Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Teachers: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (plus the Sexy!), Part 1

I promised several people (including my kids) that my next post would be about the sorry state of sex education in Ontario schools, but between the time I first thought about writing it (after being interviewed by a local newspaper on the issue) and now, I've become less motivated. Maybe sex just isn't on my radar as much today as it was a month ago, or maybe events have conspired to turn my thoughts elsewhere. But what I've found myself thinking about recently is teachers. And I've found myself trying to reconcile the two types of writing I've been engaging in: i.e., blogging, which for me means viewing the personal through a theoretical and political lens, and fiction writing, which is . . . well, something else entirely. The reconciliation I've settled on is a kind of personal creative non-fiction, which is quite a departure for me in this space. But bear with me. The personal—be it parenting or aspects of one's own educational history—is still the soci-political for me, as I hope will become clear.

First off, I should clarify that I want to talk about my teachers, teachers who affected me for better or for worse (but mostly for better) during the long years of my student-hood. The differences between teachers (and teaching) in the past and today are part of what I think makes the topic interesting, but of equal interest are the parallels and resonances between "then" and "now."

The Ugly

I start with the "ugly" because the teacher in question happens to have been my very first teacher, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs B. (She was not in fact ugly; my reason for referring to her this way will become apparent.) She was a woman in her early sixties, nearing retirement when I passed through her classroom. In those days, a requirement of kindergarten teachers was that they be able to play the piano. I remember a lot of singing, children's voices reverberating throughout the sunlit room, belting out songs like "I've Been Working on the Railroad," while Mrs B played the piano. A lot of that year is a blur, but one incident stands out in my mind. At Halloween Mrs B dressed up in a convincing (to a five-year-old) witch costume, complete with warty face mask, hat, and cape. She brought in a large cauldron, filling it with what she called her potion. She sat us around her while she stirred the concoction and handed out cups, inviting the kids to taste it. There was silence as kids inched-wormed backwards, enlarging the circle. A boy beside me trembled softly. No one accepted Mrs. B's offer. No one except—after several moments of careful consideration—me. I took a sip of what I immediately recognized as some combination of ginger ale and eggnog. It was good.

Today I wonder how kids could have been so petrified of a teacher in a witch's costume. (Would today's kids be as frightened?) I also wonder why I decided to risk tasting the potion. It may be because I had an older sister who chased me around the house pretending to be Captain Hook; that experience was far more terrifying to me than Mrs B in an ugly witch's costume. But I think it goes beyond that. Mrs B had read to us, played piano for us, led us in the Hokey Pokey, bandaged our scraped knees, reprimanded us when we stepped out of line the way a parent might, firmly but without malice. Nothing in her previous behaviour suggested that she would attempt to poison us on this occasion. So, I said yes to her scary potion, as I'd said yes to all the lessons and activities she'd offered us up to that point. Fill me up, my gesture seemed to say, with anything and everything you have to offer. The cup seems to me a perfect synecdoche for the transmission model of learning operative at the time. But even transmission is never truly one way. By accepting the gift of Mrs B's potion, I was giving her something in return: my trust.

The Good

For the next several years of my schooling, teacher after teacher proved themselves worthy of my trust. In Grade 1, there was Mrs M, who was surprised when I wrote this message on a test: "Am I right?" I remember her showing the note to my mother, and the two of them sharing a laugh about it. Both my mother and Mrs M appeared to consider it strange for a student to attempt to communicate with a teacher in a non-sanctioned way. What I appreciated about Mrs M—or what I appreciate now, looking back—was her openness to this gesture on my part. "Yes, you are," she'd written in response.

Maybe this openness was part of what emboldened me a few years later to ask Mr H, my Grade 5 teacher, a rather odd question. Mr H was a mild-mannered man with minimal control of the class, and a seeming lack of interest in anything other than music. We spent hours on end repeating our "ta-ta-tee-tee, tas" or learning solfege or singing songs like Both Sides Now. A friend who was also in Mr H's class thinks it was a wasted year. I disagree. I loved all the music and singing, and I especially enjoyed the children's operetta—His Majesty's Pie—that we staged outside of school hours, under his direction. It boggles the mind that he was given such leeway to pursue his own interests, but I don't think we were the worse for it. Watching an adult live out his passion day after day is not a bad thing for a child to witness.

