Heart to Heart with Adele: Teaching and learning


Dear Adele,

My child was assigned to a teacher I have heard mixed reviews about recently. I would like to find out whether I need to be concerned and what I should do about it, if anything. What has been your experience with this, and what advice do you have?

 I Heard It Through the Grapevine


Dear I Heard It Through the Grapevine,

I taught in many Ottawa schools for 31 years in total, and assisted all kinds of families as a counsellor, with their children in these same schools. In every workplace there were a few superstar status teachers, a full complement of average competent wonderful professionals who love children and do a decent job, and one or two who would have been happier and better placed outside of the classroom. Schools are not utopian paradises where every teacher gets an A+ evaluation each and every year. Not every teacher gets recommended by their colleagues and students for a national ‘Teacher of the Year’ award. It is just not happening, despite what our leaders might say or want you to think.

All parents must realize it is no different than the workforce setting in which they earn a living. There are excellent workers, average workers and those who should, in an ideal world, move on to something more suited to their interests, talents and skills. Do you not hear about it from government workers, hospital employees, business people and those in the trades? Unless one is living under a rock in South Africa, one cannot miss the truth of this reality of any large workplace.

May I suggest you do not listen and believe everything you hear via the grapevine. This story might help give some perspective.

I was teaching grade four English one year to early French immersion students. They were ready for a new novel study, so I approached the principal for help.

“Is there any list of recommended novels for study for this grade and program from our ministry?”

 “No”, came the answer.

“Is there any list available through the consultants at the school board level, then?”

 “No”, came the answer.

 “Can you recommend a suitable novel for my group?”

 “No”, came the answer, “ but  talk to the fifth grade five teacher down the hall.”

I cornered my fatigued colleague one evening after a tough day, and asked him for his ideas. Having been a teacher librarian for 13 years previously, I was pretty familiar with the field. Mr.X recommended three or four books I knew but which were definitely too difficult for my youngsters. I thanked him for his ideas and left without a good novel study idea for my fourth graders.

Money was also an issue, of course. I had built up a small collection of novels for my program over several years, using funds or credits with the paperback book club purchases my students bought themselves. Budgets for much more were not available to me. I perused the current monthly book club flyer and had enough credits to buy a set of Laura Ingalls Wilder's, Little House on the Prairie. I knew the author, the theme, the level of the writing and decided to purchase that title out of what was available, for my class.

When the book was introduced to my class, I was pretty pleased that I had actually been able to get it. I personally love historical fiction and thought the children would enjoy studying a girl growing up in different times. The classic held lots of potential for discussion, analysis, research, reading  and writing activities which I could connect to the story.

A parent though, called to complain one day. She thought the choice of this novel was sexist and that I should cease the English unit with this novel. I defended the value of this historical fiction selection and thought it was dealt with. But when a second parent called from the same class, I figured the parents had been talking.

I decided to invite the second parent to come and see the class any day she was free. She took me up on it and sat at the back of my overcrowded, stuffy, overheated, portable containing wet snowsuits, smelly boots, assorted odorous lunches, bulging backpacks, desks, chairs  and 27 or 28 darling fourth graders whose ability in my subject spanned grade two to grade six. She watched and listened  for one full period of about 1 ¼ hours, on a day she selected. She observed the everyday period, studying the novel in question.

At the end of that period she came over to me, as I hurried the youngsters outside for a break. I had to hastily load up my metal library book truck, replete with several class sets of texts, about 200 notebooks, and all my lesson materials, to move across the snow filled school yard, during recess, to the next portable. I was, while doing this, not really thinking about her, but wondering whether I would get a few minutes to use the ladies room.  She simply said,

“Thank you. You are absolutely inspiring Mrs. B.”

There was no conversation, no discussion, no questions. She came, she saw and was satisfied. She left and I never heard another thing from anyone about that English program or that class.

So I have this advice.

Chill out! Tell your child he or she will have many different people in his or her life as teachers. He or she can learn from both the best and the worst. We all must get out of every learning opportunity what we can. Tell your youngster to ask for help at home, if it is needed.

As parents, ‘Go with the Flow!’ and ‘Roll with the Punches!’ Check out your child’s learning yourself every day as a matter of routine. One should not think a school anywhere can meet all of your child’s needs. A nightly habit of review, practice and reaching ahead done by the parents at the kitchen table, will override anything any single teacher does or does not do regarding academics. Your objective in the end, is to have your child become a life-long, independent, passionate learner and someone who can function well regardless of the people with whom he must study or work. Send that message, leave any supervision issues with a teacher to his or her superiors, and provide a ton of enrichment from home in the choices you make for your child.

I think many of us overestimate the value of a classroom course and the value of an A or a B given by some other person, on a few tests or assignments. All kinds of famous people have dropped out of formal school settings and propelled themselves to high and mighty places in their professions, including John Steinbeck, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Jobs and Ryan Gosling. Many others have advanced credentials coveted by scholars but used little of the knowledge from their course work to achieve much in their profession. Help your child love learning anything new, adapt to each environment in which he must function for a while, and he will have no problem finding his way to possibly uncharted heights in the world that awaits him.

Let me conclude with thoughts from some of the world’s strongest thinkers which might help to put your mind at ease:

“It is a miracle curiosity survives formal education.” Albert Einstein

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Mark Twain

“There isn’t any known way to bulk- education: it's all custom work.” John Taylor Gatto

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.