Tag Archives: Teaching

Day 33: Losing Control

I realize that the phrase “losing control” may conjure images of two distressed counsellors and a room full of rowdy kids.  Or perhaps thoughts of disorganization and a lack of planning come to mind.  Well, that is certainly not what I am trying to imply here.

It feels like we have hit our stride with programming this week.  Just by making a few small changes in our approach to camp, we have been able to create a very different environment for the kids that seems to be making them more willing to engage and try new things.  I really believe that a lot of this has to do with simultaneously being more organized and being willing to give up control.  To some this may sound like too much of an oxymoron to make sense, but hopefully I will be able to explain what I am trying to get at.

For the most part, we have stopped trying to have kids stop and start activities at the same time.  We have also been much more fluid in our transitions between activities.  With only two of us and sometimes upwards of 20 kids in a camp environment, it is easy to assume that an increased level of scheduling and discipline is the easiest way to run an effective program.  I think this assumption is wrong.

We have shifted our program to involve an ongoing range of different activities that kids can choose to begin at different times.  We have also created more self-directed activities that kids can move through at their own pace.  We actively encourage everyone to participate in all of the activities and have found that more participate if they have a chance to observe for a little while and then gradually join in.  This is very different from trying to gather a large group, providing one set of instructions, and asking everyone to begin at the same time.  This almost always results in a small group of kids who are interested and a large majority who either refuse to participate or are too shy to contribute.

Without a doubt this new approach can be challenging at times and it sometimes feels like we are creating more work for ourselves (we are continually setting up new activities and explaining things to kids individually), but it is not surprising to me that engagement has increased.  I dislike being herded through a set of activities as much as the next adult, so why would kids feel any different?  But, given the chance to try new things in a way that gives me agency, I am much more likely to participate and contribute.

It is hard to let go of that control though.  When a room gets noisy or not everyone is working on one activity, it is easy to feel like you are doing something wrong.  But this need for constant control is what makes classrooms feel unwelcoming to kids who should be given freedom to explore and learn to think for themselves.

A more flexible model like this (or something like it) is what I talk about for our education system all the time.  Anyone close to me knows that it does not take much to set me off on a rant about the ways that our schools often expend unnecessary energy trying to control kids for the wrong reasons.  But rant aside, it is nice to be able to try a new approach, at least in some small way.  I am certainly not claiming to have it all figured out after some trial and error with  a day camp program, but in a world where maintaining power and control often appears to be the highest priority, I will say that I think a little bit of patience can go a long way.

I want to write more about this and spend some more time thinking about what this means in the context of education, but these are just a few thoughts for now.  If there is one thing that I have been learning it is that a willingness to lose control does not always make things easier, but it can make a world of difference to a kid trying to find their way.

288 Days Later

Exactly 288 days ago, I started a journey at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.  Yesterday, I had the chance to walk across the stage at Convocation Hall with my Bachelor of Education degree in hand.

As I was doing some cleaning a few weeks ago, I stumbled across a notebook that I purchased during my first week of classes in September.  The cover is tea-stained and somewhat crumpled, but the first five pages are filled to the margins with writing.

The content of this notebook speaks for itself and, although I have never shared this with anyone before, today feels like a fitting occasion to revisit the words on those pages.

Here is the unedited text from that notebook:

September 11, 2012

Today is an absolutely gorgeous day in Toronto and I have been wandering around the UofT campus for the past hour and a half.  Actually, I consider it to be exploring more than wandering, mostly because it is quite neat to be able to see and discover places that I have never seen or discovered before.  Now I’ve found myself a spot on the patio outside the Arts and Science building, staring at a blank page in a blank notebook, not really knowing what to do with it, but also having an overwhelming feeling that I need to do something with it.

I stopped at the bookstore to buy this notebook because I left my English class this morning with my brain full of a thousand different thoughts and feeling almost embarrassingly excited and optimistic about my year ahead at OISE.  I’ve tried this whole keeping a journal thing before, but with very little success.  I’m almost convinced that this is because, for better or for worse, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and writing your thoughts on paper (and in ink) doesn’t leave much room for going back to fix spelling mistakes or reorganizing your thoughts afterwards to make sure they follow a somewhat logical train of thought.  That being said, I think a large part of me is starting to realize that there can be value in my thoughts, ideas, or perspectives, even if they are not perfect.  I’m not saying that I fully believe that about myself just yet, but I’m hoping that giving this journal a try will help me with that.  I want to use these pages to help me unpack the year ahead at OISE and what is going on around me in general.

