Joan Pearson,

By Wendy Cuthbertson

A 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 hallways.
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 years ago."
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 learning.
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."

Joan Pearson
Glen Street Public School
Durham District School Board
Special Education
Certified in 1971
Lakeshore Teachers’ College, Toronto

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