Some Things I Learned in School

It’s seems like an eternity since I’ve really been able to stop and catch my breath. Stepping into the changes of married life, and into a new season of our lives in Three Hills, things have felt a little crazy for Michelle and I. Many days I’ve felt like Alice in Wonderland, running as fast as I can just to stay in place. And if I want to get anywhere — to get anything done besides the day-in-day-out job of staying afloat as a teacher, I have to run twice as fast.

Getting to be a full-time teacher for a whole semester has been so good for me. And now, with my contract for a maternity-leave over, I’ve become a substitute teacher, which has been an interesting transition in itself. For the first time, since I started teaching in September, I’ve been able to properly step back and look at how things panned out over the semester. I see the things I didn’t do as well as I could have, and the things I’m proud to have done. I see some of the kids who I never got through to — who were glad to have me leave (or said they were), and I see the kids who connected deeply, and whose confidence and motivation is more than I could have ever asked for as their teacher.

Teaching has changed me. I look back at the idealistic and revolutionary high-schooler that started into university, wanting to change the world and the face of teaching into the amazing thing it could be. I saw all the failings of the education system, and I wanted to fix it all. I wanted creativity, choice, flexibility, inquiry and imagination, and somehow I thought I knew a lot of the answers (or at least thought I’d be able to find them if I tried).

I do still want to see these things in teaching, but I’ve come to realize that the process of getting there, what that looks like in the classroom, and how students receive all these things is vastly different than I imagined. I’m not looking for a magic formula for educational perfection, and I’m not hoping for a quick and drastic revolution in the education system.

I believe more than ever that school should be a place of imagination and creativity — but school isn’t perfect. It’s easy to work myself into the mindset that, if we could only get the right ingredients, school could be this amazing space of ingenuity, problem-solving and curiosity, where kids love to come and learn, try new things and create. But somehow in all my wonderful ideas of what school could be, I forgot that school isn’t just made up of programs and ideas. It’s made of people. It’s made of students who have times when they really don’t care about learning. It’s made of teachers who have times when they are so overwhelmed and exhausted, they do all they can just to put one foot in front of the other each day. School is full of all kinds of problems, and is expected to solve most — if not all of them — and to do it gracefully and quickly.

So here are some things I’ve learned while being a teacher.

Teachers really want to make a difference. In the conversations I’ve had with fellow teachers and administration, the time I’ve spent with future teachers in university, and the sharing of ideas, plans, resources and all kinds of other teachery things, I have been been overwhelmingly impressed by the amount of really caring, amazing people there are in classrooms around the province and the world. It’s easy sometimes to feel pretty self-centred, working away at making a difference for the kids in your classroom, especially when that work is so consuming you can barely lift your head to look around you. But when I’ve had a chance to look at the things other teachers are doing in other schools, or things I hear in the frequent conversations with my colleagues, I very quickly realize that there are an incredible amount of people that selflessly pour themselves into the kids they teach. They work hard and late, and they genuinely care about the kids that come through their door each day.

Education bashing is a global pastime that doesn’t really help anything. I used to really appreciate a good Youtube video or Facebook post about how schools stifle the things that matter in life — about how the model of school is still stuck in the Industrial Revolution era, and about how one size doesn’t fit all, or how many times school has failed people, how schools shouldn’t be factories etc etc. But having been in one for the past five months as a teacher (and all the other years as a student), bashing school as a system has increasingly lost its appeal. I see some of the blood, sweat and tears that I talked about earlier, and I see how sometimes kids take the nicest teachers, with the best lessons and ideas, and throw everything back in their face with an apathetic eye-roll. I understand that everyone has something to say about education, because almost everyone has gone through it, and that there are lots of things that could be different about schools, but I’m continuing to learn that change takes commitment, patience, resilience and hard-work, and throwing tomatoes at the education system on social media doesn’t fall into any of those categories. I know the education system isn’t perfect, but there are a lot people around the world trying to make it the best it can be, and they feel better when you cheer them on.

People aren’t perfect. Schools are full of people. Waiting for education to be all I’ve ever dreamed that it could be is like waiting for Liverpool Football Club to win the Premier League. It hasn’t happened in my lifetime. There are moments when the right things come together — a string of passes and choices seem to gel together to make something magical, just like those moments when enthusiasm is high, kids are getting concepts and are excited to learn. And then, out of nowhere there will come some crazy mistake — half of the defence seems switched-off as the ball thumps it’s way into the back of the Liverpool net, and yet another game ends in a disappointing defeat to some low-level team. In the same way there are days and moments where things just don’t work out. Misunderstandings occur, plans fall flat, distractions steal the crucial teachable moments, motivation has somehow disappeared from the entire room, or attitude, emotion and frustration cloud choices and activities. Teachers, students and parents, all come with their own set of problems and failings, and when they all work in close-proximity for ten months at a time, things don’t always happen the way you would hope. While I’m holding onto the hope that I get to see Liverpool raise the Premier League trophy some year, I know I’ll probably never see perfection in the education system — at least not as long as it continues to be filled with people.

