I graduated from teachers college in 2008 at the University of Ottawa. During that year (thankfully it was only one year) I did one practicum at Hillcrest High School (in Ottawa) teaching grade 11 biology and one practicum at Brookfield High School in phys ed. I had the honour of learning from Eric Betteridge at Hillcrest, and Jim Texiera and Sean Goforth at Brookfield. But it was when I went to observe a grade nine teacher at Hillcrest that I decided I wanted to work with at risk youth.
This teacher was having a really, really hard time managing this class' behaviour. She would come into the prep room and rave about how bad they were, and how she had to cancel all her labs and activities with these kids because they were so bad. I even remember calling them "all idiots." This teacher has since retired and I hope she has found peace and happiness in her retirement because I'm not sure she really loved her job as a teacher. But I learned from her, and I guess, at the end of the day, I ought to thank her for allowing me the opportunity to sit in on her class to observe.
What I learned was that taking away all opportunities for labs and activities was exactly the opposite of what these kids needed. Talking at these kids with lectures and only giving them work sheets to complete in their seats, and ultimately treating them like they were idiots was not helping the students, and it certainly wasn't helping herself. One of the most important lessons I ever learned, was that if you have strong relationships with your classes, classroom management challenges go out the window.
Additional qualification courses are quite expensive for a young adult coming out of teacher's college, but I was motivated to find a way to get my special education qualifications so that I could work with and help students like the ones that I saw in that grade nine class one day. It took a couple of years of supply teaching to get the money but eventually I got my Spec Ed Part 1.
While I was supply teaching, I got a lot of work from the vocational schools (Sir Guy Carleton HS and Ottawa Technical SS), the alternate programs (namely Elizabeth Wynwood and Fredrick Banting) and I even got to work at the Phoenix House for Youth. My experience at these schools really solidified the fact that I wanted to work with "at-risk" youth (I don't love that term, because what youth aren't at risk?). I noticed that there were so many students out there who had been disserviced by the education system. I wanted to be the kind of teacher that let kids know that someone believes in them, even when it seems like the system is against them, that was at least the best I could do.
As an occasional teacher I got my Spec Ed Part 1 and shortly thereafter I landed a Long Term Occasional contract (LTO) teaching at John McCrae SS in a resource class. I had two incredible mentors Marnie and Mike. I ended up teaching a resource class and a science class in that LTO, and I managed to string a few LTOs together so I ended up at McCrae for two years. I also got my first partial permanent contract at McCrae, a 33% in science, but by the end of my second year there, a job posting for a full time position in a Developmental Disabilities Program opened up at Hillcrest High School. It was the only full time position I was qualified to apply for on that vacancy listing (behind a retirement), and Marnie encouraged me to apply. I was incredibly unsure about what the position even really was, let alone if I wanted to take on a position like that.
During my first stint at McCrae, I got my Spec. Ed. Part 2, but more importantly I had the honour and priviledge of working with a student named Peter. Peter changed my life. He was a student with Down Syndrome and he was my introduction to working with students with developmental disabilities. Marnie told me to apply for the job at Hillcrest because she thought I'd be really good at it. I did not see in myself what Marnie saw in me, but with her encouragement, I did it, because I was in no position to turn down a full time job.
Peter was the only student I was able to speak about in my interview. He was the only experience I had, and admittedly, I didn't think it was going to be enough. But in the debrief I had with the principal and the department head after my interview, they told me that they offered me the job thanks to the passion with which I spoke about him.
I can't write enough about how amazing my experience was at Hillcrest. I remember a student asking me, vividly, "what is a developmental disability?" and from that moment on, I called the class a Community Living Class. How do you tell someone they have a disability when they don't think that they do? I told him that it just means that a person with a developmental disability learns differently than other people do. I don't love the answer I gave him, but it was the best I could come up with at the time. I spent six years at Hillcrest, and it was the hardest job I've ever had, but more than that, it was the most rewarding job I've ever had. I met so many amazing people at that job, staff and students alike. The students in my class taught me more about myself than I think I was ever able to teach them!
In the community living class, I got an indepth and up close look at what learning really looks like. Have you ever thought about how many steps a person has to take to make a peanut butter and jam sandwich? This is also where I realized what it means to meet students where they are. The very first time I met all my students, I realized in a hurry that I had to change everything I thought I knew about teaching and learning.
