Saturday, 7 January 2017

My students, My kids

This year was… difficult for me.  I had taken a break from reflecting and my blog because in a few cases it was too hard to think of how I wanted to talk about what this year has done to cement my feelings on what my students are to me.  Of course they are my students.  But they are much more than that in most cases.  

The first time I introduced myself to the Parent Council at my school I said, “I’m Stephanie and I teach French.  I don’t have any kids, or on the other hand, I have 300 kids depending on your point of view.” I was referring of course to my students.

Most teachers I know refer to their classes as “their kids.”  When I was a newer teacher, I didn’t really understand why that was.  I mean, we teach these students for a year, maybe two and then they move on.  The parents of the students are the people who have the most impact on these kids, and care for them throughout their lives.  They are the people that can call their children, “our kids.”  

But I was wrong.  I’m their teacher.  And they are “our kids.”

After 7 years, and 500+ students, I get it.  I get it.  

At the beginning f my career, I was transient, and never stuck around a school longer than 3 months.  Such is the life of the Long-term Substitute Teacher.  I loved my classes early in my career, but I thought that since I was there for such a short time, I was a blip in the education of the students I taught.  

I was wrong.

In 2010-2011, I taught a class of girls in Toronto.  They were all gifted, an had amazing parents and support in their lives.  I taught them as a Maternity-leave sub for one year.  Professionally, it was a great year.  I was able to try many pedagogical ideas like inquiry; no set schedule for subjects; student-driven learning projects; and social-justice infused lessons.  They kids were so eager to learn and do anything.  I felt I was my freest and most creative as a teacher that year.  Private school can be a gift like that.  I had great relationships with the parents, and they were very involved and supportive of all my ideas.  We had a fun year.  But at this school, students usually had the same teacher for 2 years, and once my year was up, they regular teacher would return, and our fun education adventure would end.  They would be enthralled with whatever their regular teacher did, and I would move on to the next chapter.  

Of course the last day, the girl cried- but eight and nine-year-old girl do, so we said goodbye, I cleared out my room and looked for work again. They weren't “my kids” anymore.

Except they are “my kids.”  In 2016, in June, I got an email: 

Hi Stephanie,
I don't really know if you remember me. I'm Kate, you taught me grade 3 at the linden school. Well anyways, me, Sara, and Lia all just graduated grade 8 and I've been really sad and thinking about grade 3 a lot. I just re-read "the past is Present" and some stories I wrote with friends that year. I found a bracelet you gave me and a painting of the letter S that you did in class. I'm leaving this school not by choice and I'm never going back so I wanted to thank you for such a memorable year and I can't believe it's over and was 5 years ago!!!!!!!!
Thank you so much,

As soon as I saw the email address I knew exactly who it was, albeit a nine-year-old version of who she is.  I remember changing her lessons to be more challenging for her, and her struggle of learning to challenge herself.  I remember the tears of frustration and anxiety when she was overwhelmed, and how proud she was when we decided to send her project on flight to the city-wide science-fair in Toronto.  She loved painting, especially on canvas.  That year she climbed the CN tower to raise money for WWF.  And so on.  

She emailed me because she was nervous about moving on to high school.  Moving from private to public school, and not knowing anyone.  I could see how she changed, citing her parents “irrational reasons” for making her change schools. I smiled as I read the emails, because she’s talking like a teenager.  

It clicked.  My students are “my kids.”  They contact me when they need reassurance.  And I keep tabs on them.  And I care about them.  Long after I teach them.

I’m writing this reflection because I saw this story in the news this week:  A former student of mine was shot in Toronto in October [(warning graphic video)], and they arrested the men responsible.  I heard the story in October, and was numb at that time, as I had two former students (in the town I live in now) die tragically in the summer.  Having three (former) students die in their youth was a tragic thing to go through.  I was very upset for a long time.  Some friends and family did not understand my sadness.  “You were just their teacher” is something I heard often when I tried to explain my feelings.

Yes, I was their teacher.  For a year I saw them every weekday, and helped them struggle with new ideas and concepts while they were learning.  I celebrated with them when they accomplished something.  I comforted them when they were hurt.  I became involved in their lives by necessity— because how could they learn if there were challenges in their lives?  If we found they were hungry, as a school we found ways to feed them.  So when I say that teachers feel that these are “our kids,” we mean it in the sense of the community/ village it takes to ensure that our kids grown up healthy and happy and educated.  

So I was more than just their teacher.  I was responsible for their education, and much more.  When they hurt, I empathized with them AND help them find solutions.  When they are scared, I try to assure them that they have the skills to succeed.  And when they die, I hurt.  

My students are my kids too.  They are part of my village.  And I won’t let anyone tell me differently.