The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

Reflections on a life-long teaching career

For almost thirty years, the first week of September meant one thing to Violet St. Clair. Back to school, at the front of her Edmonton classroom. This year is different.

Essay by: Violet St. Clair

They say retirement is the beginning of something. That's what all the cards trumpet, anyway. It's a chance to reclaim your life, turn the page, taste real freedom. ("You lucky skunk", your colleagues say ruefully). 

But along with a beginning there has been an end.  And this summer has afforded me a chance to honour that end; the end of my teaching career. On June 30, at 2:45 pm, Miss St. Clair left the building, and yes, she did look back.

For me it all began in 1990 in a dual track school in Edmonton that offered both English and French Immersion programs. I was Mlle Violette in the mornings and Miss St. Clair in the afternoons. I can't claim that teaching has been a pure and complete joy. But I can say that I will miss being a teacher with all my heart.

I started as a daycare worker, still toying with career options, when an exhibit came to town that shifted my direction.

The Secrets of Egypt was on tour and I had brought my daycare class to see some of the treasures. We'd been exploring ancient Egypt for days: the mythology, the pyramids, finding the odd mummy buried in the sand play area. Now we were in front of a poster of the famous mask — the pharaoh Tutankhamun's death mask.

The children were awestruck, completely silent.  "And, of course, his death mask was made of pure gold and beautiful..."  I left the sentence hanging. "Lapis leisurely!" exploded one passionate 5-year-old.  "Just so," I replied with a smile. They were rapt; each one tried to outdo the other with a bit of remembered information.

A professor surrounded by some of his graduate students stopped and listened in. Oh, dear. I thought. Did I get something wrong? Is he waiting to correct me? "I'm so sorry, are we being too loud?" I hesitated. "No, not at all, miss. Please, continue," he encouraged. "I only wish I could generate as much enthusiasm with my students as you do with yours." 

I was hooked. I would enlighten the world one child at a time. Later that year, I enrolled at the University of Alberta. My eyes were bright, my calling answered. The path forward clear.

Violet St. Clair
Of course, being a teacher turned out to be a very messy business. Battered continually by a revolving door of trends, reviews, policies, surveys, fads, divergent opinions and the priorities of others, I jumped (okay, sometimes I was thrown) onto all the bandwagons that were guaranteed to revolutionize, energize, optimize the teaching experience and take us all into the new year; the next decade; the 21st century.

And for every glorious moment or lesson when I rode the learning wave with a student or class, there were untold dozens of days spent in querulous meetings, tedious professional development courses peddling repetitive worn-out philosophies masquerading as game changers and bewildering training sessions on everything from mastering reading statistics to the roll-out of yet another report card — but, new and improved, of course. And don't get me started on the homework debate.

Whenever it got too much for me, I would think of King Tut's mask. And of another sustaining moment. 

I taught grade 2 at a school surrounded by poplar trees and pasturelands. We had just finished our unit on "Insects" and to celebrate we set out to release over 200 ladybugs that had been donated to us by a local greenhouse. The sun was out; the students were both ecstatic and still; the air rippled with colour and movement. What can I say? I know the word magical is overused; but that's what it was. Magical. Twenty-one minds open to the moment — a teacher's dream scenario — and I was that teacher. I was buoyed by their questing spirits; thrilled by their readiness to climb the ladder of their own learning. 

One student caught my eye. Dayo. His ladybugs hadn't taken flight. They were still crawling up his hands and arms, and his eyes vibrated with delight. We all watched their erratic movements, counted legs and spots, tried to spell invertebrate and marvelled at their tiny antennae.

Soon the ever popular 'name game' began. Everyone had a favourite ladybug and every ladybug received a name: Sparky, Spot, the inevitable Princess. Stories developed and took flight. Dayo watched it all, thrilled that his ladybugs had captured everyone's attention. And then the recess bell rang. We found a green spot for the ladybugs and said good-bye to them.   

The day of the ladybugs fed me, fueled me. Twenty minutes of intense observation, animated sharing, continual storytelling and wonder. Some days that's as good as it gets; but the challenge is always there. How long can you keep them on the edge of their seats; electric with anticipation, hushed and tinder dry and, dare I say it, spellbound. That is why we teach. That's what gets teachers in the door — the next day, the next school year, the next millenium. I yearned for those moments, aimed for them, thrived on them, threw caution and lesson plans to the wind for them. Their beckoning call saved me from many a dark and tiresome day.

On my last day of teaching, as I sat in my classroom, I didn't remember a single math score, not one diagnostic reading test result nor any of the shiny educational objectives rolled out every new school year. No comparative graph, congratulatory honour or provincial re-haul winked in my direction and whispered... stay. But I did remember Dayo, his eyes incandescent with wonder and invitation. And with all my heart, I felt the loss.

Click 'listen' above to hear Violet St. Clair's essay. 


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