Switching Gears: A Teaching Life (Part III)

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When we immigrated to Canada, the plan was for me to pursue my career in writing and art. I had applied as a writer/editor and did not think to have my teaching credentials validated or certified because I had decided I did not want to apply for certification as a teacher. That was because somebody had sworn he would take any job at all just so he could support us in Canada and I would have the freedom to pursue my dreams.

It took a week for us to find an apartment, process our health cards, permanent resident ID cards, bank accounts, look for furniture, and buy a few things for the kitchen and house. Thank goodness the apartments had  water, a stove, and a refrigeratore already and we would not have to buy those. Even then, having to pay for an apartment in full for the next 12 months simply because we were newcomers seriously depleted my cash reserve, leaving very little to live on. The starving artist eventually found work at a popular coffee shop because that somebody who had sworn to work and support his family was not doing any job hunting. In previous talks, he had agreed to even live in the basement or over the garage and pay rent if we had a house, if only I would bring him along. I only agreed to get him a ticket because he promised to pay back everything, grab any job opportunity so he could support the family, and live over the garage. Also, my son refused to go with me if his father did not come along. That started some suspicions in me, but that is a whole other story. In fact, because he was not job hunting at all, I saw an opportunity to teach at the university and was given a 3-hour class for the fall the following year. His one-year deadline had arrived and he suddenly “found” a job but was unable to contribute anything for at least the next two months. Little did I suspect that he was making moves to disenfranchise me and build that high wall between me and my son. Long story turned short, I was forced out of my home in the dead of winter, forced to stay in hospital from the day after Christmas of 2008 to the 3rd week of January of 2009. Meanwhile, I began to make plans for my departure from the hospital and decided that the only and quickest way for me to earn a substantial living enough to support myself and my son was to get back into teaching. Thankfully, I had saved the bulk of my pay from teaching at university and survived on that and coffee shop work until my teaching credentials had been transferred and accepted and I embarked on my long career as a substitute teacher.

Teaching at a Canadian university for one semester was a bit of a culture shock. I had trained and taught college/tertiary school students who had come from all walks of life, and I had delivered many workshops, seminars, and training sessions for participants who were professionals and some even as old as my mother or older. I had rarely found students who were averse to receiving feedback–what we were calling “constructive criticism” since the 80s. Managerial experience gave me the knowledge and tools to conduct 360-degree feedback so that students could get the opinions of everyone and share their own as well. That did not sit well with the majority of students, nor did my requiring them do some readings, research, and reports as well as delivering demonstration lessons, since they were supposed to be a practical methodology class. I had already expressed my alarm to my dean that none of the students in my class had taken the theory course that should have been a requisite to the methods class I was teaching. I was told to do my best, so we had to include teaching theories to the practice. You can imagine that neither area could be fully explored. Worse yet, their evaluations of me indicated that the top 3 comments were they found that being given feedback or criticism of any sort in front of their classmates embarrassed them; they had expected me to teach them “everything she knew about teaching” the subject; they had expected me to fill every period with 3-hour lectures. I could only wonder what sort of teachers they would turn out to be if they did not learn by exploring and experimenting, by discovering things for themselves, or by learning to take criticism–they could not take it in a safe place from their peers, how were they to take any criticism from the 20-30 or so students in each class they handled?

After subbing whenever called and working late shifts at the coffee shop for 3 more years, I was called to interview at a prominent language school, where the pay was sadly low compared to substitute teaching or even public school teaching. I quickly discovered several unpleasant facts, including the fact that there was not much chance for pay increase, the work was uniform, and, once more, politics in an academic setting was present. The good thing was that the school provided teachers with TESL training and certification, which is how I acquired my certification. In fact, I was so motivated that I completed my training in 2 months and tested with a demo class in the 3rd month to earn my certificate. Sadly though, the school downsized and one of the newest hires, became one of the first let go.

That gave me the opportunity to get back to subbing, but because calls were extremely scarce and far between, I needed to avail of my Employment Insurance while writing more. That was when I finally wrote my first novel and the road to fulfilling my actual dreams was materializing before me. An unfortunate accident at the end of January 2013, however, made it very difficult to sub, or do anything else, but I still had to because I could only get so much from EI or from insurance payments, which ended after the 4th month. While all this was going on, I learned of a program supporting people on EI establish a business. I decided it would be a good time to embark on launching myself as a business. I attended some training in May, had my business plan written and completed before July, and registered Art ‘n’ Words Studio & Gallery in early August, 2013. For one year, I devoted my time to establishing my business, growing my network, and creating products.

Because my business was only slowly growing, I went back to subbing in the fall of 2014 with very few calls because I had been out for over a year, picked up a city job in winter and had it extended to spring, the next year, then struggled through summer until I could sub again in fall, at the same time taking in contracts and small jobs for my business. In the year of 2016, I picked up another full-time job that had me doing office work, which was good but also  gave me very few opportunities to sub. My contract lasted 10 months and by Christmas, I was relying again only on odd jobs. I was fortunate to be selected to manage a large event in January, which gave my finances a boost, then back again to subbing and business, as well as a few hours tutoring for the LDAPEI. I had also picked up a few students who needed private tutoring in writing, and and that sustained me until a friend informed me that the local college was hiring ESL teachers. I jumped at the opportunity and was hired in November, then recommended to teach as a sessional with a different department. I accepted the sessional position, the was recommended again for another sessional position with a different department. Because I enjoyed teaching ESL to newcomers, I accepted a night class twice a week, but gave it up after a semester because my body could not stand the pain of staying on my feet the whole day, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with only an hour’s break for lunch and a couple of hours of tutoring between day classes and night classes. My first sessional position lasted a semester; the second position lasted three semesters, then I was let go with the advice that my teaching would be “best suited to university students or high school students–with a more academic focus than students in trades, or newcomers”.

