Dear Ontario Students: You Know Your Teachers Care About You

Dear Ontario students,

We are in the midst of a big week for your schools and your educators. Whether you’re in high school or elementary school, public or Catholic, French or English, your teachers have already begun job action. This week is especially important because the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (of which I’m a member) has begun holding rotating one-day walk-off-the-job strikes – which means lots of little kids need someplace to be and someone to care for them during those days.

empty classroom

Why is this happening?

The Doug Ford government is trying to get you – and all Ontarians – to believe that we’re walking off the job because we’re greedy and want more money for ourselves. They are telling everyone who will listen that we are selfish and that we don’t care about you.

This is what governments say every time they want to make cuts to education. Frankly, the line is tired… but demonizing and undervaluing teachers is a longstanding tradition. It dates back to when teachers were only allowed to be women (and principals were only men) and they were – as all women were – treated as lesser, servile beings.

You already know this, because you (unlike the government officials) spend lots of time at school, but just in case you have any doubt in your mind: YOUR TEACHERS CARE ABOUT YOU. We care a lot, and that’s why we are at school with you. That’s why we became educators. That’s why we ask for things from the government – why we fight for them, when we have to.

The government is not wrong when they say that it’s about money. That’s because public schools are funded by public money (supplemented by individual school fundraising), and everything that exists or happens in schools costs money.

You have probably already heard about the big money issues of this round of contract negotiations. If you’ve heard Education Minister Stephen Lecce talk about it, he likes to insist that it’s about salary. That teacher pay is the reason negotiations are at a standstill. He says this because he knows it sounds better to the public… so he lies. The truth, which is that we are fighting to get back crucial things his government has already cut, doesn’t sound as good for the Conservatives. (He also brazenly lied about the average teacher’s salary in Ontario, and many other things, to make us look even worse.)

It also wouldn’t sound good to admit that negotiations are at a standstill because the government is not negotiating. That is to say, they either don’t show up to negotiations, or they send people who are not authorized to negotiate.

What the government IS doing is treating this whole thing like a game. They’re not thinking about education, they are calculating their next move. They just want to win, even if it means their legacy is a broken school system. They are the ones toying with your education, your wellbeing, your lives. You are the future of Ontario. It’s not okay.

Sadly, you can’t even believe Doug Ford when he says they’re trying to save money. If they were, he wouldn’t have given his Deputy Ministers – who were already making 2-6 times what teachers make in this province – a 14% retroactive raise in October. And they say we’re the ones who are overpaid.

If you’ve heard educators talking about the bargaining issues, you probably know that our actual priorities right now have to do with class sizes and support for your needs and goals. These things have always been very important to us, but never more so than right now. Yes, cost-of-living salary increases are important – decent labour standards benefit all workers – but that’s not the main reason we’re picketing in the cold.

We want class sizes to be reasonable. You know as well as we do what a difference class size makes. The effect of a few more kids – even kids who aren’t struggling academically or behaviourally – just means that the educator in the room is stretched thinner, the noise level is higher, and it can be much harder for you to get your questions answered, or to get the help you need.

We want kindergarten to be taught by teacher-ECE teams, because it is a program that works and that parents asked for. Anyone who doubts its value should spend a day volunteering in a kindergarten classroom, and see the kind of patient, caring, skilled, energetic, and knowledgeable educators who choose kindergarten, and how much they have to do to care for and teach things to 25-30 tiny people with wildly varying needs.

We want high school classes to be taught in person, by teachers, instead of online, because e-learning is that much more difficult for those of you already struggling. It is a format that requires independence, motivation, organization, and self-direction… so if that’s what you struggle with – and so many do – where is the teacher to help you through? (I just finished an online course myself, and even as an educated, motivated adult, I found it hard to stay on top of the work.) And also – online learning is just not the same. The life-changing moments I had in my own high school classes all centred around great teachers.

Finally, we want more staff on the ground. We needed, and still need, ALL the staff we had before the cuts, and more.

We need the teachers who teach specialized subjects Arts, Phys Ed, Auto Shop, and so on – because these are the active, innovative, hands-on,  hearts-in subjects that inspire passion, and that give students who are tempted to drop out a reason to stay. There are already high schools in my Board that have had to dismantle Music and other “expendable” programs because of teacher cuts. This is a tragedy. Mark my words, the result of this treatment will be higher drop-out rates. How can any government want this?

