Things I Didn't Learn at the Faculty of Ed

Reflections on My First Year of Teaching


Lynn Ainsworth is now fully prepared for wild-and-wacky hat day


by Lynne Ainsworth

A funny thing happened on the way to the classroom. My arches fell.

No, really. After six weeks on the job I went from open-toe sandals to black pumps to loafers
to - how can I describe this - the kind of shoes my grandma was always trying to get me to wear: big, clunky orthopedic numbers with a price tag to match.

It must be payback for all the summer and weekend hours I spent on my feet working retail. Come to think of it, teaching is a lot like being a sales clerk - you stand on your feet all day, smile at the customers and sell a product.

How did it come to this?
Let me back up a bit and explain how I came to be standing in a classroom in my big black shoes. I'm new to teaching. It's a second career chosen during what can only be described as a mid-life crisis. Other people go out and buy a flashy car or get a tattoo, but flipping careers was my way of rebelling at turning 40.

I could hear the clock ticking - not that clock (it tolled 16 years ago). Suddenly a list of all the things I ever wanted to do and hadn't done popped up.

One day you're thinking it's time for a new hairdo; the next thing you know you're filling out applications for teachers' college. In the long run a Harley-Davidson and a tattoo would have been cheaper and a whole lot cooler.

But off I went. I cashed in the RRSPs, bought a backpack and a bus pass. Nine months later I graduated. At OISE they introduced us to Gardner's nine intelligences, showed us how to write a lesson plan and gave us Tribes training. Out we marched, new recruits ready to conquer the classroom. But there are a few things the faculty of ed didn't share about the profession.
Every classroom is equipped with a desk for the teacher.

This piece of furniture harkens back to the one-room schoolhouse. It's purpose, however, remains unclear because no teacher ever gets to sit at one, unless the teacher is starring in a television sitcom.

One theory is that the desk serves as a repository for all things students should not have in their possession and for some things they should, like the writing assignment that is due today.

In desperation one might lean against it or even perch on the edge, but these momentary uses are not to be confused with the other world of work where people actually sit at desks.

There's always a lineup for the ladies room
The recess bell rings and the students rush for the door. You'd be first in line, but the rules require a teacher to stay in the classroom as long as a student is present. Slowpoke Susie is still packing up pencil crayons. So you shuffle some papers on the desk, glance at the clock, look back and urge her to hurry up now or she'll miss recess. But that is her plan - to miss recess. It's cold and damp out there and Grade 7 girls rarely come dressed for the playground. Finally she's ready to leave. You're on the run, dashing down the now-empty corridor only to arrive at the single washroom designated for female teachers. There is a lineup, of course.

Learning to go on schedule takes training. By the end of the year your bladder will be accustomed to the teaching timetable, but in the meantime serious consideration is given to purchasing a set of undergarments most of us didn't think we'd need until our golden years.

If it's Tuesday, it must be Grade 3 day
Nothing is more confusing to a new teacher than the rules governing the playground. It's truly a wonder any of us survived childhood without the hands-to-yourself rule.

Few principals will risk a free-for-all, so in the interest of fair play, the governance of the playground is judiciously divided among the grades. It's your job to interpret the treaty. This is no small feat. Those who have the right to play on the swings and climbers will look to you to enforce the rules of engagement. They will come right up to you and demand justice.

"Miss, see that boy there? He's not supposed to be here. It's not his day."

You look in the general direction of the pointing finger. "Which boy?" you ask.

"That boy!" And the child gestures to a sea of moving bodies swinging, hanging and hiding in the climber.

"What's he wearing?"

"He's the boy in the blue coat."

You march over to send this interloper back to the blacktop, where he joins his comrades to plot a coup d'etat.

Just as you dispatch one intruder, another takes his place. Is there any duty more painful than the playscape? You bet there is.

Thou shalt not pass
When Gandalf the Grey held his staff high and bellowed "Thou shalt not pass" to the fire-breathing demon in Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, I experienced a strange sense of déjà vu. Had I not uttered those very words or something like them as I stood guard at the one and only recess entrance into the school?

Nothing is more important than preventing students from slipping into the school unnoticed. The entry door must be carefully guarded. Permission must be asked and granted of the guard on duty to use the washroom or get a drink from the magical water fountain.

With this duty comes the burden of knowing that many who pass do so for devious purposes. Be on the lookout for clandestine meetings of Grade 6 girls who retire to the stalls to apply sparkly stuff to their hair and face. Who knew makeup could be worth the risk of being marched out into the harsh bright sunlight, or worse, a chat with the principal on the merits of gel versus roll-on.

Chalk - the miracle tool
Who would have guessed that this slim, rather fragile writing tool could provide a rainy-day-recess worth of entertainment as pencil-free Picassos happily pass the time doodling on the blackboard. Primary teachers have long understood the power of chalk, especially coloured chalk, but this information is rarely passed up the grades. Those of us who teach intermediate students have too long lingered in the world of white.

Sweet, sticky surprises
It takes skill to graciously decline the offering of a sweet treat presented by a child. This ultimate tribute to a teacher - the sharing of treasured treats - is a conundrum faced by all who work in elementary schools. To reject the gift is to insult the giver; eat it and you run the risk of picking up some unspeakable germ.

Who among us is truly prepared the first time such generosity is shown? Picking up the unwrapped candy out of the outstretched hand, I popped it in my mouth. Now I know how the folks on Fear Factor feel when they screw up enough courage to eat worms. As I swallowed I kept wondering when was the last time this student had washed her hands.

The trick, of course, is to take the treat and find some excuse for not immediately eating it. Say thanks for sharing, wrap it up and tell the student you'll enjoy it later. Don't even think about tossing it in the trash; it will be found. Wait until you're a safe distance from school before disposing of it.

Rah, rah, sis-boom-bah!
School spirit requires teachers to invest in a diverse wardrobe. First-year teachers are forewarned that the wearing of school colours on certain days of the year is encouraged. Shop early because, trust me, it's challenging coming up with a green and orange ensemble the night before the big assembly. PJs may also be required as part of the school-spirit uniform. Are you really going to appear before the student body in the bathrobe Mom bought you Christmas before last? That's right, off you go to shop for a fresh pair of power PJs, the kind a head of state might wear to a sleepover in a foreign country. Don't forget to top it all off with a wild and wacky hat to be worn
on - you guessed it - wild-and-wacky-hat day.

Dismissing the dressing up - or down, if you prefer - as child's play simply will not do. Don't underestimate the Brownie points you'll earn from the principal, who takes one look at your getup and feels instant relief knowing he or she is not the most ridiculous looking member of the staff.
Think team player. Besides, your students will enjoy having another excuse to ridicule their teacher.