The Darkness and the Light

Their program nearly over, the student teachers settled in
and waited for the start of their last class.
All in eager anticipation; careers set to begin,
yet still amazed at just how quick the year had passed.

The work was finished so they figured that this would be the time and place
to say goodbyes and and on the year to reminisce.
But to their great surprise they learned that wouldn’t be the case.
The prof said, “I’ve been waiting for the chance to ask you this.”

Was this a joke? No, she was serious.There would be no chit chat.
So, they sat up straighter and gave to her their full attention,
thinking, “what on earth could be so all important that
she left it right until the very end to mention?”

Without a word the lights she turned off, the window blinds she closed
and then went and softly shut the door so tight.
And in the silent, unlit room the question then she posed,
“tell me please, when does the darkness become light?”

It was as if the clock had stopped; nobody made a sound.
All sat waiting, thinking, “I don’t want to be the one to answer this.”
But time did pass and the realization slowly came around:
someone would have at least to offer up a guess.

Now, quite a few of them engaged in a game of second guessing,
thinking that to find the answer would not be all that hard.
And on this last day perhaps she’d planned one final simple lesson.
Yet, the quiet stillness of the room had caught them all off-guard.

A first attempt, was offered up, “Wait, I think I know.
It’s when the words within our books then can be seen.
So truth and knowledge can finally on our students be bestowed.
And, best of all, new insights and subtleties be gleaned.”

She shook her head, no, uh-uh then at what she’d heard,
saying, “who says reading is a thing they’ll even want to do?
So many find their truth and live without the printed word.
And aren’t books best when guided by insight and wisdom too?”

Some were now perplexed but then there came another try.
“It’s when the class can see the notes and such I put upon the board,
and pass out gems of knowledge, their consideration to apply,
so precious facts to their growing memories then can all be stored.”

But shook her head again, retorting, “it’s not at all just about you.
And you should never equate the act of teaching with that of telling.
You’ve got to guide, help and demonstrate; yes, all of that is true.
But it’s what your students can perform that should be the most compelling.”

One student, braver than the rest, offered up one last response.
“It’s when they can see my classroom and all the wonders that it holds
and my students in their courses can thus find themselves ensconced,
and feel the magic of the learning that inside there unfolds!”

But she shook her head again and said, “no, that’s still not just quite it.
Each of your classes are important but they’re not the only one.
Our subjects are mere elements of a much larger kit.
It’s more than just your stuff that counts considering the long run.”

Nothing was said til at some length, once more the prof resumed,
“You’re wondering what was wrong with what you said?
Frankly, the answer is ‘nothing much’; they were as clever as you’d assumed.
It’s just that your words did not quite jive with what was in my head.”

“The need for guidance and compassion was far from in your sights.
Then you put yourselves out front, when it’s students who matter most.
And you were fixated on what divides and not on what unites.
It’s as if the differences were what had you all engrossed.”

While she spoke the student teachers became increasingly aware
of how their eyes had become accustomed to the light so low.
And looking around, a simple truth began to become clear,
and through it all a bunch of smiles did glow.

And in the ever-rising light, her voice continued, “You’d
best bear in mind it’s not just about how to earn a living.
School is about learning how to build a life that’s good.
And for instilling in our young folk all the the joy that comes from giving.”

“So it’s best to recognize those gathered all around
share and walk much of the path that lies in front of you.
And, like you, endeavour to pursue a life that’s sound
while to themselves always remaining true.”

“When you are able to discern the commonalities
and let them be the guide to your insight,
then recognize that the school unites us all in family:
that is when the darkness becomes light.”

Each year, at their year – end gala, I do a recitation for outgoing graduates of the Intermediate / Secondary teacher education program at Memorial University of Newfoundland, my place of work. The above is this year’s installment.


For Wilbert, a True Friend and Mentor

“This can’t be true.” I looked again
but the words remained there, plain to see.
“Life’s setting sun is sinking low.”
I wondered, “how could this be?”

The very one who, so many times,
stood firm for what you knew was right
and who broke down walls to get things done,
with modesty, honesty and foresight.

And who, for friends, and home and family
stood strong, the worst you’d face
is now facing the end, but still my friend 
holds courage, strength and grace.

And for my part, stronger than the sadness
I know some time soon I must endure
from my memory springs the many things
I have yet to thank you for.

I’m reminded of the first time we met.
You, then the province’s consultant for Math Ed.
agreed to help this “young gaffer” (your words)  
with advice on a paper I just couldn’t put to bed.

