Two weeks ago I attended an alumni event at my old high school, Madonna Catholic Secondary School in Toronto, Ontario. It’s an all-girl Catholic high school founded in 1963 and that I had the honour of attending from the years 1993-1998, back when Ontario high schools still had “OAC” or grade 13 as some call it. That small school in a Toronto suburb changed my life. It was in that building that I wrote my first article to be published in the school newspaper and played my guitar on a real stage in the theatre. It was there that I went from awkward grade 8 geek to student council president by the time I got to twelfth grade. And it was there that I met many of the caring adults that would shape the outcome of my academic career.
There has been much talk lately in education about making schools a place that are welcoming, positive, and a “safe place” for students of all ages. In fact, there are books, journal articles, conferences, and too many Twitter/Pinterest accounts dedicated to sermonizing about how important it is to seat your students in such a way that makes them feel at ease, or showcasing magazine-photo-ready classrooms with colour-coordinated borders and bulletin boards. When I visited my alma mater a couple of weeks ago, there was no shortage of student work, art, and a visible nod to all that is positive about schools. Much of what was on the walls or classrooms during my time there is a blur. But you know what is a vivid memory? The people.
A school is more than a building with desks, chairs, and various “teacher-y” equipment. The heart of the school is the people that fill those desks and chairs each and every day.
During my time at Madonna, I was blessed to be surrounded by a building full of teachers who cared about the students sitting in front of them. They cared enough to run the student newspaper and sit there until 7 or 8pm at night as we approached the publishing deadline, take a bus full of girls to Ottawa so that we could experience the nation’s capital for several days while snacking on a seemingly endless supply of salt and sugar, coach a team and teach them how to turn their failures into wins, schedule rehearsals for 7:30am so that the jazz band didn’t sound like a trainwreck at the annual music night, and create assignments that allowed us to express our creativity as well as what we had learned – like turning Romeo and Juliet into a Grease musical.
A walk through the halls brought back some very fond memories, and walking by certain classrooms put a smile on my face. Was it the lessons taught there? Maybe. But I reckon that the times I was able to approach a teacher about a loss in the family, an anxious “I don’t know what to do about my career path” meltdown in the midst of university applications, or to share a laugh after a long day was the reason why I was smiling.
Last night, I attended the retirement of the world’s best science teacher, Ms.Rose Lenardon. Bill Nye has nothing on this brilliant, classy, hard-working, and stellar Wonder Woman of an educator. I had the privilege of having been her student during my time at Madonna, and when a friend told me about her retirement party, I certainly could not pass up the opportunity to honour a woman who was one of the caring adults in that building that I called home for five years of my life.
Rose was doing differentiated instruction, offering students choice, addressing mental health, and advocating for student success long before the internet or education gurus were creating their small fortunes from their theories about such things. She did all of those things because she was a remarkable educator, but also because she was a remarkable human being. She cared. She still does. And THAT is what made the difference.
Over the past three weeks I have had a chance to reflect on and reminisce about my time at my alma mater, Madonna CSS. Why was I happy there? Why did those formative years matter so much and why do I smile any time someone mentions the place or I have the opportunity to drive by that building? In thinking about it and looking through photos and yearbook inscriptions, the answer is clear and simple: the people. It was the caring adults in the building that made my time there what it was.
Our teachers laughed with us, they were stern when they needed to be, and they led by example. They were human, and it matters that we discuss the proverbial white elephant in the room. We have successfully created a culture of fear and apprehension in education. In classrooms and schools across North America, teachers have become more concerned about “getting in trouble” by whatever governing body oversees the profession as opposed to being those caring adults I’ve been talking about. When my teachers needed to correct or discipline us, they didn’t think about being disciplined for using the wrong words, or hurting someone’s feelings. They were like the moms and dads we saw throughout the school day, and they were not expected to be robotic, unemotional beings who were there only to provide content. They were allowed to show us tough love. THAT is what being a caring adult is all about: wanting the best for children so that they grow up to be the adults that can then carry the torch after the previous generation is gone. My parents trusted the system enough to allow my teachers to be the experts in their domain: the classroom.
I was leaving the retirement celebration for my teacher and I could not help but think to myself that if I could be the caring adult for even a handful of students throughout my career, that I would have done a great job of being an educator. For some kids, their teacher might be one of the only caring adults they have in their lives, while for others, they could be the caring adult that inspires them to do things they never thought they were capable of. For me, Rose was not only an inspiration but a mentor. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her science classroom and how important and loved she made all of us feel. I aspire to leave my students with the same feeling of caring each time they leave my class. And where did I learn what that kind of caring and love looks like in a classroom? At a little school in Toronto where daughters of immigrants and blue-collar workers walked the halls, dreaming big dreams, and being inspired by those caring adults – our teachers – to follow those dreams to accomplish things we never thought possible.
That is the power of what a building full of caring adults can do for humanity, and that should be the goal of every single school on the continent. Care. Every. Single. Day. That’s how we inspire young people to be their very best.