At first, I could have taken that as an insult, because it was, in a way, since I had been able to adapt my teaching style to just about any group in any walk of life; from undergraduate students to professionals looking to improve their skills or learn something new.

On retrospect, I looked at the whole attempt to secure a more regular teaching position as futile. In the first place, I have become extremely light sensitive and noise sensitive after the accident, not to mention experiencing intense back pain that made it almost impossible to stand, let alone walk in different situations; I also have a recurring sharp or dull headache from my concussion. Since the accident, I have had some physiotherapy, but only when I did not have to work–which made it difficult because I had to work most of the time. I have also been on a cocktail of medications for the pain and, for a while, depression, besides other physical conditions needing maintenance meds. Teaching in a public school situation was difficult because the noise would numb all my other senses and I would go home after a day’s work and crawl into bed and still hear the shouting of children.

Another thing that was totally discouraging about teaching in college here was that the majority of students did not seem to care about learning. They did not have the passion to absorb as much as they could from every opportunity offered to them. They did not want to spend time doing research or discovering things on their own and wanted everything served to them on a silver platter. They did not have the basic skills necessary for writing, let alone research, so teaching any form of higher communication became a struggle because they were expected to acquire so much in so little time. Moreover, I discovered only in my 3rd semester that I was not expected to give them assignments to do outside class because they spent 40 hours a week in class–totally unheard of in the Philippines! So they had to learn everything in a packed curriculum within the 30 to 45 hours allotted to each course that I was handling. My learning curve was practically vertical, as I had to implement and deliver set curricula using materials I had not prepared and I had very little time to absorb. My stress levels had risen considerably and I spent all my waking hours not spent on my other jobs just planning the delivery of lessons and trying to figure out the intent of previous instructors with incomplete syllabi and incomplete knowledge of the whole situation. Thankfully, I was working with a team that was mostly very supportive, sympathetic, and helpful. Besides all that, I had to deal with students who questioned my knowledge and expertise–while I had the knowledge and expertise in some things, I was not aware of the methods of implementation, which included an online self-directed course using a textbook company’s software, which worked differently for Macs (which I use) and PCs (which the students used)–hence results would be somewhat different. Also, since I had never used that proprietary software before, going through the course was a first for me and I had to rush familiarizing myself with it even as the students were working on it. Another course used software that was somewhat different from software I was familiar with, hence teaching with the software was an ongoing discovery for me–which the students did not look upon kindly.

For the first time in my life as a teacher, as well, since everyone was on a first-name basis, I experienced an unbelievable amount of lack of respect and hostility from some students, who also tried to influence other students to ignore me and attempt to complete the requirements on their own. I dreaded certain periods so much because I was constantly wracking my brains trying to modify methods and materials to accommodate all their needs and make the learning more pleasant, but enough people had expressed dissatisfaction and even anger that I felt I was always tiptoeing on eggshells. Even if I had class or two where students behaved more maturely and were more intent on learning but neglected to complete their work on time or completely, the discomfort from the other classes overpowered any comfort I could gain from students who sincerely were trying to do their best and learn or relearn a few things.

I was so traumatized by the time it was all over, but I still considered offering my services to the first department (and even sounded off the manager), or I could return to teaching newcomers ESL. Then it struck me.

Why was I trying to chase a career in teaching, which could be so fulfilling and then again not? I knew that no matter who my students were here in this tiny province, they would lack the foundational skills that make a successful college or university student. They lacked respect for education or teachers. They lacked the skills to learn successfully in any situation. They lacked the skills to communicate successfully and effectively in any situation. They lacked the attitudes that make a good learner and rather than look for what (new) things they can do, they spend the time complaining about what they can’t do. Not to mention so much hostility from a student who had sent me over 50 email messages in less than 4 months who became abusive when that student was not getting what that student wanted.

Looking back on the educational system, I have decided that I am happy and fulfilled tutoring student for the LDAPEI because I know I am truly helping them and what they learn and achieve is sometimes phenomenal. I am happy and fulfilled from tutoring private students, teaching or coaching them in writing or art. My Saturdays are filled with private students who come to my home one after the other, and who leave with new or improved skills and knowledge. My summer is productive and busy with enough private students and tutoring to fill several hours of lessons, with enough hours left for me to write, paint, and spend time with a senior friend whom I take out of her nursing home at least once a week, more if there is a concert or other show we can watch. My business as a writing and art tutor is thriving. Best of all, I have absolutely no stress, except when I tell myself I should enforce deadlines for my writing. For the first time in years, I have become truly happy about the work I have chosen. I can breathe easily and relax. I can choose what hours to meet my students and I can choose my students! Lessons are more of mentoring and coaching than teaching a large group.

I have also been teaching as a volunteer instructor at Seniors College for 4 or 5(?) years now and for the past two years, have been teaching literature. We read classical and contemporary stories and writers, analyze them and savour the exercise of looking a characters, plots, and themes from different angles. I do not need to tell my senior students to start working nor do I need to motivate them to speak or analyze the stories or even to read ahead for the next term. They attend because they enjoy the mental exercise, the appreciation of literature, and the broadening of perspectives and horizons as we push the envelope with sometimes very difficult or complex writing, and a sizeable group returns term after term, year after year, looking forward to the next author, the next stories, the next class.