As I look at some of these things I’ve learned, I can’t help but wonder if I’m a little pessimistic. Have all my ideals just been replaced by a “things are fine the way they are?” But that’s not what I think. I want education to be the best that it can be, and I want to try new things and for schools to continue to take risks and make changes. I believe in schools. I believe in teachers. I believe in kids. And I believe in parents. We each bring our own problems and failings to the table, and school is the place I get to see them all come together. While that can make for a messy combination, it can be beautiful at times.

Despite the few students who I look at, and I feel like I failed, as they continue to see school as an authoritarian, broken and stifling institution, I have to allow myself to see the other students as well — the ones who beam at me in the hallways, who tell me about their days, who get excited when I come to watch their hockey games, or whose humour and creativity in Social Studies projects makes me smile. I remind myself of the deep literary conversations I’ve had about Batman, or the times when a student tells me they decided they’re actually going to try at their work this time (after a couple months of not doing that), or when someone tells me they were so excited about the stop-motion animation we were doing in class that they went home on the weekend and spent a good part of their Saturday making one at home with Lego.

It’s far too easy to let failings overshadow the successes, but it’s the successes (in the face of failings) that motivate the desire to try for change , and to continue to work hard at making things better — to give my very best to the kids I’m entrusted with, to refine and improve my teaching, and to continue to invest in making school what it is and can be for kids.

On Being a Student/Teacher

I don’t think I’ve ever had a semester of university where I’ve felt so conscious of how close I am to the actual responsibilities of a teacher, and yet been so acutely aware of my student-ness at the same time. It’s been the first semester where I don’t have a single class under 110 minutes (the person who thought that was a good idea obviously forgot what being in those classes was like). It’s also the first semester that I have made a conscious effort to start doodling in some of my classes, just to help me get through the class. At the same time, this is the first semester that I’ve gotten to step into a real Canadian school (since eighth grade).

My journey back into junior high has been an interesting one. So far I’ve only spent a few Fridays observing in classes, but it’s been enough to remind me of what high school is like. I’ve found that while lunch break in a junior high can look a lot like a zoo with all its enclosures open, there’s something uniquely calming about walking through that zoo a head taller than everyone else. Because as I walk through the sea of noise and bits of food or wrappers left after a messy feeding, there’s a degree of safety that comes with wearing the zoo-keeper clothes.

Of course, it’s not all crazy. One of the joys of being with junior high kids is the constant variety — the smiles as well as the snarls. It only took one boy and his brief spell of acting like a cat to bring back memories of my own junior days — when hissing at a new teacher might be thought of as a good idea — for a moment. The thing is, I remember. I remember the tangle of peer-pressure and social anxiety that junior high brought. I remember spending most of a math class colouring every other square of my page in my notebook, invoking an angry outburst of passion from my normally placid teacher in the process. I remember the joy of writing something that got that cherished praise in red pen. And I remember trying impossibly to keep up with numbers that became increasingly invaded by the fringes of the alphabet. I can remember spending whole classes drawing pictures on a graphing calculator by arranging 1’s and 0’s. I can remember filling pages of notebooks with the beginnings of stories and ideas for would-be books. I can remember what it was like to spend reading time with popular science magazines instead of “real” books, and I can remember the long hours that I spent making stop-motion powerpoint presentations that had nothing to do with school.

And now I’m here — drawing pictures in the margins of university handouts and stretching the coffee breaks as long as I can, walking back to class slowly with friends, dreading the next hour of lecture. In some ways not much has changed. I’m still that same boy. I still get tired of sitting in a chair for more than an hour at a time, and I still like talking to my classmates as much as teachers will allow. I still work harder on poems and blogs that have nothing to do with school than I do on assignments or exams — even in university.

For two more weeks I am a university student. But my place is changing. More and more often I find myself standing at the front of the classroom. Soon I’ll be the one handing out work and trying to get kids to have some interest in the lessons I’ve planned. I’ll be the one trying to convince them that school is worthwhile and that bringing a pencil to class should be a fairly routine task. A part of me is terrified — terrified that I might face students like myself, or like my classmates, when we were in junior high. But at the same time, I’m excited too, because I know. I know what it’s like to be in boring classes, and I know how fun the good ones are too. I know that most people (myself included) have things that they love and care about, which usually aren’t worksheets or homework assignments. I know these things now, and I just hope I continue to remember them. It may not make teaching any less like working in a zoo, but it just might make that zoo feel a little less strange — a little more normal.

