I remember fondly, my first real teaching job. With an education degree and teaching practice under my belt, I was ready. I had accumulated some student loan debt and needed a job. Immediately. And a harsh reality had set in during my short stint substitute teaching in my home town of New Waterford. The road to a full time position here would be long and bumpy. It seemed to be based more on years waiting than skill set, and steeped in politics and who knows who. When I was passed over for a high school math term even though I was the only qualified applicant, I decided to accept the full time position of Grade 7 Math and Science Teacher in a small town in Alberta. My first full time teaching position – woohoo! I was excited, optimistic, nervous, naive. I headed west.
That year I was one of six brand new teachers at St Anthony’s, a K-9 school in Drumheller, a small town an hour and a half northeast of Calgary. Drumheller is an amazing place. Home of the famous Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum, and the friendliest bunch of outdoor adventure-seekers ever. I knew instantly this would be a chapter to remember.
The school board hosted an orientation session for new teachers in Okotoks. I remember distinctly the message I took away with me. As a teacher you are a role model for the students in your care. Consider carefully the gravity of that responsibility. If you need help, ask for help. Plan carefully and with purpose. What will the teacher be doing? What will the students be doing? What routines will you put in place to make that a reality? Those in charge had high expectations and they wanted us to have high expectations as well.
Back at St Anthony’s the administrators wanted to know more about me. What were my talents, interests, and special skills? Assuming we were just getting to know each other I spoke of a youth spent as a competitive figure skater, more recent experience as a track and field athlete, and interest (but not necessarily talent) in art. Later that day I received my schedule. Along with the Grade 7 Math and Science that I expected, I had a few extras: Art, Drama, and Fitness For Girls. Awesome. Along with the core subjects, students chose “Options” classes as part of their schedule. Courses varied year to year and term to term since staff designed their own programs around their passions and student interests. Pretty great right?
Staff were paid to be in school for over a week before students arrived and not just for content planning. We had a fascinating talk about colour and environment. What colours promoted what moods? Creative and calm classrooms had lots of blues and greens – we decorated accordingly. I remember the admin coming around to check in and see if our rooms were welcoming enough for our new little families. Too much red? Ok..yes of course I will change it.
I remember fondly and in detail each and every student I taught that year. Their personalities, likes and dislikes, the sound of their laughter. Yes – I had a lot of work. Hours of meticulous planning. Lessons and support materials were expected for every class so admin could pop in and join in with the lesson. But I always felt as though we were in it together. All of us. The staff, the students, even the parents. From the Monday Morning Muffin Meeting to the wind down Friday dinner and drinks at Stavros Pub, there was definitely a family vibe. It also helped that I only had 17 students in my classes. SEVENTEEN!!! Can you imagine how well you can get to know your students, how much easier it is to do projects, field trips, and literally anything and everything when it is 17 and not 30+?
Yesterday I reached out to a few of my former students and connected with a couple. Was it my imagination? Was my first year of teaching really as awesome as I remembered it? I was so pleased (and relieved) to hear that my students (now in their thirties!) also remember the laughter. It’s amazing the fun you can have learning together with the right set of priorities. Create a welcoming environment and share your passions with your family. Work hard, plan carefully and have high expectations of your students and of yourself. Then enjoy the fruits of your labour. Even after all these years I find myself striving for those connections, that teamwork that was prioritized my first year. I feel so blessed to have begun my career the way that I did.