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Once again, Mother’s Day rolls around and I find myself in a pensive, reflective sort of place.  Looking back, or down as my colleagues would say from my standard perspective of 50,000 feet, a pattern emerges. Early May is always the end of two long semesters, and that always feels like the end of a marathon, emotionally. This year has been especially challenging, with the stress of a potential strike, and the sense of powerlessness one has to do anything at all, individually, to affect the eventual outcome. The deeper frustration at having no ability to affect the systemic issues that would cause such a disruptive and disturbing action to even be considered.

All that aside, teaching is a kind of parenting, I think. I recognized a while back that I engage with my teaching practice as a sort of parent/guardian/mid-wife/mentor/coach. I’m not interested in lecturing and I have no confidence at all in such a dynamic resulting in any “learning” of any kind. I’m constantly scheming about fun ways we can get groups of students involved in classroom activities that help them learn and practice their communications skills. Sometimes I think these are more fun than my students do. Also true of parenting, perhaps.

Where teaching – formal teaching – and parenting are different has to do with evaluation. In my experience, healthy parents love their children unconditionally. Without reserve as to their actual level of skill or knowledge. And here is where it gets emotionally tricky for the parenting teacher, because it is our job to evaluate, to judge. To assess whether skills and knowledge have actually been acquired and successfully demonstrated. Unlike some of the more quantitative skill sets, evaluating communications skills is tricky and somewhat subjective. There are some very good communicators who are not so good with funky details of applied English. There are extremely poor communicators who managed to ace all their quizzes and any assignments that did not involve eye contact, and thus will pass the course.  There are students who hate anything to do with communicating who cannot understand why this is important or relevant in any way.

As a “parent” figure, I get a little attached to them all – and herein lies the danger for me. I don’t want to fail any of these, my pseudo-children. I feel affection for them – I find most of their quirky, undisciplined, messy, “sense of entitlement” selves endearing. I want them to succeed, to feel like they are successful. I hate being the judge. But I am. And, this past term, it was my job to fail roughly 20% of my communications class. It simultaneously breaks my heart and makes me angry.

I challenge anyone who thinks that teaching is a cushy, over-paid  job to actually do it, full-time, for two semesters running. Then, we’ll talk.

I had an awesome good news story this term, though, and it taught me a lot. In the Fall 09 semester, a student came to me mid-point in the term and explained that her parents had arranged for her to get engaged in Dubai during the last three weeks of term. This young woman has aspirations of becoming a journalist someday and so she knew that this communications course would be important to her. However, her actual ability in this area was proving to be rather weak. Not “failing” weak, but weak. As it happens, the last three weeks of this course involve working in a team to research and deliver a presentation. Thus, if she was going to be out of the country, it would be impossible for her to complete the work.

We worked out a compromise. I gave her an “Incomplete” and offered to have her return to my class in Winter 10 (this past term) to complete the team project with another class. She did so, contacting me exactly on schedule and arriving in class exactly as I had asked her to. There was a change in her. In the intervening three and a half months, she had matured and she was clearly able to demonstrate and use the communications skills I had been mentoring her class through the previous term, even though her average at the time she departed was around 57%. Her team, under her leadership, rocked the final presentation. This was a revelation to me – that students, even weak ones, continue to “learn” the material AFTER the course is over. This makes me feel better about the 10 or 15% who SHOULD have failed, but didn’t because of the strength of their quizzes, the mid-term or their group effort. Maybe some stuff will sink in and re-surface later. One can only hope.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before – here it is again in a slightly different context. I’ve always been a bit of a language nazi. Good writing makes me swoon and bad writing makes me gag. This has been true since about Grade Six, I think. So, I was well-entrenched as the self-appointed language police in my household from an early age. When my oldest brother was living in Saskatchewan for a time, lightyears before the age of the Internet, my mother would pain-stakingly write him one page, hand-written notes, usually weekly. She would sweat and labour over each phrase. Her letters wound up reading a bit like this:

Dear Ben,

Harvest todday again, beans. Almost done here, going to Thomas place tomorrow. Combine jammed but it is ok now. Mae brought kool-aid, cherry, and a pie. Too hot but can’t wait. Bails dry soon but no time. John Deere had oil. Leaky again but Aubrey had the right hose and fixed. With clamps. Charlie got a new radio, Fred Woods says new fridge back-ordered. Made cookies. How are you?

Love, Mom

Once, when I was about 16, I came upon her writing one of these, with her face wrenched up in serious concentration, the clicker end of her pen in her mouth as she thought. I scoffed, rolled my eyes and generally behaved like a 16 year old know-it-all who could critique the mechanics but missed, entirely, the depth of communication and love that was being successfully poured into each note. I feel ashamed when I think of this incident and I note, ruefully, that I do not have any such letter from my mother, even though I moved permanently away from home when I was 18, and 20 years would pass before her death. She would not bring herself before the language police again, and I don’t blame her.

But what I wouldn’t give for one of those letters.

I remember this incident often and it helps me be a better teacher. Clearly, for some people writing is extremely difficult. For others, it is easier. Put another way: some very good, talented, valuable, smart people are terrible writers.  Being a good writer does not necessarily translate into being a good person. My role, my job, is just to teach a skill. Try to help each individual express themselves a bit better when they leave my course than when they started.  If they reach a certain external standard, I have to let them move on to the next challenge. That is the best I can do.

Thanks, Mom … Happy Mother’s Day!

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One comment to “Motherhood”

  1. This is a charming and delightful piece. I enjoyed it a lot, Liz. Thanks for writing it.

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