We also need the staff who work to protect and assist those of you with high needs. We need the SERTs, ECEs, the EAs, CYCs,  and so on, because these are the people who are there for you when your life as a student is at its hardest. (Don’t even get me started about how undervalued support staff are – they should be paid double for what they do.) School is so much more than math and literacy scores – it’s about learning to be a well-rounded and functional person, which is a hard journey. When the going gets rough, you don’t need something to read online – you need someone to talk to, someone you can trust to be on your side. People to be there for you. THAT’S why we need more staff, not less.

Is it really that bad? Is it worth striking for?

The short answer is, YES. A thousand times yes.

None of us wants to go on strike. We’d much rather be in class, with you. But the government is forcing our hand. (I’m sure they’re laughing about it, too, because they save lots of money every day we strike.) We have to do everything in our power to express how wrong all this is.

When Mike Harris’s Conservatives were in power in Ontario in the late 1990s, they did incredible damage to the education system – some elements of which we still haven’t recovered from. They had many things in common with the Doug Ford Conservatives, the most relevant being A) their desire to denigrate educators, and B) their absolute ignorance of, and disregard for, what life at school is actually like.

It’s this kind of problem that made a friend of mine (who is not a teacher, but a parent and caregiver for young kids) comment, “I don’t know why the government is even allowed to touch education. Education and health care should be sacred. Why is it considered okay to make these cuts?”

What a great question.

Here is the truth. The needs of students have only gone up over the past fifteen years that I’ve been a teacher. More of you have learning issues, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, and disruptive and/or violent tendencies than ever. And it’s all understandable, given the hectic-but-often-sedentary pace our lives can take, the additives and toxins in our food, the brutality of social media, the apocalyptic state of the world, and the terrible adult role models who keep rising to power on the global stage. This is already hard for adults to manage – especially parents, worrying about their children’s future. Children should not have to deal with this crap at all… but it’s so hard to avoid. It obviously affects your lives and your learning.

We really want to be able to help you through all this – help you to follow your curiosity, develop your strengths, bounce back from failures, and thrive. The thinner we are stretched on the job, the more difficult this becomes. We won’t stop caring, but there does come a point where we won’t be able to keep up. In some schools, that point has already been reached, because we are always working with the smallest number of staff that the government can give us based on population.

I once wrote a blog post about teaching that was viewed by a lot of people. (I say “viewed” because many of those viewers read it… and then there were some who clicked on it, saw it was written by a teacher, and felt the need to comment negatively without reading.) Some of the trolls made it clear that they imagine school as this place where everyone sits quietly all the time, and the teachers just recite information to you, and you simply absorb it, first try. Boom, done. Easiest job in the world.

Isn’t that hilarious? You, the students, know that’s not what school is. Learning is different for everyone, and it takes a lot of angles and techniques to make it happen. You can tell that your teacher cares about you when you get to create and express yourself at school, when you participate in discussion, when your classroom is full of helpful resources, and when the lessons are interesting. All of that takes work that teachers do because they care.

We are all aware that there are bad teachers out there, teachers who don’t have the energy or motivation or talent to make lessons effective. (I can remember one Grade 10 Geography class I suffered through as a student in which basically all we did was colour maps and copy key terms from the textbook. It sucked. Even as a 14-year-old, I could tell that this teacher had checked out.) To be honest, I don’t know why those people are teachers. Personally, if I didn’t care about kids or learning, there is no way the pay and vacation time would make up for the emptiness and irritation that would fill a school day. To be a teacher who hates teaching is an insult to students, their parents, and all other teachers.

That being said, the vast majority of teachers I know are serious about the profession, and work to improve their practice every year. (Even the most experienced of them have those days where they ask themselves, “Why did I choose this job again??”, but the answer always shows up soon enough.)

Have you ever heard the pearl of wisdom that goes, “Do something that scares you every day”? For many years, that thing, for me, was my job. Every day. I’m a borderline introvert, and I’m not naturally a disciplinarian or even very bossy. Every time the bell would ring for class to resume, I’d feel the swoop of anxiety in my stomach. People say you know by the end of your first five years whether teaching is for you, but for me it took a decade to be sure that I wanted to stay. It was, to put it mildly, not an easy road. I eventually developed my own strategies to go with my own teaching personality, and now I really can say, without hesitation, that I love my job – because of you. (But it’s still not easy.)

