The Gift of Encouragement

We are all human. We all appreciate being told, once and awhile, that we are doing a good job, that we are a nice person or that we are important.  In today’s frantic, multi-tasking society, it is easy to lose sight of the right path as we struggle to maintain our sanity, let alone, live a life of character and integrity. So, hearing words of encouragement is important. They not only nourish our souls but, they act as an affirmation that maybe, just maybe, we are actually on that correct path in Life.

In Ontario, Canada, where I taught, we are no more immune from Life’s pressures and stresses than anyone else in any other walk of life.  Most teachers care deeply about their profession and try their best to do right by the students entrusted into their care each day.  Most parents seem to understand this. My experience working in partnership with parents has, almost completely and totally, been positive and respectful. Being a parent has helped me appreciate the hard work that goes on in the homes of my students. Watching their children grow more knowledgable and skilled, while enjoying their school experience, has caused parents to respect who I am and how I conducted my classroom affairs.

Ordinarily, a heartfelt hand shake at the end of the school year between parent and teacher should be sufficient to recognize the contribution both have made to the life of the child in question. However, in Ontario,  a tradition has taken root that sees the parent bestow a gift upon the teacher during the final day of school.  In my career, I started many a final day of school surrounded by smiling students, arms outstretched, all holding a gift bag or an envelop and begging me to please, “open mine first, Mr. MacInnes! Open mine first!” Those gifts of mugs, boxes of chocolates, gift cards for coffee shops and crafts made with care and love from home, all were appreciated and all were displayed and/or well used once taken home.

However, there is one gift that I have gotten many times over the years and, in my eyes, it is the most important gift any parent could give to their child’s teacher……..it is the gift of encouragement that comes in the form of a simple card or letter.  Having a parent take a few moments to write that they appreciated the time I had spent with their child and that they believed it had made a positive difference, is like gold to me.

In my bedroom, on a shelf in my closet, I have a photo box.  In that photo box, I have EVERY card, letter and note of encouragement I have ever received throughout the entire course of my 30 year career.  Each letter is precious to me and each serves to remind me that, yes, I did, indeed, have a purpose in life that was worthy and that, indeed, I was making a positive difference in the lives of children.  I can’t ask for more than that.  Whenever I find myself feeling down, for whatever reason, I haul out that photo box and bask in the warm glow of the affirmations it contains.  

In most cases, regardless of the state of education in the public school your child attends, you can count on them being cared for by a teacher who is working harder than you may realize to help their students be the best people they can be.  However, there are times, in the course of their busy days, when teachers can become just as frustrated and discouraged as the students that they teach.  If you ever want to make your child’s teacher’s day, I humbly suggest that you write a simple note.  Your words of encouragement and appreciation will turn out to be the best part of that teacher’s day….guaranteed!

And, maybe, just maybe, your words will help fill that teacher’s photo box of memories, too.  🙂

We all appreciate hearing a kind word from someone else.  Have you ever written a card of thanks to your child’s teacher?  Have you ever received such a note or card from someone else, telling you that who you are or, what you do, matters?  If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.  Thanks for reading. 🙂

You Can Take the Teacher Out of the School But…..

I have been retired from teaching for 114 school days now or so, my wife informed me this morning at breakfast. The time has gone quickly. I enjoy being retired. I like being more in charge of how I spend my day. I like wearing comfortable clothes most days….you know, the ones I used to change into whenever I got home from work…..those clothes. I like being away from the stress of working for a living. Being retired is good.

But, as much as you can take the teacher out of the school, it is still not possible to take the school completely out of this teacher. I still love reading about the latest children’s picture books, I still enjoy helping out at my public library and I still care about kids.

I find it hard to not care about kids. Kids are such amazing human beings. Their energy, their innocence and their kindness have filled me up for most of my adult life; an addiction, of a sort, that isn’t easily rendered mute by the passage of 114 days. I still smile in their company and draw satisfaction from the relationships I maintain. I remain important to them because they continue to view me as their teacher and, to them, that means I am someone who cares. To me, they are “my kids”, even though some are now young adults out in the world while others remain in the school system, merely older versions of the kids I knew when I still wore work clothes to start my days. I am “friends” on social media with many of my older, adult students. I cherish the connection we maintain. For my younger friends, I walk with springs in my step after seeing them at the Mall or in the grocery store or the Library or wherever. Their hugs are always a tonic to cure whatever ails me.