Unless the educational system changes, teachers who are passionate about teaching are climbing an uphill battle. Unless educational managers fully back and support their faculties, they will stifle professional growth, educational freedom, and a have unhappy, abnormally stressed teachers. Unless college students are given sufficient time to learn through exploration, research, and discovery, they will continue to demand spoonfeeding and free passes, the way they were socially promoted throughout their K-12 lives. Unless social promotion is removed, all students will continue to be pushed upward and ahead even if they have not fully grasped the knowledge and skills needed for the next level, or mastered the skills and knowledge taught in their current levels. Unless teachers are given the freedom to mold classes and curriculum according to their teaching styles and the students’ learning styles, they will remain ineffective and stressed from trying to fit themselves into a defective system, look for shortcuts to delivering lessons and teaching skills, and eventually lose their passion from being like round pegs forced into square holes. Unless students learn that failure is part of learning, as is hard work, communication, exploration, research, and discovery, they will never appreciate the value of education and never gain lifelong learning skills.

I will not go back to teaching in a regular classroom in PEI and, possibly, anywhere in Canada because there is so much broken and wrong with the system and still the powers that be play at politics and ignore the need to change, which will only grow more each year, thereby making change more difficult.

I now have the time to write, to create art and crafts, to share my knowledge and mentor those who truly want or need to learn.

I am a writer and an artist and a mentor and I will be so to my last breath.

 

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Switching Gears: A Teaching Life (Part II)

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During my seven-year high-school teaching stint, I threw myself into teaching, in my first year, as well as getting to know my former teachers-turned-colleagues, and the politics of an educational institution. I also conducted a preliminary survey of creative writing among high school students prior to introducing journal writing as a method of teaching creative writing, with the intent of conducting a survey after several years of practice.

In my second year, I was appointed the area coordinator of the English Communication Arts and spent part of my time managing the faculty, mentoring students and teachers, creating new student organizations, and overhauling the English Communication Arts curriculum. I was a weekday-single-mom with a live-in nanny-cum-housemaid courtesy of an absentee husband who “worked” for his parents in their province a 3-hour-drive away. In that year, I had also befriended a few new teachers with whom I shared many common sentiments, from politics to friendship to teaching styles.

My 3rd and 4th years of teaching saw me travelling more frequently around the country to facilitate workshops and seminars for other schools also run by the same religious order I grew up with. As my professional career was becoming more established, my marriage was floundering and towards the end of the 4th school year, it ended dramatically with a broken ankle and my mother rushing in to the rescue. I spent the last month of the school year and most of the summer in a full leg cast in my mother’s house, with the school sending paperwork to keep me busy. Summer was hectic with lawyer interviews as my mother facilitated the initiation of annulment proceedings. Later that year, Philippine courts adopted a new family law that recognized annulments through legal systems rather than merely through the church. This law gave my lawyer the opportunity to push my annulment through and after next 2 years, I could legally use my maiden name again. Even then, I had already reverted to it as soon as I returned to teaching after the cast came off.

While the annulment was in the works, I had met the man who would eventually become husband #2 several years later. In an effort to push me into another marriage because she thought I would be overcome by depression, my mother had contacted everyone she knew as my friends and solicited their help to take me out to socialize and meet someone new. Future husband #2 was introduced to me by a friend who had convinced me that we were a perfect match. But this isn’t about my marriages, it’s about my teaching career.

On my 6th year, the school was beset by a strike of teachers who were members of the employees association, which was pushing for a union. I stayed with the school because I did not believe in unions. Besides, the school was my alma mater and my loyalties were with the school. I stayed another year with the school, after the strike, then felt I could move on.

Before my 8th year of teaching began, I resigned to take a job as an indexer and abstracter, reading articles from newspapers, periodicals, magazines, and academic journals and creating index entries and abstracts. Within a year, I had been promoted to team leader, and after a couple more years, I was promoted to a division head with a director’s title. While the job was not a teaching job, I still ended up doing the occasional training seminar or workshop for new employees. The formation of a union and their displeasure at how I dealt openly and transparently with my division told me it was time to leave. I resigned and decided to devote my time to raising and home schooling my son.

During that time, I did a bit of research writing, writing for a publication distributed among students in public schools, and writing a set of pre-school workbooks for my son, but which would also have been published by a publishing group I was invited to join as part of the board. Unfortunately, only the first volume was published. Later in the year, I also accepted a temporary job managing an exhibit that consisted of 12 large exhibit rooms celebrating the Year of the Ocean. My directive was to interview, hire, train, and manage the staff. After nearly a year of freelancing, I was offered the position of Director of Publicity and Public Relations with the premier English repertory theatre company in the country, with a salary slightly higher than what I had left as Director/ division head. I accepted. I would be in theatre and writing! After a couple of seasons, I was invited to be Assistant Director to a major production.

I would have continued to work with the company had I not been offered a position as School Director for a progressive new school in the same mall within the year. It was exciting to be pirated by another company because they recognized by skills, knowledge, and the contributions I could bring to the company. Within a year, the school moved towards expansion and I was promoted to Director of Operations, then Director of Program Development. After a year with the company, I realized it would not get anywhere because of the overall handling by top management, so I resigned.

Shortly thereafter, I learned some of the directors were giving up their pay so teachers could get paid; eventually, there was not enough to pay teachers and the company downsized, disposed of property, furniture, and equipment. For a few months, I freelanced again from home, then a friend informed me that my former principal and high school teacher who had become Dean of Liberal Arts in the college department of my school was asking after me. Before I knew it, she had invited me to join the English faculty, so I went in for an interview and demonstration. I was assigned a part-time load and immersed myself in teaching once more, except that it was in college.

Around that time, my mother offered me a huge sum of money to apply for immigration to Canada, in the hope that it would transform Number 2 into a productive, useful contributor to society. She had it on a friend’s word that life in Canada had transformed her lazy, non-productive son into a hard worker to survive. Considering the deal, I decided it would be the best thing for me and my little boy. After 10 years, my marriage had deteriorated into a sham. With each year that passed waiting for an interview and approval, my resolve to leave Number 2 behind strengthened.