And in case you’re wondering how far the care extends, I can speak for myself only on that, but it’s pretty far. Back in November, our school had to go into lockdown unexpectedly. I was in my portable with a Grade 2 class. We had not been warned about it, so I had to assume it was real (while calmly treating it as a drill for the sake of the kids). For teachers, it’s hard not to picture the worst. It’s hard not to picture Newtown. My portable only locks from the outside, so as I stepped out, I hoped fervently that I wouldn’t be shot – how would I protect my students? How would they ever get over witnessing such a thing? As I huddled underneath the windows with all those 7-year-olds, the same age as my daughter, all being as quiet as we could possibly manage, I could absolutely understand how teachers have used their own bodies to shield their students from danger. Especially in elementary school, the Mama Bear instinct applies to all children in our care. As it turned out, the lockdown was due to an unknown person in the building who was not a danger at all – but it has never been clearer how much my students matter to me.

You, the students, are what makes teaching hard. You are also what makes teaching worthwhile.

You all come to school with needs, some of which we can meet at school and some of which we can’t. Some of you need quiet, and some of you need to process verbally. Some of you learn through movement, and some of you really need to write to understand. Academics aside, some of you need a lot of help just to get through a day surrounded by peers. Some of you don’t get enough to eat. Some of you deal with a really rough time at home. Some of you have undergone trauma we wouldn’t wish on anybody. Many of you are anxious, about school or life in general. You each bring your own distinct set of challenges, and it is our job to help you learn along with those.

You also bring your quirky personality, your unique sense of humour, your individual perspective, your extraordinary talents, your deep thoughts, your limitless breakthrough potential, your beauty that is yours alone. Sometimes you bring kindness or insight that makes our hearts want to burst. Sometimes simply witnessing your journeys makes us cry.

This is why we’re fighting. We just want to do right by you.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to you and to your families who support this effort, for all the different ways you express it. It means so much to know that we are in this together.  Every little bit helps.

And P.S.: Thanks, fellow educators, for the solidarity… and for caring. These times are no fun, but we can still be great at what we do – for the kids.

#etfostrong

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Pearls of Grade 3 Wisdom

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I teach a group of Grade 3 French Immersion students English for 40 minutes a week. They are mostly a very sweet and funny group. We’ve been working on poetry, including a poem with a template called “I Am.” The first two words of each line are given, and then they fill in the rest. The results are sometimes predictable, sometimes decidedly un-poetic, sometimes surprisingly insightful.

Here’s an example of one whole “I Am” poem, written by a (very bright) Grade 3 student:

I am brave and curious.

I wonder if I will ever change the world.

I hear babies crying.

I see my friends walking by.

I want to live and hope.

I am brave and curious.

***

I pretend I am my sister.

I feel sad sometimes.

I touch the air that we breathe.

I worry about my family.

I cry because of war.

I am brave and curious.

***

I understand the world we live in.

I say do not change.

I dream about life.

I try to change the world.

I hope for world peace.

I am brave and curious.

Pretty straightforward, but interesting and optimistic, no? I liked it. And here are some other lines that cropped up in various other kids’ poems:

I wonder if Santa is real.

I wonder if I will ever be an artist.

I wonder if I will ever be a mom.

I wonder if the pandas will be OK in China.

I wonder how wonderful my dog drawings are.

I wonder if I am as cute as a baby.

I wonder why Donald Trump won the election.

I hear the phoenix song.

I hear Santa breaking my house and sitting on my house.

I hear Hogwarts.

I hear a tiger roaring in the desert.

I see a leopard catching its prey in the tundra.

I see a kitten fly on my shoulder.

I want people to stop buying palm oil.

I want a credit card.

I pretend to have the cheese touch.

I pretend to ride on a black bear.

I feel proud to be Canadian.

I touch every cat that I have had in my life.

I touch the world flooding.

I touch a glass sphere with memories in it.

I worry that my stuffies will go away.

I worry about Donald Trump.

I worry that Donald Trump will kill me.

I worry about my parents being taken.

I worry I will touch a spider.

I worry about the sun exploding.

I worry that in a few years there will be no orangutans.

I cry because Santa didn’t bring me a present.

I cry about every cat that has passed away.

I understand how to make paper.

I understand bravery and love.

I understand that my iPad makes myself mad.

I understand that paper is made of trees.

I say I believe in Santa.

I say that Santa is real.

I say I believe in God.

I say I can do the armpit fart.

I dream I would meet God.

I dream that my cats will wear little elf costumes on Christmas.

I try to be the best that I can be.

I try not to eat tomatoes.

I hope for hot chocolate at Christmas.

I hope that I will stay young forever.

I hope I will meet Prince William.

I hope I get a red hockey puck.