Children have value and are deserving of respect, simply because they exist. It matters not that they don’t vote yet nor have an income that translates into purchasing power. The measure of their worth is not any company’s bottom line. To some, this makes the worth of children questionable; to be regarded as an expense, as opposed, to an investment worth making. To me, it makes them priceless. I am rich beyond measure for having spent the bulk of my adult life in the company of little humans. It matters not one iota to me that some of them needed help zipping their zippers or tying their laces (when kids still had shoes with laces) or wiping their noses. They were all unique and wonderful and memorable and valued by me then, as they are, now.

The year before I retired, I went to a Retirement workshop that was put on by my Union. A few weekends later, my wife suggested we spend the afternoon going through all of the education-related documents we had on file so that I would have everything ready when it came time to fill out all of the forms that would need to be filled out to process my retirement application. Amid the various job performance appraisals and pay stubs and benefit notices, was a folder that held treasure. It was a folder that contained every single kind letter and note that I had received over the course of my career. I had kept them all. That afternoon, I read them all. It was the best afternoon I had spent in years! While I appreciated the wonderful letters from Principals, co-workers and organizations I was associated with, it was the letters from children and from parents that touched me the most. In particular, there was one letter, written on a scrap of torn green construction paper, written in black crayon, by a Grade 3 student. It simply said, “My mother wanted me to thank you for being so nice to me. She says I am lucky to go to this school. I think I am, too.” That student’s mother was illiterate, struggling in poverty and could not have written that note herself. Her 8 year old daughter had borne the responsibility of speaking on her family’s behalf. It was a small note that had required a big effort and it meant the world to me. I still have it safely tucked away. The presence of that letter and, all of the others, serves to remind me of a life spent in service to children and their families and how the residue of that experiences colours my life to this day.

I type these words at a time in Ontario’s education history when public schools are under attack from the same forces of corporatization that have cut massive swathes through the U.S. public school system, to devastating effect there. Cuts have been announced and the doors to privatization have been opened here by a government that does not value the worth of children. It has announced cuts to programmes aimed at helping support children with special needs. It has announced cuts to programmes aimed at helping students with gender identity challenges. It has announced cuts to programmes that help regular kids zip their zippers and wipe their noses, too. It is attacking Kindergarten children because, after all, isn’t that just glorified daycare anyway? Through it all…and this is just the beginning…..we have adults in charge who view our greatest treasure as mere collateral damage on the road to financial prosperity for themselves and their backers.

Today, educators and their public school allies have been asked to wear black in a show of solidarity against the government’s phony austerity-driven cuts to public schools and, more specifically, to the children who go to them each day. Children deserve champions who will act on their behalf, even when wearing comfortable clothes. Today, my comfortable clothes are black. I wear black because I still care about children. How can you not?

My Best Teacher Gift Ever!!!

At the core of teaching lies humanity.   

Teachers don’t manufacture widgets or track currency fluctuations on overseas markets as they go about their daily business.  Teachers spend their day interacting with some of society’s most interesting, creative, adaptive, vulnerable, courageous citizens.  Children are capable of doing almost anything at any time. That’s one of the reasons that teaching is such a fascinating profession.  You can have the same teacher in the same classroom with the same group of children and never experience the same school day twice!   

To the teacher who views his/her students as human beings, rather than names on a class list, the complexity of the young hearts and minds that assemble in their classroom each day is what makes the job so attractive and interesting. Sometimes, an “interesting” day can be a tiring day if one of the students is angry or emotionally upset. Sometimes, an “interesting” day can be hilarious and memorable.  The story of My Best Teacher Gift Ever is one of those moments that come completely out of left field and, once you regain your wits, makes you smile for the rest of your life. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when it happened.

I was teaching in a Grade 2 classroom in Courtice, Ontario.  I had no gifted students in this class but, no hardcore, troubled behavioural children, either.  On the whole, the class was comprised of nice, friendly, average kids.  They were a good group. I liked coming to school each day and so did they. I got along well with all of their parents. In short, it was a good year in the wonderful world of Grade 2.

This story takes place on the last week before our Christmas holidays.  If you have ever been in a primary-aged classroom the week before Christmas, you know that there is a higher than normal buzzing of energy to be found (and, I don’t mean from the overhead lights, either). If teachers were being honest, they would admit that that last week of school is not the most academically-intensive week to be had during the school year. But, just the same, maintaining some semblance of routine is important so, in between concert rehearsals and craft making, we still did some simple bits of regular work.  One of the things that helped make up my “Holiday” unit was, of course, a set of spelling/vocabulary activities.  We brainstormed chart paper filled lists of words that had to do with Hanukkah, Kwanza and Christmas.  The kids searched for words in word search puzzles, they unscrambled mixed up spellings, they filled in the blanks, they typed stories on the computer and on and on it went.  Well, since it was the last week of school and I had a group of kids that could go along with a joke,  I created a worksheet of questions and answers that had, as the final question, the following: “If you were a millionaire and could buy Mr. MacInnes any three gifts in the world, what would your three gifts be?”    I was hoping for answers like, “A rocket ship to go to the moon in”, or “A fancy sports car” or, “A trip around the world” but, instead, what I got back from this bunch of well-meaning but, average-joes was more along the lines of shirts, sweaters and pants.  I was a bit disappointed by the lack of imagination that they had shown until I got to the worksheet handed in by a little girl named Megan.