Well, based on the insight and knowledge
you so freely gave me on that day
my mediocre work improved
and, thanks to you, the paper earned an “A”.

And then in the early nineties when
distance education physics was set to go
and I hinted “hire me” to who was in charge
my rejection came as a humbling blow.

But when my school board got a call
asking if they could second me to do that very chore
I knew right then there was one more thing
I had to thank you for.

And then, later on, when the axe fell,
budgets slashed and so much was let go
you found a way for me to stay,
even gave me more chances for to grow.

Like when you managed the Vista project
which reinvisioned online learning,
you found for me a space–and t’was through that grace
my career took its next turning.

For the skills I learned all through that time
and the responsibilities you helped me learn to bear
I did apply as we built CDLI,
so thanks, too, for all those years.

I’ve often wondered how best to thank you for
the opportunities, support and, of course, advice
but I came to see you just did it unselfishly.
There never was a price.

And so, now I work my time with those
on the same path that that we once chose.
And the journey they’re on is so very long.
It’s a less kind world these days, I do suppose.

Still it seems to me that the best way
to honour all the kindness you’ve bestowed
is to pass it on and try to help those
with whom I share this road.

So when I find a way to help another
through some thing I say or do
I’ll feel that same sense of gratitude
and smile, then and there,
as I think of you.

My favourite picture of you, taken back in ’99 on the occasion of your retirement. Back Row: Lloyd Gill. Wayne Oakley, Harvey Weir, Dave Dibbon, Rachel Handrigan, Wade Sheppard, Rene Wicks. Front Row: Wilbert Boone, Maureen Boone, Jean Brown, Maurice Barry

Work, Unrequited Love, and Regret

It never ceases to amaze me how our chaotic lives so often lead to order. Just how is it that all of the random interactions between the thousands of souls within our circles of friendship can lead to any semblance of sanity? Social norms? Maybe? Bias? Possibly? All that is sure is that, now and then, powerful messages and lessons arise from the milieu and, if we allow ourselves a little peace and quiet there are there for the taking. Sometimes that lesson is one of regret.

Just the other day, I found myself making a point to a colleague like this: I asked, “Have you ever had a crush on someone who did not return your feelings? She chuckled, “Just one?” It was an easy question. It’s happened to all of us and unless someone’s really been blessed (actually I would say they are either very unlucky or, at best, awfully forgetful; after all strength only grows from times of pain), the mere mention of it can’t fail to resurrect, from those long-ago teenage and twenty-something years, the feelings of shame, of sadness; that overpowering grief which accompanies the realization that something you so dearly and powerfully want will remain forever beyond your grasp.

The subject? Work. My point? Even though we can love work it’s important to realize that work does not love us back. It can’t. It has, after all, no feelings and, therefore, no real means by which it can reciprocate. Any love-ish responses from work that we may experience, either real or imagined, are just in accordance with policy or some higher directive within the corporate structure. It’s just behaviourist; programmed.

Ersatz love is not love.

Now don’t get me wrong–I wasn’t suggesting that we should not love work. Far from it! Throwing one’s soul and passion into the daily labour is just about the healthiest form of self-expression I can fathom. That which occupies the lion’s share of our waking hours should be something about which we care deeply, right? Else, why bother? Find something else. There are, after all, plenty of ways in which you can spend the day.

No, it’s just that we should not expect reciprocity for those extras we put in. We are hired, after all, to do something fairly specific and, in return, it’s agreed that we will receive financial compensation along with, hopefully, a modicum of respect–although the later part is far from guaranteed. Anything else is on us, and us alone. The extras we do are best seen as things we do to receive rewards that are intrinsic. And good for that! After all there are few things more rewarding that the certitude that what we have done demonstrates excellence and is the results of our best efforts.

Life, at least seen through the rear-view, has an uncanny knack of leaving us with a more-or-less coherent rendition of events. Even ones that probably once bore no semblance of connection become, over time, all coupled, to a single train. So too with this week. After a conversation from last night here’s now a part two to my story.

Chatting at a party with a former student, I became aware of an even more powerful rendition of the story of one-sided love. She graduated with her B.Ed. some years ago and since then has been working hard in the hopes of some day obtaining full time employment. At the party she was quite upbeat. The number of substitute days she’d been getting, per week, has been steadily growing. She’s been working on another degree, one that will make her even more employable, and is right now just one course short–a course that is not offered in the next semester. No worries, though, she’s also working on a go-around, for a system that apparently does not really care if she succeeds or not.

