The Teachers We Need

**written wearing all hats: mother, educator, student**

Last year, my son had a difficult grade-9 history experience. His teacher had to leave in the first 2 weeks of school, and in the first semester, the school brought in 6 different teachers to fill the spot. The one who replaced her, at last, was someone I believe just filled the desk and could breathe.

As a result, her entire class (or the majority thereof) failed the course. Many switched into the English stream this year (grade 10) but there were those who wanted the bilingual certificate (in Quebec, French is the first official language and pretty necessary to have if one plans to stay in the province, or at least continue school here). In order to get the bilingual certificate upon completion of high school, grade-9 histoire had to be passed. So my son went to a 3-week summer course and got the failure overturned to a passing grade.

Grade 10. He entered behind the curve because grade 9 was such a dismal non-learning experience. He ended up in a class where the majority of kids came from the enriched stream (super-intensive French) and were comfortable in the course whose per-requisite they had passed the year before. His teacher understood what had happened last year but with her mandate from the Ministry of Education, she had no choice but to teach what was laid out for grade 10, meaning the grade-9 experience would shape a student’s ability to succeed.

In a nutshell, my son struggled, and was given a tutor’s name by his teacher. The tutor was a grade-11 student who had passed histoire, and though she meant well, she was not a teacher, per se. After a few sessions, my son was not getting what he needed, and came to talk to me.

He asked if I could contact his teacher from the summer course. He said Mr. W was someone he could relate to, and I got on the phone with the school board. They told me they would try to track down this teacher; as a rule, summer school can be taught by regular, part-time, or interim teachers, and the woman I spoke with had to go digging to see who had been in the classroom.

2 days later, Mr. W called me and we arranged tutoring. He came to the house on a Sunday afternoon, and instantly made me smile by insisting they not use the desk in the basement, but relax on the sofa and the armchair. He said he likes kids to be relaxed when they’re studying. Within 10 minutes, my son was upstairs with a big grin, asking if we had a $10 bill. We gave him one, and I realized Mr. W was using the symbols from the bill to illustrate whatever they were learning in the lesson. I knew we were in the presence of a great teacher.

He is a high-school teacher at another school in the district, and told me that he will spend the first weeks of school teaching his students how to write an exam. Not answer the questions but write the answers. That is a skill we tend to leave to happenstance, post-high-school education, or good teachers. The English teacher my son had this year taught college-level writing. That, to me, is a superb skill to offer kids who will not learn it by osmosis.

Mr. W continued to tutor my son throughout the year, and we all saw a marked improvement in marks, confidence, and attitude. He came through when there was a big test, tutoring at his school, my son’s school, or our house, even if a last-minute session was needed.

And as we speak, my son is writing the final exam.

The Exam (deserving of the daunting Capital Letters) is a mystery. The Ministry of Education changed the format last year, so teachers were unable to truly teach to the test. And when the exam was analyzed, there were controversies over the level of sophisticated French used, obscure questions, and what I call “pot-hole” questions (those designed to catch kids off guard and stop them in their tracks…for whatever reason).

Mr. W did the best he could, even writing his own proto-types of exams he believed could be close to what the kids would face. Yesterday he conducted a 2-hour blitz session with my son, preparing him the best he could.

Armed with all my advice and encouragement, his teacher’s assessment that he knows his stuff, and his tutor’s deep preparation, my kid went into the school to face this thing.

But what came next was what sent me reeling.

I got a call at 10:30, from Mr. W. He simply called to give me peace of mind. He said he’d gotten a chance to look over the exam, and told me it is a fair and balanced instrument of assessment, not too many of those “gotcha” questions, and that according to the work he’d done with my son, he felt it would not present an insurmountable challenge to my kid.

As any parent will attest, we would all take our kids’ burdens ourselves. We would write the exams, do the homework, endure the physical hardships, and leave them only the fun, good, and exciting times to experience. As any parent will attest, walking our kid to the door of their first nursery experience is as shaky a moment as any in the life of a parent; will the child cry? Feel left out? Feel abandoned? Worry? Make friends? Need his mother?

So letting my son off at the door of the school this morning, not asking him if he was nervous but letting him know I have full confidence in him and giving him that last-minute mother/teacher advice (“read the whole exam first, and pace yourself, make sure to answer every question, make notes as they come to you so you can go back to them if you get stuck”), but then driving away, knowing how stressful this particular exam is to a kid whose marks have never been below the higher echelons of evaluation, that brought me back to nursery school all over again.

Getting the call from Mr. W which was solely for me to be able to breathe more easily in the 3 hours of exam time, that brought me back to teacher training, when I was doing my undergrad. We all wanted to be the teacher our kids looked up to. We all wanted the parents to accept us and we definitely wanted the higher-ups in the food chain to notice us so that we could attain seniority, security, and a good reputation.

Mr. W surpasses all those criteria. His dedication to his students is obvious, but his devotion to my son’s success transcends the devotion many teachers exhibit. And this is the teacher we need. This is the guy who is in the field for the right reasons. This is the one we all remember when we have our high-school reunions and when we talk about our high-school days with either fondness or shudders of revulsion. This is the guy we all talk about with smiles and nods and attributions of our successes because this is the guy who really, truly cares.

If you are a teacher, or have one (or an impending teacher) in your life, you know how important it is to be that teacher in the lives of the students we encounter. I would love to hear your stories, either as a teacher, or about one, because I’ve been touched by that rarity of teachers who deserves all the accolades I hope he is getting.

**NB: we found out that Mr. W is not being re-hired for the 2013-2014 year. Yes, my jaw dropped too. Budget cuts and “low totem pole position” instead of quality and recommendation. I am as angry as I am shocked, and my indignation runs as deeply as my admiration for him. I am in the process of trying to do whatever I can to speak up on his behalf anywhere he chooses to go, and if anyone in the Montreal region is looking for an amazing tutor, this guy’s the one. Contact me.**

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