Teachers, the Taught, and F*#k Week

Fuck Week taught me well. You see, the first school at which I taught was for teenagers troubled by significant difficulties with learning, families, or the law. Many others were newly arrived immigrants suffering the effects of bad education systems or culture shock. Most kids were great but fights, gangs, weapons, and threats were commonplace. And there I was, fresh from teacher’s college and only about five years older than my charges.

By the end of the first month I had grown weary of the word fuck being used as verb, noun, adjective, and, most commonly, punctuation. I made a deal with a grade 12 class that if they could erase the word from our classroom for four days straight there would be pizza and music on Friday. It took several weeks, but a Friday finally celebrated booming bass, greasy hands, and wide smiles. While cleaning up I suggested that next week we could try eliminating the word shit. An earnest boy asked, “Sir, does that mean we can say fuck again?”

Teacher, the Taught and F#*k Week..

(Photo: www.uni.edu)

The question taught me the power of humility and importance of small victories. Reflecting upon that lesson brings to mind two men who played significant roles in my career. A sage and inspirational leader named David Hadden once told the story of a father urging a lost son to find his way home. The son confessed that he lacked the strength to make the whole journey. Don’t worry, assured the father, go as far as you can, I will meet you there, and we’ll complete the journey together. Another of my mentors, John Potts, once observed: “The most important thing to remember when you’re working with kids is that you’re working with kids.”

Beyond those important ideas, my years have also taught me this:

  1. Essence

New technology and pedagogy that enhance teaching and learning should be sought and welcomed. However, a group of teenagers in a room with an adult in 1980 is, at its core, the same as a group of teenagers in a room with an adult today. Blackboards to smart boards, encyclopaedias to Google, and binders to laptops don’t matter. Never confuse the art with the tools. Relationships and reciprocal respect are what counts. In fact, they are all that counts. True, valuable learning only happens when they are present and is never possible when they’re not.

  1. Fads

Early in my career I had Grade 11 students learn to write, research, and create persuasive arguments by learning to write an essay. After a few years the education ministry in our province determined that all students needed to complete an independent study. I had my kids write an essay. Then, it was decided that students needed to complete a cumulative assignment. I had them write an essay. Then teachers were told to flip their classrooms so students would learn certain tasks at home while allowing for in-class support and collaboration. I had them write an essay. Teachers need to embrace positive change and base their pedagogy on established and current research. However, they must also trust and be allowed to trust their professionalism to avoid surrendering to transient fads, authors, or obfuscating vocabulary.

  1. Fun

Anyone who believes that teaching does not involve entertainment understands neither. Teachers must always allow kid’s voices to be heard more than theirs. However, teachers still call the shots and set the tone so while curiosity and questions must be the two-lane road down which every lesson travels, fun should be the vehicle. Without fun, kids may memorize but not really learn. They will attend but not engage. Teachers must always take their jobs seriously but never themselves. Their training should involve comedy and improv workshops.

  1. Partnership

Teachers are an essential part of the education of a young person but only one part. Parents are a crucial part of the team. Further, in every good school, everyone, whether typing letters, mopping floors, keeping accounts, or providing administrative leadership know they are serving students. Students win only where we/they and leaders/led are absent from language and perspective, where characters and character are celebrated, and where all adults respect the hard work done by all others while sincerely seeing themselves as members of one team.

My career has taken me from that tough inner-city vocational school to what is widely accepted as among Canada’s finest independent boarding schools. I am proud to have contributed to one and of my continuing contribution, albeit outside the classroom now, to the other. Along the way I have reinforced my conviction that all lives are better in a society of readers, critical thinkers, and life-long learners. We all benefit through sharing a basic understanding of our culture, geography, and history. A country is better and democracy stronger when young people are instilled with an intellectual curiosity that burns insatiably throughout their lives.

If any of this rings true, then this is equally true: teaching is a honourable profession. It is an invaluable profession. Teachers are honourable people. Let us celebrate the best and encourage the rest because all children are our children.

