I loved my grade two teacher. Estelle was a comforting, stable person, she was a voice of reason and a pair of strong arms in the chaos of my day to day. I don’t remember what she looked like, I couldn’t pick her out of a crowd, but I do remember her trying to include me. I remember her trying to make a space where I could belong in a world where I never quite fit.
As I got a little older, I fit into the world of my school even less. In grade 4, all of the girls at my school attacked me one recess, they told me I couldn’t pretend to be a boy anymore. I needed to be what they wanted me to be. Except I couldn’t. I would have been completely lost if it had not been for Mrs. Messiah. Mrs. Messiah was my school’s librarian. She told me, “there’s a good book waiting for everyone, no matter who you are.”
And she was right. I don’t know if she embraced my differences, I don’t know if she understood my struggles. But I know she was there to talk to me and to listen. I know she was there with a book that she had picked out just for me. I came up with a lot of reasons to stay home from school in those years, but when I finished reading my library book, I had to go back and see what was next. What she had picked, just for me.
Mrs. Bjornson was the next teacher refuge in my life. My junior high English teacher, her classroom before or after school was possibly the only place that I didn’t continually wish for invisibility. She encouraged me to work hard and to keep writing. She offered me a safe place and conversation. She told me to hold on because things would get better.
And they did.
I never got really good at attending class regularly or following school rules. But moving to a smaller community where I fit in economically changed my life. In my grade 10-12 years, I didn’t need a safety net, but I still needed my teachers. Mr. Hethey who loved to argue as much as I did and taught me how to backup my opinions with facts. Jude Renault who taught me about being an activist, but still following the rules just enough to stay in the system in order to fight to make it better. Ms. Wilson who was gruff and wise and sarcastic and caring. Everything an English teacher should be. She taught me how to pour my thoughts and ideas into stories that could have an impact.
I could go on. Thinking about the teachers who have impacted my life, I feel thankful for their hard work and dedication. Thankful that they were able to take the time to help out a small human who was struggling.
Learning literacy and numeracy is important, but if we think of school as just places to fill student’s minds with some basic skills to prepare them for competing in the workforce, then we are denying the humanity of students. Students have a wide range of social, emotional, intellectual and basic needs. None of these needs are better met by doubling the amount of kids in the classroom and none of these needs are met by encouraging kids to spend even more time staring at a computer screen.
Where would I be now if my classes had contained 45 students? If the funding had been cut so that my elementary school no longer had a librarian? There is no way to answer that question, but I can say for certain that I would not have been better off.
One of my children has a particularly amazing teacher this year. Her classes are interesting and dynamic, but most importantly, she cares. She models empathy and caring, she has created a class environment where my son feels he wants to do his best. He will remember this year forever, not because of the gains he has made in literacy and numeracy, but because Mme Perreault creates an environment where he is able to thrive.
I propose we work on creating a system with an emphasis on empathy, compassion and exploration in the early years. Where children have the chance to explore what it means to be a human and to share the planet with a multitude of other lifeforms. Let’s start with children learning the literacy of kindness. In a world with intensifying climate change, rising sea levels, decreasing fossils fuels, rising levels of mental health issues and rising levels of extremisms literacy and numeracy are important, but they are not enough.
Have you ever stopped and wondered what your life would have been like if you had not had an education? Take a minute this week and think about the teachers who saw you as a person, not as a number.
In Ontario, Canada, Rob Ford’s government is doing its best to dismantle the education system. Creating a model that would only makes sense if we think of children as programmable automatons instead of living, feeling human beings. In Manitoba, Canada, Brian Pallister is looking to follow in Ford’s white, wealthy entitled footsteps. In the United States, well, so much has already been said about the social, emotional and intellectual destruction that Donald Trump represents. I can’t be bothered to waste more words on him.
We can do better! In a 2017 UNESCO report, it was estimated that 264 million kids do not attend school. That is more people than if you were to combine the populations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, France and Italy. We have access to free education in Canada and the US, in the next election think about that, think about the impact that education has had on your life. When you vote, vote with the future in mind, with empathy and compassion for those who are inheriting an Earth who has already been abused and plundered. It is going to take more than literacy and numeracy to heal this planet. It is going to take empathy, compassion, innovation, resilience and caring, none of the things that any form of e-learning is ever going to give.
Teachers aren’t magicians or super heroes, they are just people trying their best to fulfill the needs of their ever-expanding classes. Let’s work together to show we value education at a level deeper than numbers and letters. Let’s value an education that will help our children thrive instead of hopefully survive.