In September of 2014, I returned to Kenner Collegiate in Peterborough, the school I had left five years earlier to become a federation release officer in District 14, Kawartha Pine Ridge. I decided that it was necessary to return to fully appreciate the changes that had taken place over that time and to share the experience of all the teachers who had endured the tumultuous reshaping of the 21st century classroom.
What had changed in five years? How would I adjust and cope? Who could I rely upon for support? I knew some of the staff, but none of the students. As the local vice president, I had consulted with teachers on new technologies, assessment practices, and report cards, but I never had to use them. Growing Success and Smart Boards were just creeping into the school when I left; now I had to immerse myself in this Brave New World of teaching. Would my return be equally dystopian?
From my first day back when I was preparing for the students’ arrival, my colleagues were my greatest support and resource. I could not have managed without someone to step in and save me from a technological disaster, to lend me an anchor chart, or to patiently explain how to implement learning goals, or to sort out the report cards, and the damn program used to produce them. It was possibly the best feeling to know that wherever I was in my lesson, or the school at large, someone would be there if need be.
Admittedly, on most days, the cellphone epidemic gave me a rash. When I left the classroom in 2009, some kids had slider phones and texting was still new. Now, almost every student has some kind of smart phone. Managing this was a struggle throughout the year, but generally I coped. Truthfully, I found students to be the most rewarding part of returning to school. I found returning to developing relationships with students and nurturing their academic and social growth over the course of the year to be as extremely rewarding as it had been five years earlier. Students really have not changed that much; it was the teachers and teaching that had experienced most of the changes.
I originally had entered the teaching profession as a young adult back in the 1990s hoping to one day become the master teacher like those who had mentored me. I deliberately chose older staff members to emulate for their professionalism and expertise, but as a young teacher I was also expected to develop my own materials and prove myself. It was the established culture that you earned your way. It was also expected that over time you would become a master of a curriculum area or particular program and eventually be rewarded for it. Teachers who were department heads or lead teachers had earned the position by dedicating themselves for decade or more. Perhaps one of the most jarring realities when I returned was the diminished value of some of our most senior teachers and the values which their careers were founded upon. Professionalism, independence and autonomy are certainly under attack in our 21st century classroom. If I had not clearly noticed the shift before I left to do federation work, I certainly was fully aware when I returned.
Lead Teachers and Department Heads are no longer exclusively the more seasoned and respected teachers in the building. This has dramatically changed the school and staff culture. In some cases it has allowed schools to adapt to change more quickly, but it has also created a divide within our staff which I found troubling. Due to the multitude of initiatives, a paradigm shift in management philosophy has made leadership positions into shorter terms open to complicated competitions. A division in our ranks is emerging. Leadership positions are sought by younger and newer teachers hoping for a toehold of job security in the profession and declined by seasoned teachers with expertise but less patience with the revolving door of initiatives. These initiatives and changes are driven by data, smart goals, new curriculum, literacy scores, numeracy scores, climate surveys, graduation rates and whatever else can be measured. Older teachers are exhausted trying to navigate the winds of change and the shifting sands of expectation. Younger teachers are given no choice but to buy in, and engage with whatever new initiative is coming down the pipe without having the experience to properly judge how best to implement them. The division between these two teacher roles is a challenge for our membership, and one which we need to work on so that we remain united on causes which benefit the entire profession.
I have also observed how declining enrollment has compounded the divide between newer teachers and more seasoned ones. Where it was once possible for a young teacher to expect to pay their dues and to one day master a program or a curriculum area, today we are all forced to teach more and more out of our area of specialization. Teachers are taking on multiple preps, working in two or three different departments, and sometimes teaching a variety of levels and courses in one period. Lead teachers in most cases are responsible for a number of curriculum areas. Teachers’ expertise, experience, depth and wisdom are being passed over due to managerial necessity. We are forced to be spread so thin, that many new teachers have never experienced the joy of teaching subjects with a sense of mastery that was once common in all of our schools. This has weakened our sense of resolve when ministry or management changes are proposed. It has made it harder to respectfully challenge or expect sober second thought when new initiatives are announced.
Fortunately, what I witnessed in returning to the classroom was a level of collaboration and teamwork which has become both a necessity and a tremendous strength. Perhaps it is due to the demanding changes in curriculum delivery, but there has never been a better time for teacher collaboration. Teachers collaborate with the use of technology, sharing resources, problem solving and finding tools to deliver engaging lessons or experiences for our students. What could be a better lesson for our students?
So what’s it like to be back?
After a year, I am still working on a full answer. I do believe that as education workers we play an important role in communicating what these students need. We try to prepare them for an uncertain future, arm them with necessary skills, and nurture them through this important stage of life. Thankfully this has not changed. What definitely has not changed is that in my school (and I presume all schools across the province) students still look to up to their teachers and their education workers, expecting their help to learn and to prepare for a full and productive adult life.