Two years later, I was invited to interview and give a demo at another college across the street and accepted a part-time position as well. On my fourth year into college teaching, I was offered a full-time position in the second college, so I completed my semester with the first college and moved to the second college, where I also accepted a position as a department chairperson. Shortly thereafter, I was recommended to take over the position of Executive Director for a dance scholarship program. In my year and a half as E.D., I managed the dancers and produced six major original performances, choreographing segments for two shows and designing costumes, stage, and lights for some others. I often brought along my son to classes, where he impressed everyone with his knowledge, speaking, and confidence. Little did I know that whenever he was left home with his father, the foundations of a psychological barrier were being established.

On my 7th teaching year in college, in September, papa died. We were in the middle of preparations for a new show and it was just after lunch when I received the call from my older sister-in-law. I took a short break to attend the wake and funeral, then had to return to work to mount the show.

Towards the end of October, I received an unexpected phone call from the Canadian Embassy inviting us to an interview the next month, during which our permanent resident visas to Canada were given to us. We were informed we had exactly a year from that date to migrate to Canada or the visas would expire and we would have to re-apply. Although I already knew my stay in the college would end at the end of my 3rd year as a full-time faculty member, receiving the end-of-contract notice from a dean who had opposed my appointment to department head then Executive Director (reporting only and directly to the President and Vice-President) was bittersweet.

I was beset with the stress of packing, disposing of a house and its contents, and other details of immigration plus preparations for a dance performance tour of a new show, and dealing with college politics were too much for me and I spent my last month of teaching in hospital for over a week. I missed the trip and returned to school in time to clear my office and file my final reports. Then the stress of packing and booking tickets before disposable funds started eating into immigration funds were not helped by the fact that number 2 was of no help at all. Still, I managed to get everything together, booking a flight and ending up with overweight luggage because of last minute packing that did not making the shipment we were sending by boat to follow us after we had found a place to live.

Thus ended stage 2–the next 8 years of my teaching career, with a 7-year hiatus from full classroom teaching in between, broken only by one year with the progressive mall-school that never made it.

Switching Gears: A Teaching Life (Part I)

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I’ve been a teacher for more than half of my life and while it was, admittedly, one of my career choices, it was not my first. Every since I became aware of the concept of a career, I have wanted to be a writer first, second, a director, and third, an artist. There were several other potential choices along the way, including an actor, a doctor, a nun, and an Olympic athlete. At different times, I also considered being a historian (thanks to my senior high school history teacher who was a mentor and a dear friend to me until she died), an architect (because I loved the idea of seeing my wildest building concepts become concrete and I loved the works of Frank Lloyd Wright), an archaeologist (because I loved history and I dreamt of visiting ancient ruins), a choreographer (because I loved to watch dance performances and for a while found creative expression in dancing and had the opportunity to work with a dance company and do a bit of choreography), and a computer programmer (because I was intrigued by how I might create software that would do what I wanted it to).

I never shared my deepest desires with anyone. When I was 10, a conversation with my parents changed my mind about several potential career choices. Doctor? Mama said it would be too difficult for me because I would have to do a lot of memorization, work in a lab with corpses, and be the minority in a world of men. Actor? Mama said it was an immoral world and not for me because all girls in theatre were invariably loose and had no morals. Olympic athlete? Mama said why should I choose archery, of all sports, with such expensive equipment. Archaeologist? I would have to travel far and always be on the move, getting myself all filthy from digging dirt. Architect? That was a man’s field. Nun? I would break my father’s heart. Teacher? That wouldn’t earn me enough to sustain me. Computer programmer? I lost interest when they switched programming languages just when I was planning to try to see how much more serious I could get with it. I recently took some lessons in web design, graphic design, social media marketing, and Photoshop, thinking I could upgrade my skills and maybe monetize them. However, I became preoccupied with a brief teaching stint that demanded so much of my time and energy that I did not have time to continue those courses beyond the first levels. (Not that any of those skills are going to waste because they are applicable to my business. Besides, I can still continue them anytime I want since I have a lifetime membership with the institution that teaches them.) I already knew that if I brought up my desire to be an artist or writer, I would be told that I would end up being a starving artist or starving writer–because in previous family conversations mama had already emphasized how those careers would not put food on the table.

By the time I was ready for university, I was pretty much willing to take anything that would get me out of the house, which I had already sort of left by practically moving in with my aunt who was in theatre because she lived on campus where I had signed up for fellowship programs in theatre and creative writing. (Of course, my mother was strongly against it.) I had enrolled in a communications research course at the state university and was hoping to get into broadcasting. On the first day of class, even before my first class had begun, I was surprised to see mama at the door of the classroom, looking for me. She was much more excited than I was, as I had received a telegram (which she had read and already followed up on before telling me about it) inviting me to a full scholarship program.

Let me give a little backgrounder. In my senior year, I had learned that exams were open to students interested in the national science scholarship program. The only reason I knew about the program was because my youngest brother had studied high school in the national science high school and had already taken that exam. He was quite smug about being a science scholar and our mother made it very clear to everyone that he was the brilliant one who excelled in math and science. I decided to take the test just for the heck of seeing if I would pass it. Little did I know I would.

Upon receiving the telegram, mama had quickly called up the number provided, inquired about the program and, apparently, visited the university where I would be studying, if I decided to take the offer. She had met the program head and spoken with several of my professors-to-be. So when she appeared at my classroom door, she already knew what was in store for me.

