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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Thoughts on teaching and learning

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I have spent so many years of my life teaching and, while there have been challenges, none have been as challenging as my most recent experience. I can’t say it’s because of the difference in the overall culture, because I grew up in a very western-like setting and a very cosmopolitan city that is far more advanced than where I am now. Perhaps that could be the reason, and yet I have found such a different attitude towards learning and education here than what I have encountered and know of among cultures in the eastern hemisphere.

In the east where I grew up, education was valued highly. Good education was a privilege, because not everyone could afford it. Nonetheless, nearly everyone wanted to go get an education if they could, and for the middle and higher classes, that meant paying whatever families could afford to go to a more prestigious private school run by a religious organization. Private schools meant learning all lessons in English, which was recognized as a huge advantage. Private schools also meant more progressive curricula and more adequate educational support systems, from textbooks to laboratory and sports equipment. Private schools competed with each other to achieve the highest status because that brought greater recognition and graduates thereof were in demand. Public schools suffered because of lack of funding, poorly paid and poorly trained teachers, and overcrowding. As a result, few public school graduates made it through college or attended mediocre colleges and diploma mills just so they could join the workforce as blue-collar workers. The rest joined the workforce as contractual labourers, farmers, fishermen, house help, and the like. Even training for skilled trades cost more than the average person could afford, so many workers remained unskilled labourers.

Here, education seems to be taken for granted, not only in the public schools, where many children feel they are being forced to attend and would rather not go. I wonder if that is because it is seen more as a right than anything else, and because the government strives to ensure everyone receives an education. Even when they enter a college for technical or vocational training for which they pay a considerable sum, they seem to treat it as a right rather than a privilege. Could that be why many students, as a whole, are more demanding and less inclined to be motivated to do any work on their own? Because if it is seen as a right, is there a general feeling that education, skills training, and knowledge are owed to them rather than something they should work hard to acquire?

That attitude could be a huge problem and a barrier to learning simply because the students expect knowledge to be handed to them on a silver platter. I had that feeling when I taught a class at university for one semester, and the students gave feedback saying that they expected me to lecture them 3 hours straight, which would have been the whole period; they also expected me to teach them everything I knew about teaching–which, by then, was over 20 years of collective teaching experience at all levels, from preschool to university, including professional training and development. Worse yet, many of them did not like the process of delivering demos and receiving 360-degree feedback because they felt they were being embarrassed in front of their peer. My thoughts were that if they could not receive criticism from peers, what more of their students when they would be working as teachers?

In my most recent experience, I have received feedback saying that students did not appreciate having to do research or self-directed study. Also, I learned they were not expected to do much homework or assignments outside of classroom hours. They had 40 hours a week of class time with no real study periods. It seems like a lot of cramming of a lot of information in very little time. I know that where I came from, universities and colleges were regulated in regard to the maximum number of hours of coursework students could take each semester, which would be 24 hours or a maximum of 8 classes each week. That way, students would have 16 hours to absorb any new information, research, and complete assignments. They would also have time for extra-curricular activities. After all, we want well-rounded graduates, don’t we? All that this cramming does to churn out graduates as quickly as possible is spit them out half-baked.

Another thing some students did not appreciate was not being given key search terms for researching in the Internet, or even having to research on the Internet. Research is a skill we develop little by little, from being a beginning reader to one who looks words up in a dictionary, from being a novice Internet user searching for music, videos, and games, to the Internet user who appreciates and takes advantage of links, wiki references, and information databases. The Internet has made research so easy, allowing users to enter anything from words to questions and spitting out hundreds of thousands of search results. The sophisticated user will know how to narrow the topic down to very specific questions, or cast a wider net by searching for keywords. Who determines the keyword? Certainly not a tertiary-level professor. By the time students are at the tertiary level, students are expected to be discerning enough to figure out what keywords and questions to use when researching a topic. Unless they have never worked with computers or search engines (even if they don’t know what a search engine is, they most likely have used one if they have used computers and gone on the Internet), there is no reason a student can’t figure out how to search for a topic, given a question to answer.

I could go on and on and create a dissertation-long blog entry, but I will stop here and explore these ideas further another time. Until then, au revoir.