In mid-July, I attended a multi-day workshop focused on basic counselling skills. We were a small group: the educator, the school counsellor, the doctor, the mental health worker, the social worker, the community support person, the psychologist, the bus driver, the insurance company support person. Each of us front line workers.
Our conversations were rich, meaningful, and helped to drive the structure of the workshop.
I feel teachers are often the unrecognized and untrained front-line helping professionals. Often teaches are the adults with whom youth seek to share, to confide, and to help them access other/differently trained helping professionals. 15 years ago I was not trained for this role. I am a teacher. I am not a mental health worker. I am not a social worker or a police officer. More and more I am the one, or the first adult, to learn of a young person’s crisis, trauma, harm, pain, or loss story.
I remember spending time in an alternative program the second year of my undergrad program. I remember Sandy, the principal, sharing that the students in the program had needs that usurped their academic needs. And it was these needs that had to be met first long before I began to think about building trust, long before I began to think about creating a sense of belonging. Sandy’s work in helping me to understand my philosophical assumptions, my colonial ways-of-knowing about youth’s needs was a pivotal side-step in my growth as an educator. I believe, for most youth, and certainly for our most vulnerable youth, academic success (mastery) follows once there is a sense of belonging. Until that moment, and I am grateful for it, I had never paused long enough to consider all that precursors belonging.
This teaching has never left me.
Since, I have sought to learn more. I have sought training in how to educate, how to learn, why ways of learning and ways of knowing, but more importantly, I have sought training in how to live alongside kids.
I remember after I graduated, the summer before my first group of students, our first classroom, I found a teaching mentor, JoAnn. I spent afternoons with JoAnn that first summer. We would sip tea. JoAnn had books stacked on her kitchen table, sipping and suggesting one book, or four, or all, to me. Mostly, JoAnn told stories. I took notes. JoAnn insisted that her 30 years were not as an English Language Arts Teacher, but as a Language Learning Educator. She asked me to think deeply about this calling. It was an action. An educators’ moral imperative. To use our words. To listen. To share. To speak. To live.
As I launched into my first year, I kept her words at the forefront of my work. They were action words. Language can change the world.
I began to think deeply with my unspoken languages. The languages of my silences. The languages of my sharing and not sharing with students. I thought deeply with my reluctances and with my promptings in asking after students stories of experience.
I have sought language training ever since. I have sought small workshops. I have sought half day sessions. I have sought weekend and week long training. I have worked in teams, joined other educators with similar mindsets, I have spent years in research, living alongside students to better understand how to attend to their stories of experience, I have diligently fostered relationships with other helping professionals to best meet the needs of the youth we serve. I have sat in circle with youth and followed their lead.
This is not new. Teachers seek to learn more and to listen differently every day. Teachers live in and alongside students in crisis and trauma everyday.
Training is not prayer, or intuition, or being able to nurture students, or being good at my job. Training allows me the knowledge to enter relationally into complex conversations with a wholeness of language that ought to and needs to be present in those moments.
We sat in table groups of four. I sat with Lena, Reberta, and Jane. We smiled easily. We love our work; we believe in youth. We shared stories.
The second day we were asked to shift tables, work with new people. At the core of our work, we understood the need to attend deeply to others stories of experience. The second day, we sat together but at a different table. Jane leaned over, “I like you. I am sitting here.” Jane had worked in the health field for 30 years as a mental health counselor then as a manager. She retired from the healthcare field and returned to school earning her Education degree. She had been teaching for five years. Her program felt similar to mine. Throughout the workshop, we slipped away during coffee breaks, sitting side by side on the stained small sofas outside the meeting room to share stories.
Late on the final day of inservice, the facilitator asked us to work through a scenario, working through the skills we had learned. Around the circular-table that afternoon sat the four educators. Lana shared. I leaned in. She shared her experiences of Residential School. Jane shared her stories of experiences of Day School. I leaned in.
Last week, my friend and colleague, Jamie, shared about attending a reading summit. As a master reading teacher, Jamie was feeling validated for the work she is doing with students. Jamie reflected that more than anything, she felt a renewed sense of hope in teaching beyond the outcomes, for finding that magical ‘Why.’ The spark that educators can so clearly articulate when we meet our first students.
“I don’t know if I remembered to tell you, but I passed.” This is David. Part of my school family. David is a grade 11 student who works full-time outside of school. David was messaging about his driver’s licence. Perfect marks. So he messaged. He does this. Messaging. He stops by every once in a while, too. When my parents were readying to sell to the family home, his step-dad dropped him off early one Saturday and David helped my husband and I to load the canoe trailer, two trucks, and our SUV with my parents’ keepsakes. David chatted the hour ride there and the hour ride back. I learned more about ATVs and motors than I ever thought possible.