At the “interview”, I found out that only the top 100 students from the thousands of examinees nationwide had been offered scholarships. The top 50 could choose any science-related degree they wanted in any college or university in the country. My brother had passed in the top 50. He would receive full tuition and a socialized stipend, which meant that, because my parents were in a higher income bracket, he would receive the smallest monthly allowance. The next 50 were offered a full scholarship with a full stipend (regardless of parents’ income), a full book and clothing allowance, and practically guaranteed employment for the first two years after graduation, because we were obliged to teach in a public school for two years, as part of the scholarship contract. The catch? We could pick either math or physics as our major degrees, doubled with an education degree. The objective of that program was to improve the quality of teaching math and physics in the country. I quickly figured that, since teaching had been a potential career on my list, and I could pick math because I guessed I could manage that better than having to produce lab reports for physics experiments–something that totally turned me off in high school (I could never get my experiments to perform the way they were supposed to and I hated doing the science projects). What was more important was the full stipend and additional allowances, which would give me complete independence and, thereby, emancipate my from mama’s control. Of course, I took the scholarship.

So my teaching degree sort of fell into my lap. It wasn’t anything I had to work very hard for and, as a result, I put in the least effort into it, focusing my energies instead on the school paper, then I was recruited into the resident folk dance company, then I was attracted by archery and became a varsity athlete, representing the university in several regional and national competitions. The best part was that all my extracurricular activities also earned me additional stipends. As a student, I was rich.

After graduation, I was no longer obliged to teach in a public school because I had neglected a couple of courses and had to repeat them. (I had actually deliberately neglected them for reasons I might put into writing some other time.) As a result, the scholarship was withdrawn, but because I was in my final year and my other grades were fairly outstanding, I was allowed to complete the degree but had to cover my own tuition and lost the stipends in my final additional semester. That did not bother me, because I was, as I mentioned, financially set as a student and had enough (including extra income from teaching a Polynesian dance class and some modeling) to cover my expenses. I had also started part-time work as a secretary / administrative assistant in my final semester, so I just had to pass those three courses I had neglected. The good thing was that I earned pretty high marks for them, so my GPA was pretty decent in the end.

I had continued my work, this time as a full-time secretary, and accepted a second job as a part-time comptroller. Shortly after, I decided to join one of the national theatre companies, to get closer to my dream of working with theatre and the performing arts, even if it was just doing marketing at first. That led to a whirlwind courtship and all my dreams of a professional career were put on hold. Sometime during that period when I was dealing with being a new wife and mother-to-be, I had decided I would pursue a master’s degree, but I needed to move back to the capital to do that.

My whirlwind courtship ended up as a whirlwind marriage and I found myself back in mama’s house, making myself useful and away from her as much as I could by taking my sister to school and picking her up after school. On one such trip, I ran into a former principal whom I had been quite close to, and she quickly invited me to teach, not math for which I had earned a degree, but English, which she knew I excelled at. To ensure I had the proper credentials to teach English, she directed my to the top private university, known for its courses in the liberal arts and humanities, in the National Capital Region where I was to enroll for a master’s degree with the English department. I never look a gift horse in the mouth and, by then, I was following whatever opportunities fell into my lap. So off I went to start my master’s and, in three months, I was officially employed as a teacher in the same school where I had studied from kindergarten to high school.

Time for Education to Change

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I have been commenting on the public school system and how it is failing our students time and again. Ever since social promotion was introduced, students have slowly figured out that they don’t even need to work hard to pass. Couple that with a 50% passing mark and you have average graduates. Worse yet, students earn high marks despite their performance so that when they reach the tertiary level, if they do decide to undertake a college or university course, they do not have the skills they need to excel.

Let me pose a few assumptions:

Assumption One: The public school system does not seem to communicate with colleges and universities and vice versa about what students need to know or be capable of doing.

One would come to this conclusion because students who come from the public school system have weak grammar knowledge and poor writing skills. From experience, I have discovered that they are unfamiliar with research methods and research writing; they are unable to write a cohesive research paper; they use incomplete sentences and dangling modifiers; their vocabularies are limited; they cannot speak in public; they have difficulty understanding and solving basic mathematics problems, and so on. The list goes on and on.

Assumption Two: Pass marks of 50% mean that students have only learned half of what they should.

That, plus the fact that they only perform half of what is expected of them. This is alarming, because students no longer strive to be as good as they can be in school. They are content to pass with only half the marks, as long as they pass. Their ambitions are low and they do not try to aim for more.

Naturally, there are those who work as hard as they can and earn higher marks, some of them attaining the status of honour students. I often wonder about what qualifies students to be honour students in the public school system. Is it that they achieve a general average of 80 and above? How are their grades determined then, if they achieve 80% or more and still cannot demonstrate strong basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics? I have worked with college students claiming to have been honour students in high school and being told their work was excellent, yet could not submit written work, let alone a research paper, with complete, grammatically correct sentences throughout, nor were they certain of the correct use of punctuation.

Assumption Three: Students who do not make the grade, so to speak, are promoted nevertheless.

I say this because I have not heard of any students who have failed and have been held back to repeat a year or attend remedial classes. All this achieves is send the message to students that they don’t even need to try, because they’ll pass anyway, whether or not they get the 50% mark. If that is the case, what is the point of even having a pass mark? Do students ever attend remedial classes in the public schools?

I’m aware that students who need help are sometimes sent to resource. However, I do question how much help students get, and if resource is uniform across the board. I have heard of resource where students do nothing at all, particularly in cases where students have learning disabilities and are assumed to be incapable of learning. Resource should be tailored to the students’ weaknesses, and even then, a small handful of resource teachers cannot fill in the knowledge that students should have gained over the years.

Assumption Four: The Public School System does not want change.

Why do I say this? The writing is clearly on the wall. Students graduate each year with worsening levels of achievement. Teachers are teaching to the test so that students can score well in the foundational outcomes tests. The teaching is inconsistent and the teachers are not all fully capable of teaching.

We no longer need the factory design that churns children out of school with the barest knowledge so they can find their place among assembly lines. The world has changed; the 21st century demands training in skills that are transferable. While there might be specialized skills, the basic skills still need to be taught well. Math, reading, and writing are no longer valued when they should be at the forefront of teaching. Communication is a huge factor in the working world–it has always been and always will be–and yet very little effort seems to be made to develop this skill among school-age children.