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When Fight nor Flight are Options

It’s not fair. In fact, fair is the last thing it is. A happy, witty, intelligent, empathetic seven-year-old child bursts with life. She is fun and funny. She is gentle and caring. She loves the roughness of hockey and the sweetness of a frilly new dress. She loves catching bullfrogs and reeling in bass and yet trembles at the sight of a spider. She loves corny jokes and bouncing on her trampoline and quietly contemplating books beneath a blanket-fort. She is perfect. But then, she is not. Last year her pancreas died.

No one knows what causes type one diabetes. It is not like type two, which is caused by genetics or a bad diet or lifestyle. Doctors guess that a virus may be the culprit. The virus leads the body’s immune system to attack the pancreas, leaving it unable to produce insulin. Insulin is the hormone that regulates the sugars we eat and allows them to enter our cells and produce energy. But without the pancreas working as it should there is no insulin and so sugar levels in our cells go wild with the transformation not happening.

Until the 1920s, children around the world with type one diabetes were dying by the millions. A Canadian surgeon named Dr. Frederick Banting read German research and came to suspect what we now know. He convinced University of Toronto professor John Macleod, a leading diabetes researcher, to give him money and a laboratory. Working with a medical student named Charles Best, Banting began experiments first with dogs and then with cows. They found that extracting insulin from a healthy pancreas and injecting it into animals that had their pancreas removed controlled the animal’s sugar level. It was an astounding discovery.

Imagine the Pain Stopping

Banting (right) and Best. Photo: U. of T. Archives

Leonard Thompson was a 14-year-old old boy. He was skeletal thin and unable to stand or concentrate. He was near death. Leonard and his parents agreed that he would be Banting and Best’s first human test subject. He was injected with insulin. Within a few minutes he smiled for the first time in days, sat up, and wanted to eat. It was nothing short of a miracle. Other test subjects saw similar results. Child after child was invited back from heaven’s gate.

The 1923 Nobel Committee awarded Banting and Macleod the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Banting shared his prize money with Best. Banting was told to patent his discovery. He said no. He did not want to profit from something that he wanted only to help children. Companies rushed in and soon insulin was being injected into young arms and saving lives.

It would be nice if the Banting and Best discovery was a Hollywood happy ending but it is still too early to cue the violins. Insulin injections manage the disease but still do not cure it. The management is tough. Picture yourself having to use a small instrument that jabs a sewing needle into your thumb, then squeezing to bring forth blood. I’ve done it. It hurts. Now picture doing that five to eight times a day. It hurts every time. Now picture your Mom or Dad waking you up in the middle of the night to do it again. Now picture yourself being injected with a needle, akin an epi pen, twice before breakfast, once at lunch, once at dinner, once before bed, and then more times depending upon what all the blood tests suggest. Imagine doing that every day for the rest of your life. How do you do that as a child at school, at summer camp, on camping trips, at sports tournaments, at restaurants, at birthday parties, at slumber parties, and at all the other times and places where you just want to be a regular kid eating kid stuff and doing kid things?

Being a parent is hard enough. Now picture a situation where you do everything perfectly. That is, through steely, relentless diligence your child eats perfectly, carbohydrates are counted, exercise is monitored, blood tests are taken and dutifully recorded, urination is tracked, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue are noted, the insulin levels in all the needles are carefully measured and administered, and yet, despite all that and more, in the middle of the night, your child’s sugar level crashes so low that she falls into diabetic seizure. It looks like epilepsy. If not discovered, discovered while you are asleep yourself remember, and then quickly addressed, it could lead to a coma and – it is too horrifying to contemplate – death.

There are diabetic associations in countries around the world. They help young parents to help their children. In cities and towns throughout Canada the Telus company generously supports the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation Walks for the Cure. Money and awareness is raised along with the hope that someday a cure may be found. Someday.

Meanwhile, my granddaughter carries on because that is her only option. She is fun, witty, clever, kind, creative, fearless, and quite simply the bravest person I know. I am in awe of her. Last Saturday I donned a purple tee shirt emblazoned “Team Kenzie Mac”. She and her family walked at our local Telus Walk for the Cure. We are her team. Everything else can wait. Everybody else can wait. Nothing else matters. We were there for her for the walk in the rain, we are here for her now, and we will be here for her always.

