Wherever You Go, There You Are

[Click here for this week’s photos – they’re pretty closely connected with the stories below, but you can view them before or after reading – your choice :)]

I’ve been thinking a lot about Marty lately. For those of you who don’t know her, she was my Faculty Advisor during my teaching practicum at SFU (Hi Marty!). Without her support, I don’t think I’d be having this amazing adventure. And I’ve been thinking about her because, amid all of the bits of paper I accumulated during my education training, the one I always keep with me, taped to the inside of my teaching portfolio, is Marty’s Discipline Ladder. Before detentions and phone calls home, Marty’s number one tip for creating a safe and effective working environment is simply this: Be present in the classroom.

I’ve been to quite a few more schools in London now: I’ve taught Year 7 dance classes and Year 11 math classes; drama and science and art and hey, even a little English. And the one thing that all of the situations I’ve encountered have in common – in the classroom and in all of my wanderings here – is that they are all made richer, more meaningful, and more successful, by the institution of that one little rule. Be present.

I have a line I use with my students when the noise level starts to climb. I tell them that there is a subtle but important difference between the hum of a room full of people who are focused on the work at hand, and the roar of a room full of idle conversation. It’s an important distinction when your goal is to create a safe and efficient working environment. But either way, particularly from a supply teacher’s perspective, it’s still a roomful of people all talking at once – something that can easily become very intimidating experience. And the more intimidated you are, the more tempting it is to retreat. Yet in teaching as in life, in the words of another heroine of mine, “Sometimes you just have to punch your way through.” Despite any personal fears or insecurities, despite the volume and the unfamiliar faces, a teacher has to set her teeth, remind herself of her responsibility to set the tone in the classroom, and forge ahead. Because being right there with each student, shoulder to shoulder, paying attention to their needs, acknowledging their accomplishments as well as their shortcomings, is the only real way to earn their respect and cooperation. By staying present you show each person in your charge that you really are there to make their school experience as meaningful and painless as possible. Only when this intention has been communicated can the students feel safe enough to leave their personal demons aside, roll up their sleeves, and get to work. But hold back, cultivate distance, drift away from the moment – that’s when they’ll eat you alive.

Granted, some days they’ll eat you alive anyway – but that can be an important experience as well. Because the bottom line is that everyone has bad days, and that lessons don’t go as planned and fire alarms get pulled and students get in fights. And getting all tangled up into knots of blame over the chaos of the everyday is exactly the way to become one of those stodgy, frozen disciplinarians I never want to be. So instead I’m learning to care and to be present, but also to cultivate a professional distance. This means taking a more realistic view of my own importance. There’s a line I love from the final season of Six Feet Under, that describes exactly how tempting it can be to blame yourself for things that, objectively, cannot possibly be your fault – particularly when you’re only in a particular school for a day, a particular classroom for an hour. “I don’t know why I [blame myself]. It’s so narcissistic. ‘I am the asshole at the centre of the universe.’ Forgetting how vast the universe is.”

Just as the roar of directionless chaos is never the fault of just one person, so the productive hum of dedication can only be achieved through a whole network of competent professionals.  And each teacher and staff member I have met at the schools I’ve been to in the last two weeks has been more than competent. To a (wo)man they are strong, kind and dedicated people. Their rules and regulations make sense, and are not enforced without a modicum of compassion. Waldegrave School for Girls is a shining example of this. The students there are polite, calm, studious – not zombies by any means, but rather young people who buy in to the rules and routines because they understand their purpose, and draw comfort and stability from them. Case in point, the Year 9 form I was in charge of for a day last week. I was dreading it, knowing how hormonal and moody Year 9s can be, hoping with crossed fingers that they would at least quiet down enough for me to take the register in good time, that at least no one would throw any books at anyone else… And then when I walked into the room, every single one of them stood up. And when I asked for quiet for the register, you could hear a pin drop but for each girl saying “Good morning, Miss” as I called her name. An extreme example perhaps – but proof that there is such a thing as a functional school system.

St Marylebone School in Baker Street, where I spent a large part of last week, is perhaps an even better example – because it isn’t necessarily cream of the crop, the way Waldegrave obviously is, but it still functions smoothly, and teachers and students there are on the same page. I spent three delightful days there last week, getting to know many of the girls and learning what it’s like to go to school in the heart of downtown London. They were lovely young ladies, polite and goal-oriented – I had a few run-ins, a few moments of doubt, but nothing like my first couple of weeks. The girls at St Marylebone are even encouraged to support students in other years – much to the delight of their supply teachers: I got to spend half the day sitting in the Royal Academy of Music watching a Year 8 dress rehearsal, because all of the Year 7s and 9s I would have been teaching were there too, learning the importance of being a good audience. There are some shots of this in this week’s flickr album.

These schools are places that not only don’t scare me away from teaching, but actually make me want to do all those unpleasant, uncomfortable, teachery things, establishing routines and enforcing sanctions – because in these schools, you can see them actually working. One of the more interesting routines I’ve observed is that many schools here don’t use a bell system – classes are scheduled to end at a particular time, but it is left to the teacher to wrap up loose ends, address concerns, and then dismiss the students on her own terms. This sounds like it would be chaotic, and I’ve certainly seen it backfire – but mostly, it seems to work. And it restores some of the authority that a teacher loses when the students start to pack up five minutes before the bell and then leap out of their seats are rush out the door at its toll – whether the teacher is done teaching or not.