There are times during a conversation when you disengage, temporarily, from the outward discourse and rejoin that ever-present inner conversation. So, shifting my mouth to automatic, my thoughts ran instead to the obvious: this young teacher–a particularly talented and well-suited individual, I might point out–had, some two years earlier, already achieved all that is necessary to pursue her chosen career. Since then she’s been going day by day, looking for substitute work while, at the same time, working feverishly to add yet another degree to an already impressive list. And all for what? “Hopefully sometime soon, maybe I will able to snag a term contract,” she’d said. She didn’t even see a permanent job as a realistic outcome at this point! How completely messed up, all things considered! I returned to the conversation, assured her that she was taking all the right steps, said, in all sincerity, “I am so very proud of you,” and returned to the group I was mostly hanging with.

It happened again on the ride home. Thinking back on the exchange with the former student a flood of similar stories of former students trying so very hard to break into such a walled-up system flowed through my head. This time the thought was inescapable. There’s love. There’s unrequited love and then there’s … this.

What have we done? How could we have possibly created such an uncaring, unfeeling structure? The irony! After all, this is the same system charged with the education, the care and, yes, the love of our young people. Is it too much to ask that it spare a little of that same love for those who so dearly want to be one of those charged with carrying out its mission?

So what’s my point? Frankly I’m not completely sure. I only wish I could suggest some positive steps that might ameliorate this, items that might make it a little more fair, more tolerable, more just plain right. Of course it’s not that simple. There are no real dragons to slay, no villains to vanquish. No doubt, as is the case in all walks, there are more than a few self-centered thugs who have muscled their way to positions of influence and power and, for whom, self-interest trumps integrity. They are the minority, though. The vast majority of all of those who serve the system, whether as teachers, administrators or as trustees, do so in pursuit of the lofty goals you’d expect. It’s just that we’re all just one piece of a much larger mosaic, one that cares about much more than young professionals and their contribution to our future.

There are those who will scoff, and assert that it’s all confirmation bias. You know, that style of wrong thinking, when we only acknowledge the evidence that supports our beliefs and either ignore that which is to the contrary or find a way to refute it. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps, though, they’re not, at least not this time.

For my part, the best I have is a feeling of gratitude. It provides a huge measure of comfort knowing that those who wish to join the teaching profession do so with such a degree of fortitude and passion. That said, there’s something else and it’s not good. I’m left with deep regret knowing that my own veteran’s legacy, my own contribution of thirty-five years of service to the same profession has not contributed in any meaningful way to improvement in how we treat those who aspire to follow in our footsteps.

They Sure Can Slide Fingers on a Pane of Glass

Increasingly it seems to me that if, twenty years from now, we took the time to assess what the young folk of today got from their childhoods, the one thing we’ll be able to state with surety is that there was never a generation so adept at sliding their fingers along a small sheet of glass.

Thirty-five years ago I began (getting paid for) my teaching career. In those days I self-identified as a science – math teacher. I loved it, especially the lab activities. I was lucky because at the time–the early eighties–science curricula were designed to be very hands-on. It was great, but there was something else: I generally found that the activities jived very well with the students’ personal experiences. Students could, for example, relate to labs studying motion because the objects of study seemed so very familiar. For non-accelerated motion the students were used to gliding along ice, rolling along level ground on skateboards, bikes and rollerblades. For accelerated motion, they could similarly draw on tobogganing or biking downhill, playing ball and just throwing rocks in the ocean. For circular motion they had experience on playground merry-go-rounds, swings and even with twirling things on the end of string.

But then time passed. I noticed it first for circular motion, never an easy topic and one that you had to ensure that students had up-close-and-personal experience with before digging in through the lens of physics. Students could not relate anymore to any of the once-familiar events. Not even twirling stuff on strings! I just put it down to the increased time that the children were spending playing video games indoors, figured, “That’s sad, but I guess we’ll just have to redouble our efforts with the hands-on activities in school,” and thought no more of it.

…until the penny dropped.

Talking to the young people who attend the university at which I work it became increasingly obvious that, not only are the students not directly experiencing the physical world (aka playing outdoors) but neither are they doing that in school! Regardless of what happens in k-6, once they hit Intermediate and then High School, their days in science class are mostly spent with their bums in uncomfortable ancient school desks, all neatly arranged in rows, and listening to an adult talk, talk, talk about scientific knowledge or show off how well they can “solve a problem,” which, by the way, is not that at all but, rather, a boring run-through of some algorithm for dealing with some contrived situation or other.

And there’s shag all interaction with the physical world.

