29 October 2010

Then and Now

According to Blogger, this is my 1500th post: a pittance compared to Bora, but not too shabby for a little edublog. This site contains the drips and drabs of my career and thoughts about public education. Whether they have been worthy of so many posts is a decision for The Reader. A lot has changed for me over the almost six years I've had this space, but I will save that brand of nostalgia for another time. Instead, I find myself wondering about the changes to teaching over the past few decades.

My mother is in the picture on the right. It was September 1969, just after she turned 23 and was beginning her second year of teaching. Me? I'm the barely visible bump underneath her dress. (Even as a fetus, I was in a classroom...not that I recall that particular experience.) I'm kind of a problem (yes, already). Being unwed and pregnant as a public school teacher in 1969 was "not simple," as my mother once said. She taught until Remembrance Day, then quit and stayed hidden in a local hotel until I made my appearance a couple of months later. After handing me over to the government to find a new home, she moved on with her life and career.

When I finally did meet her, she was still teaching and working part-time in her school as an administrator. I never got to see her teach (she usually had a Grade 1 classroom), but stories from former colleagues and students suggest that she was excellent.

On the left, we have my father. This picture was taken on the same outing as the one of my mother. He, too, was a teacher---elementary music. He is 30 in this photo, but also a second-year teacher. He had worked for the CBC and lived in his parents' basement for most of his 20's before escaping into a different life and career...one where he sowed lots of wild oats (although we think I am the only one that sprouted) and started a decades-long affair with alcohol. I don't know much about his skills as a teacher. I never had very many conversations with him, and his advanced Parkinson's symptoms made things even more difficult. His girlfriend at the time---who was still teaching---seemed to think a lot of his abilities. I hope that he inspired a lot of children to love music.

I have been thinking about these stories, along with those of every other former teacher I have known, as the 2010 pot swirls about educational matters. Has teacher quality changed in the past few decades---are the characteristics which now define a "good" teacher different from the 1970s...the 1950's...or the 1850's? Have teachers always suffered from the madonna-whore syndrome: at once expected by society to have no besmirches upon their personal escutcheons while carrying out the heavy demands placed upon schools? Have teachers and schools been continually vilified and perceived as not doing their jobs well? Did my mother and father feel as overworked and underappreciated in 1970 as my friends who teach today? In other words, has the world changed while teachers have remained the same?

It's not that I think there will be a resolution to the push and pull between what society thinks it wants its teachers to do and what actually happens. Rather, I would like us to realize that while the world we live in may change, people do not. A six-year old is a six-year old. Perhaps she is dressed differently from year to year...perhaps he has access to different information. But the human needs and growth remain the same. Relationships are built in the same ways. Teachers who see a new batch of 6-year olds every year may remember these things, but a society which has long forgotten what it is like to be six does not.

Somewhere behind those pictures...behind this blog...behind the at-large rhetoric about education are real people. Remembering that means that then and now aren't so different. It just means that we have to keep that important piece in our sights.

Epilogue: After my mother died last year, we found this children's book. It had originally been given to my aunt, who was all of 5-years old when I was born; however, at some point, it had returned to my mother for use in her classroom. We returned the book to my aunt, but not before I snapped a picture of the note on the title page. I think it is the only "public" piece I've ever seen where my mother acknowledged my father. I also thought the story choice was a bit...interesting. Who else but a secretly pregnant woman who can't see her family for Christmas would send a story about a woman who was in danger of losing her firstborn child? Here's hoping that pregnant and unmarried female educators have a simpler time of things now.


Jenny said...

This is beautifully written. As always.

Several years ago a good friend got pregnant before marriage. She was very concerned about what would happen. As it turns out, in our district, nothing. She and the father chose to get married, something they had been discussing before the pregnancy. It was reassuring to realize that an unwed mother can continue to teach now though.

The Science Goddess said...

It's interesting to me how our views of both pregnancy in the workplace and unwed (adult) mothers has changed over the years---all for the better, in my opinion. I'm glad that your friend didn't have to make a choice between a baby and her job.