So as I walk this strange no-man’s land between teacher and student, I hope I can see what it’s like on both sides — to remember what it was like being an animal in a zoo, running through the halls, so that when I’m the zookeeper, and I’m the one despairing over spaghetti smeared onto the floor, I can smile at the sloths slouching against the walls and remember what it was like to be them.

Fall Leaves


Fall is here. It seemed to come almost out of nowhere. One day all the leaves were green, and the next they were red and yellow, and half of them were on the ground. Now my feet kick up all those loose pieces strewn along the sidewalks.

I forget how much I love fall. I love the cool days, as the trees look emptier and emptier by the hour and sway gently in the breeze. The wind blows through the streets, scattering the leaves across the road and into little dips or corners where they lie, trapped, restless. The hedges begin to drop their leaves as well, and soon they start to look naked. The houses that were normally hidden behind them suddenly find themselves exposed for all to see. The bare skeletons of the hedges seem to fit right in with the thin bars of the gate that leads into the fading lawn around the apartment, usually open and creaking gently on it’s hinges.

Fall brings back memories of our furloughs in Canada, the few times we happened to be staying in Ontario or travelling through BC. I think the trees were prettier there — or there were more of them. Fall reminds me of what Canada was for an eight year old, walking down sidewalks of a country that wasn’t really his own, but was somehow supposed to be. It reminds me of rushing out the door with coats on to run with my brother across the road and climb on the big tanks outside the armoury. To feel the cool metal of their hard shells and trace my finger over the glass of the tiny peephole with it’s spiderweb cracks running down through all the layers of the bulletproof glass. It reminds me of those wars we fought in, hanging off those armoured sides, firing pinecones out the gun, that happened to become grenades later if they needed to be — those wars that stopped for supper, or for two little boys’ bladders when necessity and desperation called us back to the house.

Now these memories come with each leaf that skitters along the sidewalk, as the cool air gnaws at my face and I find myself in the body of this twenty-one year old. I watch and listen to the kids that climb all over the school playground by our house, squealing with delight. Their fall coats hanging off them, like half-ignored mother’s attempts to keep her children warm. Their cheeks are probably pink like mine, their hands cool from the multicoloured bars they climb on and cling to. My own cold hands grip the blue metal of my bike handle bars as I pass them by, off to university where this twenty-one year old body belongs.

Fall is full of change. There’s something almost melancholy about watching the world, filled with its rusty reds and turmeric yellows begin to unravel before your eyes. I’ve kept a few red leaves in some vain effort to freeze time. Preserve, preserve. Change is beautiful. Can’t it stay like this forever? It never does. I suppose it wouldn’t be change if it did. Instead, once the leaves are all off and the colours rust into a earthy brown, there’s nothing left holding back the next change.  And then before you know it, the leaves are covered in a blanket of white, there to stay until spring.

Fitted Bed Sheets


I had the opportunity to go on a youth retreat this past weekend with my church youth group. After sitting on the noise-filled bus for nearly three hours, we finally arrived at the camp where we would be staying. That evening, after more noise and activity, the three boys in my room got their beds ready to sleep on. “What’s this?” one of the boys asked, as he started to unfold a fitted bed sheet he had pulled from his bag, holding it from his fingers as if it was a banana peel he had picked up off the ground. Another boy, obviously well schooled in his sheet classification, knew a fitted sheet from a t-shirt and was proceeding to pull it over his bed. Putting one corner just over the mattress, he would move to the other side, pulling the sheet off of where he had just put it in the process. Another, on the top bunk, was having the same trouble. Barely laying the sheet over the corner of the bed, he would then expect it to stay there as he pulled the remainder of the sheet over the far side of the mattress. Apparently, putting fitted bed sheets on a bed isn’t common junior-high-boy knowledge.Thankfully, a couple tips and a helpful hand later, I did manage to show them how putting the corner of the bed sheet under the corner of the mattress would stop the sheet from popping off the bed again and again.

