“When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.”
— Shauna Niequist
alas, to be such a well tempered soul …but especially for grads, this time of year is for reflection. As they look ahead, they also look back. As they feel sweet accomplishment (or relief) they also feel some melancholy about closing a chapter in life- high school. Another school yearend (typo: yearned), like dark chocolate, June for a teacher is a complex acquired taste.
It is a bitter and sweet month. Beach parties and exams. Prom dresses and lonely hearts. Transferring colleagues. Retirement soirées. There is such paradox in the conclusion of the high school calendar. The teens relish moving on yet we see the anxiety and sadness of leaving an old friend. My teacher-librarian partner, Sharon and I have been quite poignantly reminded this year of the gifts possessed by the Class of 2013 and the ground they have achieved yet we also have seen some anguish. We have shared moments like the tough angry boy who tears up reminiscing and the confident pretty girl who withers with doubt discussing college. We have shared the anxiety of retirees stepping away from three decades of service. We’ve seen scholars born as they defend history papers and artists discovered as their work gets juried. The paradox of high school is the nature of adolescence I suppose.
We teachers, know the glories of a teens’ talent and hard work that was kindled by a teachers reciprocal dedication. The joy of reading a wonderful piece of writing, yet knowing we have days of marking piled high on our desk, is the nature of year-end. We also endure every June the departure of some wonderful souls that touched us deeply. We are like stoic loving signposts to that always urgent train, youth, trying to escape schooling and rush full on into adulthood. Only later does that shiny bullet train wish it had slowed down and enjoyed the ride just a bit more. High school, a microcosm of life, is in a rush. Moving from one phase into another can be exhilarating but often is bitter sweet. You need to find a way to embrace both. Growth is an acquired taste.
I soak in the wonder of school in June yet find myself, quite emotional about its symbolism and contradictions. June for school, unlike the free world, is a year-end. It can be festive of course, full of charm like the new grad dress that adorns the young woman that seemingly blossomed just over night, or the handsome lad buying a suit for the first time. June is mostly rich in achievements, gold chords, bursaries, banquets, cleaning out lockers, -new beginnings; but for the introvert or the reflective person, June is also full of loss. Students and teachers alike, experience a kind of mourning. Teachers don’t talk about it whilst wearing their standard issue professional armour but the true master teacher doesn’t hide the truth that we grieve the departure of every class while celebrating another commencement. It pains us when teens fail to graduate or dropout. It also hurts to let them go. In this bitter sweetness parents and teachers share a kinship.
We will likely never see most of the Class of 2013. Whether the charming brat or the loyal scholar, we invest in every student, not just time or instruction but far more. The master teacher ( unlike what popular media tells us, we have many ) invests from his soul. He/she takes a child’s burdens with them during their commute. They worry about that teenagers well-being on every Rumour of a grad party. Over time, the master teacher develops conduits into that child’s mind and soul. They need to understand the teen as a human before they can truly effectively educate them. This is not some Socratic dream. This is the day to day transparent dynamic that evolves with years of experience. It’s about relationships not systems or techniques or curricula or BCedPlan. It is the ART of teaching.
One teen endearingly wrote to her English teacher, “we ran laps around the ILO’s (intended learning outcomes) clearly comprehending that the structures of schooling are hollow devices and that deeper connections with content and people is the true education. To witness these flashes of enlightenment is a powerful joy. To share them with other colleagues builds a fraternity not unlike soldiers or team athletes. To share moments of intimate humanity with a graduating teen or a fellow teacher is a kind of bliss no amount of contract dispute resolution or employer negotiations can trade. The technocrat, the jaded, or the uninformed adult doesn’t grasp this complex human dynamic very well. The adage, “Those that can’t- teach…” is such utter nonsense. Again, a paradox. Society has a love/hate relationship with the ‘teacher’ often made more toxic by mythology not truths. It scares people to talk about such intimacies. Teachers in their own way mourn the loss of this bond while celebrating every graduation diploma issued.
I think the Kindergarten teacher and the teacher of Grade 12 have more affinity for each others plight. We both understand birth and loss. The exit of a stage and the entrance into another chapter of life are common threads. We should invite all the K teachers to our high school Commencement. We should celebrate these pivot points of life and honour those people who have invested in the lives of these children. We don’t, or we do not articulate it in a meaningful way. Teachers used to be honoured at these events. They used to be announced in a procession, in academic dress and seated at the front of the hall as honoured guests. Traditions have been distorted with scale, union conflicts, timelines, etc. Old fashioned? Perhaps. Justly, we should celebrate and focus on our grads but too often the educator is an anonymous spectator. They are seen as ‘workers’ or ‘volunteers’. Another paradox.
The teachers I collaborate with every day invest in their students like a parent- heart and soul, yet, we are seldom listened to or respected. We often feel an unexplained sadness because the investments we make, with love, are ignored or misunderstood. That is a kind of grief. Sure, teachers can describe horror stories, troubled kids, bureaucratic bungling, even workplace harassment but the vast amount of time spent is directed toward building relationships and executing personal instruction in a spirit of positive generosity and commitment. Not having your spirit broken from constant assault, indifference and yes, mourning, is a kind of coping skill required by the dedicated professional. While attempting to be professional and administrative ( economists call this productivity) we must embrace empathy and many emotions that a strong teacher-student relationship requires. Paradox. No Fraser Institute rating will ever assess institutions that excel at transitioning our teens into the complicated adult world. Staying strong for our students, our new class of young adults, is a taxing enterprise few really understand.
Many of my colleagues try not to share too much because just beneath the surface simmers the craving for dark chocolate. I think many of us are so busy in the execution of the tasks, like Grad, Provincial Exams, Report Cards, administration of a classroom and the school, we bury our feelings. The ‘operation’ or the ‘mission’ becomes the focus. We need to pause occasionally and acknowledge each others efforts but also the humanity of the experience. We experience so many things amongst this collective called high school. Our culture often creates a parody of high school but reflective teachers and mindful teens understand the powerful construct underway. We all sense the bitter sweet. Observe the yearbook signing ritual throughout the hallways and you would see it. Witness the ‘pain in the ass’ boy who shakes a teachers hand with a thank you. Watch the young woman embrace her teacher with the heartfelt goodbye that may indeed be forever and you will comprehend the bitter sweetness that saturates the June air in a great high school such as Kelowna Secondary, Okanagan Mission, Mount Boucherie and many many more.
So, such it is, high school in June. Like dark chocolate, teaching isn’t suited for just anyone. It is an acquired taste. It is rich and complex and bitter sweet. A culinary paradox. I have now indulged my palette for 33 years. I neither love nor hate the taste but embrace the moments with gastronomical wonder because to reflect on the symbolism and the paradox is thing of beauty.
So long Class of 2013. Take care. Good Luck.
Here is hoping you find your passion- your acquired taste.