Megan was a nice little girl with freckles across her nose that spilled onto her cheeks. She wore her blonde hair in a bob style. Her blue eyes sparkled whenever she smiled, which was fairly often.  All in all, Megan was a good kid so, as I read over her answers, I was not prepared for what I saw when I got to the last question. She wrote, “I would give Mr. MacInnes a new sweater, a new pair of shoes and a g string.”  

I read the first two parts of her answer with my brain in neutral but, her last answer snapped me to attention!  I re-read her answer just to confirm that I had actually read what I had thought I had read.  It turns out that I had!   G-string! Wow!  Where did that come from?  I decided to check to see if she could have meant something else like “guitar” or “gerbil” because kids at that age can still be prone to phonetic and/or inventive spelling but, the spelling was clearly a “g” and a space and “string” spelled correctly.  Needless to say, I felt the need to check into this so, as the rest of the class crafted or did whatever Holiday activity they were engaged in, I called Megan over.

“Megan”, I said. “I was checking over everyone’s worksheet and there are a couple of answers I’d like to read for me, if you would.”    

She said, “Sure, Mr. MacInnes.”

I had her read her answer to Question #1 and #3, just so she wouldn’t realize what I was really wanting to know and have her think that she was in trouble or anything like that. She read her answers and proudly smiled at me as if to say, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Could you read #5, too, please?”

“Ok….. I said that I would give Mr. MacInnes a new sweater……….because you have a hole in your brown one. Did you know that?”   I grunted a smile and motioned for her to continue. “I would give Mr. MacInnes a new pair of shoes…….because you have scuff marks on yours………and a g string.”   She turned to me and smiled the same smile she displayed after reading the answers to Questions #1 and 3.

So I said, “Megan, I understand what a sweater is and the part about the shoes but, I’m not sure what you mean by a g string”.

She smiled and put her hand on my arm and sweetly said, “Oh, Mr. MacInnes, everyone knows that a g string is underwear.”

“Ok”, I said. “Then answer this for me, please. I understand why you would buy a new sweater to replace my holey one and new shoes to replace the scuffed ones but, why do you want to buy me underwear?”

She looked around to be sure that no one could hear and then she leaned in, “In my home, whenever Daddy or Mommy wear their g strings, they run around the house, laughing and tickling each other.  It makes them so happy. I want you to be happy in your home, too.”

Well, what do you say to that?  I smiled and gave her a quick hug and thanked her for thinking of me and my state of personal happiness.  The story would have ended there except for a fluke of timing. During the month of December, report cards are prepared and sent home and parent-teacher interviews are conducted. Depending on everyone’s schedules, it sometimes takes a couple of weeks to get everyone to come in to the school to meet.  As luck would have it, Megan’s parents were one of two interviews I had left to conduct!

So, the very next day, after school, Megan’s mother and father walked into the classroom and sat down.  I had Megan’s work folder out and showed them some of her Math work, a painting she had done, some pictures she had drawn and, lo and behold, her spelling work that included word search puzzles, mixed up spelling words, fill in the blank sheets and, yes, a certain question and answer sheet that she had completed just the day before!   I sat there and let them look at each sheet and then, the final Q & A sheet.  I watched as they scanned down through the answers, finally arriving at the last question.  I saw Megan’s Mom mouth the words, “sweater” and “shoes” and then, her mouth just opened and she began blushing furiously. Dad broke out laughing and looked down at the floor. I just sat there quietly for a few seconds, thoroughly enjoying the moment.

Then I said to them, “Don’t worry. Teachers hear far more about what goes on at home than most parents realize.  The important thing to take from this is that in Megan’s eyes, she feels that she comes from a home that is filled with love and happiness.  She feels that you both love each other and not every child can say that about their parents. You should feel proud that your daughter views you that way and that she feels so happy herself.”   They both smiled and thanked me for my kind words.  

I have gotten many, many gifts from families over the course of my career but, nothing comes close to the imaginary g string I received that year from little Megan.  I wonder if widgets ever give gifts to the people who make them? I doubt it.  Thank goodness I have had the pleasure of spending my career in the daily company of children.  They are the essence of humanity and our society’s most precious gift.