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The Book on Teachers

The literature our students read may reveal what they see in us.

School gaze

by David Booth  

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Fictional teachers

by Francis Chalifour  

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A Few Fears and Fantasies

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by Linwood Barclay  

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The Book on Teachers

Teachers are a huge part of most writers' formative years, so it is not surprising that we figure large in the collective imagination of our culture.

David Booth began looking at children's literature in particular to see what the teachers found there could tell us about how we are seen by students.

Professionally Speaking invited David Booth to share his findings. Francis Chalifour supplements the evidence with a brief glimpse at teachers in books from French Canada.



Fictional teachers

by Francis Chalifour

Whether in films, television series or novels, teachers have always played a key role in the collective French Canadian imagination.

Everyone remembers Émilie Bordeleau – the dedicated teacher from St-Stanislas.

“Do you know what I like best,” she asked, without really waiting for an answer. “It's that every Friday I'm sure that the children know more than they did at the beginning of the week.”

“Do you realize, Daddy, that I, Émilie Bordeleau, all alone, teach them new things? Do you think that some of them will remember me later in life?”

Les Filles de Caleb, 1985

How many girls, inspired by Arlette Cousture's heroine, also became teachers?

Literature reflects society's perceptions of itself. In the early 20th century the teachers in French Canadian literature were mainly women – mostly young women, just out of adolescence. Their world was limited to badly heated country schools, where they coped with children – either lovely and kind or nasty and detestable. Strong young women with good heads on their shoulders and hearts as expansive as their blackboards – spending their few hard-earned dollars to feed students whose parents were too poor to feed them.

Later, in the Great Depression of the 30s, in Ces enfants de ma vie, Gabrielle Roy told the story of a young teacher in Manitoba. She draws us into a classroom, gives us a warm seat close to the stove and allows us to observe. The students – some born here, some from the old country – reflect the changing face of Canada as the older French/English dichotomy shifted with increasingly diverse immigration.

In the 50s and 60s religious education seemed to dominate our books as the world of the Sisters influenced whole generations. In Une enfance à l'eau bénite journalist and novelist Denise Bombardier marvellously follows a small, culturally disadvantaged five-year-old girl who hopes to rise from poverty and to speak like the nuns from France. These are the dark days of the Duplessi era when the English ran the economy and the Catholic Church ran society:

I was in a state of mortal sin when I celebrated my first communion. Or at least I believed I was. The nun, in preparing us for confession, was very emphatic about sins of impurity. I was six years old, I felt impure and unable to tell the priest about it. That feeling of guilt stayed with me through my teenage years.

Une enfance à l'eau bénite, 1985

Three literary examples cannot represent all the teachers who are characters in our literature, but certain themes are notable. In the early 20th century teachers tended to be strong, rebellious and forward-thinking women – the feminists of their time, adventuresome and ready to try anything, asserting themselves and preserving their hard-won freedom.

While baby boomers filled the schools, writers recalled the mysterious powers of the Sisters. Then came the Quiet Revolution along with Flower Power, Peace and Love.

As the boomers themselves became teachers and professors the school marms of earlier literature gave way to hedonistic, epicurean and blasé intellectuals – the professors of Denys Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire. Dominique, one of the lead characters, puts it like this:

Isn't this heightened quest for happiness in society today really historically linked to the decline of the American empire that we are beginning to experience?

The Decline of the American Empire, 1986

Arcand takes an intellectual approach that focuses on the great existential issues that have haunted us since the ancient Greeks. His protagonists are no longer trapped within the four walls of a classroom; they are intellectuals who, by questioning and criticizing, move society forward – or backward, depending on your point of view.

Whatever the progress made in our profession or the shifts in its artistic depiction, we will protect our own nagging little hopes that our time and effort – whether put towards re-explaining the Pythagorean theorem for the nth time or comforting a child who has hurt his finger – will one day bear fruit. We hope that, like Émilie Bordeleau, we will be fondly remembered by our students.

Francis Chalifour teaches physical education and social science at école secondaire Étienne-Brûlé in Toronto. He is also in an MEd program at the University of Ottawa. In addition to writing articles for Maclean's and the Toronto Star, his novel After (McClelland & Stewart, 2005) was nominated for a Governor General's award. Chalifour has been a member of the Ontario College of Teachers since 2000.