Late into August, one of those muggy-burn your skin kind of summer days, David’s brother had dropped him off. We had hired David to pull up a section of lawn, prepping the area for a gravel walkway. Alan was building walkways in the backyard. I was unpacking boxes in the kitchen. Every 40 minutes the side door opened and David appeared. He would flop into a seat at the kitchen table, more for the moments to share stories with me than for the moments in the shade, glass of water in hand. I set aside the dishes I was packing away, sat across from him and listened. There was so much to attend to. There was David, sharing stories at our kitchen table, a hot afternoon in August. Many educators believe David to be disengaged, not only with school, but with life too. That day, while spinning his water, he told me his goal was to get his grade 12; he told me about working nights and about managing his mom’s farm. We had many water breaks that day. The kitchen didn’t get put away. After a while, David wandered out back to load sod into the back of Alan’s truck. The two of them built a stand for the canoes we inherited months earlier when mom and dad sold the family home.
For Alan’s birthday I gave him rocks. We love rocks. Alan loves to build with them. I messaged a former student Larry, asked if we might nab rocks from a pile on one of his fields. But Larry farms, and summer, is busy. He messaged after a solid rain, told us to meet him in the work year at 9:00am the following Monday. When I texted him that we were on our way, Larry replied, that something had come up, to come, but that he and his father in-law were busy ‘buttering.’ He said he wouldn’t be more than an hour. When we arrived, Larry and his father-in-law were taking the hide off a deceased bull. The two men, skinned the bull as Alan and I watch with aversion and awe while we visited with the two of them. Larry’s father-in-law was talking Larry through the process, hands on. Alan and I watched as the men removed the hide, cleanly, calmly, neither getting blood on themselves. The men told the story of the bull, of the farm, and of Larry joining the family. Larry’s partner arrived. The entire time, the experience of watching Larry learn through experience, smiling and slowing working his way beside his mentor, and Larry’s father-in-law speaking gently, correctly, and lovingly shared the story of Larry and of his story of learning best.
The bull, buttered, gutted, quartered, lowered into the bed of a halftone, was then taken to the butcher in a nearby town. Alan and I, and our dog Felix, were invited into the cab of Larry’s truck. We were honoured guest and as such, we were to see the place! Two hours of bouncing around pastures. Larry, his partner, and their Border Collie sharing the fields destroyed by hail and those spared, those waist high, and those ready to combine. “Here, madame,” Larry kept saying, “you can just come in here, open these gates and come on in here to walk. These are our pastures. No one cares. And you can take as many rocks as you like too. (without drawing breath) Hon, should we take her to see the old place north of here?” And off we bounced north. We were invited for lunch. We loaded our truck with rocks. Felix made friends with Larry’s Border Collie, rolling in fresh cow manure and travelling home in the back of the truck. I remember watching Larry as his father-in-law pulled his knife along the hide, talking Larry through, Larry listening, smiling, learning in the moment. Real life applications . I thanked Larry for showing us around. I had squeezed Larry’s father-in-law’s arm when Larry went to wash the knives, “thank you, thank you for giving him a family.”
Last spring I attended a sort of pep-rally for extra curricular clubs and teams. I was standing at the back of the auditorium, under the balcony, with a student who lives with social anxiety. The rally was long. The 550 plus students and staff were restless. The final group to share, and one I facilitate, are an eclectic and gender and sexually diverse Arts group. Though I didn’t hear it at the time, a student in the middle of the from the audience yelled a comment following the group sharing, “No one cares.”
The moment stayed with me. It was a Friday. Most people left the building directly following dismissal from the rally. A grade nine educator, an honest grade nine educator sought me out. Following the comment on one of the group’s grade 12 members had grabbed the mic. She stated that the group had a right to be on stage, that they did belong, that they did matter. Though I was at the back, I had heard those words. The grade nine teacher came to tell me he was proud of the fortitude of the grade 12. He asked for my help in seeking her out, in shaking her hand (He had been in the balcony at could not get out of the assemble or could not have been heard in the crowd of hundreds ….
A midsummer educational workshop. And we were weaving stories. The facilitator, attending to our stories of experiences as our stories flowed inward and flowed outward, listened. We were, after all, building basic counselling skills.
Before we concluded, Jane slipped a piece of paper into my journal. “My number. I want to stay in touch. I’ll be in your way later in the fall.” Like a compass or a fine October sunrise.
As we drove south that evening, Jane’s story of her father’s trap line, the *marks along her back that were given at Day School, the Science award she earned in her B.Ed. that are the teachings she learned from her dad, the way she structures her class – toast and tea first, the way she addresses those in leader roles when the needs of her students aren’t met.
I have thought a great deal with Jane’s stories of experience. And with JoAnn’s. With David’s. With Larry’s. The grade 12 who spoke. People with voice. Through action. Through words, through attending, through language. The relationship between trust and belonging and justice is filled these mindful acts: safe, gentle, authentic, consistent, joyous.
Weave: an action.
The language of why.