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Teaching in Jane-Finch: response to Deborah Dundas

In Sunday’s Star A Belated Thanks for a Beloved Teacher ( Sunday June 26) describes the influence of Howard Rosen, Deborah Dundas’s grade 5 teacher at Shoreham Public School in 1974. Dundas is the books’ editor at the Toronto Star newspaper. She states that Shoreham Public was one of the “ toughest [schools]” just north of Finch at Jane and Driftwood.
I know what she is talking about because I started my own teaching career in that desolated area at Westview Centennial Secondary School in the 70’s; and we would be one of the recipients of Shoreham students. It was the years of the incredible Hall- Dennis Report with its concepts that shattered traditional teaching. With grand plans and lofty visions, its implementation only created greater havoc in the fragile neighbourhood of Jane-Finch. Instead of the Report’s proposed 16-18 students in a class with several involved teachers, the numbers ballooned to closer to 30 with usually one educator unable to properly supervise.No surprise that kids wandered off, took long lunch breaks, or found their education at the mall, the only landmark in that vast wasteland. When students arrived to our more or less conventional schooling at Westview, there were bound to be collisions.
How bizarre that in my very first year of teaching, I had to face a Grade 11 English class in a room with no desks and only a few stacked bleachers. When a young man angrily tossed his text book to the ground proclaiming “ This is rubbish”, I thought I was so clever to substitute the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. Maybe they listened and even interacted , but more likely,they merely scoffed. I was young, naïve, untested, idealistic. From that classroom I recall a scene of kids milling around, disinterested and unfocused, and me, confused, grimly smiling and attempting to harness interest that would provoke learning.
I’d heard some teachers received a kind of combat pay for teaching in the area and that in our motor shop, one teacher had been punched out. That may have been gossip. My only incident occurred in the art supply room when a lad rubbed up against me. But maybe the space was just too tight to prevent bodies colliding. Still I vividly relive my burning face as I returned to class, hands tightly clutching paint brushes.
Jane- Finch was my first real teaching job ( I went on to Forest Hill, Northern Secondary and Oakwood). Although I had completed my last practice teaching at Westview( always with superlative reviews!) , I surmised this school might not be my first choice as the vibe was so different from my other placements; however, I was off searching art galleries in Europe that summer and I was more focused on traveling and the school had wanted me back so it was easy to put hiring logistics into place. That summer there was a “Pink Letter “ that prevented hiring so I arranged for my father to sign a contract for me as soon as the letter was lifted. And after months of rambling abroad, I would come home to a job.
My English head at Westview was young and supportive and as an ingenue, he inspired me. My art head seemed to have other designs and I feared our relationship might become tangled. Fortunately I had a boyfriend so no boundaries were breached, but the too familiar undertone piqued me. He left shortly after my first year and his replacement became a treasured friend and inspiration.
The art classes were much easier to teach than English because the kids elected art as a subject. In contrast, they resented being stuck taking English. Those first few years, I had a mixed schedule of art and English. As a newbie, you are not given choice assignments so mine proved to be challenging; and my grade 9 tech boys were not exactly a prize to be welcomed by even experienced teachers.

I was barely 21, fresh face, anticipating I could make a change. I admit their noisy energy, forth right approach to language and dizzying behaviour both drew me in, but also made me a little fearful. They were a boisterous group, but when it came time to be evaluated for my permanent teaching certificate, I considered the class in which I had made the greatest strides and I felt proudest of my accomplishments with that Grade 9 all boy tech class.
Those days you were on probation for two years before receiving your permanent contract. I chose this group so I could celebrate how well I was managing and teaching. The superintendent who would decide my fate was Mr. G.-something. When he carefully navigated his way among the chairs and tables in the room, he seemed to be keeping his distance from the messy contingent of adolescents, who were checking him out. One fellow even called out“Yoh,, Sir!” To no visible response. I believed he would be so impressed with my obviously difficult class.

I used Leonardo da Vinci that day, carefully chosen because the boys could connect with machines and shops. They gathered close, falling over one another and we fixated on the brightly coloured examples I was pointing out in art books. They were quiet, listening, all gelled hair and over- sized running shoes. They were eager to begin their projects and except for nods, and the feeling of excitement, I had their attention for a full 10 or 15 minutes. I knew I had connected. Even as a young teacher, you are aware when a lesson goes over well, and that invisible web holds you all together, focused and sharing, all one. It was one of those experiences that locks itself in your mind and you, as a teacher, revisit it with pride and even- love -years later.
True, there were books heaped on the floor, Alice Cooper on the record player, the casual feel and gawky intrusion of elbows and knees into another’s space , but all so much less important than real communication occurring in a community of students.
I was soaring as they returned to their desks to implement my lesson:my pedagogy evident.