I am… generous, brave, a youtuber, a lover of soccer-baseball, humorous, lovable, curious, funny, smart, creative, intelligent, part Dutch, super, cool, awesome, helpful, respectful, a cat lover, a small kitten and I can fly, active, nice, happy, and I like bubbles.

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I felt privileged to read these. They are so honest, and so much more interesting than their “About Me” paragraphs in September. And there’s imagery there that amazes me. Some of their worries seem really deep and scary for Grade 3 – but I remember having similar grand worries at that age. (Some of them still apply.)

And it made me happy that the characteristics they named about themselves in the first and last line were, without exception, full of self-confidence.

Teaching in English is fun.

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A Little Faith in Humanity from Remembrance Day

Hi, lovely di-hards.

It’s been an emotional week, n’est-ce pas? Right around this time last Tuesday, there was a disbelieving dread building on my Facebook news feed. I could hardly bear to look at the actual stats. My daughter had strep throat; we all slept badly, and felt ill the next day – on so many levels. It was an Armageddon-y gloom.

And though that has not really gone away, there have been things to remind me that humanity is still kinda cool.

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I ran the Remembrance Day assembly last Friday, and as such spent several hours of the preceding Thursday creating an iMovie of my Grade 4 FI class’s collaboratively-written peace poem. Listening to their little-kid voices reading, line by line, words like “It’s friends and family and coming together for love/By calm, planting, and happiness” and “Humans are meant to be free and to walk… give love, help others,” and then all their voices together saying, “And stop war.”… It helped. It was comforting in a deep way.

I think we teachers are in the privileged position of seeing the best and the worst that kids have to offer. We are both jaded and optimistic – sometimes both these things, several times a day.

There had been some worry about behaviour during this assembly, since there were issues with noise level during the last assembly; the kids who were presenting had their feelings hurt by the not-so-focus of their schoolmates. And I have to say, it’s a thing. Many of us teachers are frustrated, constantly having to remind students that you don’t just yap all the time when it’s not your turn.

So for Remembrance Day, when there are usually quite a few community members present, there had been a lot of preparatory discussion in classrooms. The principal issued a reminder before classes came to the gym.

And then the kids blew our minds. They. Were. So. Quiet. Coming in, listening to each presentation, waiting in between… Even the wee kindergarteners. The minute of silence after the Last Post was incredible. A whole sea of kids making almost no sound. (I saw one child trying to distract his classmates with silent silliness, and they just ignored him. I was amazed.)

The last part of the assembly was the playing of “One Day” by Matisyahu. It’s a sad-but-happy song, and most of the kids know and love it, having learned it in Music class last year. When the song began, they were still incredibly quiet, unsure if they should sing, but gradually we could hear their voices joining in and getting stronger – and only with respect. It was this perfect rising tide of youthful hope. I know most of us adults got tears in our eyes at the sound. I couldn’t even look out at the kids, they were so beautiful at that moment.

If you want, try listening yourself, and imagine hundreds of sweet childish voices singing “When negativity surrounds, I know someday it’ll all turn around.”

Makes you think it really will.

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P.S. I’ve decided I’m going to try NaBloPoMo again, but changing the dates. There was no way the first two weeks of November were going to work, so I’m starting today and will be attempting to post every day through December 15th. See you tomorrow!

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#NaBloPoMo, Day 19: Questions excellentes

Today at school, we talked a little bit about Paris. I showed my Grade 4s and 5s that little boy and his dad – not just because the vocabulary (très, méchant, gentil, fleurs, maison, etc.) is right on point, but because when they see a child, they instinctively relate.

Two days a week, I have a group of only nine Grade 4s for the last period of the day. Often, it’s my favourite group. Grade 4s in Core French class are well-known to be the most excited about it (the novelty is alive), and although this group has a couple of very busy boys, they are also usually sweet and enthusiastic.

When I occasionally put aside the speaking of French in class, it’s usually in order to hear what they have to say about the social issue at hand; usually these moments arise from the French songs we listen to, but today it was the news. Frankly, I was very impressed by their questions and insights, and how most of them really listened and responded to each other. For a lot of it, I was simply listening.

Where did the terrorists come from? What made them so angry? If the parents teach their kids to be angry and to want to kill people, where did they get it? What is the violence for? Is it for fun? Or does someone make them do it?

We talked about racism and prejudices and wrongdoing on different sides, and the cyclical nature of violence. It may sound heavy for Grade 4, but they knew all the worst parts already, and obviously wanted to talk about it.