Once there was a thing called “core labs,” hands-on activities that HAD to be done. In the eighties they numbered 12 to 15 per course. These days the number is more like six and, guess what, less than that are actually done. Oh, they’re talked about and sometimes even simulated–you know, rubbing your fingers across the glass top of a tablet or whatever to simulate motion, or something equally banal–but rarely ever really done.

What a shame. It turns out that our remarkable, wonderful brains are ideally suited to experience the world in two different but complementary ways. One way is procedural, logical, even rules-based. It is dealt with mostly–but by NO MEANS EXCLUSIVELY–by the left side of the brain. Talking, reading and experiencing simulations feeds it nicely. The other was is more holistic, even probabilistic, and, similarly is mostly handled by the right side. It’s best fed through direct physical and / or sensory experience with the phenomenon in question. Two views, ideally nicely merged and coexisting, producing a complex and useful representation of whatever the senses encounter.

Too bad that the simulated and  talked about and PowerPointed-to-death world is mainly processed procedurally. It’s not real in the experiential sense and, as such, the processing that the (mostly) right brain is so good at never gets to happen. As a result, the young people can talk and diagram about the physical world, even “solve” paper-and-pencil problems but give ‘em something real like some electrical components or mechanical parts and they have no clue whatsoever what to do with them.

Because they’ve never had the chance to. Still, they have experienced glass displays and they are no doubt adept with that.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Again

A conversation with a former student, now abroad, who informed me of how all the teachers’ lesson plans need to be written in procedural form and pre-approved by the upper administration, reminded me of the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Tired of fetching the water himself, the master sorcerer enlists the aid of his best apprentice to do the menial task. Thinking he knows more than the master, the apprentice enchants a broom to do it for him. Sadly, though, he does not know how to stop it and soon the place is flooded. Sometimes the “upper underlings” think they know more than they really do, to the detriment of us all.

The mysterious duality that brain physiology imposes upon our perceptions!  While the notion of the hard and inseparable divide between the left and right brain function has been debunked over the past ten years or so it remains that the brain is not symmetric. There are significant differences between the left and right halves–differences in weight, in shape, in appearance and even in the ratio of right to grey matter. And while neuroplasticity is a thing; yes, the brain can “rewire” itself in response to injury and to education, there is a decided selection on the left for processing things in a logical, procedural way and on the right for dealing with things that, frankly, seem to be decidedly quantum-mechanical, governed by things that can only be understood on a more holistic, probabilistic, even whimsical sense.

It’s painful, therefore, to observe, more and more, a growing emphasis, throughout society, on things that appear more left-brained, at the expense of things that best come from the right. Witness the increased de-skilling of the trades and the professions, a thing you see increasingly in my own field as, more and more, everything gets reduced to something “anybody could do.” Everything has to be reduced to an algorithm, a set of procedures or rules, with less and less room left for that wonderful, powerful thing we call “good judgement” or “art” depending on the context. It all makes you  wonder just how many of those apprentices are busy enchanting brooms as you read this. Let’s hope there’s at least a few wiser sorcerers who can undo it.

What do I Teach?

My friend Ed Wade was shocked to hear I planned to offer you advice.
Said, “They’ve heard enough of our old stuff. Some stories should suffice.”
Let’s do both, but be forewarned, you’re about to hear the pronoun “I” a lot.
It’s not about me, but about you, and maybe you’ll find some food for thought.

As this past year went by so fast many thoughts have came my way.
So I supposed I’d draw on those to frame out what to you I’d say.
I don’t want to ramble as I often do. I’ll try to be more concise
and gauge my speed against your need to check what’s on your mobile device.

This time each year I try to put a few words together for you
who are about to start; words from the heart; advice on what you might do.
In the past I made a list of things that seemed important at the time
and figured a way for me to say them in a way that rhymed.

But looking back I realized I’d made an error fundamental,
said too much, and so, as such, lacked an idea that was central.
Therefore, this time I took my own advice, and thought it through before I begun.
So now I’ll share one idea here, not a bunch as from a scatter gun.

“What do you teach?” I’ve often been asked by people I’ve just met.
That’ll be the thing to which I’ll cling in the few words you’re about to get.
But first let’s come around to it in a way that makes more sense
for you’re all from here, and you know, my dears that’s not how things commence.

You see around here, when you meet someone, first thing they will blurt out
is, “Hello me son, where are ya from?” They know people from there no doubt.
Next thing you’re asked is what you do—that’s the one that leaves me most concerned.
Are they following cues, or judging you, based on what they think you earn?