Assumption Five: Teachers are not well-trained.

When learning about education and how to teach was reduced from a four-year course to a two-year course after attaining a regular undergraduate degree, then to a one-year course, churning out new teachers on a conveyor belt, I knew the quality of education would drop even further.

When it was still a two-year course, I had the opportunity to teach a methods class for one semester, and I knew from the beginning it would be a disaster. In the first place, students were allowed to enrol in the methods class before they had taken the theory class, so instead of being able to apply theories they had learned first before working on methods, the students had to be taught theory. I had designed the class to be a workshop-type class because it was a methods class, but a good number of the students expected a full lecture class–all 45 hours of it at 3 hours a week–and for me to teach them everything I knew about teaching English. That expectation alone was ridiculous because what I knew about teaching English was something I had learned over 20 years of teaching. Also, it would be impossible for me to teach everything I knew, because a great deal of what students learn about teaching is learnt in the classroom, doing actual teaching.

The other thing that I found most ridiculous was that many students felt they were being embarrassed in front of their peers when they had to receive a 360-degree critique of a demo class. If they could not receive comments and suggestions from their peers and professor in a safe setting, how much more would they feel when faced with and average of 25 students in each class all ready to criticize them, and in most cases not constructively? Needless to say, I did not regret not being invited to teach the class again.

Assumption Six: Education does not always attract the brightest and best students.

The fact that many teachers are churned out with only one year of teacher training has a negative effect on their ability to teach. I have heard of teachers who don’t even understand what they are teaching, teach to the test, teach to the whiteboard, or even teach to themselves. Some teachers seem to be teaching subject matter they are unfamiliar with and end up leaving students without a clear understanding of the subject matter. Many times, teachers are made to teach subjects they are not experts in, regardless of the level they are assigned to.

In many countries, families have been known to encourage the least scholarly or academically-inclined of their children to take up teaching. The brightest and smartest are encouraged to take up medicine, law, or engineering–still top-rating courses no matter where in the world you go. In highly-religious cultures, the priesthood is the fourth vocation of choice. Parents ensured their futures by ensuring their children covered all necessary aspects of their lives: a doctor to take care of them in their old age; a lawyer to attend to their legal needs; an engineer to build and show off skills; a priest to take care of their spiritual needs. Once all these had been taken, the last choice would be to have a child unsuited to the top choices become a teacher. Admittedly, there are many more careers students can choose from today than there were half a century or more ago, but the elders of society might still assign greater value the same things they would have half a century or more ago. After all, having a son who is a lawyer or a doctor is still more prestigious than having one who is a computer programmer or an actuarian, assuming they understand what a computer programmer or actuarian does.

Assumption Seven: Expectations are unrealistic.

Sometimes, failure in the classroom is not completely the teacher’s fault. Sometimes, teachers are expected to teach a particular subject matter in a particular way that the teacher is not prepared to do or that does not suit the students’ learning styles. There is a problem with knowing that students all have different learning styles, just as teachers have different teaching styles. Are students expected to adapt lessons to each and every student? In an ideal world, yes, but the immensity of that proposition is beyond the reach or ability of any school.

Several theories of education besides the public-school-conveyor-belt system have been proposed, studied, and implemented in progressive schools, many with great success. Common among these theories are the Montessori approach and the Emilio Reggio approach. The theory of Multiple Intelligences has been accepted as a sound theory of learning, as is the theory of learning styles, and yet public school systems have not adapted their settings to reflect this learning. Models of the best school systems have been shown successful in Scandinavian countries, notably in Finland, yet North America has been slow to even explore these models.

Assumption Eight: The bottom line is still money.

I think that bottom line of the North American reluctance to change the way the public school system operates is money. North America’s governments do not want to foot the bill when it comes to overhauling the educational system. The cost of retrofitting classrooms and retraining educators will be no less than staggering, because not only will the public schools have to change, but the way teachers are trained must change. Teachers need to be retrained to change their perspective, their teaching-learning styles, their content learning. Too many teachers have been entrenched in their methods and adapting to new ways of teaching and learning is something they either do not want to do or cannot do.

Assumption Nine: Society’s perception of what education is must change.

Besides changing the system of education and teacher training, how society sees education as well as what society expects of education must also change. Society still sees schools the way they were taught and expects nothing to change. Probably the majority of students graduate (whether they deserve to or not) with the feeling that they are escaping a prison and choose not to look back until they have children of their own who need to attend school. Then they expect schools to teach their children everything the children need to know when they grow up, as if they themselves learned everything they needed to know from school. The attitude towards school and learning is also something society must instill in people. If the majority think going to school isn’t really worth it, is it any surprise their children do not see the value of education?

Assumption Ten: Schools just aren’t teaching the skills needed by society.

If we are teaching transferable skills that will allow students to become successful in multiple contexts, then content should not be the primary focus of education. If 90% of all graduates use only 10% of all the math they are taught, why do we continue insisting on teaching 90% of the content to the 90% and expect them to fail anyway? Why do we not teach the 90% math that they do need and will use 90% of the time? If 10% of all graduates become excellent writers or researchers and 90% of the jobs waiting for them require mastery of writing and research skills, why aren’t we teaching more writing and research? If 90% of all the jobs out there require public speaking and other communication skills, why aren’t we teaching more public speaking and communication? If everything is being done on computers or using digital media, then understanding computers and digital media should be more of a norm than a novelty.

We are approaching a time when we can no longer ignore the consequences of stubbornly clinging to an educational system that does not work. Our graduates cannot read or write or do math properly. The only thing they can do on computers is use social media. They spell as if they were texting all the time. They cannot shake hands properly or look people straight in the eye when speaking. They cannot even speak before a crowd properly. Most of them have no idea what debate or oratory or declamation is. They do not even have manners or social graces so that they know what to do with protocol. There is no denying that education is still entrenched in the 19th century while everything else is straining at its leashes, raring to leap into the 21st century.

