By Alison Atkinson and Anna Chudnovsky
Following years of cuts from the BC Liberal Party, public education in B.C. is in trouble. Despite the small gains made from job action in 2014, rising costs of necessities like utilities and MSP mean students and teachers in this province will face considerable challenges when theygo back to school this month. Classroom sizes will be larger and there will befewer supports for ESL students and for students with special needs. According to the government’s own statistics, there will be more than 16,000 classrooms in B.C. with four or more children with special needs. Recent provincial education cuts mean there will be fewer fine arts classes, music classes, secondary elective courses, and even academic courses. For example, if only 20 students enroll for a course like History 12, in many schools the course will not run because administrators are under so much pressure to keep class sizes high. Losing these classes means that teachers and students alike may not get to explore and discover areas of special interest and passion.
We need to believe in our schools if we are to fight for them. We’re both teachers in B.C. public schools. This summer as we prepared for another school year, we asked a few of our peers about what keeps them motivated to teach— especially in a political climate that seems increasingly hostile towards public school teachers.
Despite all this, students and teachers in our community are excited to go back to school. Public schools in B.C. are places where learning, laughter, intellectual exploration and examination, deep conversations, and meaningful engagement happen. Make no mistake: B.C. has outstanding public schools because many people are working very hard in a system in crisis. The work that goes on in schools is complex and demanding.
As teachers, we fight to have that work be seen and valued, and we need to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time: first, that our public schools are threatened by funding that fails to adequately address the needs of all students. And second, that B.C. public schools are wonderful places to learn and work, as socially engaged teachers, support workers, and administrators take on the task of educating young people with the hope that we can create a society that is diverse, equitable, and just.
We need to believe in our schools if we are to fight for them. We’re both teachers in B.C. public schools. This summer as we prepared for another school year, we asked a few of our peers about what keeps them motivated to teach— especially in a political climate that seems increasingly hostile towards public school teachers. The people quoted here are our friends and our professional colleagues. They speak about their commitment totheir work, their belief in the value ofpublic education, and the joy they take in spending time each day with their students. Here’s what they had to say.
Daniel, secondary teacher:
In my Social Justice 12 class, we focus on local issues. I took the kids to Insite, where they offer tours and talks about their program. I’m proud of that field trip. The kids gained a better understanding of Insite and now support their work. We met two outreach workers in the community who took the kids on a walking tour of the area.
Our learning about that community humanized the people who live in the Downtown Eastside. They have stories, they have lives, they have hardships, and we need to work together to make the lives of these people better. When you just talk about that stuff in class, it doesn’t really hit the students as hard. Afterwards kids said things like, “Welfare rates are not high enough,” “Insite does good work.” These kids are beginning to realize that we need a model of justice, not charity, and that donating to the food bank is not enough to solve the problems people are facing.
Kids said things like, “Welfare rates are not high enough,” “Insite does good work.” These kids are beginning to realize that we need a model of justice, not charity, and that donating to the food bank is not enough to solve the problems people are facing.
Anna, elementary teacher:
I’m excited about meeting my new students and getting to know what makes them tick. I love to find out about each one, learn about their families, their sense of humour, the things they’re interested in. Then I can plan my year according to what gets them going. I can adjust little things here and there to keep them interested. I also want to laugh with them. Kids need to laugh. When they’re laughing, having fun, enjoying themselves, they’re open to learning.
I want to help my students learn about the world around them. We spent five months studying immigration to our particular neighbourhood. We asked questions like, who lives with us, where have they come from, why did they come, how have their lives been since they arrived? It helped the kids, many of whom experience poverty and marginalization, feel proud of their family histories and of where they had come from. It helped them know each other and know their community.
We asked questions like, who lives with us, where have they come from, why did they come, how have their lives been since they arrived? It helped the kids, many of whom experience poverty and marginalization, feel proud of their family histories and of where they had come from. It helped them know each other and know their community.
