reflectively assessing my professional goals

2014 school yearend sad but always transformative


“When I say goodbye to Grade 12 who stands before me, I see a transformation- a blessed miracle in a way…”

Last night I yelled at my wife.  No one deserves that. I never yell at my students so why can’t I just handle myself.   I have some homework to do….  hopefully we all get a chance to transform.

I had such a volatile confusing emotional day Friday.   Sad, angry even, yet oddly sweet.  I lost my mindfulness.  My mood this week was already frayed.  It takes energy to stay optimistic when your livelihood and career are always under attack.  It’s not ‘just a job.’  We should not be looked at like factory robots on the line.  Our kids are not in the Hunger Games.  Urrggh!  No excuses for yelling.  I am trying to describe the paradox that is THIS school year-end.    I am sharing reflections and observations of perhaps the last day of school.  Ranting? maybe a little. ( I’m trying not to yell. ) Weird because it isn’t June 29?  A year-end burdened with labour strife and a looming province wide strike.  Friday 13th was sad because of the lockout and rush surrounding a potential teacher strike.  Not a day with the usual calm stream of officious tasks.   It was a trailer for World War Z….

Since my first teaching assignment back ( way back) in 1980, June has been a month of reflection and often bitter sweet observations.   Just as one feels excitement every September, I experienced a kind of grief every June.   With elementary classes it was the closure of a small family.  Kids and parents you got to know well.  Teacher and students engage with each another often for more hours than their own parents.   In high school, particularly Grade 12, June is a collective goodbye.  Most of the goodbyes are forever.   I will never see the teens that my colleagues and I help nurture into adulthood.   When I reflect on this moment I’m perhaps somewhat sentimental but on some level every teacher has a great deal of emotional investment in their pupils.  As a teacher-librarian ( non-enrolling) the system sees me as a burden yet it also provides me with potential seldom know.  I am able to know hundreds of teens.  I am safe harbour.   I am design and maintain the library as a learning commons- a hub of cross-curricular and extra-curricular culture.  My school library has average of 1100 patron visits each day (How many people visit Premier Clark’s office in a day? ).  I meet all staff and faculty.  I engage with a huge number of students.  Some barely know who I am.  A few rare teens, whom I might have coached, know me almost like a father. 🙂   When I say a final goodbye to a Grade 12 who stands before me, I see a transformation- a blessed miracle in a way.  It’s like an ’empty nest’ experience for me.  I  shake a hand or share an exchange no longer as an authoritative figure but as an adult- as an equal.

I survived Friday because of the only thing- teenagers!   Students wanted services but they also rewarded me in novel ways.  The rewards that are evident, when we invest in relationships with students, rise into full view in June.   The roles, trust and demeanor of the teacher-student dynamic is exposed.   Maybe corny, but you can feel the love.  We are in big trouble if/when our public schools become factory day cares for housing the less fortunate children.   Revisit Charles Dickens.  I believe excellent public schools are more than ‘Fraser Institute’ criteria.   I believe that vulnerabilities and earned honesty that surface toward year-end is a powerful measurement too.  Quality personal and effective scholarship has a cost.

A cost to student and teacher well-being.   Not just by tax dollars and a social contract but in cooperation volunteerism and leadership.  There is a also a cost to everyone.  We can all be pushed too far, too fast. 2014 is also NOT 1966 or 1986 or even 2006.  With Career Maps, ePortfolios, Term 4 projects, Prom, dresses, Prov.Exams, bursary deadlines, fees, forms, Grad credits, cell phones, textbooks, parking passes, social media selfies, gowns, awards…It’s a big bad world out there! It can be very scary. I believe our teachers understand this cost and often reign in the pressure downloaded from family and the school boards etc. Teachers get accused of giving too much homework and being tough markers, .etc but they have bosses too. It takes trust and balance.


Graduation – It’s not all just parties and fun!


Sure, there are disappointments, conflicts, and even the occasional behaviour misconduct that arises when the school year-end pressure gets turned up.  We all secretly chuckle with the Grad goofs and worry sick about those dangerous ‘parties’ but we also expect a great deal from our Grade 12 class.  The system, teachers, parents, community and peers place a huge amount of expectation and yes- grad hoops to jump through.  They experience pressure toward year-end most adults could not imagine.  It’s not all just parties and fun!  Sometimes I think there is a human cost to the urgency our system moves with yet there is a balance required.   Excellent schools build a culture with just enough drive to achieve pressure and the support network for those students who struggle or have unique needs.  Yesterday was not so balanced.  Terrific students were my #FF.  They brought the balance with patience, smiles, and love, even though I know many were fighting back tears.