Because these schools are so well run, such strong communities, it’s a little less intimidating an experience to join them as a stranger. And the less intimidated I am, the easier it becomes for me to stay present, and to be effective at my job, to have more good days; and the more good days I have, the less intimidated I am the next time around. Sort of the opposite of a vicious cycle.

So I’m feeling good about my time here. Sure, I get lonely at times – but I’m learning so much, experiencing so much, that I sort of need the mental and physical space that we often label loneliness just to process everything. I have one last story to tell today – agin, all about being present. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Hyde Park, and the other day I met a really interesting dude, name of Paras. He was dressed in full on Scottish warrior gear, the whole nine yards – you can see him in this week’s album. We got to talking, and it turns out he does a lot of work researching the history of the Scottish clans, teaching people where their families come from. But he’s also a traveller, a searcher, like me, and we had an interesting discussion about setting off on your own, figuring things out about yourself.

Of the stories he told me about his travels, one in particular stands out. He was on the train in London, getting a lot of looks and queries as usual, when he fell into conversation with a young man from Ghana who now lives in London. The young man’s eyes lit up at the sight of Paras’ outfit, and he started asking him all sorts of questions about Scottish culture, professing that he is fascinated with the history of the clans and their wars, and wants to get himself a kilt. Paras says he could tell that this man, despite his faraway origins, obviously had a real resonance with the idea of Scotland, with its history full of folks who staunchly (and bloodily) defended their identity, their idea of what they were and what they could be. At the time, Paras happened to have a traditional Scottish shirt in his bag, along with a video of Rob Roy – they had been a gift for a friend he wasn’t able to see on his trip. Now, he could have stayed aloof, stuck to his original plan and saved the gifts for their intended recipient. But instead he looked into this man’s eyes, saw the inspiration there, the potential for meaningful connection – and he gave him the shirt and the film, and some good wishes, and sent him on his way.

In relating this story to you it is not my intention to glorify Paras – I’m sure he has just as many flaws as the next man. Rather, his story is a quintessential example of a “teachable moment” – seeing an opportunity right in front of you to make a connection with someone, to help them along in their journey in some way, even if that means changing your own plans. It is this sort of… flexible selflessness that is essential to being not only an effective teacher, but also an effective person. One of the administrators we worked with during practicum had a favourite line, which he quoted so often that I’m sure half the Burnaby Community Module has it permanently etched on their brainpans. I know I do:

“Our job is to teach the students we have – not the students we used to have, or the students we wish we had, or the students we have in our dreams.”

I think that goes for all of us, everywhere, in every part of our lives. Instead of constantly reaching for perfection, for this tidy little boxed up existence that we can never have, I think it’s a much better goal to start from where we are each day. Not just accepting the world around us, and the people around us, but also ourselves.

I’ll leave you with one last borrowed thought. I was listening to a podcast by Oriah Mountain, and was struck by one particular idea of hers. Essentially, it is this: The question is not why you are so infrequently the person you want to be, but rather why you so infrequently want to be the person you are. Self-improvement is not about dragging your self toward some unnatural and unattainable goal, but rather about improving the way that you care about and appreciate your self as it is, at this moment.

I’ll see you all in a week with some photos from my impending trip to Italy. Til then, take care, and give yourself a break. I guarantee you, you deserve it, even if you don’t think so. ❤


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by wife on April 5, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    I’ve been dragging around the apartment for most of the day, feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and directionless. We just got connected to the internets this morning and I’d been spacing out on that, in an effort to avoid life.

    And then I read this! It is hard to remain present in times of stress, but as you point out, so very worthwhile. You’ve inspired me to stop hiding inside and go out into this beautiful day, and get a bus pass and a cutting board, perhaps even some vegetables.

    You are awesome, and I miss you so very much. Have a safe and fun trip to the boot, and we’ll talk once you get back.

    Much love,


  2. Posted by Boffo on April 5, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Dear Samantha
    again I am overwelmed by your insights into the world of academe and how to deal with the teen aged faction of the human race
    you show great maturity towards and understanding of what is happening before your very eyes in the classroom ….again this stuff you are writing should be published…have you approached anyone about who to contact ..I’m sure they ( England) would view these musings and heart felt observations with the same delight I experience when I read your blog…..it’s all good stuff Sam and so very worth sharing…Love…yer Aunt Rita hahaah


  3. Posted by Dianne and Ivan Mills on April 6, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Sam – once again, excellent. I so enjoy going on your travels with you. I always wanted to visit England, as my father was born there. I so enjoy hearing anything about Princess Diana (I have liked her from the first moment I heard anything about her). A family member who is doing research on the Watkins family, learned that there is a distant relationship to Princess Diana, I think it was on her father’s side of the family (I must learn more about this).

    Talked to your Dad on Saturday evening and also had a long conversation with your Mom. Don’t often get to talk to her, so it was quite enjoyable and we got caught up on a lot of things.

    Keep up the good work. I’m sure you must be missing your family and friends, but as I said before, what an experience. Enjoy every moment of it. Keep us posted.

    Love Aunt Dianne and Uncle Ivan


    • Hi Aunt Dianne!

      I’m so glad you got to catch up with Mum that’s great! And thank you for reading the blog, it really means a lot that everyone is reading along with me! I agree, even through the loneliness it is completely worth it – I still have trouble believe I’m here some days! Did you see the photos I took of the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park? Let me know if you didnt, I’ll send them to you.

      Hope everyone there is doing well! I’m hoping to be coming your way for a day or two at the end of June/beginning of July, as I’m stopping in Ontario to see two of my best friends, who just moved to YOUR London. So I’ll plan a stop in Peterborough as well, of course!

      Love you lots!



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