One of my favourite parts was one little guy, the most overt keener in the group, not quite nine years old yet, who is never afraid to call the other kids on it when they’re being immature. When a couple of kids began to get silly, he said to them, “You’re making a joke out of something that’s really serious. How would you like it if a terrorist came to your home and killed you? That’s what happens to people.” He is such a sharp little guy, with astonishing perspective on things. Makes me wish I could know and teach him when he’s seventeen or twenty-one and really taking on the world.

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#NaBloPoMo, Day 2: Perfect Storm

 

sky-space-moon-outdoors
The Full Moon: TEACHERS KNOW.

It’s not just Monday. It’s the Monday after Halloween, a few days off the full moon. The kids had a three-day weekend (Friday PA day). And we just changed the clocks. School was a bit wacko today.

It would figure that – less than 24 hours after I’d mentioned how well the kids were sleeping lately, HA – my daughter woke up at 1:40 needing cuddles and tried to infiltrate our bed, and it took almost an hour to get her back where she should be. And I’d already had trouble getting to sleep (the clock change messes with me too).

I’m grateful for that sleepy 6-week-old golden lab puppy I got to pet, right when I arrived at school. That’ll make your day.

I’m grateful for absolutely beautiful fall weather that didn’t look or feel like November.

I’m grateful for a completely unexpected cooperation and problem-solving between two difficult students, on today of all days, that meant I didn’t have to mediate at all. Amazing.

I’m grateful for my colleagues who understand everything we all go through, who work so hard and really want the best for – and out of – those kids.

And I’m really grateful that our Federation and the provincial government have finally, finally reached a tentative agreement, so we can hope that school life will go back to normal soon.

Oh – and boy, was I grateful for coffee today.

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100 Happy Days – Day 4: Silence

There are two kinds of silence that made me happy on Day 4.

One was in my 5/6 Core French class. They are a class that is, as a group, not great at self-regulation. Many of them have great difficulty stopping themselves from saying whatever they feel like saying, whenever they feel like saying it, in whatever language (i.e. English, not French). And some, it seems, just… never learned basic courtesy. Makes for a sub-optimal classroom environment.

I’ve had a whole system in place designed to curb this kind of noise and distraction, but in spite of having spent a lot of lunch breaks in discussion with certain students, overall behaviour hasn’t improved the way it needs to. It occurred to me that by telling them I will warn them (by name) when I see the kind of behaviour that will get them in trouble, I’m allowing them to relinquish ownership of their conduct.

So I gave them a frank lecture. Since these are 10-and-11-year-olds who do know what’s expected, I said I would take notes on the behaviour I was seeing, without wasting class time to talk about it. At the end of 50 minutes (which is actually ALWAYS less, by the time the kids get to me), if a student has a list of actions that need further discussion, we can take recess time to write out a “good copy” of what happened, for their parents. (Honestly, some kids’ lists would look like this on a bad day, if they were permitted to follow their instincts: “Today I forgot to take my hat off at the beginning of class, talked out when it wasn’t my turn twelve times, tried to argue with classmates/teacher three times, fell out of my chair once, insulted my classmate three times, sprawled on learning carpet as if it were my couch twice, stole my neighbour’s {whatever} twice, and left the classroom before I was dismissed.”)

Anyway. Point is, as I told them my new strategy, you could have heard a pin drop. TOTAL QUIET. Ahh, it was so lovely. Like watching a rare orchid bloom. Balm for my ears.

And THEN. One of my students raised his hand, while his classmate was writing the date on the board, and asked a legitimate question about the word “novembre” (we talk a lot about loanwords and root words in our class) and I answered it, which included me writing the numbers from 1 to 10 in Latin on the board. In case you don’t know, the word for six in Latin is “sex.”

I actually wrote “sex” on the board in front of 29 pre-teens – and they stayed quietThat’s how well my li’l talk worked. It was AMAZING, y’all. (Even if it only lasted for 1.5 periods.)

The other kind of silence is one that makes me happy almost every evening. We are a family with a birthright Quaker (me) as a mama, and although we attend Quaker meeting only sporadically, we do keep the tradition of silent grace before family meals. We hold hands in a circle, and sometimes we close our eyes, and think about the good fortune we have to be together for a good meal… and then we squeeze hands and it’s done.

silence
This is a dramatization. E is not usually smiling beneficently during silence. AB does do squeeze-shut-eyes like this, though.

