BY: CODY HOFFMAN
Teaching is full of extremes. Some days, you come home feeling like a mess. You sit on the bus feeling frustrated, your back sore and your voice even worse. A toddler on the bus begins wailing, and as you slip on your headphones, you wonder what strange force compelled you to work with kids. ‘Why would anyone wish this on themselves?’ you think. But then, miraculously, you have days that remind you exactly why.
It’s 8:02 AM and I’m sitting on a bench downtown, thinking that the possibility of me working today is getting slim. But then my phone rings. “Hi Cody,” my agency contact says in a chipper voice. “We’ve got no calls in today for primary supply teachers…but I’d still like to send you out to a school to help out in a classroom—you’re getting paid as part of your guaranteed work agreement, even though we’re sending you for free. Is that okay with you?” “Sure, sounds good” I tell them. Work is work, even if it’s not technically work… and anyway, it’s good to get my face out there and better than sitting at home.
The assignment is Year Six—equivalent of Grade Five back home. We talk about Remembrance Day, write letters to role models, and I help some small groups with math—practical problem solving where they have to figure out which (made-up) cell phone plan is the cheapest. The kids are funny, and have tons of questions about Canada and my accent. The morning flew by pleasantly, but it was the afternoon that really got me.
In the afternoon, the students had PSHE—Personal, social and health education. To sum it up in the most basic terms, this subject revolves around being kind to yourself and others. Today, the topic was disability. The students pushed their desks back and sat in a circle, and the teacher introduced the talking point: we were to go around the circle, and students could choose to share either a disability that they knew about, or talk about someone in their life that has dealt with disability in some form.
We began passing around a stuffed animal as a sort of “talking stick,” and the students began sharing. One by one, they told stories in small voices about friends and family members who had been affected by disability or life-altering illness—some still living and some not. It became clear very quickly that some of these students had dealt with some pretty heavy things at the age of 10 and 11: parents with brain damage, grandparents with dementia, seeing beloved family members battle with injury and illness. But amazingly, despite how chatty this group was earlier, not a single voice could be heard speaking out of turn. These children understood the seriousness of the discussion and sat in respectful silence for their friends who were sharing.
As the discussion went on, I noticed some eyes welling up with tears. Emotions can be such tricky things. Even as adults, we sometimes find it difficult to know how to handle the strong emotions of our friends, and can become really uncomfortable when we see someone we know crying. But these children knew exactly what to do. I saw students rubbing their friends backs to comfort them, arms around shoulders, quiet acts of kindness. When the discussion ended, I noticed one girl starting to tear up, unnoticed by her peers. When a boy finally noticed, he raised his hand and said “I think Katie needs a tissue” in a concerned voice. Now I was struggling to hold back tears.
“I just wanted to say, thank you all so much for sharing.” The teacher said. “You are all brave boys and girls, and some of you have dealt with some very tough things. But look around you. In this class, and at this school, we are like a family. If you ever feel sad or upset, you can talk to me, or any adult here, or any of your friends around you…we are all here to listen. You’re not alone.” His words were sincere. I felt it, and I could tell the students did too.
As I walked home that day, I thought: “This is it. This is why I wanted to teach.” To me, being a teacher is about creating a safe and welcoming space for children to learn. A place where they feel accepted, and where they are unafraid to express themselves. I was reminded that day that every student is experiencing life in a different way, and their experience goes far deeper than what you see at school. Yes, it takes less time to scold a student for bad behaviour than to pull them aside and ask: “I noticed you seem troubled today. What’s bothering you?” But you would be surprised what you can learn from the latter. Yes, sometimes kids are just being kids…but sometimes their parents are fighting, or their grandma is sick, and they don’t know how to properly deal with their fear and anger. It can be hard to give them the benefit of the doubt when it can feel like they are purposefully doing everything in their power to drive you up a wall…but it’s so important to try.
Teachers can’t solve every problem for every child—that would be an overwhelming and impossible task. But we can listen and encourage. We can provide helping hands and shoulders to cry on. We can be on a child’s team when they feel like the world is against them. And sometimes, that is enough.
Read more of Cody’s writing on her Blog, Not Just English Cats: A Canadian Cat Lady Teaches in England.