Hello from the vortex…This autumn seems to have been even busier, more hectic and altogether much more a whirlwind than many in recent memory. My days have been long, and varied and utterly chaotic.
Did that sound like I was complaining, dear reader? Not my intention at all…. in fact, as I said in a meeting the other day: “Chaos is my candy.”
Part of what contributes to the chaos is an overwhelming shortage (wait… can a deficit situation be “overwhelming”? In any event, you get my meaning) of TOCs– Teachers On Call, or substitute teachers, supply teachers… depending on where you live, you may have different names for them. But our shortage is so drastic, we’re almost at the “Do you you have a criminal records check and a heartbeat?” set of filters. The situation will soon be eased, however, as I passed through the board office the other day, the foyer was filled with fresh-faced, excited young teacher candidates awaiting entry interviews. What a time to be alive! The decades-long-anticipated teacher shortage has manifested itself– in spades.
In my part of the organization, there are a few of us in positions of special responsibility, and there are also other specialists, like speech and language pathologists, or ELL teachers… but in any event, there we are, experienced and licensed teachers who travel to classrooms on a daily basis to support specialty programs, suddenly called back in to Active Duty because of this extreme shortage. In my case, because a big part of my job is side-by-side teaching, this hasn’t been too daunting to step into the breech on occasion. However, even with 25+ years’ experience and deep knowledge of the district, it is different to stand in front of a room full of little (or even big) faces and know you are responsible for them during your time together.
I have been called out a few times this year, and it has given me a good glimpse into what teachers are doing, strategies they are employing and maybe challenges they are experiencing. A good reminder. An opportunity to reflect on my career, and still learn new things. And also re-learn old things. Such as “Cut of Jib“. I’ve used this expression for years to describe that unmeasurable, intangible, non-provable but absolutely dead-accurate and innate ability teachers have to size up a kid at first glance. Now, please don’t misunderstand, I do not mean the “scan the room and instantly pick out the trouble-makers”, although we can do that too. I mean much more importantly, much more authentically being able to sense an important truth about the child standing in front of you. When I had my own classes (which, as I break down the math looks like this: 15years X 25 kids per class + 6years X 120 kids + a few summer jobs and community groups, and raising 2 kids of my own = a few thousand kids in my head) I maybe wasn’t always an exemplary PE teacher, and sometimes lacked discipline (both self and outwards) but I know kids.
It was a happy–and a bit surprising– reminder that this skill is not lost, just because I’m no longer standing in front of a class on a daily basis. A couple of examples from a recent call-out: I was in a grade 6 class for an afternoon, and their little grade 1 buddies arrived to do some reading. I glanced over the grade ones as they arrived, like so many tumbling puppies, and saw one little face, still calm on the surface, but, to borrow another maritime phrase, I could see a storm a’brewin’. I stretched out my arm in the universal sign of welcome/shelter, and sure enough this tiny human glued herself to my side and began to sob… all because she could not find her big buddy. Well, in short order the crisis was averted and the tears soon stopped, but I grinned inwardly at the finely honed radar that allows mommy / teacher to spot tears even before they sprout. On my way out at the end of the day, I stopped and chatted to the vice principal for a moment. I wanted to share an observation about one of the older students, something that was a little flicker of concern, even though the student had neither done nor said anything inappropriate, there was something about about their demeanour that made me want to ask a question. The vice principal looked at me with something I would say akin to “agog”, and expressed shock that of all the kids I had seen in little more than 2 hours, this was the one that stood out. This child that, after several months’ observation, they, too, wanted to get to know more about, to see their learning style and engagement be more successful. The only answer I had as to Why was: “Cut of jib”.
My favourite COJ story, however, came from a classroom visit to the school I had done my final teaching practicum in decades earlier. By coincidence and happenstance, the young teacher who invited me in happened to also have been a student at that school, and was there as a learner when I was a student teacher. In fact, her older brother was in my practicum class and I remembered him and his friends very well. As we chatted about the fun of the coincidence and she caught me up on all that had happened with her brother since grade 5 (well, the highlights, anyway), she ended by saying “Well, I guess you might not be surprised to know he is a lawyer.” (PS: not just any lawyer, a well suited and booted highly respected lawyer in a prestigious big-city law firm– also a mommy / teacher thing, we brag on our kids). I smiled and said I wasn’t surprised at all that he would have chosen law, or even accountancy, but I also wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he was a successful writer. Again, eyes bug / agog is deployed and she says “I can’t believe you said that. He was headed for a masters degree in literature and when he couldn’t get into the program he wanted, he went into law instead. How do you even remember that much about him, almost 30 years later?”. I smiled and shrugged and said “Cut of Jib”, of course.
The other thing that makes me smile in thinking about all of this today is remembering my own daughter, before she started school, looking at something I was doing (I’ve long since forgotten what it was– marking papers? Putting together Christmas treats? Sorting class photos?) and she said “Is that for one of your kids?” And she didn’t mean herself or her little brother, she knew that I had other kids, too, that I cared for, was proud of, thought and worried about, and could tell a lot about, just by Cut of Jib.
It’s a Teacher Thing….