When I was in college, I had a summer job working at a plant nursery. I spent hours weeding and hoeing, and, when I had more experience, I was promoted to driving the little rototiller; from there I’d watch the rest of the gang out toiling in the sun. After two hours in the heat, we could stop and have a break; after eight hours, we could punch out. I used to wonder, How does one find a job interesting enough to last a lifetime, captivating enough to keep a person from looking at her watch all day long?
Reflecting back on a career of education and administration in the Christian school system, and now on my work as an educational therapist, I can truly say that teaching is a challenging profession at many levels. Yet despite its varied challenges, I never had a day in which I watched the clock tick—other than the times I’d wished I could slow it down. The beauty of every unique child entrusted to us each day is amazing. Picture a garden with at least twenty different varieties of plants. Each year the garden looks different depending on the rains, summer heat, and which seeds were sown, not to mention the pervasive weeds that keep mysteriously reappearing. At my house, our garden looks different every year because I like to alternate varieties of vegetables and dabble with less popular plants like purple beans, okra, yellow beets and patty pans. My husband experiments with new flowers; he has mastered the art of late summer gladioli, which flower when all the other flowers have almost disappeared, and we have morning glories growing alongside the carrots and beets, adorning the plants, sometimes threatening to dominate them. All the plants are sturdy, well-rooted, and vivacious.
A classroom is very much like a garden. Each one is so different, and each year is so different, depending on the class make-up, school atmosphere, colleagues, and curriculum changes being implemented. It is essential that a teacher be ready to take on new challenges, experiment, connect with the class, and be a positive role model. If you think back on your own teachers, which ones do you remember best? When I was in grade two, I decided to turn the bathroom door into a swing, and suddenly it broke. I was hiding in the bathroom for a long time, crying, so ashamed of what I had done. My teacher found me in tears, gave a hug, told me the janitor could fix that very easily, and welcomed me back into the classroom. I trusted her and loved her the rest of the year, and wanted to do my best in everything. In high school, I had an English teacher who would come into the classroom reading new, just-released books. He’d talk about the book in such a way I had to rush out to the library and read it, borrow it, or failing that, steal it! He opened my eyes to literature. I had been an avid reader throughout childhood, but this teacher, through his own obvious excitement and engagement in books, exposed me to the richness of literature in an entirely new way. In my years as a classroom teacher, I tried to do this as well—reading children’s literature and making the books come to life for the students, bringing books into the classroom, and letting students take books home. A teacher’s passion becomes that of the students.
Another aspect of teaching (and one that rather overwhelmed me at first, to be honest) was that of being a role model. In my third year of teaching in a small-town school, I had a former student come into our home to care for our new little baby. She was thrilled to come into our home, and soon I heard the buzz at school—that she had been listening to our records and was amazed that we listened to music like the Beatles and Supertramp. We were actually real people! That was when I realized the degree to which teachers are role models. Lifestyle issues discussed in class reflect your view on life. We had a class visit our home, and one student was so interested in the solar panels on our roof, he had to share what he learned with everyone. Who knows? Perhaps he’ll follow a career in alternative energy as a result.
Probably the most challenging aspect of teaching is when you get to the point of feeling overwhelmed. There is always more work to do, and one can never complete it all—that is a fact. We need to streamline the daily challenges of assessment, report writing, planning, and marking so that we remain effective in the classroom and are ready for the day-to-day demands.
Here are a few “survival tips for teachers” that helped me:
- Do something out of the ordinary in your free time; take a Sunday afternoon drive and be re-inspired, or go fishing for a few hours.
- If you see a colleague flagging under the workload, walk through it together.
- Attend workshops and conferences, visit other teachers in your grade level, or present a workshop on one of your passions. (Here is a true confession: I think I skipped many important workshops at the Ontario Christian school teachers’ convention over the years, but I also had some awesome conversations with veteran teachers and “old” friends instead.)
- Reduce “busywork” in the classroom so that there is less marking to do. Make assignments meaningful and purposeful.
- Remember that some of your best teachers were the ones who you could get to travel “down the rabbit trail” in discussions.
- Read books across genres—children’s literature, adult literature, books about birds, or wherever your passions lie. Cultivate your interests!
- Have a sense of humor and don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugh often with both students and colleagues.
Survival tips for gardening can be applied to the classroom as well, and they include:
- Don’t be overanxious for perfection.
- Try new things for enjoyment.
- Keep to the old ways for consistency.
- Take time to walk through the garden, enjoy the colors, and feel the dark, organic soil trickle through your fingers (you’ll have to replace that metaphor with something tactile in the classroom!).
Life in the garden and in the classroom is about embracing experience—the joy, the pain and the hard work. And when it comes to embracing, Marva Dawn puts it succinctly: “to embrace is to accept with gusto, to live to the hilt, to choose with extra intentionality and tenacity” (Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, 100). So behold the beauty of the morning glory, embrace its tenacity and vitality. And kudos to you tenacious, vital teachers, who sow much and harvest even more!
Jane Hoogendam-Reitsma worked for many years at Knox Christian School in Bowmanville, Ontario, in special education and as vice principal, and is now working independently as an educational therapist.