AB has enjoyed the hand-holding ever since she was a baby. When she got old enough to say words, she used to order us: “Close de eyes.” And I don’t remember who started the tradition of saying, “I love you, family,” at the end of silence, but now we all say it every time – and my kids are usually the first to pipe up. I know this ritual means a lot to both of them. If they miss it for some reason, they want us to do it again.

It’s pretty much the most cheesily, heartwarmingly wonderful thing ever.

Oh, and speaking of silence… I may put this whole thing on hiatus until my blog is back to being healthy. My IT peeps and I are still working through issues that make blogging extremely annoying and slow, and although I am definitely noticing and enjoying happy things every day, trying to post about them under the circumstances saps that positivity with alarming speed. So… there may be a form of blog silence happening for a while. I hope not, but we’ll see.

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How Far to Bend the Gender

As a girl born between two sisters, I was, in childhood, emphatically girly. I loved unicorns, ballet, pink things, dolls, My Little Ponies. The tendencies of our elder brother didn’t hold much sway with us back then – he was outnumbered – and he seemed happy enough to make his Lego projects and wooden models on his own. I know there was some overlapping of activities, but my strongest memories were dominated by our female sensibilities.

woodcraft mosquito model
I remember this one. Yikes.

I’ve learned a lot since having a son. I remember worrying, while pregnant, that I wouldn’t know how to relate to him… and then being glad to discover that when it’s your child, relating is not a problem. Love takes care of it. And fascination, too: everything that interested him automatically interested me, because I wanted to know him completely.

I had already talked to other parents who had discovered that, no matter how gender-neutral you try to make your parenting, most boys love VEHICLES. Diggers, dump trucks, racecars, school buses. We knew E liked cars even before he had any – just the pictures of vehicles in his books thrilled him.

Last year, teaching five different groups of kindergartners, I found that this trend held firm. Boys loved the cars, ramps, robots, dinosaurs, and Lego; girls loved the “babies”, dress-up clothes, dollhouses, beads, and pretend food. Give them things like geometrical shapes, and some boys would use them to role-play “good guys and bad guys”; girls would role-play “mommies and babies”. There was some crossover, and plenty of neutral territory in puzzles, blocks, books, painting, etc… but still. I was surprised at how pronounced these proclivities were, and couldn’t help wondering about the Nature/Nurture proportions in these kids’ preferences.

It’s amazing how early children learn about “boy” stuff and “girl” stuff. Whether it’s from parents, kids, or other role models, it makes me uncomfortable – because most children, being so spongy, assimilate these lessons deeply.

At this tender stage, I worry most about the boys. The first year I taught Grade 1, there was a wonderful little boy I wanted to take home with me. He was quiet, sweet, bright, smiling, artistic. At age 6, the trees he drew not only had leaves on them, but the leaves had veins. I remember that on Valentine’s Day, he wore a red shirt and pink pants. He was adorable.

By Grade 2, he had become vocal about his love of princesses. My heart broke one day as the class discussed a story we’d read, and he mentioned Cinderella… and already, I could see other boys in the class exchanging surreptitious smirks, mocking inside their heads: this boy wasn’t following his gender role. (He’s now in Grade 6, in another school. I hope he’s okay.)

My son, with all his love of cars and dinosaurs and Lego and crazy sound effects, has a princess side too.

His Auntie Beth recently gave him a set of lavender fairy wings. He loves them; he even went biking with them on once. They became part of his dragon costume for Halloween.

The first time E had his nails painted, it was at the small home daycare he attends (where peer pressure is low). The girls were doing theirs, and naturally he wanted his done too. Why not? What kid wouldn’t want awesome-coloured fingernails? But M warned me about it tentatively, before I noticed it, because she knows that some parents object to nail polish on a boy. HA. We all loved it, because he was so delighted. Now we do his nails on a fairly regular basis.

nail polish on a boy
Pretty colours.

He’s always been a little fashionista. Even before he turned two, he would notice my jewelry: “That’s a pretty necklace, Mummy.” He loves to wear his Mardi Gras beads and the hand-made necklace from his Family Camp friend. Once, he put them on and picked up a broom and said, “Mama, look. I’m a princess, sweeping.”

He also does this thing, if you can catch him in the right moment, called “princess dancing”: uplifted arms, swaying steps, poignant little head-tilts… and a childishly seraphic smile. Almost unbearably beautiful.

For now, these aspects of his personality commingle with his more “boyish” tendencies.

His favourite movies are Cars and TinkerBell.

 

Cars-Movie-Poster-PIxar
Cars – the relatively wholesome first one.
tinkerbell-movie-poster-disney
TinkerBell – sent to us accidentally by the Disney Movie Club; surprisingly watchable.