That human experience is seemingly ignored by politicians, policy makers , journalists, or negotiators.   We only hear about empirical data or the need for schools to ‘productive’ and ‘accountable’ – business models and flowcharts.  Sure, as teachers, as administrators, and as an institution, we sometimes fall short; however, I witness a huge percentage of Grads cross the threshold into adulthood known as commencement.  They often surprise us with creativity, talent, motivation, vision.   Many adults could not play in the same sandbox as these kids.  Sometimes these very inspirational children, now adults, have overcome immense odds.  Some have conquered such negative childhoods.   Most of these transformed little people are capable, literate, and knowledgeable adults because of public education.  This k-12 success isn’t curricula, funding or strong policy; (although it’s all integral) but predominantly the result of the healthy, constructive and caring relationships students have with teachers.  The paradox is that, memory fades and we always remember the ‘bad’ teacher. So many people seem to carry disdain but the facts contradict the criticism.  For years now BC schools are top ranked internationally in reading, math and science. Despite being all-inclusive schools and not well-funded elitist academies, BC public education is deserving of respect.

As Peter Mansbridge writes in 2013, we demand miracles of our teachers yet refuse to meaningfully support them. “And we ask that those teachers turn each of those children, each of our children, into productive little citizens…”(CBC)

Today’s high school is not your grandfather’s high school!  Today’s teachers deliver a masterful service under our modern times far beyond the grumpy principal’s strap or rote learning  geography facts.   Like master parents, teachers are Swiss Army knives of child rearing with the added investment of years of university and ongoing pro-D.   Today, teachers are computer experts, idea bankers, encyclopedic reference books, search engines, Tweeters, counselors, coaches and first aid attendants.   Mostly schools are safe houses and certainly equal access opportunity facilities.  Public education and it’s teachers take on all comers.  No one is turned away at the door.  Public school teachers were pioneers for access welcoming and accommodating handicapped and special needs children into the classroom.  Today’s Grad is a generation of inclusiveness. 2014 Grad has some integrated and social relationship with dozens of our disabled. Today we truly understand the term ‘special needs’.  It’s not class size and composition.  It’s a cultural revolution of sorts but we all need to pay for it not just kind tolerant teachers.   We need to be grateful we have that door open but it’s steadily getting closed.

Our teachers, my colleagues, are magicians.   It takes a community of parents and public to properly raise children but right or wrong,  my colleagues have had an increasingly bigger role.   Many taught my own children and enriched their lives.  Preparing children for this complex and sometimes dystopic looking age is challenging enough without bashing the very people we need to embrace.  Recruiting talented, skilled and caring people( especially men) into this current environment is a gargantuan feat.  A strong community supported public education is simply the obvious strategy for a healthy diverse modern society.  Without criticizing the individual hard working teachers in private schools ( BC Gov calls them ‘Independent Schools’) the private, public subsidized schools do not address the multiple needs of our complex 21stc culture.   Letting tax dollars follow students/parents wherever they choose( Charter schools) immediately creates levels of service. As we see in US examples, a charter school system generates ‘ghetto’ underclass neighbourhood schools. We don’t need more segregation we need less! It takes a village not magicians.

Public education is not a product, like iron ore or natural gas.  It’s a critical institution for any democratic society.  As people lose rights worldwide, democracy is weaker and weaker.  Our teachers, against assorted odds, are the effective practitioners.  The public school option worldwide, is under duress yet the world-class effectiveness of our BC model has endured.  This is not accidental. The BC teacher has adapted and compensated for the benefit of our children.  As I reflect now in 2014, massive changes and the strain endured by my colleagues to maintain excellence is clear.  The taxpayers and society in BC has superior service and value for its dollar. Simply balancing the books by education cuts ( and breaching ethical and legal contracts with unionized teachers) is not prudent governance or social policy.  I’m screaming ‘cautionary tale’ or George Orwell as loud as any experienced teacher/citizen/adult/parent can.  { I’m yelling again! Calm down…. }