I had ten students in my class between the ages of 14 and 21 all at different intellectual ability levels. What that meant was that I had to have ten different programs, one for each kid, if I was going to make their time in highschool meaningful. Painting every student with the same brush was not going to work. I couldn't handout a worksheet, or a checklist and hope to get them all to the same place by the end of the school year. Some students didn't know how to hold a pencil properly, so asking them to write their name was going to be a fruitless endeavour. Some students knew how read books, so teaching them to write their name was also going to be fruitless for them. Some students needed help getting dressed to go outside in the wintertime, so asking them to ride an OC Transpo bus by themselves was out of the question, while others could get to and from a location on their own, so teaching them how to dress for the wintertime would not be meaningful to them.
Six years in the community living class was as clear a demonstration as anyone could get about the importance of meeting your students where they are. I think if we expect studednts to be at a certain level when they come into our class at the beginning of the year, or semester, or quadmester, and then expect that they will all have reached a certain point by the end is doing a major disservice to our students. We should be meeting them where they are, and then getting them as far as they can go. No limits and no bottom lines. Educators should trust their students to be doing the best they can with what they've got. If they're not, the teacher needs to find ways to make the student's time in their class more meaningful.
So with those lessons learned from the community living class, I moved back to the mainstream classroom. I have all kinds of reasons for leaving the Community Living Class, and believe me, it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I remember sitting in my classroom until six pm, just looking around and seeing all the memories I made in that room. I didn't want to leave. But I had to.
I changed school, changed careers really, with one day in between to shift gears. It felt almost impossible. At the time, I was thankful for the teachers that gave me their binders of worksheets to use, but the entire time I just felt fake. Lectures, and worksheets, and tests, and quizzes and homework just weren't for me. I'd spent six years in a Community Living Class and knew that these worksheets and tests were not what learning looks like.
I had been six years out of a mainstream classroom. I didn't know the curriculum any more and on top of that, our board introduced an entirely new assessment and evaluation policy that I had to learn in a real hurry. I was just trying to stay one day ahead of the students, and I was teaching from the binder and the textbook. I was delivering information, but that was about it. I was "teaching" things not even I knew about. So here I was telling kids what they had to know, and I didn't even know it, then I was quizzing them on it, and testing them on it, and giving them grades for it, and I still didn't really know it better than they did. When they asked me a question I would tell them I didn't know (because all the good teachers will tell you it's okay to not know something), but they were eating me alive. And actually being mean to me. It wasn't their fault though. I wasn't being true to myself and so I wasn't doing right by my students, and they saw right through me. I managed to get through the school year, but I was seriously questioning if I had made the right choice.
During that semester though, I got to talking to a colleague, Jess, and she started introducing me to project based learning, and inquiry based learning, and then I started doing some more reading and learning on my own time. In doing so I started to realize that this was the sort of thing I was doing with the Community Living Class, I just didn't know there were models and frameworks already in place for all of those things. Now I was able to start transferring my skills from the Community Living Class into the mainstream classroom. I had something tangible to talk about and something concrete to deliver.
It didn't happen all at once. Don't get me wrong. I didn't go from teaching from a binder to building a homestead overnight. I changed one unit at a time in each of my grade nine and ten classes. Until eventually I had four different projects for each of the grade nine and ten science units. I'm going to be honest here, I don't feel like I made a lot of friends along the way as I moved away from the traditional model of education. However, I didn't get into teaching to make a lot of friends. My students were learning, and I got to see what learning looks like again.
I started by changing the grade nine electricity unit. Students never really revisit the principles of electricity after grade nine, so I felt like this was a safe place to start. I decided to turn the unit on it's head. I gave them the unit test on the first day and gave them two days to try to figure it out. Then I gave them a package with all the slideshows and worksheets that I would normally have given, but let them work through it at their own pace, then I gave them a whole bunch of materials to play with to learn about static and current electricity and the final product was building a house out of cardboard and wiring it as if they would be wiring a house. It was pretty cool what some of the students came up with, and they enjoyed the experience, but I wasn't satisfied.
Some how I found out about the movie The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind on Netflix. Then I knew what I had to do. The movie is a true story about a boy who harnesses the wind to generate electricity and saves his family and his village from drought. My students were going to build a windmill that generated electricity to turn on a lightbulb. That was going to be the entire unit. They were going to have to figure out on their own how it worked and meet all the curriculum expectaions, but on the first two days we watched the movie, then I told them that's what they were going to do and I got out of the way.