes of silence, we were required to remain seated in opposition. There were five of us in the classroom who participated in this, and Mrs. Adams several times quietly requested that we stand and show respect. I was torn between showing respect for Mrs. Adams and obeying my religion, but religion and family won out and I remained seated. After two very long minutes, the class left the room, but Mrs. Adams asked that those of us who had remained seated please stay. She very calmly explained, “My husband fought in the war. He watched his friends die at his side. My son fought in the war. He never came home. How could you be so disrespectful of the sacrifice they made?” I could offer no response, and to this day I can see her face and recall the hurt in her voice. Mrs. Adams taught me that religious beliefs should never be used as an excuse to offend others.
My Grade 5 teacher was popular; everyone loved her (yet I can’t recall her name). Unfortunately, a couple of months into the year she left abruptly and we were left with Miss Iftody. I was angry (along with my fellow classmates) and decided to hate Miss Itfody before she even set foot in the classroom. My mother offered me some words of wisdom – she told me that I should give this new teacher a chance, and that maybe I should try to see things from her perspective – coming into a classroom where everyone loved the old teacher and resented losing her: A classroom that would not be very welcoming to a new teacher. She suggested I should wait and see, try to be really positive in all my interactions with the teacher, give her a chance. It was good advice. I came to respect Miss Iftody as one of the better teachers I’ve had. I learned from this experience to never prejudge people.
The following year, Grade 6, I had a teacher with a funny accent. Not only was she an enthusiastic teacher eager to open our minds, she was also attractive and vivacious, with long, dark curly hair. We all puzzled amongst ourselves where she might be from, since we were unfamiliar with how she talked. A few days into the school year, Miss Hallanan confessed that she was Australian! She was a very cool person, full of life and new ideas and ready to embrace everything. She was appalled at us eating corn on the cob, since she told us this was “pig food” in Australia – but she gamely tried it anyway! Miss Hallanan made learning exciting and helped spark my interest in other lands, other cultures.
My elementary school teachers left distinct impressions on me, but after entering Junior high, these influences were lessened, mostly because I now had several teachers during the day instead of just one. Of these, only one stands out in my mind as being an exceptional teacher – Mr. Jacques. He taught the new experimental science program, and we played with chemistry in his class, creating things like amorphous sulphur! But he had a temper when we got out of line, once breaking a ruler (metre stick) across the desk when reprimanding the class. Mr. Jacques fostered my interest in research.
My memories of other Junior High and High School teachers are largely negative. The Grade 7 Music teacher who told me I did not have a good enough ear to be part of the music class (I went on to make a living as a musician). The Grade 10 English teacher who told me I was not very good at essays and a slacker in her class (I regularly get top marks for my writing now). The Grade 11 Office Experience teacher who failed me (I went on the next year to secure a well-paid secretarial position). The Grade 8 Gym teacher who forced me to go outside in a windstorm right after I had just gotten contact lenses, insisting I had to run laps in the field while my eyes were streaming, full of dust.
Thinking about my educational experiences, the good and the bad seem to equal themselves on the scale. For every exceptional teacher I had a bad one. For every good experience, I had a negative one. But human nature is such that the negative memories are the stronger ones. For this reason it is important it is to ensure that teachers have much more than just educational qualifications. I do not recall my teachers for their skill at performing mathematical equations. I recall them because how they treated me affected my thinking and influenced my viewpoint.
I know it is not “?politically correct’, but I think we should bring back merit systems for raises and advances. Why should a teacher who inspires students (like Miss Hallanan), be making the same wage as teachers (like my Grade 2 teacher) who are either indifferent or actually destroy interest in learning? Teachers play an extremely important role in the development of our youth, and deserve to be paid accordingly. Talented teachers who truly make a difference in their students deserve much more.