May I live to see that day that the work begun so long ago by Banting and Best is completed so that no child need suffer, that no parent need suffer, and that type one diabetes is cured, once and, I pray, for all.

To learn more about diabetes please check the Canadian Diabetes Association: https://www.diabetes.ca/ or the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation: http://www.jdrf.ca/

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Recency Illusion, Leadership, and the Ladder from Cute to Scary

My favourite teacher of all time is a seven year old. I am absolutely gobsmacked when she adopts her serious, slightly condescending tone to tell me the proper way to toboggan, dive, catch a ball, or to inform me of the stars, animals, or myriad other things. She is so cute because of her assumption that because she has just learned something then it must be brand new. In 2005, linguist Arnold Zwicky developed a term for this assumption: Recency Illusion. He was talking about words but it can be applied more broadly.

While recency illusion is fun in children, it ascends the ladder to frustrating in teenagers. After all, those in their teens right now are the first to ever sneak a drink, skip class, have sex, experience heartbreak, love loud music, and write bad poetry expressing inescapable angst. Right?

Recency illusion escalates to interesting when dealing with things that don’t matter. We might think, for instance, that we have invented words. Consider the word “high”. It comes not from your son’s party last weekend or even 1967’s Summer of Love. It’s been traced to author Thomas May who wrote in 1627, “He’s high with wine”.

The phenomenon is also interesting when dealing with culture. I recall a young person asking in the 1980s, “Did you know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Last week I switched off the radio when a young woman with an effected vocal rasp (strike one) who seemed to anticipate question marks when approaching the end of sentences (strike two) was rhapsodizing about the history of the Civil Rights movement based on nothing more than just having seen the movie Selma. (strike three)

Recency illusion moves up the ladder from interesting to scary when demonstrated by adults with power. Marketers depend on recency illusion. Consider the phrase “new and improved”. Forget for a moment that if something is new then it cannot possibly be an improvement and only that we are saps for the word new.

Marketing guru Jamie Turner argues that the word new triggers emotions that lie in the sub-cortical and limbic parts of our brain. These parts respond not to reason but primal, instinctive impulses. We want the new product because it must be better. No matter how hard the more highly developed parts of our brain try to warn us, we are fooled anyway. Marketers know this and count on it.

Recency Illusion

(Photo: www.thewritingreader.com)

Even scarier and certainly more dangerous are leaders who believe that history begins the day they slide behind the big desk. Sometimes it is quite intentional such as the during French Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge coup when new leaders threw out the old calendar and declared it Year Zero.

Far more often, recency illusion is subtler. It’s revealed in a leader’s unconscious or unspoken Year Zero when words, behaviour, and decisions reflect a belief that every problem is brand new and unique, every flitting trend or fancy buzzword an exciting idea and essential option, and every constructive critic an enemy of progress. Consider the echoes of recency illusion in Tojo ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbour or George W. Bush being persuaded that American troops would be welcomed into Baghdad with cheers and flowers. Consider recency illusion on parade with last week’s no-brainer business decision that morphed into this week’s unintended consequences.

Leaders suffering from recency illusion are bereft of a sense of history and so are like amnesiacs acting as tour guides – constantly surprised, easily duped, and blind to sycophants. They are deaf to advice from those without selfish agendas but rich with genuine corporate memory. Even when lost in the dark woods of their own making, those imbued with recency illusion’s arrogance often refuse to learn because lessons come only to those with the humility to admit that, as George Harrison once sang, life goes on within you and without you. As always, it is the led and not the leader who pay recency illusion’s dearest price.

Seven year olds will always be cute, teenagers infuriating, marketers manipulative, and “experts” will always use new words to sell old ideas. That’s fine. But maybe all those in leadership positions should pause and wonder whether their actions reflect recency illusion.

Plus, as both Canada and the United States swirl toward choosing new leaders, perhaps our democracies would be well served if we were aware and wary of candidates using recency illusion to sell themselves and their ideas. Maybe that awareness will invite us to more carefully consider the past as prelude, test an offered premise, ask the next question, and ultimately, to make a better choice. And wouldn’t that benefit us all?

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