I moved into a boarding school in sixth grade. Fitted sheets? No problem. I did start struggle later on in my years, as my sheets began to shrink with years of washes. This only got harder as my boarding school mattresses were eventually replaced by the larger, thicker mattresses I experienced once I got to Canada. Fitted sheets were quite normal, and I quickly got used to making up my bed, again and again. I’m thankful for my years in boarding. It’s experiences like these, watching anxious boys crawl into foreign beds that make me realise what a blessing it was. I understand. I understand what it’s like to be in a strange room. I forget sometimes, that not every junior high boy moves into a new room, with a new room mate, and has to try to fall asleep on a new bed each year. In boarding, life would hit the reset button again every few months, as my siblings and I would readjust to our beds at home for a couple weeks over break. Then we would be back to school again. The strange beds became familiar — the familiar became strange. And I would find myself lying awake in the dark, trying to drown out the silence of the fan that wasn’t turning above my head. Silence is one of the hardest sounds to ignore.

I don’t mean to make my experiences sound all rosy. Boarding had it’s downsides too. There aren’t many better ways to learn how much you dislike about people than having to live with them year after year. However, before long, the rough edges of my own selfishness did start to wear down. They had to — since they were constantly scraping into someone else and their selfishness corners. Thankfully God works in these years of friction, ensuring the little pieces that are chipped away simply smooth the edges, rather than leave gaping holes of trauma and bitterness. I’m thankful. I’m thankful that my parents were willing to let go when I asked. I’m thankful that I had friends who cared about me, and who made my experience a valuable one. I’m thankful God orchestrated good things out of what could have so easily become a mess. On top of all this, I’m thankful I know what a fitted sheet is and how to put it on a bed. I still may not know how to fold one, but not everyone is perfect. I’ll save that magical skill for the mothers of us silly boys.

Catching Frogs

“Do you want to wake up at five tomorrow morning?” I asked one of my campers before bed. It was the night before the closing day of that camp week, after a long day of activities.
“No!” He said. “Wait, what for?”
“To catch some frogs.”

My camper had been very disappointed. A couple days earlier I had let him and a few other boys catch frogs during our swim time in the dugout, and had lent them a container from my bag as well. He had caught a number of frogs, and had transferred them into smaller containers, hoping to take a couple home with him when he went. However, that same evening he had been told by another counsellor that he couldn’t keep the frogs in containers over night. As a result, he had let them go that evening, hoping that he would be able to catch some more the following day when the whole camp went to the dugout for games and swimming. But, once he got there, he wasn’t allowed to go to the side of the dugout that had the frogs, as he needed to stay with the rest of the group. And there he was, at bedtime that night, feeling a little disappointed about the whole thing. So, when I asked if he wanted to catch frogs the next morning he had a huge smile on his face. “Yes!”

That night as I lay on my bed, I wrestled through the situation. I had already been deliberating over what to do before I had even asked him. Taking a camper all the way over to the dugout early in the morning, by myself, with no life-jackets (they were required in and around the dugout)? I just couldn’t decide if this was something where I should be asking for permission, or asking for forgiveness after the fact, if I needed. I thought back on all my past boyhood disappointments. Rocks I couldn’t take with me when we left places. Sticks I couldn’t carry home. I can see why my parents didn’t let me at the time – and I’m glad for it now. But, how hard was it to spend some time one morning helping a boy catch a few frogs?

So, at five in the morning, my alarm went off and I strained my eyes into the darkness. ‘This is ridiculous,’ I thought. ‘There’s no way I’m catching frogs at five in the morning – in the dark.’ I closed my eyes again, and dipped in and out of sleep for almost an hour. Then, just before six, I woke up enough to look out the window again. It was just beginning to get light – enough to see frogs, at least. So, after a lot of shaking, poking and whispering his name, I finally woke my camper up. And a couple minutes later, there we were, two boys, both in hoodies and shorts, making our way up through the trees and over the hill to the dugout to catch some frogs.

It’s wasn’t very long before we got to the spot. With our ankles in the water we walked through the grass and small reeds, stopping when small spots of green would bounce across the grass, or plop into the water. I very quickly found out that I’m really bad at catching frogs. I really am. I would get so close – close enough to feel their little bodies slipping through my fingers, or bouncing off my hand, but I never got one. Thankfully I could at least keep them from getting to the water so that my companion could pounce on them and hold them gently in his hands. There’s something about seeing a little boy chasing after frogs that brings a smile to your face. It’s like seeing a bird in flight, or a dolphin jumping out of the surf – just to see them doing what they do best. He was a little boy, and had obviously mastered the skill of frog catching – something I must have missed out on in my youth.

Half an hour later two boys with three green leopard frogs, and one brown wood frog, headed back over the hill and across the grass toward the cabins. Their flip flops squeaked with water as they walked, and their faces beamed with smiles as they carried their precious amphibians in their little orange container. Sometimes God sends along little blessings and encouragements, just to remind you that there is a reason you are doing what you are doing. For me, this was just that.