I grew up on a small island 5,000 miles off the coast of France — Cape Breton. I grew up in extreme poverty, one of eight children, with an alcoholic father, trying not to cry in school every day because I was so hungry. Our house was not much more than a shack. There was no running water, an outdoor toilet, a coal stove for heat. From the moment I entered the doors of our little two-room school, my life changed. Teachers and principals were my idols. They were well dressed; they had nice cars and houses; classrooms were clean, quiet and orderly places. They were beautiful places.
I lived in a very small village. My teachers knew my story. They knew how tough it was for me. They must have known that I was always hungry, tired, ashamed, nervous, worried, self-conscious. I think they saw the potential in me. They valued my work ethic, my resilience, my ability. They helped me to believe in myself, to look forward. If it wasn’t for teachers, I couldn’t have imagined what kind of life was possible.
I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school, and when I wrote to the dean of women at St. Francis Xavier University telling her that the only way I could go to university was if I could find a job on campus, she offered me three different jobs that I could choose from. I took all three and from that day forward I was never poor again. I could send money home every month to help my mother. When these educators invested in me, they changed the cycle of poverty not only for me, but for my family. My younger brothers and sisters all went to school or trained in the trades so that they could make a good life for themselves.
No one is in a better position than you to be that person for some other child or family, and it has never been more important or more difficult to do that than it is today.
In our schools and in our communities we are challenged to deal with unprecedented diversity, increasingly complex social issues and a level of inequity that should be an embarrassment to a country like Canada and a province like Alberta. The challenges we face in addressing the needs of our indigenous children is especially troubling.
I have always believed that the best teachers teach children not programs. The best administrators create a culture that models and supports this approach. My experience has been that it’s much easier to get through curriculum and to achieve outstanding success as a teacher, as a school and as a school system when children feel loved, nurtured and understood.
Barriers like poverty, an overemphasis on standardized testing, inadequate funding, organizational design, isolationism and peer pressure are also complex and can be mitigated only by strategically and professionally mobilizing the broader community.
The minute we lose sight of the child and don’t prioritize and value relationships, we diminish the value of our role and our profession. Besides the negative impact this has on student success, my experience has also shown me that it has an even greater negative impact on teachers.
For teachers, relationships are critical to their well-being. Teachers who work in a supportive culture that understands and prioritizes relationships, who work closely with parents, who know their students and their stories, who do whatever it takes and who are advocates for their kids, are generally happy and healthy. They rarely miss time. Students love them. Parents love them. Their schools have wonderful reputations in their communities.
Traditional or simple solutions will not solve the complex issues we are dealing with in our schools and communities today. No one can do it alone, not schools, government, parents or communities, but if together we are willing to remove barriers and find ways to be nimble and innovative in responding to the needs of children and families, if we can really internalize a whatever-it-takes attitude, there’s nothing we can’t do.
There is so much help available for children and families, but unless our approach is integrated and co-ordinated, we are not going to have the required impact. We must adopt a sense of urgency and personal responsibility around this. We must realize and embrace how powerful we are.
My mother’s last words to me before she passed away were, "When you have a baby, you never know how it’s going to turn out." Indeed, so much is dependent on how seriously we take our shared role in nurturing the potential of our children. Being an educator at any level is one of the most difficult and important jobs in the world. Be exceptional at it.
If it doesn’t break your heart when one of your kids fails, if you don’t take it as a personal failure, you’re in the wrong profession.
A former teacher, principal and Calgary Catholic School District chief superintendent, Dr. Lucy Miller is the president and CEO of United Way of Calgary and Area. This column is a condensed version of a speech she delivered to teachers at Banff Summer Conference on Aug. 16. ❚
This opinion column represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.