By Wendy Cuthbertson
few minutes before eight o’clock, Joan Pearson drives past the massive
auto assembly plants that have fuelled Oshawa’s economy for generations,
turns into a residential street and pulls into the parking lot of Glen
Street Public School. She ducks into the school’s office and checks
scheduling details with the school’s librarian. She then heads to her
office, a windowless room lined with bookshelves and filing cabinets.
Standing at her desk, she scans her to-do list, taking advantage of the few
quiet minutes before Glen Street’s 750 students surge through the
Pearson has taught at Glen Street for 20 years. She graduated from
Toronto’s Lakeshore Teachers’ College in 1971 and then taught for two
years in Moose Factory, followed by two years in Britt, a small town outside
Parry Sound. While in Moose Factory, she began her Bachelor of Arts and
Bachelor of Education degrees by correspondence. She then moved to Oshawa,
but job openings for teachers were scarce: the baby boom had turned into the
baby bust. "I knew the ticket to a full-time position was to
qualify for special education teaching," Joan says, "so I just
went ahead and got the qualifications."
She was not prepared for what happened next: her pragmatic career decision
had taken her to her life’s work. "I had always enjoyed teaching, but
it was special education that made teaching a real calling for me," she
says. "That moment when you see the imaginary light bulb over a kid’s
head turn on, that’s my motivation, my reward, my high."
A special education resource teacher, Pearson is responsible for special
education programs for pupils from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 4 at Glen
Street — assessing the special-education needs of both newly admitted and
transferred students, designing programs for them, and co-ordinating
provincial support for high-needs students.
Glen Street is not an average school. Almost one of every seven students has
been formally identified as being high-needs and thus eligible to receive
extra provincial support. Seven or eight children in every class need some
other form of assistance. Their difficulties cover a wide range of
behavioural, cognitive and physical challenges. Some of the students have
multiple disabilities. The student turnover rate at Glen Street —
admissions and transfers — exceeded 60 per cent last year, indicating high
instability in the children’s lives. Many children start school woefully
unprepared in speech, language or life skills. Some are barely accustomed to
being with other children. Glen Street, Pearson says, is not for everyone.
"We see two kinds at Glen Street. Teachers either stay here forever,
like me, or they leave after their first year."
"For many of our kids, a teacher can be the most significant person in
their lives. We can make a difference. There’s integrity in our
work," Pearson says. She recalls running into a former student several
years after he had left Glen Street. The month before school started in the
year he was her student, she had sent all her new pupils a postcard saying
how much she was looking forward to meeting them. "When he saw me, he
took his wallet out and pulled out the postcard I’d sent him all those
At nine o’clock, a knock on Pearson’s open door alerts her to the
arrival of Maple Wray-Mantel, a speech pathologist. Since it’s the
beginning of the school year, Pearson and Wray-Mantel need to identify
students who need Wray-Mantel’s help. Their files piled in front of them,
they go to work, professionally and with bottomless compassion. Pearson
reviews the status of students with speech and language difficulties, and
the two women make a plan for Wray-Mantel to see them. Their second task is
to identify the students new to Glen Street who need to see Wray-Mantel.
They decide to start by assessing the youngest students first, those in Glen
Street’s eight Kindergarten classes. Wray-Mantel says she’d also like to
sit on the school’s primary-grades, special-education language class to
see the needs of the children there.
The recess bell sounds. Pearson heads for the staff room and talks to the
kindergarten teachers about pupils who may need special education help.
Recess over, she and Wray-Mantel head back to Pearson’s office. They
finish their lists. Meeting concluded, they walk outside to the portable
that shelters the primary language class so that Wray-Mantel can observe the
students. An educational assistant has brought in a black-and-white rabbit
for the day, and the youngsters are fascinated and charmed, their tenderness
bubbling into language. Knowing a teaching moment when she sees one, Pearson
heads back to her office to find a storybook about a rabbit and put it aside
for the teacher.
It’s lunchtime and the halls fill with tumbling, laughing children.
Pearson is on lunch duty today. In a classroom down the hall, children munch
their sandwiches while chatting over books and toys with "Mrs.
Pearson." Once they’ve finished, they streak to the playground.
Pearson grabs her own meal from the staff room fridge and sinks into an
available sofa. There’s only a few minutes left before classes resume, but
while downing yogurt, raw carrots and tomato juice, she initiates several
impromptu conferences with colleagues: when to see a parent about a child,
rescheduling a workshop, assessing a Grade 5 child who may be having
difficulty, what Pearson’s assessment is of another child, what materials
the librarian has for yet another child. In each case, her command of the
details involved in each student’s precious particularity is total.
At one o’clock, back at her office, the door is closed for a meeting with
the parents and teacher of a little girl struggling with Grade 2. After
reviewing ways of helping their daughter, Pearson gently encourages the
parents to talk about their thoughts and feelings. In spite of their
shyness, the parents express themselves readily. The father doesn’t want
his daughter in a special education class because he remembers how the
children were sometimes bullied. Both parents remember how difficult
academics were for them. They agree their daughter should remain in her
class but follow a special in-class program Pearson will design for her. The
parents are pleased and relieved. "I sometimes feel like a doctor
because I have to deliver a lot of bad news to people, but I want them to
understand what’s going on and to be involved in their child’s school
life. They trust me. I am in awe of how much they trust me. It’s too
much," Pearson says, almost shuddering.
It’s 10 after two. Pearson slips into a Grade 3 class to observe a student
who only utters a few words at home and none at school. Pearson spends time
with the other children as they labour over their journals, but she lingers
a few extra minutes with this sweet, silent child. "I need to see more
of her," Pearson says, making a mental note to pay a second visit when
the class is working orally.
Her planned next stop is the first of the kindergarten classes she had
discussed that morning with Maple. She had hoped to observe a little boy
whom the teacher thought might need Pearson’s help, but a quick phone call
to the teacher at 2:30 confirms that he’s not at school now. Taking
advantage of the moment anyway, Pearson drops into the class to spend a few
minutes with each group of children working away at their activities. As she
chats and joins in the play, she carefully observes their preparedness for
Suddenly it’s five after three. School’s out, and controlled pandemonium
erupts in the halls, but for Pearson the day is far from over. She’s been
whittling down her to-do list, but irksome items remain. She spots a child
whose parent’s signature she needs desperately on some paperwork. Days
have passed, and the parent has not come in. She dashes out of her office
and takes the child by the hand. Happily, the parent has come by to pick him
up, and Pearson returns to her office victorious, completed paperwork in
hand, another item off the to-do list.
It is after four o’clock, and the school is now quiet. Pearson reserves
this time for paperwork, meeting with school colleagues and phoning support
people both at the board and in the community. She then puts together
tomorrow’s to-do list, sighing as some of today’s items are carried
over. "We have a wonderful principal," says Pearson. "He
insists we keep balance in our lives, so I try be home by six. This year
I’ve been able to so far, but I know when the paperwork season arrives
come spring, I’ll probably be here until eight or nine."
The day has ended. Pearson makes her way to her car, her step a little
slower than at eight that morning, almost 10 hours ago, but her smile is as
warm and ready as ever. She’s asked what she wishes for her students, and
she muses for a few seconds, then replies: "I want our kids to feel
empowered and more confident. I want them to believe they can grab hold of
the brass ring, just like other kids."
Glen Street Public School
Durham District School Board
Certified in 1971
Lakeshore Teachers’ College, Toronto