Have you seen the 1987 movie Broadcast News? Well, there’s a scene where the character played by Albert Brooks is about to get his big break in his dream to be a news anchor. He is doomed though, by his uncontrollable flop sweating; by the end of the newscast, Brooks looks like he was caught without an umbrella in a rainstorm.
This has resonated with me for over twenty years since it reminds me of my first day as a teacher, in 1989. I was a newly formed graduate from the University of Toronto with passion for my subject (economics) and a need to perform for an audience that could not easily escape my seventy-five minute show that plays five days a week. On my first September morn I was on the fourth floor in a room whose window opened no more than four inches and about to deliver my inaugural lesson entitled “Thinking Like an Economist”. The course outline fluttered in my hands in the windless room and my then –thicker- and- longer hair stuck to my forehead like a wet mop. I survived this auspicious beginning by asking the class if they had seen Broadcast News and admitting that I might drown in my own salty water. They were empathetic and politely listened as I explained the arcane language of economists.
Your teachers, or your child’s teachers, in high school, started their careers as round pegs for round holes. We are all specialists, having chosen to teach the subject for which we studied so long in our undergraduate (and frequently, graduate) degrees. I spent eight years learning economics, even studying the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s with one of the last surviving students of John Maynard Keynes (as Einstein is to physics or Gandhi is to non-violent resistance, Keynes is to economics). I worked as an economist for a brief time and had a short stint as a college lecturer. Then I found the avocation I have kept and for twenty years I have ridden the wave of economic history (the free trade debate, the economic consequences of Quebec separation, two recessions, globalization, the dollar up and then the dollar down). I have witnessed the dumbing down of the high school economics curriculum and responded by lobbying for an American enrichment program—Advanced Placement- so my students could experience the rigour of real analysis.
What I never imagined is that I would be a round peg forced into triangle holes. To be a flexible piece in the game of education, teachers must choose a second discipline that they can teach. This is often a subject in which they have taken a few courses. Teachers seldom choose their second “teachable” with clear foresight about how this will affect them, or their students. I may be “qualified” to teach special education, but I’m not much as a one-on-one instructor and sometimes I have less than requisite reserves of patience for this tough task. (I once asked the Board to set aside my paper credentials for special education, arguing that I was incompetent and inexperienced; they refused).
A few years ago I was taking a late night flight from Calgary to Toronto. Beside me in the waiting lounge was a uniformed man, resplendent in his blue outfit with the appropriate markings that I presume identified his status in the cockpit. He set his cap on the floor and withdrew from his large briefcase what looked to be a flight manual. This triggered a panic response in me. I imagined that he was taking the captain’s seat for his first time (there has to be a first time for every pilot and odds are that we have been on that flight) and was doing a quick review of procedures. This, I assumed, was not unlike what some teachers undergo as they prepare for an unknown subject, trying to squeeze the round peg into the square hole.
The square holes I have stuffed include courses in parenting, Canadian history, ESL, geography, sociology and a math class for nine boys with “behavioural issues”. The parenting class was a fortuitous assignment since my daughter was seven weeks old on the first lesson. I was teaching at an adult learning centre at that time and my class was completely female, under twenty five, and every one was a parent. I would read Barbara Coloroso and What to Expect in the First Year, try the theories on my daughter , then triumphantly teach the class what I had successfully employed. They rarely believed me and on occasion I instead taught lessons about the economics of parenting.
One year I was asked to teach Canadian history. In university I studied American and British history so perhaps the school administrators thought that Canada, being an adjunct nation to these two countries, was well within my purview. I was young and accepted the task. My survival strategy was quite simple: keep one page ahead of the students. This worked for a few weeks until one of them revealed his unusual affection for both history and ambition and asked me questions about events that I had not yet read.
At this time of year, principals are staffing their schools and assigning tentative timetables to teachers. Teachers are not given a final list of assignments until they leave the building in June and even then they might have a change made in September. We wait for our timetables with as much eagerness as the kids who wait to find you who will teach them next year. We also go through our class lists and compare with other teachers, wistfully imaging that school was like a fantasy baseball league and we could trade students to build a different team.
If I am assigned a section next year of, say, World Religions, then you might find me in August in a local coffee shop with a copy of the textbook and my laptop. Don’t worry though; I’ve become a little more square as I’ve aged and I hardly sweat at all.