Friday may have been the most stressful, negative, and chaotically managed school day I’ve ever experienced-yet.   Teachers find a way of supporting one another but students have a way of lifting you up too.  Teens are not all headaches.  Teenagers can also be a gift.  So, after horrific mismanagement and bad governance of our public schools I still can be hopeful.  During  a period supposedly for just collective ‘bargaining’ ( collectively, like adults, seeking mutual labour fairness and stability)  we all struggle and suffer again.  Teachers are taxpayers and parents too.  They don’t deficits.  Today we try to avoid conflict in an honourable and vital institution.   BC teachers try to fight propaganda and myths while defending their own employee rights. Simultaneously teachers try to be role models and maintain positive relationships every day with their students.  A very fatiguing experience. We aren’t perfect. We screw up but we are also human.  Doctors, nurses, police officers and yes politicians screw up too.  We approach our students well-being seriously. What is unique about teacher’s approach is there is no profit motive. We are earnestly just want a fair wage and environment to do our best.

So as I reflect on another June school year-end, with the usual melancholy but spirited hopeful heart, I thank the students that have transformed me- again. We hear negative noise and atrocities about teenagers but it’s pop culture myth not typical reality.  I’m writing today to tell you, in spite of ‘helicopter’ parents, cultural upheaval, economic recessions and poor governance, I have witnessed these past few months, a cohort of Grads that deserve boutonnières and corsages not ridicule.  When I protest or lobby for employee rights I also defend the right of students to receive the level of service from us as I am accustomed.  These high school students I served every day ( I literally mean every day. With the Internet , their is no school bell whatever Gov Lockout says we help on unpaid/time off ) are resilient people.


Spikey- Queer? Unique? Perfect.

A strong learning experience from childhood to adulthood is the desired goal and process of schooling.  My students illustrated this.  Our graduating teens are a testament to the enduring effort and gifts of all those kindergarten, elementary and secondary school educators. Thank you ever colleague. To all those engaging teens who willingly participate, I thank you.  On behalf of our wide community, I thank you.

Indicative yesterday, in our parking lot, was a Grad Council boy, pail and broom in hand, cleaning up a school mates mess. After stopping and chatting ( it’s not Lockout tutoring) with another male colleague, we said our goodbye with a handshake as equals.

I serendipitously met a hardworking father Friday volunteering to help the school. He was dropping off his busy daughter’s library books. I had worked with his talented daughter who frequently was a patron of our learning commons. Moments earlier I had just published her photo project on our blog. I felt obliged to introduce myself as we had previously never met. He was so happy and very appreciative and thankful for what we had provided for his darling Grad. These moments are rare fuel for a tired teacher in June.

Another example yesterday was the dozens of students lined up; patiently waiting for their very busy and stressed out teacher-librarian, who made the effort to greet me, or chat goodbye or offer gifts, yearbook signing, handshakes and hugs. They understand the confusion, break in routine and human tension under the labour conflict. Many students, under their own pressures to hand-in projects, textbooks etc, chose to face their own melancholy or anxiety and share.

One grade 12 girl, who has achieved more growth this year than any A+ in English, spent time in the library visiting.  Day after day, over months trust can develop and this is very important.   Like when my own daughter moved away from home, we both knew, today was a threshold life moment.  Conquering some of her historical anxieties, and recognizing my mood, this girl courageously asked ME if I wanted a goodbye hug.  She transformed herself. She grew from an awkward scared girl into a nervous but capable young woman.  She is resilient.  She is also now educated and very well-read.  There is no reward or gift that equals sharing that!

So Friday was a day of mixed emotions. Maybe our last this season? Flawed and emotional, Friday was not our usual school day; however, as usual, our students soldiered on with their teachers.  Surreal almost, my disdain with the treatment of teachers by our elected officials kept under wraps, I was buoyed up by kids!  Open minds, strong character and generous hearts abound among our youth.  Not without incident of course, but students support each other through their k-12 journey.  The majority of students try hard and grow. With kindred spirit, students learn alongside their teachers.  Whether kindergarten crayons or coral princess gowns and black tuxedos, students grow largely in part because of the dedication of teachers.   The school of hard knocks is pretty effective too but I think you and I wish we could reduce that class size.  Students learn, earn respect and mature without us teachers, its just a hell of lot harder.  In multiple ways, despite negative forces all around, teachers nurture our children.  They find a way to transform raw materials into a thing of beauty.  Celebrate that. Respect that. It’s really all any one of us desire.






Bulgutch, Mark. “Inside the News with Peter Mansbridge.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 14 June 2014. .

“PISA – OECD.” PISA – OECD. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. .



June- bitter sweet month

“When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.”

— Shauna Niequist

20130620-113056.jpg 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.

20130620-113254.jpg 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.
Al Smith