But to the question: A boy and I had been talking about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told him I was going to be a man. (In grade two, I'd told the teacher I wanted to be a nun; clearly in the intervening years I'd set my aspirations higher—or lower, depending on your point of view.) He snorted. "Very funny." "No, I'm serious," I said. "Impossible," he said.

I knew better. My older sister had a college classmate who was in the the process of transitioning from male to female. The students at the college derisively dubbed her "Nick the Chick," but my sister had told me the story in non-judgemental terms, and I was intrigued. I'm pretty sure I didn't actually want to become a man when I grew up; I did want to prove a point to my classmate. So I dragged the boy to the front of the class where Mr H stood writing on the blackboard. "Sir," I said. "I can change from a girl to a boy when I get older, right? I can be a man if I want to." Mr H swung around, an expression of mild surprise on his face. He glanced from me to the boy, then back at me. The look of surprise evaporated, replaced by his customary poker face. "Yes," he said tersely. "Now go sit down, both of you."

Mr H often used to preface answers to questions with "I cannot tell a lie." He was also fond of the phrase "Man is an adaptable animal." He displayed honesty and adaptability that day, but he also showed the boy and me that change—especially the socio-sexual change that the newly emerging recognition of gender dysphoria betokened—is not something to get worked up over. It's difficult not to marvel that decades later we (in Canada) still have governments capitulating to fringe groups complaining about the GLBT content of proposed new sex ed curricula.

(See also: Part 2, The Bad and the Good, Redux)


  1. These posts are fascinating. I remember hardly any details from my school days, just foggy generalities, even when I try. I've tried both consciously and unconsciously to remember with no luck. It actually makes me feel a bit freakish. I don't believe school was traumatic for me, and all my report cards seem to suggest that I was bright, happy and well adjusted. Maybe it will all come back to me someday. :)

    I know I'm a bit biased, being a music/drama/dance teacher and all, but I really wish the musical requirement for Kindergarten teachers was still in place. Not necessarily having to play piano (guitar, ukelele or any other kind of accompaniment instrument would also do nicely, or even just a confident singing voice) but definitely a love of music and an aptitude for it. I know most of the kindy teachers I've encountered do their best to sing with their students, but some just are not able to carry a tune. It's my firm belief (and I found some proof here: that just a little bit of ear training could improve their singing ten fold. Both Carl Orff and Bela Kodaly (two of my music pedagogy inspirations) say that young children should know at least 100 folk/traditional songs of their own or adopted culture before the age of six. With the amount of non musical kindy teachers in our schools, this is definitely not happening, unless there is a dedicated music teacher who also understands the importance of setting up this solid base.

    Not all dedicated music teachers are created equally I'm afraid. Some want to hook the children so badly and don't think they can do it with traditional songs so they introduce pop and other types of music too early. Singing pop music (especially the belty forced kind ala Adele, Beyonce et al) strains the natural quality of a young child's voice and defeats the purpose, in my opinion, of the music classroom which is to introduce new musical ideas they may not be exposed to in the home and in the world at large.

    Traditional music exposes children to basic musical concepts (simple rhythms, tritones, pentatonic and diatonic melodies etc.) in a fun way, training their ear and setting them up to be (if they choose) life long music lovers. Ontario curriculum and by default, school boards, used to adhere to these practices, hence the hiring of kindergarten teachers with a musical background, and provided many schools with Orff instruments. (Incidentally, your Grade 5 teacher may very well have been Orff trained.) Now the basic music training provided in teacher colleges amounts to a few CDs worth of music you can play, if there is no music teacher in your school. Not to mention that you are only able to choose two of the four arts courses (Visual Art, Dance, Music or Drama) in your teacher college year.

    It has been proven time and time again that students learn well through Music and other arts, yet the arts are increasingly pushed aside for a greater focus on literacy and numeracy which, of course, can be more easily measured on a standardized test. Music (with the exception of the math part of music) and the other arts, not so much.

    But I digress. :) Thanks for posting your memories, I look forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kat, and for your insights about music education. I completely agree with you about the importance of music in the early grades, and I too wish Kindergarten teachers were still required to play an instrument (or be able to sing). The dearth of music and singing in the early grades in public school was one reason I enrolled the girls in programs like Kindermusik (and why they joined the TCC briefly). I don't see why that kind of program couldn't be incorporated into the JK/SK curriculum. As you point out, traditional music and singing was very much a part of the old curriculum. I'm wondering when and why it changed...