Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why I Teach

My little brother JR is six years younger than me. When he was three years old, it was discovered that he had significant learning disabilities and has since been diagnosed with ADHD and dyspraxia. At first, twelve year old me (who pretty much saw her brother as equal parts “total pain in the butt” and “awesome little playmate”) didn’t think much of his disabilities; he was hyper, had zero attention span and was slow learning how to talk but so what? He was my brother and as far as I was concerned, that was just how he was. It wasn’t until he was older and his struggles with schoolwork became more apparent to me that my opinion changed and I learned that there was much more to his disability than I’d first thought. He had a severe speech impairment and wasn’t able to form words until he was eight – so made up his own sign language to compensate. He couldn’t read or write and even now can’t do cursive, and his comprehension of languages is limited. That being said, however, he is very adept at math and numbers and when it comes to anything hands-on – be it yard work, car repair or simple building blocks – he’s phenomenal.

In school, one of his biggest problems academically was keeping hold of the information he learned; he needed lots of repetition and tended to do best when there was a lot of interaction and hands-on activities. Unfortunately, his school was not inclined to accommodate his needs and his teachers did not have the resources, time or patience to do so while dealing with a class of over thirty students besides.

As a result, a lot of JR’s lessons had to reinforced at home. My mother would have to take him to two hour therapy sessions every day and I would often help him with his non-math homework. Together, we would work through the research and reading and then work out new ways to help him study and write up his reports. It took a lot of time – usually much more than the assignment actually required – and it was far from easy. JR would often become frustrated and angry, sometimes even storming off and refusing to continue. Knowing when to press and when to back off and give him time was key, but I quickly figured out that perseverance on both our parts was the most important thing.

It was also important to think outside the box and find ways to blend what I knew JR would understand with what he needed to understand. For instance, when he had history assignments we would rent related blockbusters (i.e. The Mummy, Gladiator, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, etc.) and use them as the avenue through which to introduce the relevant lessons; comparing Hollywood exaggeration with historical fact, seeing how we today represented the past, etc. Another thing we did was that JR would dictate his reports out loud and I would write/type it all verbatim; when he didn’t have to worry about spelling or moving the pen or anything else but what he wanted to say it let him express himself much more cohesively.

It was actually because of JR and his ordeal that I decided to become a teacher; I don’t want any child to have to go through what JR did, to have to struggle as hard as he did without any encouragement or help from his teachers. If it’s within my power to ease the struggle for even just a handful of children, it will make all my efforts worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Love for Teaching

Like all stories, mine has a beginning. It starts, like many a tale, once upon a time with a little girl who spent more time with books and imaginary friends then I’d care to admit. I was in grade six and eleven years old when I first read Harry Potter and the Prisoner Azkanban by J.K. Rowling. Do you know what happens in that book? A lot, actually, but there are two things in particular that left  significant impressions. Firstly, as with every book, Hogwarts gets a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, this time a school friend of Harry’s father, Professor Lupin. Professor Lupin was an understanding and compassionate teacher who had fun, engaging lessons and made the effort to go the extra mile to help his students – giving Harry extra one-on-one lessons on the Patronus curse, for example. He wasn't just educational - he was fun. He didn't stand at the front of the class and lecture, he didn't expect students to know everything, he simply expected them to show up, pay attention, have fun, and learn as best they could. One of his first lessons, for example, featured a boggart that took the form of an individual's worst fears...and ended when Neville's worst fear - Professor Snape - went the ridiculous route and flashed into the garb of Neville's grandmother.

Secondly, the gamekeeper, Hagrid, gets promoted to a teaching position, taking over the Care of Magical Creatures class from a half-eaten (though still living and mobile) predecessor. Hagrid, as any fan can tell you, was expelled from Hogwarts in his third year and, thanks to Dumbledore, later became the gamekeeper of the school. His cabin, located on school grounds at the border of the Forbidden Forest, was something of a sanctuary for Harry, Ron and Hermione and, as a teacher, Hagrid had hands on and interactive lessons and a casual, open class environment.

And now for the confession…eleven year old me? Well, she may have spent hours teaching Care of Magical Creatures to invisible students in her bedroom. She may have even have had a piece of black painted wood and she may have pilfered chalk from school so she could write notes about the various creatures on the board for her invisible students to copy. And maybe, just maybe, she may have borrowed a book about mythical monsters from a friend (a connect-the-dots book to be precise) to use as a resource to develop her lessons. And she may have written up tests and assignments she then filled out herself and corrected. Oh, and there were, of course, parent-teacher interviews.

Eleven year old me was kind of a geek. And I’ve always had something of an overactive imagination. It was a fun - though sort of lonely - childhood.

It goes without saying, therefore, that the love of teaching has been with me for quite some time, however this is not why I decided to become a teacher.