By Mark McLean
When I was going through the Education program, one of the first things they told me was to take whatever plans I had and throw them out. They were right. At the moment I teach English as a Second Language, though it wasn’t what I originally intended to do.
Because governments around North America have been slashing budgets for Education, it’s difficult to find stable, full-time employment. I decided not to try getting into the public system; because of my wife’s job I move often, and getting full-time work in a public high school often takes years. So I looked outside, into after-school ESL teaching programs, and I hobbled together a pretty full schedule from three different jobs.
The result has been surprisingly rewarding. Teaching in three environments, under three styles of management, with three different educational systems, makes you hone what you believe. And it’s changed the way I see teaching.
First, I’ve learned that playing is everything, both for me and my students. There is remarkable pressure from parents to use worksheets whenever possible. These can be helpful, and the lower the level, the more useful they are. But the most progress I see is when children are given a blank piece of paper and a crazy question, and then told to write. The key is to provide helpful feedback right away, and have them write some more. When they can play, they see the point of what they’re doing in real-time. They also have fun, which is pretty nice.
Because of this, I’ve learned that I need to play, and that often I’ll fail. I often fail in class. For the students to be creative, I need to be creative in challenging them to do more, and do better. I’ve had to defend my belief in giving students room to create, and the fear of failure is a constant nagging force in the back of my mind. But when I have the confidence to ignore it, I can watch my students thrive. I know that this is not only beneficial for their English: if they can grow comfortable with playing and failing and growing, then they’ll be better equipped to deal with whatever economy they’re faced with when they graduate. I know that if I continue to accept the occasional failure, I can make my classrooms better.
Finally, I’ve learned that a good employer will act as a constructive buffer between teachers and parents. If I want to have my students play, they need to have confidence in me. If I want to be confident, I need an environment that lets me try new things. The after-school programs are there to make money, and this can be an added pressure, as teachers try to justify how much parents are spending. It can be distracting and counter-productive, exactly because we need to be able to fail, and a good manager will help minimize that concern. At the same time, teachers and parents need to talk often, since each has invested so much time in the well being of one person. When there’s a healthy environment, those conversations are helpful to everyone.
My career definitely has not progressed as I had planned, but that turned out to be for the best. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to experiment with my style and that I’ve had employers willing to invest in me. If I do decide to move into the public school system, I am confident that I’ll be that much stronger for it, and hopefully I’ll give my students the same opportunity to fail that I had.