And so you answer them as you see fit; maybe ask about them too,
‘til finally they come around to the one about which I’m making all this ado.
“Oh! What do you teach?” they’ll ask, expecting you to answer in terms so short & plain.
Ah, it makes me squirm, I must affirm! Please sit and listen while I explain.

You’re thinking maybe I can’t commit, for many of you know why I have no tattoos.
You’ve heard my fears that after seven years, when our bodies are made anew,
the several things that once meant the most will likely have been replaced
as experience brings even more new things and the old stuff gets displaced.

But it’s more than that, sure I’ve changed. In first year MUN I’ve memories so clear.
Physics and Math, choosing, all the while musing teaching them as my career.
But my first job in a small rural school proved that wouldn’t be the case.
Eleven courses kinda forces subject teaching to an impossible pace.

I found it best to look at my students instead of the subjects that I taught.
It being a small school I found, as a rule, I’d have ‘em again more often than not.
Knowing their strengths & shortcomings let me get the most from those I’d been assigned.
Nine years came & went with me giving 100%, ‘til to move on I felt inclined.

I still recall that day twenty five years ago when I landed what was then my dream job.
Teaching Physics and Math online—ah the stars had aligned for this poor geeky bay-dwelling knob!
And to my delight I found that things hadn’t changed much. I still taught students from small rural schools.
Taught multiple subjects, and in many respects still able to use all my tried and tested teaching tools.

And so the time passed. Every few years brought more change: some good, some bad, some unexpected.
I got better, yup, yet I often screwed up, but each time I had more experience thus collected.
And so, over time, many things became clearer—that’s one gift that experience brings.
What I teach,” I now know, and I’ll tell you, although, first let me clarify several important things.

In the time you’ve been here many of you’ve come to know there’s some questions that I love to ask.
My favourite? This is it, “What’s love’s opposite?” If you say, “hate” I will take you to task.
For both love and hate coexist; you can feel both at one time, so opposites then they surely can’t be.
So take away love, yes, go give ‘er a shove, and what’s left is not hate but apathy.

So I caution you, then, when you’re put in clarge of a class and your priority is maintaining control,
keeping the sweet little dears all quiet—or in fear—really, that should never ever be your first goal.
Be mindful that when they’re unwilling to express what’s going on inside of their heads
you’re just flying blind, while they’re falling behind. All hands’d be better off at home in their beds!

But in all the time that I’ve asked of the opposite of love not one soul has shot back, “But what’s love?”
To me that seems weird, but perhaps you were “afeard” I’d keep babbling…I’m like that…sort of.
As you probably know, there’s many possible responses; the ancient Greeks spoke of no less than eight.
But it is this for me: “to want you become the best you can be.” So to teach is to love; ain’t it great!

So, then, as you practice your craft, and get on with your lives, you’ll let students in more and more.
And while their joys you will share, I bid you beware for then they can hurt you right down to the core.
And after several bouts of this you may feel jaded and wonder if it’s all really worth the price.
But let there be no doubt, once they’re “in” there’s no “out.” Been there, and on that I’ve advice.

At times you’ll get hurt, perhaps by students you love, or maybe because of the stunned things you’ll do.
Perhaps you’ll be too headstrong, at any rate there’ll be wrong that will leave you feeling broken too.
When you’re down you’ve three choices of what happens next. Here they are in the order of ease:
First: stay down, don’t get up, you poor sweet buttercup. If that’s you, you best quit now; do it please.

Second, you can get back on your feet and go on, displaying fortitude and resiliency.
But there’s a third choice: become stronger; it’s been voiced by sages with some brilliancy.
In order to get stronger, first you must get hurt but work carefully on that damage, I implore.
Because your strength it will grow and in time it will show, you’re far better than you were before.

After all there’s no sense expecting students and class to always be perfect and bright.
Rose-coloured glasses, are only for asses convinced their way is the only one that is right.
For once you get used to letting your students just be, even cranky and putting you to the test
they’ll trust you enough to share with you the stuff you need to help them be their best.

So I know you’re wondering, “Where’s the point in all this?” After all I promised an answer to you.
But you made a mistake, said my time I could take. To me that’s licence for some ballyhoo.
One last thing I will tell: back when I was in school, I was advised I should be an engineer.
At gadgets I liked to pick, I could fix ‘em right quick so ‘twas a good choice for me, they were clear.

But there was this thing, see there was something else that intrigued me far more than that stuff.
And so when I applied to MUN ‘twas cut and dried, choosing Education, for me, was not tough.
Yes, messing around in the lab is still fun, but a life in the classroom leaves me with no remorse.
And if you haven’t figured it out, what I teach, there’s no doubt: I teach students, of course!