Anyway, back to the real reason that I was inspired to sit down and write anything at all in the first place – OISE.  I’ve really only experienced Orientation Day and two classes, but I already feel more comfortable and at home in the classroom than I ever did during my undergrad at Western.  That’s not to say that my time at Western was not worthwhile or that I didn’t enjoy it, because I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything in the world, nor would I do anything differently if given the chance.  I think what I mean is that there is something to be said about the feeling that comes from knowing that you are getting something tangible out of the classroom and that you are a valuable member of a community.

I spent the majority of my time during undergrad thinking that my classes (for the most part) were interesting, but there were very few times that I thought to myself, “Yeah, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”  This is partially because I invested myself in extra-curricular activities more than school and partially because I never really had a plan for what I wanted to do with all this Biology and English knowledge after the exams were over and I had to enter “the real world” – but also because I never really trusted that I had anything to contribute to the classroom or felt like I had the opportunity to share my thoughts, hear from others, or really engage with whatever subject matter I was learning.

Within the first five minutes of hearing the OISE Dean speak on Orientation Day last week, I felt at home.  She didn’t necessarily say anything terribly profound, but just listening to her talk about the value of a good classroom teacher made me want to do everything possible to become one, because I finally felt like I had/have something to offer, as well as a lot to gain from my time at Teacher’s College this year.

Sitting in my TES class on Orientation Day and for our first class yesterday made me feel even more comfortable here.  I can’t remember the last time I was in a classroom setting and got to introduce myself personally or listen to others do the same.  I can’t remember the last time I really participated in class or small-group discussions and really learned from listening to the thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of those around me.  I can’t remember the last time I put up my hand in class and felt validated by an instructors’ response.  None of this is to say that I have suddenly become arrogant or overly-confident (because I certainly hope that is not the case), but more to say that I finally feel comfortable just being me inside a classroom.

In my class this morning, I had a quick conversation with a girl about why she was excited about being in Teacher’s College.  Her answer was simple: “Because it feels like something that I can actually do.  I’m not going to quit.”  This resonated with me not because I have necessarily tried and failed at a lot of different things in terms of my academics or future career, but because it also perfectly describes how I feel after having felt a little lost throughout my post-secondary education.  Not only do I feel like I can do this, but also that I want to do this.

I can only hope that I’m not just looking at the year ahead through rose-coloured glasses for the time being and that this embarrassing amount of excitement isn’t just a passing feeling.  It’s a pretty cool feeling to be content with where you are and comfortable being who you are.

Admittedly, I never wrote in that notebook again.  That being said, I think the many binders, notebooks, and scrap pieces of paper currently stacked in my room are a testament to the fact that I have tried my best to “unpack” every moment of my experience this year in some way or another.  While it is safe to say that some of that “embarrassing amount of excitement” has worn off, I certainly do not need to look far to be reminded of why I began this journey in the first place.

When I walked through the doors of OISE for the first time in September, I expected to learn about how to be a teacher.  I expected to learn about the curriculum, lesson planning, and classroom management.  But this past year has turned out to be about so much more than just these things.  I have had the incredible opportunity to be part of a community of people dedicated to making education equitable and accessible.  I have been challenged to confront my personal biases and my identity as a teacher.  I have also learned more than I ever expected to learn about my own views of teaching and learning.

And while the past eight months have been filled with a lot of professional growth, I have also learned a great deal about myself personally.  I let myself fail harder this year than I have in a long time.  I learned how to admit when I was in over my head and I let myself be okay with not having all of the answers.  These were not easy lessons to learn, but I consider them to be among my most valued accomplishments.

I walked off the stage yesterday not knowing what I will be walking into next.  But I also walked off the stage knowing that there are a lot of opportunities in front of me at the moment and that it is up to me to make the most of them.  I think I always felt as though yesterday was supposed to be a destination – that one spot on the horizon that I had been looking forward to since the day that I made my decision to become a teacher.  But when I woke up yesterday, I realized that the act of walking across the stage was just another part of the journey.  I am far from being done with learning and growing, and I know that being a teacher is going to mean many different things throughout my life.  I may not know what I am going to see when I look back on my life 288 days from now, but I am trying to believe that this is just what makes the journey exciting.