 

He has two beloved re-usable bags: one picturing Lightning McQueen, and the other, Disney princesses.

He gets just as excited about butterfly tattoos as firetruck tattoos.

During kids’ gym time at our local YMCA/YWCA, I once saw two staff members lovingly ogling my kid as he rode a mini-Cat tractor with one hand, dragging a doll stroller with the other.

Sometimes he uses his cars to play family-type drama: “These two cars are getting married, and this big car is moving to a new house and the other cars are worried about him.”

I adore his openness, his natural expression of what he loves. I want him to be able to keep ALL of it.

I hurt to think of how soon these parts of his wonderful Self will be drummed out of him. He’s always liked pink, but recently says he doesn’t. He tells me, “Mama, your favourite colours are pink and purple,” because I’m a girl. (I prefer teal, I tell him.)

He’ll be going to JK next September. I don’t want to advise him to do things that will lead to ridicule… but I want him to feel welcome to embrace his whole self. I want him to be him.

I want him to be like my 12-year-old male student who was so confident, he was completely unabashed about being the only boy in his jazz dance class, and sometimes wore a furry pink bedjacket to school just for kicks. I want my son to have that powerful, joyful, unswerving sense of self – and to share it.

That’s what leads to acceptance. So that it’s okay for little boys to go to school with pretty fingernails.

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Those Greedy, Lazy Teachers

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina. After that, I wanted to be a novelist.

It didn’t occur to me to want to be a teacher until later. As a homeschooling kid, I didn’t even have teachers other than my mom.

Then I went to public high school, and had many different teachers, including some really amazing ones. It was my senior French teacher who inspired me to consider a career in education. She was (and is, I’m sure) a wonderful, talented person who taught because she loved kids and wanted to engage with them and help them to do better in life. I loved her class.

When I decided I wanted to teach, it wasn’t because I wanted to be rich. (I already knew that teaching is NOT the way to get rich.) Ditto being famous. I wanted to use my languages, to help other people find their love of language, to impart knowledge and connect with young people. To teach. It sounded so rewarding, so community-oriented, so purposeful.

I remember that my awesome French teacher came to my farewell party before I left for France, after I’d finished my degree in French and Spanish at university (which was also inspired in a large part by her). I hadn’t seen her in four years – four years during which Mike Harris had wreaked havoc on Ontario’s education system. She was looking forward to retirement, and she was feeling, for the first time in her decades-long career, disillusioned and sad about teaching. I remember her saying, “It’s different now. The government speaks badly of teachers, so the parents speak badly of teachers, and the kids come to class with that disrespect in their minds. It’s a terrible atmosphere to teach in.”

The same thing has been going on in British Columbia now since 2001 – an agonizing demoralization of educational professionals through consistent bad-mouthing and a gradual stripping of contracts and working conditions.

Now here we are in Ontario, once again, dealing with a provincial government who blabs on about “putting kids first” as they scramble to lay blame for the deficit. (Ask any Ontario public school teacher – this catch-phrase is so hypocritical it makes us want to throw up.) Continue reading “Those Greedy, Lazy Teachers”

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What makes mothers?

It’s interesting, the things that kindergartners say about their mothers.

I recently overheard a fragment of conversation at kindergarten snacktime, involving one of the kids I like to call “pop-up children” (teachers, you know the ones I’m talking about). This is what I heard:

“…and then she punched me! In the face! My mom!”

Wise little boy beside him, wisely contemplating his crackers: “Your mom would never do such a thing.”

In this case, wise boy is right. I’ve met the mom in question. In my school community, there is a preponderance of very attentive, highly invested moms – and parents in general. You can just tell by the quality of the snowsuits, the shoes, the lunches, and the attendance at school concerts.

But there are moms out there who do hit their kids.

With my second group of kindergartners, a different declaration reached my ears: “It has to be true, because moms don’t lie. THEY DON’T.”

Ooh. If only that were the case. I think we try hard not to, but as A.J. Jacobs illustrates in The Year of Living Biblically, parents end up lying to their children all too often, for myriad reasons. (Example: “Sorry, honey, we don’t have any more batteries for your obnoxiously smug talking ride-a-car.”) (Plus, there’s the Santa thing.)

But there do exist moms out there whose lives – with their children – are fraught with dishonesty.

