Geoff Johnson: Making a difference the aim of good teachers


I had the opportunity recently to meet with some young people in the final stages of their teacher-training program at the University of Victoria. They were almost ready to begin becoming elementary-school teachers.

“Ready to begin becoming” — those were the operative words, because becoming a teacher is a process of lifelong learning.

I advised them, as I usually do, that once they had found a job, they would have five years to decide if teaching was really for them.

I also suggested that if they discovered the joy of working with kids, they would never want to do anything else. I suggested that the first five years was a matter getting a grip on the job and waking up at 3 a.m. thinking about what went wrong with yesterday’s lesson and how to avoid that in the coming day.

Not to discourage anybody, I said, but if they had begun to suspect that teaching was not for them, they shouldn’t condemn themselves and thousands of kids to being unhappy in our classrooms.

I know, I know, I’ve heard it all — working only nine to three, 190 days a year, all summer off. What a plum job. These teachers have it easy.

That always comes from people who have never tried it.

As a teacher, I had all kinds of people, from police officers to captains of commerce, come into my classrooms to talk about what they do and interact with the kids.

Their words on leaving the school were always the same, a version of: “You mean you do this every day? How do you do that?”

As an elementary principal, I was invited to what was then the Vancouver Police Academy. I was to provide some ideas on how to construct a classroom lesson for working policemen and women who had been volunteered for the Police in the Schools program.

I learned that some of these officers had rotated off the drug squad, others off the gang squad.

Taking down an armed dealer or a knife-wielding gangster in a darkened backyard was no real problem to these hardened cops. Facing a class of 25 to 30 elementary-age children? That was a different matter and they were open to any ideas about how to handle that situation — not every day, just once in a while.

So we talked about the basic elements of a good lesson plan, just like military instruction: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them. Keep checking for understanding at every step of the way.”

The questions the UVic students asked were different, but predictable. What were the most common pitfalls for young teachers? That was an easy one — showing up for class not fully prepared for everything their students might ask or need.

Another trap was trying to be somebody other than yourself — imitating the style of a teacher they had admired as a student themselves.

I advised the UVic students that they would never be more transparent than they would be, every day, standing in front of those kids.

Meeting with these students was refreshing. Somehow, it washed away the depressing daily news about people like Donald Trump and his life of self-aggrandizement and unshakable sense of self-entitlement.

These ready-to-get-at-it young teachers were preparing to hand themselves over to a career of committing to the growth and development of children.

I knew that those who stuck with it would find the rewards inherent in doing that. Later, much later in life, they would experience the indescribable reward of being told by an ex-student: “I’ve been wanting to find the opportunity to thank you for what you did. You made a difference for me even though you did not know it at the time.”

People who live in gold-plated penthouses will never know how that makes it all worthwhile. Maybe some of those folks earned their wealth, maybe some inherited it, but they’ll never know what “thanks for making a difference in my life” feels like.

But those UVic kids will and that’s what, for them, is going to make it a life well worth living.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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