Sunday, December 30, 2007

Teaching After Retirement?

As mentioned in my last post, I am opposed to retired teachers taking up supply positions, assuming the supply exceeds the demand. What follows is an article I wrote about a year before I retired, stating the reasons for my position. It appeared in a local teacher publication, and the response I got was, shall we say, spirited.

Teacher Retirement

What I am about to write, I know, will not be well-received by many colleagues of my generation, i.e., those who are planning to retire in the near future. Indeed, were it not for the fact that this is my last year of teaching, undoubtedly I would lack the moral authority to assert the following: in my view, doing supply work in retirement, with one notable exception, is wrong, and does a grave disservice to recent graduates in education.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? I’m sure that if we think back to the dawning of our own careers, many of us will see parallels to the situations that new teachers face today: a dearth of opportunities, except in select disciplines, and the very real prospect of having to relocate far from family and friends. That was certainly my experience, and it is not one that I am particularly keen to see young people face today.

Since stable employment eluded me in Ontario, I moved to and taught in Manitoba for many years, returning in 1988, one of the most compelling reasons being that my wife and I did not want our children growing up with almost no contact with their grandparents and other extended family members. It was only after toiling in supply work that I was able to secure full-time employment as teachers, especially department heads, got to know me and my work; as well, I was able to see the job postings in staff rooms, thereby giving me an edge over outside applicants.

Today, our young people are being denied such opportunities. When was the last time a new teacher did supply work in your school? It has been more than two years at my place of employment. To remedy this situation clearly will require retiring teachers to adopt a new perspective and be prepared to make sacrifices. Certainly, I know many anticipating retirement who say they will need the money that supply work pays to augment their pensions. My response to that is simple: either defer your retirement, be prepared to live a little more modestly, or begin a second career. Do not fall into a comforting rationalization about how students will be especially well-served because of your vast experience. The bald truth is that the vast majority of supply work entails babysitting or monitoring, not actual teaching. Nor should you feel that you somehow deserve to teach after retirement because you have paid your dues. What would make any of us think we are owed anything by the system?

I mentioned at the outset that there really is only one exception to the opinion I have expressed. That is when a teacher, either through maternity leave or illness, will be off the job for the remainder of a semester. Assuming the illness or leave occurs sometime after the semester has begun, it is, I believe, highly desirable to have an experienced (presumably recently retired) teacher assume duties to ensure continuity in the classroom. It would simply be too difficult for most new teachers to master the curriculum in a short time and provide that continuity. Indeed, last year at my school two of my former colleagues, whom I hold in very high esteem, did exactly that, and the students were indeed well-served by their conscientious professionalism.

The sentiments I’ve expressed in this article will undoubtedly strike some as either harsh or cold-hearted. I think they are neither. It is only when we admit to ourselves that we’ve had a pretty good run that we can begin to recognize it is time to yield to the younger generation who, once they attain full-time employment, undoubtedly will acquit themselves in the job with honour and vigor, just as we did when we started out, so long ago.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Search for Meaning

They say that when people reach a certain stage in life, they look for things to make their lives meaningful. Throughout my years as a teacher, that search for meaning eluded me, partly because the job both haunted and consumed me, leaving little time for engagement with the larger world, and partly due to my belief that whatever I accomplished in the classroom had less to do with me and more to do with the innate talents and discipline of my students. Now into the second year of my retirement, I find both my interests and the focus of this blog diverging from its initial purpose of offering observations and commentary about education and moving into areas of which I feel an educated person should be aware. You might say that I am now trying to reengage with the larger world.

To that end, I suspect that more of my entries henceforth will be eclectic in nature, reflective of this search for meaning, although I have no intention of allowing them to devolve into maudlin self-indulgence. (I’ll leave that to people like Shelagh Rogers and her execrable program on C.B.C. radio, Sounds Like Canada.) To mark this shift, I would like to begin a series on how we, as individuals, through either acts of omission or commission, can have a positive impact on the world. The first act relates to retired teachers.

While I realize the situation varies tremendously depending upon where you live, in my school board, there are many retired teachers who do supply teaching and take long term occasional positions. The problem with this is that it deprives a large number of young people the opportunity of working and making themselves known to administrators. One young man I know, for example, who had worked for about three years on contract at my school, is now on the supply list but gets called an average of once or twice a month, while many retired teachers drawing healthy pensions are called much more regularly, owing to the fact that they are well-known due to their former status.

So my suggestion is a simple one: when you retire, unless your board is chronically short of supply teachers, make a young person’s life a little easier and future employment prospects brighter by consciously choosing NOT to supplant them; elect NOT to be put on the supply list. I have never regretted my decision to make way for a new generation of young people.

If I can find the file, in my next post I would like to provide an amended version of an article I wrote on this topic about a year before I retired.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Something to Think About

One of my favourite writers, David Macfarlane, had an article in the Dec.24th edition of the Globe and Mail. He is a former columnist with the paper,and I have never understood why they dropped him as a regular contributor. What follows is the kind of insightful and skilled writing that I used to savor on a regular basis:

How the rich spend at Christmas
From Monday's Globe and Mail

December 23, 2007 at 5:08 PM EST

It's always good to know what the wealthy are up to – particularly now that the holidays are upon us. And so, in the spirit of the season, here is a list of exclusive gift suggestions. Very exclusive, when you stop to think about it.