G. departed the room and I relaxed, smiling, confident, my own energy depleting.
At the end of the period, my department head knocked at my door and asked me a few questions: that I could not imagine applied to me. I figured the superintendent had marched out and on on to survey another victim. Maybe I was not listening because her words did not describe my magnificent performance.
Shortly after , I was called into the principal’s office and it was explained that student artwork on the walls was not properly hung. Period. The end.

And what of student engagement? Well -constructed lesson plans? Instructions well laid out and projects resulting that accomplished the task? What of enthusiasm of both student and teacher? What of an evidenced relationship that spoke of trust and support and a supportive environment? And what of my carefully prepared lesson plans and day book turned over before the class? Had I not accomplished the educational objectives for class, student, curriculum?The principal could not possibly be describing the class I had taught for my certification. Still in a fog, I felt removed, an outsider to this conversation: in which the chef topic was misaligned student work on walls!

But because the principal and especially my department heads had championed me, I would be given a second chance to re-enact a lesson and duly impress the superintendent. In deed, the fix may have been in.

I was stunned, wandering around in disbelief. I knew I had taught perhaps the most impressive lesson in my short career. Most importantly I had connected in a meaningful way to my students. I’d had their attention; they had listened with fascination at the gears and gizmos of Da Vinci’s , had followed instructions and proceeded towards their assignments, analyzing and applying newly gleaned information – that they actually found relevant. I had triumphed, or so I had thought. G. obviously did not agree.

It was a grey blur of pounding nerves in my head the day of trial number 2. My department head straightened the pictures on the wall, exactly employing a ruler to ensure they all lined up perfectly with the dooredge. For me, it was the students, the transfer of knowledge, not the context, that mattered so deeply. I would not have known how to change my presentation when I so fervently believed in a pedagogy that worked with the hearts and minds of students, that responds and builds and stimulates. Frankly, I do not recall one second of the followup lesson I was permitted to unfold. I do, however, remember the boys’ turning, craning necks and puzzled looks as Mr. G re-entered their space.

The meeting after this lesson declared I had passed muster and I was given my papers.
Not speaking, no doubt my face registering incredulous disbelief, G., in an airless room, observed me, saying” You don’t think you changed a thing , do you?”

Of course, I had not. But beaten down by the situation I demurred barely audible, “ Yes, sir”. We locked eyes but I looked away and down.

Still my memories are varied at Westview. One of my favourites concerns my department head measuring me for my wedding dress in the school washrooms during breaks, French Chantilly lace aside the garbage bins overflowing with paper towel; an English student’s insight into Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty, that maybe weeds are flowers to Nature; a camaraderie among colleagues and wonderful spirited Christmas shows where even I dressed in football gear for the predilection of the students. And perhaps , my proudest accomplishment : of helping one of the two students in the entire school who went on to pursue art at York university.

That was 1970 when girls were accompanied by overbearing parents, escorted directly to our front doors Abandoning their parents’, usually their fathers’ stern eyes, they would leap towards the washrooms to apply copious amounts of makeup and roll up waist bands. It was the same school in 1971 in which I dared to wear a pantsuit but was admonished that if I intended to dress like a man, I’d better keep my fly up.
Those were the beginning years of my immersion into teaching and the stories I would later capture in a book entitled Cases for Teacher Development: Preparing for the Classroom , published by Sage , when I worked as a program officer at the Ontario College of Teachers thirty years later. Narratives of this ilk would serve as implementation strategies when our standards at the College were finally released. We had examined the work of teachers and from their narratives, deduced what the tenets of teaching should be, decanting them into ideals of responsibility, collaboration, care, honesty, etc. We created a casebook entirely based on the lived experiences of twelve teachers, but chosen from several hundred ( two were mine) in Ontario. I invited international experts to provide commentary. From Australia to The United States, educators and philosophers at the forefront of educational theory and practice contributed to our book that was used by a number of universities here and abroad. Later a second book was added.

Too bad Howard Rosen wasn’t one of our many participants to contribute to that casebook .I’ll bet he had many a great tale to demonstrate what great teaching should look like.
Teacher stories are powerful, and meaningful.Reading Deborah Dundas’ piece recalled my years in Jane-Finch. Rosen made the difference for Deborah Dundas and so many more.

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