A few weeks ago, I watched a mom become a good fairy. I saw her sneak into the classroom while I was teaching and put something in her daughter’s cubbyhole. Shortly thereafter, the daughter, who had been asking for weeks if she could have chocolate milk at lunch even though she wasn’t in the milk program, magically found chocolate milk in her cubby.

I couldn’t resist suggesting, “It must have been the chocolate milk fairy.” (This is a child who regularly tells her peers, “I have fairy dust on me, so I can fly – it just won’t work until I’m a little older. IT’S TRUE.”)

This girl is a little drama queen, but for once she was genuinely shocked – speechless, in fact. The look of dumbfounded joy on her face was just… the best. I wish I could have snapped a photo for her mom.

One of my tiny, elfin JKs knows more about the nuts and bolts of motherhood; she noticed that my belly was round and asked if there was a baby in there. When I said yes, she declared, “I grew in my Mummy’s uterus.”

So all this got me thinking about what makes us Moms, Mamas, Mummys, Mothers. What do we ALL have in common? It’s a harder question than I was originally thinking.

It’s not gestation or birth, because lots of moms don’t do that. It’s not even being the technical or legal mother of someone – because I know quite a few people whose “real” moms are actually their grandmothers or aunts, or someone else who mothers them (more effectively than their biological or even custodial mother).

What do moms do, then? What makes them mothers?

What’s “mothering”?

My dictionary says that to mother is “to look after kindly and protectively, sometimes excessively so”.

That seems fair. After all, if you don’t look after your child kindly and protectively, are you really a mother? If you get pregnant and give birth to someone you don’t care for properly, no offense, but I’m not sure the biology alone qualifies you.

There are lots of different ways to be a great mom. My mom is one – the mother of four. When she had us, he quit her job to take care of us full-time. In fact, she was also my school teacher from Grade 2 through Grade 8. She could find the learning in any situation. She is the kind of mom who sang to us a lot; she taught us to bake cookies; she made raisin faces on our peanut butter crackers; she trusted us to play and explore without her (from a reasonable age) as long as we were together; she drove us all over the place, to birthday parties and field trips and so many different kinds of lessons that I don’t honestly know how she kept her sanity some years. She got angry with us when anger was warranted. We never wondered whether she loved us or would protect us – we took that completely for granted. After all, she knew everything and could do anything.

I’m sure that she must have second-guessed herself often enough, as we all do. But we could never tell.

As for me, I try my best to snuggle my kid so much that he becomes addicted and seeks out snuggles for years to come. (E napped on me yesterday for the first time in ages. Priceless.)

E sleeping on Mommy

Love and Happy Mother’s Day, to all mothers and to all of us who have been mothered. Please share – what did – or does – your awesome mom do for you?

 

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Encouraging the love between boys

Imagine a 12-year-old boy with a chip on his shoulder. He moves from an inner-city school in a large metropolis to a well-to-do urban school in a much smaller city.

He has been moved, for the most part, because his mom doesn’t have a clue how to control or improve his behaviour. The administration at the previous school has warned: this kid is a “high flier” – in other words, a “bad” kid.

He begins at his new school right after Christmas break. It is completely foreign to him, but he does his best to find some friends to hang out with.

He must, indeed, be a higher flier than his new peers. He knows how to be quiet, but when provoked, he displays the kind of hardened anger that shouldn’t exist in a kid so young.

After a semi-violent incident in the cloak room, the likes of which his classmates never instigate, he gets a talking-to by his classroom teacher. She’s known for being tough but fair, with no tolerance for bad behaviour.

He confesses that he’s never been in a place like this. At his old school, the boys who were really tight, really close friends, were always the “bad kids”. He has tried to find these bad kids, this niche, at his new school – and it simply doesn’t exist.

Sure, there are kids who are annoying, kids who aren’t always nice to each other, kids who goof off in class sometimes, kids who break minor rules. In some classrooms, kids occasionally say bad words; there are a few kids at the school who are known to be hitters or biters.

But his class is not bad enough. For example, they don’t tell each other to f— off. He tried that, and instead of giving him street cred, the other kids looked at him as if he were a complete weirdo. Also, they do not put their anger into action and pin each other to walls or punch each other in the face. Children with these kinds of tendencies, at this school, are subject to early and frequent intervention to teach them new ways of dealing with things.

Instead, the kids in his class do what they are expected to do, overall. They do their work. They play friendly competitive games at recess. They join in school activities and attend school events. They haves squabbles and eventually work them out.

Our jaded 12-year-old has to find a new way of functioning, if he is to remain and fit in at his new school. Continue reading “Encouraging the love between boys”

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