One thing the rich are bound to have this year is a roof over their heads. Untouched by bombs, hurricanes, fires and mudslides, intact roofs are capable of keeping the cold and wet out and the warmth in. Of course, roofs can't be for everyone. There aren't many refugees who know a good architect from a hole in the ground. And the homeless – they wouldn't know how to get hold of a decent contractor to save their lives. Roofs are particularly rare anywhere there has been an earthquake, a civil war or an intervention by the Bush administration. Probably anyone who had anything to do with a subprime mortgage also has a pretty good view of the stars this winter. But that is the great charm of roofs. It is its exclusivity that gives basic shelter such enormous cachet among the discerning.

Speaking of hot and cold, members of the world's economic elite have it coming out their taps. No walks with plastic jugs to the communal well for them. No worries about droughts or dried-up rivers. No mercury poisoning, no upstream chemical plants, no toxic run-off from intensive agri-factories in the watershed. And best of all, no beverage companies buying up the rights to the local source. In the households of the truly affluent, there is as much water as anyone could ever want. A flushing toilet! A hot shower! Often, there are baths. And for the man who has everything, how about this: Your favourite gardening enthusiast can run the sprinkler in the summer for as long as he wants, with water that is clean enough to drink!

And after a busy day of brushing your teeth, shampooing the dog, doing the laundry, quenching your thirst and cleaning the dishes, what would the holidays be without food? In the kitchens of the world's most well-to-do, there are refrigerators that are full of milk, cheese, eggs, hamburger, and, at the back of the shelves, um, other things. (I'm not sure. It looks like they've been there for a while. Maybe they're capers.) Also, the rich have cupboards with cornflakes and peanut butter in them, and they have breadboxes that contain bread. Often, there is orange juice in the freezer. And sometimes someone has left some ice cream.

But even the rich encounter people who are hard to buy for. You know the type. You ask what they want for Christmas, and they don't say anything very helpful in reply. Not if they're busy whisking flies away from their sleeping children, they don't. So here's a nifty suggestion. What about shoes? Everyone likes shoes. The rich have been wearing them since forever. Ands really, you can't go wrong with footwear. Shoes are especially good for crossing deserts in the Sudan (see water-related gift suggestions, above) and for running away from crazed, marauding janjaweed soldiers in Darfur.

And then, for the last-minute shopper, there's always penicillin. The upper crust has always known that it never goes amiss. There are lots of diseases and infections that can actually kill people when there is no access to antibiotics – and that is one of the many indications that, as F.Scott Fitzgerald once said, the rich are different. They sure are: They're alive. Some people – at least, the ones who don't have to ask pharmaceutical companies how much anything costs – are happy to spare no expense when it comes to not dying. And while on the subject of how good the rich have been at avoiding death, take a tip from the top 5 per cent of the Earth's wage-earners: Anti-retrovirals make a great stocking stuffer.

There are traditions that come with having an income, and one of them can solve the tricky business of giving a gift to a young person. It's always difficult, so here's a useful idea. The rich like to give their children educations. Preschool, primary, high school – the whole nine yards. Now that the economy's booming, postsecondary tuition is as common under the Christmas trees of the wealthy as Laura Secord chocolates, Tim Hortons gift certificates and sweaters from the Bay. The rich figured out years ago that giving kids the possibility of a future pretty much cut out gas-sniffing and suicides among their own teenaged offspring. And who among us is grinch enough to argue with that?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Towards an Effective School Attendance Policy

While this is my first entry for some time, I would like to continue discussing school attendance policies. In my last post I suggested that schools and boards rarely have the stomach to implement and enforce meaningful policies for a myriad of reasons. Today I would like to look at one from the past that was quite effective.

When I taught in Manitoba, I was fortunate to work for a division that eventually developed a policy that was stringent yet fair and, for the most part, enforced. While many years have elapsed since that time, if memory serves me, a letter was sent home after 3 absences advising the parents of our policies and the importance of regular attendance, etc. After five or six absences, the student was given a detention, and ultimately, if he or she accrued ten, an appearance before a principal/vice- principal, board member, teacher and superintendent was mandatory. At this meeting, the truant had to explain why he/she should be allowed to continue in the course, after which a contract was drawn up which permitted no more than two more absences, no matter what the reason. While you might think that this was a cumbersome, draconian and time-consuming process, the truth is that such meetings and contracts were rare, owing to the fact that when they were violated, the student was removed from the course and placed in study hall for that period every day. In other words, this policy had teeth, and almost no one ever violated the contract.

Despite its success, I remember one time when one of my students violated the contract and I had every expectation that he would be removed. After talking with his father, who felt I was being grossly unfair, despite the fact that it was his son who had skipped class, I received a call from the Superintendent. He had spoken to the father and suggested that this was a time when we should show some compassion; I responded that there were no mitigating circumstances whatsoever, and not to enforce the contract was to essentially render it meaningless. Being both young and rash, I also told him he would have my resignation if he didn’t support me on this (a career-limiting move, as they say). After I talked to him, I then phoned a trustee that I knew fairly well, told him the situation and asked for his support.

The outcome was that the Superintendent was overruled by the board, and the lad was removed from my class. Needless to say, relations with the Superintendent were ‘frosty’ from that point onward. Yet for me, the gamble was worth it, as I have always believed that educational integrity has to be practiced on all levels, from the top down. Without it, we really stand for nothing but expedience, which serves no one.