I’ve gone on much longer on this than I thought I would, which just goes to show how much of an opinion I have on the state and quality of education today. I am certain of one thing, though: there MUST BE CHANGE.

 

How acceptable is verbing?

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I am treading on shaky ground here, but as a writer and English teacher, it’s a topic I can’t ignore. There really isn’t any other word for it besides VERBING, which in itself, is turning a noun that isn’t used as a verb into a verb. That’s when nouns that do not have verb forms are used as verbs. One of the most common nouns that I have seen being used as a verb for quite a few years now is the word “gift”. People everywhere, including on the news, have been saying “gifted” not in the sense of the adjective that means “talented” but in the sense that means having been given something as a gift. For example, “He gifted her with a scarf.” What the heck was wrong with the verb “give” and all its tenses? “He gave her a scarf” means exactly the same thing. If you give someone something, it’s a gift. Take this other sentence: “It’s the season for gifting.” Whatever happened to the word “giving”? There was absolutely nothing wrong with the sentence “It’s the season for giving.”

Okay, I’ll look at it another way. You can say “giving” and come up with the image of someone passing out something–anything–to another person. When you say “gifting”, the image you come up with is someone handing a nicely wrapped present to someone else. Looking at it that way, I will very reluctantly admit that “gifting” suggests giving a present that’s prettily wrapped. It’s completely different from someone giving me a pair of scissors, giving me a piece of his mind, or giving me a disease. That said, I still can’t get myself to use “gift” as a verb.

Grammatically, many nouns have verb forms, and we don’t really give it a second thought. Some very few examples are research, produce, comment, fan, walk, sleep, cook, drink, etc. Nobody ever questions their dual functions as nouns and verbs. How did they ever gain that duality? I’m not going into that historical aspect of when they were first seen on record used as either noun or verb, although I’m sure there’s some linguistic study somewhere that does that.

That language is a dynamic form of communication is undeniable. If we still spoke English the way it was spoken during Chaucer’s time or Shakespeare’s time or even during the Victorian era, we would sound really strange–unless everyone still spoke exactly the same way. Grammar most likely was invented along with the standardization of everything else during the industrial era. People in control of things probably felt that they needed to standardize language so that it would be easier to understand across various borders, whether political, cultural, scientific, or even personal borders. Creating rules for how language should be structured and documenting those rules ensured clear understanding by the majority of people throughout the world. That standardization of language has given us a measure for deciding what is correct language or good writing. That said, language changes. It adapts to the times. New words are created and useless words become obsolete. This happens because of changes in lifestyles, in technology, thinking, and just about every area in life. A hundred years ago, the word ‘cellphone’ never existed; a little over a hundred years ago, the word ‘airplane’ did not exist; before it was ever invented, the word ‘laser’ was completely unknown. This list can go on and on. On the other hand, how many kids nowadays know what a ‘bustle’ is–and I don’t mean bustling about or hustle-and-bustle; how many people walk about carrying a ‘poke’ over their shoulder?; how many people keep an ‘inkhorn’ or use the word ‘ruth’ to mean the opposite of ‘ruthless’?; nobody calls a ‘thrift’ shop a ‘frippery’ anymore, nor does anybody say they’re having a ‘rejumble’ when they’re experiencing ‘acid reflux’.

Granted, many terms or words that are now obsolete are in  word museums because whatever they referred to is no longer in use, or a better, more scientific name has replaced it. Other words die because of political correctness, regardless of what they originally meant, and the extent of influence political correctness has on language nowadays is, I think, the far swing of the pendulum. But it is also that sensitivity, rational or not, that has given use new words or new meanings for words, such as ‘gay’.

If you were to ask me, I’d say use the words that are there. I think anyone who doesn’t even try to find the right word or the exact word, is just plain lazy. Even if you don’t know the word, there are all kinds of dictionaries and thesauri that you can refer to. Not having a computer isn’t even an excuse, because before online references, we had real ink-and-paper books! There is absolutely no excuse for not using the right word. Don’t even give me the excuse that you’re being creative by coining new words, because it does take a long process for words to be vetted and added to the official Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, there is a committee that studies  words, their usage, and how well they fill a need. More than any other language, English is a melting pot of languages, more so now that it is exposed to cultures all over the world. Many cultures have languages that have words for things that do not exist in the English-speaking world, or that have words more expressive or more suited to things than what they have been called so far. For instance, what is the big difference between ‘mountains’ and ‘boondocks’?

I am thoroughly appalled when people in media use words wrongly or invent new uses for words when there are more accurate words that already exist but just don’t happen to be in their vocabularies, because I have always believed in finding the right word. My exception is when a simpler word can be used, pick the simpler word rather than the more technical term. While I am a big advocate for using the right word, I am also a bigger fan of simplifying the language. I don’t mean reducing your vocabulary so that it’s at kindergarten level–unless you’re writing for that age group–but avoiding jargon, highly technical language, and 5-syllable words that have 2-syllable equivalents. Unless, again, the 5-syllable word is more exact and more picturesque than the 2-syllable equivalent.

If there really isn’t a word for what you want to say, then by all means, coin one. But don’t do it before you check out the dictionaries. And if you’re stumped and can’t find the right word, ask me! I love looking through dictionaries.

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City Centre Community School 2015 Creative Writing Course

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I’m looking forward to January 2015, when a new round of courses will open at the City Centre Community School.

I will be offering my services again, teaching another Creative Writing Course: Writing the Short Story. This will be a workshop course, as last year’s course, but with a lot more in-class writing, sharing, and critiquing of students’ works.