I’d like to believe it also helped them feel they were a valued part of the fabric of our Vancouver neighbourhood. There’s nothing like helping a kid feel proud and valued. I love my job.
Ben, student support worker:
I work with kids who on the surface seem like they don’t fit into our school system and our world. I’m proud that we spend our days and months and years finding different ways to help kids integrate, fit in, and thrive.
In special education it’s important that we push our wider community to think of students with disabilities as full, valued, and important citizens.
We've found one of the best ways to do that is by implementing a work experience program where we match up the skills of our students with jobs in the community. One student, who has severe difficulties in social situations and with communication, worked for a number of months in a restaurant in our community. He had lots of responsibilities at the restaurant, but more importantly, he formed relationships with his workmates and was so proud of himself and his work. In special education it’s important that we push our wider community to think of students with disabilities as full, valued, and important citizens.
It’s inspiring to me to be in an environment where people think it’s important to teach. I work with people who work incredibly hard at their jobs; they work collaboratively, they are committed to excellence in their area, and they’re working on the same goal—that is, to teach our kids in the ways that make the most sense for them. It’s rare that you get to be in a place where everyone is working together for something so important.
Alana, secondary teacher:
I teach because I am passionate about learning and I believe strongly in a society that has a rich social fabric and strong public education system. Whether it be new curriculum, teaching strategies, or conversations with students, each day as a teacher brings new challenges and surprises. I see my classroom as a place for students to gain a glimpse of different cultures, ideas and social issues. My class is a place to pique their interests and, hopefully, inspire them to pursue their own travels and dreams.
Annie, elementary teacher:
I feel inspired all the time. The connections with the kids, moments when they reach out, ask me a question, tell me a story, have a discussion with me, and I feel connected to them. I also love when the kids feel connected and empathetic towards each other.
This year I did some teaching on the Holocaust. I was also doing some work on residential schools, reading books by Aboriginal authors. At one point, a few students made a comparison between residential schools and concentration camps. I hadn’t even made that connection myself, and they did. They were thinking critically, and I was so proud of them.
Alison, secondary teacher:
When I think about teaching I’m always asking: how can I help the kids I teach become more thoughtful, compassionate, and understand themselves and others better? How can I help them to participate more in their communities and behave with empathy?
We do a lot of creative writing in my classes. For kids, imaginative writing is a way to test out possibilities and explore different points of view. I also think a lot about multiple perspectives on history. I work hard to try to tell the story of Canada through the point of view of Aboriginal peoples, immigrants, and women. We also have a lot of weird fun.
I see the same themes recur over and over: young people want to be strong and fight injustice. They long for love and connection and friendship.
When I tell people that I work with teenagers, so many people say things like, “I don’t know how you do it,” or “How can you handle being around them all day?.”
There’s a perception that teenagers are narcissistic and defiant, but in actuality, most of the young people I work with are idealistic and kind.
The world is not an even playing field, so for their time in school, I try to be a person who will pump their tires on tough days, and teach them how to be resilient out in the world on their own.
Genie, special education teacher:
Through teaching, I am driven to get others as excited about the world as I am, and to create kind, thoughtful, informed, inclusive little humans. I find myself circling around similar subject matter each year: empathy, social justice, activism, community building.
In my short time in teaching, I have learned how important it is to be an advocate for certain students. The world is not an even playing field, so for their time in school, I try to be a person who will pump their tires on tough days, and teach them how to be resilient out in the world on their own.
That's what makes me show up each September, and that's why it matters every day. I design my lessons to relate to what is happening for my students, whether it's a fight that's happening within a social group, or their feelings about the speaker who came in to address racism in our community at the last assembly, or “Why we don't just make poutine in the cafeteria already?”
I stop and take the time in the middle of lessons to have important conversations about what’s bothering the students, and how to problem-solve constructively within our little community.
If, at the end of a school year, I have moved a student forward in their ability to think of how their actions or words affected someone else without support from adults, or they start to take their frustrations and complaints and either ask for help or make an action plan to feel better, I have done my job.