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September 26, 2018

Spending a Morning at School

“All those beautiful back to school pics are a reminder (to me, anyway) of how deeply vested so many people are in the education system & that it can be political dynamite to mess with it recklessly.” —Shawn Micallef 

One reason I like volunteering at my children’s school is because I’m nosy. And when a nosy person commits to spending a few hours administrating a fundraiser from the office—sorting order forms by classes with letters to parents—that person is not simply organizing papers. She is paying attention. And she is welcome to be there paying attention as she shuffles papers, because she’s going to be bringing in a few hundred extra dollars to the school coffers, which are chronically underfunded. Every little bit helps, and teachers and school administrators are expert at stretching those dollars at far as possible, finding value, and making them count. So I’m happy to help, and besides, there are plenty of places for me to work—the Vice Principal’s office? The nurse’s room? Because, of course, there is no money either for Vice Principals and Nurses anymore, and the Secretary relies on volunteer support. Speaking of stretched, and I’ve not even got to Education Assistants (gone the way of the Vice Principal…) or caretaking staff (of which there are a few, but as few as possible due to budget constraints). This is not austerity, but also I can’t remember the last time our provincial government made  a major investment in public education. And yet there is something miraculous about the way it all functions anyway, credit for all of which is due to the amazingness of people.

Part of the reason it works is because we expect it to—every morning we drop off our children, those extensions of our hearts, and then we go out into the world to do the things we do, and we take it for granted that our children are safe and cared for, that they’re learning, that they’re even happy. And for many of our children, this is mostly true, at least on the good days. And when all our children went back to school in September I was struck by the reality that plenty of parents who were taking our schools for granted as much as I did had voted to elect a provincial government in June with no respect for teachers and a disdain for public education in general. (Our new Minister of Education’s background is managing a goat cooperative, and she has still given no media interviews about her portfolio which has been controversial since her government elected to dismiss an updated sex-ed curriculum [against the advice of experts] and cancel a curriculum rewrite that would have boosted Indigenous content. Her deputy is a twenty-one-year-old who was homeschooled and whose limited worldview is informed by his extreme religious views)

And how could they do that, I wondered. How could they send their children into the care of people whose profession their electoral votes had so undermined?

“Because they know teachers will still do the best possible job with their children,” answered my friend Dorothy Palmer when I posed that question on Facebook a few weeks ago, and Dorothy, a retired teacher would know. But I know too, or at least I’m reminded after the time I spent this week sorting papers in the office, paying attention. To the tiny people from kindergarten who had the huge responsibility of bringing the attendance down to the office this morning, in pairs of course. To the older girl who’d hurt her knee in gym and came to get ice, and also all the other people who came to get ice—after falling on the playground, getting hit by a soccer ball, going too wild on the monkey bars. Ice is the most tremendous tool, and it makes so many things okay again. Which the teachers know, the teachers who come into the office to check their mailboxes, who greet their colleagues jovially and say hi to students they haven’t seen since last year and remark on who has grown tall over the summer.

There was a little boy in the office this morning and it was his first day of school ever, and he was terrified, unhappy to be there. His dad was in the office filling out paperwork, but could hear his son crying down the hall where the boy was being comforted by an ECE. Over the course of my time in the office this morning, this small boy and his father were greeted by teachers, and welcomed to the school, and the kindergarten teacher came to ask if he wanted to come along to gym. When I finally left awhile later, the boy had joined his new class, no one was crying, and the relief on his father’s face in the hall reminded me of how good I felt when my eldest daughter finally stopped crying every morning for the first month of Junior Kindergarten, that maybe we could find a place here.

At our school, the Principal knows everybody’s name, and when it’s your birthday they put your name on the announcements and you get to come down to the office and receive a brand new pencil. The school Secretary is mostly magical and plays her guitar for the kindergarten classes. At our school, psychologists and speech therapists and other specialists visit to give support to kids who need it. My daughter has had occupational therapy help with handwriting, and speech therapy. When her Grade 3 teacher had concerns about her speech, she went back and talked to her teachers from the year before. At our school, our amazing music teacher retired after 28 years of teaching there, and (without her knowing) every single child at school, hundreds of them, had been taught a song just for her, and on her final day of school last year they sang to her, and a lot of people cried. (Our music teacher has not been replaced. What kind of school has music teachers anymore?)

I think sometimes people underestimate how good teachers are at doing their jobs, what experts they are in their professions. I absolutely know that the role of teachers in our society is shockingly undervalued, the incredible role these people play in our families’ day-to-day lives. A good teacher can change a life, and imagine what happens to a life when a kid has one good teacher after another. I sat in the office this morning, and said hello to a number of these teachers, and thought about what we’re trusting them with, up there with heart surgeons and bridge builders. Is there anyone more important?

Sit in a school office for a morning, and you get a glimpse into your community. Harried parents straggling in late, kids with disruptive behaviour, students living with their mothers in shelters because they’re fleeing family violence and the special needs that come with that. Our school specifies 10% of all money raised throughout the year go into a fund for students who are most in need, and this money has paid for eye glasses, winter clothing, gift cards at the holidays for families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford things. If a child shows up at school without a lunch for reasons other than a forgetful dad or mom, they will be quietly accommodated. Parents turn up with hugely pressing concerns which they seem blasé about, and others hysterical about incidental problems, and all of them are treated with care and consideration, and some other kid will arrive because he has a stomach ache and somebody will call his mom, and the day will continue, even after all my papers are filed. There is no such thing as extraordinary there, because everything is extraordinary all the time, and it works, because the people do, in spite of everything. I can’t imagine who’d we be without them.

3 thoughts on “Spending a Morning at School”

  1. carin says:

    Oh, man… this is wonderful.

  2. Beth says:

    This got me as close to weepy as I ever get (except for that bit you mentioned about the whole school singing a song to me). It is a special community, this school of ours, and it is ABSOLUTELY true that no matter how little straw the teachers are given, they will weave a roomful of gold out of it. That is precisely why (putting on my *almost-cynical-retired-after 28 years-teacher hat*) it really doesn’t matter who got elected, especially in this school I called home for my entire career.

    *deep breath*……Of COURSE it matters to US. It matters that the previous government had a heart, and very experienced-with-public-education people driving the bus. It mattered that the HARRIS government before THAT saw children as worthy of only a certain number of square feet in their learning environment. It matters that the present government is hopelessly out of touch with an opportunistic, vindictive black heart at their core; but, we–and I will always include myself in the teaching profession, because it’s not what you do (teacher) it’s what and who you are–will always make the best of things handed to us, and see the best in each and every kid that crosses the threshold to our classrooms.

    Thank you for writing this. This school community has been special beyond description for decades.

  3. Karissa says:

    This got me teary. My kids are a couple of years away from school still but I’m married to a teacher and I see so much of what goes in to making a school work and taking care of those kids and how damn much teachers care. Here in BC there has been a lack of government support for public schools for a long time and it’s frustrating and scary and yet people keep doing their jobs and somehow making it work.

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