The best part will be that the students’ works will be published online, in The Writing Pool blog as well as in The Writing Pool Facebook group. Of course, it students choose, they can opt to have their work published anonymously.

See you in January!

Free copy of 101 Fun Games, Activities, & Projects for English Classes, Volume 2

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thanks to everyone who supported my by downloading a copy of vol. 2 of my series! i really appreciate you all for helping me! watch for my next giveaway!

 

Hey everyone! You still have two more days (until July 3) to download your FREE copy of Volume 2 of my series, 101 Fun Games, Activities, and Projects for English Teachers. Even if you won’t use it, please help me get my ratings up by just downloading it here:

Canada: link to Amazon.ca

US: link to Amazon.com 

UK: link to Amazon.co.uk

The Problem with Praise (or, My Case Against ‘Perfect’)

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As a substitute teacher, I have observed teachers, especially in the elementary school level, lavish words of praise on students for nearly everything they say or do. I have heard showers of “excellent!” and “perfect!” and “great job” more often than anything else, even if the answer or action was not truly excellent or perfect or great.

Do these people know what these words mean? Mr. Webster will tell us that “excellent” means of exceptional quality, something superior to others, something that, to be redundant, “excels” — stands out over all others. Synonyms for “perfect” include flawless, faultless, without error, with no room for improvement. “Great” also means esceptional, superior, above the rest, excellent.

Now I ask: How often does one come across “excellent” and “perfect” everyday? And is every effort or action a “great job”? If this were truly the case, then teaching in schools would be the perfect job and practically effortless. Teachers would actually become redundant, if students were all as “excellent” and “perfect” and alsways doing a “great job” as often as I hear it said.

I think teachers need to expand their vocabularies in the praise department. in the same way we encourage students to find other words for “good,” “nice,” “okay,” and “so-so”, we need to find other words to express praise or approval. There are so many I can think of: awesome, wonderful, well-organized, colourful, attractive, well done, good work, nice technique, energetic, nice try, good effort, and so on and so forth. We should be more accurate with the praise we give so that students do not get the wrong impression — that their work is truly excellent or perfect, when it isn’t.

If students always receive the praise that they are doing “excellent” or “perfect”, does this ever reflect in their marks? Do we give them excellent or perfect marks to match the praise we lavish on a daily basis? How do we explain to students, when we release their report cards or return their papers with less-than-perfect marks, that their work is actually less than perfect? How do we explain to parents, after they see the “excellent,” “perfect” and “great job” comments on schoolwork, that their children’s final marks aren’t anywhere near the excellent, perfect and great job comments received on their children’s homework, projects, and other schoolwork?

Such is the incongruity between unqualified praise and reality. If we tell students they are excellent, they will think they are better than everyone else. That certainly isn’t a bad thing, thinking one is better than everyone else, but it tends to create social disparity and a tendency to think one really is better than anyone else. Which may not be the case, developing a superiority complex as opposed to confidence. If we tell them that their work is excellent, then they will not have any motivation to improve on the work, because it already is excellent, and better than any other work done in class.

If we tell students they are “perfect” or what they do is “perfect,” they might develop the belief that there is nothing more for them to improve, that they know everything, and that everything they do is right.

If we tell students they are always doing a “great job” they might just as likely not bother to try doing a better job, simply because they’re already doing a great job.

Some teachers might rationalize that they shouldn’t give negative comments. Indeed, calling students bad, lazy, stupid, idiotic, poor, slow, and other such negative terms is not only derogatory; it is labeling them with negative words that tend to stick and that reinforce negative behaviour. But calling some students excellent, perfect, or great is also labeling, which tends to stick as well, and helps feed egos that, in all likelihood, do not need that kind of pampering.

What’s wrong with simply saying “correct” or “right” if the answer is correct or right? And if a student tries but doesn’t quite get the answer, saying “perfect” or “good job” then seeking another answer from someone else contradicts the praise, because there should be no other answer, since the first answer was already perfect.

How many ways can we provide praise without going overboard? I have compiled a list of several words that can be used alone or in phrases that teachers can use to express praise. You can also, most certainly, come up with your own set of words, or mix and match what is in the list to suit different occasions. Note that some words will work in either list.

I will add to this list as I remember words of praise that suit various classroom situations, and I will also greatly appreciate your suggestions of words that can be added to this list.

A Praise Vocabulary for Teachers, Tutors, Parents and Leaders

Words to praise work

  1. accurate
  2. analytical
  3. attractive
  4. brief
  5. clear
  6. colourful
  7. comprehensive
  8. concise
  9. correct
  10. creative
  11. descriptive
  12. entertaining
  13. evocative
  14. exact
  15. good examples
  16. good reasoning
  17. good word choice
  18. grammatical
  19. illustrative
  20. inspiring
  21. interesting
  22. logical
  23. makes sense
  24. neat
  25. organized
  26. original
  27. pithy
  28. precise
  29. prompt
  30. resourceful
  31. sensible
  32. timely
  33. useful
  34. well-researched
  35. well-written
  36. wide vocabulary
Words to praise action or behaviour
  1. active
  2. affirmative
  3. audible
  4. attentive
  5. careful
  6. clear
  7. controlled
  8. cooperative
  9. coordinated
  10. creative
  11. effective
  12. encouraging
  13. energetic
  14. fair
  15. good initiative
  16. good projection
  17. good sharing
  18. graceful
  19. helpful
  20. inspirational
  21. inspiring
  22. motivated
  23. observant
  24. participative
  25. practical
  26. precise
  27. prompt
  28. quick
  29. reasonable
  30. respectful
  31. responsible
  32. responsive
  33. restrained
  34. rhythmic
  35. shows leadership
  36. supportive
  37. team work
  38. timely
  39. vocal
  40. well-behaved
  41. well-executed