Teachers tell stories

This one is one of my favourites.

The business department at my school had a cookie program. The goal: To bake and sell cookies for the most profit. The profits are then donated to a charity of the class’s choice. It’s a great program. You can always tell when the project is running by the smell in the hallways and students who come to class on a sugar high. I always made students eat their cookies at the end of the class. Sorry, next period teacher!These cookies are bakedThe baking oven is in a common area in the business department. A photocopier is also there. I love to bug the young entrepreneurs as I wait for my photocopying to finish. It’s a great way to pass the time and to meet students I haven’t taught before.

One day, I saw a young man in the process of baking the cookies. The dough comes frozen and are the size of a thick poker chip. He was trying to maximize his profits by cramming as many cookies as he could into the tray. I could have told him that he was making a grave mistake but I like it when students figure out the answers themselves (and my photocopying wasn’t finished) so we had this exchange:

“How much are the cookies?” I asked.

“75 cents each or 2 for a dollar.” he replied.

“What?! That’s such a ripoff. Look how tiny they are! No way you’ll get me to buy one at that price!” I stated incredulously.

He became defensive. “But sir! No… they don’t stay this size! They’ll expand!”

I looked at him, then the tray, and said suspiciously, “Okay, still seems fishy to me.”

I collected my papers and walked out. I then peeked through the doorway to see if the seed that I planted would sprout.

The young man thought for a moment, looked at his tray, and began frantically pulling out frozen cookie dough from the tray.

I was a happy man.

~Epilogue~

I told the business teacher the story and she laughed and said, “It happens every year! Someone always bakes a giant cookie!”. So what happens?

They break it up and sell crumbled, broken cookies!

#HowTeachersAge

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Teachers need their Moms

I tell this story to my students all the time (I tell many stories), to encourage them to do their best. Because there’s no wasted effort, you just don’t know when the reward comes. I was very lucky to grow up in a home that never needed me to L.E.A.D. the way and become a Lawyer/Engineer/Accountant/Doctor (that’ll be a whole different post). So I was free to pursue what I wanted, which is a blessing and a curse, because neither of my parents finished high school and they had no idea how to prepare me for the challenges of post-secondary education.

I finally hit ‘the wall’ around my second year in university, to the point where I had no idea what was going on in the lectures, let alone the assignments or exams. The counselor at the university suggested I take less physics courses and minor in physics instead. When I told my Mom I was considering this option, she was not impressed. After a few argments back and forth, and plenty of tears, here’s the conversation we had that would change my life, though I had no idea at the time:

“Albert, do you like physics?”

“Yes, but it’s too hard for me, I can’t do it”

“It’s okay, keep doing it, I will support you. Take 5 years, 6 years, keep at it until you’re done.”

So I did. A few years later when I starting pursuing the teaching profession, I learned that the number of credits you have in your discipline determines what subjects you teach. So had I chosen to minor in physics, I would not have the require physics credits to become a physics teacher. My life would be drastically different than it is today.

Thanks Mom.

Teachers learn to grieve

Nobody Knows -by Tony Rich

Adapted Lyric: “Nobody Knows” by Tony Rich

 

All good teachers know that it’s the relationships with your students that matter. People can learn so many things on YouTube now. What keeps teachers from extinction is the ability to connect with their students in a way that a screen (or even A.I.) can never replicate. I learned long ago that learning is about emotions. If a student associates your class with positive emotions, they will learn better. I try to invest a lot of positive emotions in my classes.

There are also negative emotions in life. I have been learning about how to manage negative emotions lately. As usual, I learn the most from my students. In this case, it was from Madeline.

Madi was a student in my grade 11 physics class. She was bright, pretty, and very quirky. When I think of Madi I think of the Physics Blog she wrote in our class. Anyone that knew her would say “That is so Madi” after reading it. The sarcasm, the irreverence, and the scientific articulation blew me away. I don’t remember if I told her when I graded the assignment, but it was easily one of my favourites. Reading 30 different blogs from students about the same lessons can get dull, but Madi’s really stood out. Here’s an excerpt:

“Hi, valued readers! It’s me, the author of this blog again, and I’m here to talk to you about something very important to me. I personally call it power, although some people call it by different names. For example, in Japan they probably call it パワー. I don’t speak Japanese but that’s what power is in Japanese according to google translate. And I mean, google has helped me out in times of need so I trust it.

Power is the rate at which work is done. Work is, as we know, the action of a force acting upon an object a displacement. Power can be calculated with the formula P = W/Δt. To demonstrate the formula, I’m going to write about something I saw today and calculate its power.”

She then went on to describe how to calculate the power of a Dragonite (Yes, that’s a Pokémon). It was so Madi.

After I found out about Madi’s death, I knew I had to read her blog again, but I wasn’t ready to confront it right away. After a few days of avoiding it, I forced myself to go and read it. Only I couldn’t find it in my files! I ended up spending a whole afternoon searching for it. When I found it, I was so relieved that it hadn’t been deleted. I read all of it again, which was probably an irrational way of keeping her alive for just a little longer. I didn’t want it to be lost on the interwebs, so I downloaded and made it into a physical copy to give to her family. I hope one day they will read it and enjoy it like I did.

I never thought the death of a student that I don’t currently teach would affect me as much as it did. The truth is that I probably would have never seen Madi again even if she hadn’t died. The number of former students that I see on a regular basis can be counted on one hand. But knowing that it could never happen, and the world would be losing such a bright and unique mind made my heart ache. It was rough few days for me last week.

I felt so supported when former students, colleagues, friends and family checked in on me last week. Andrew (unfortunately) has gone through this before, and had given a Ted Talk about it last year. Watching it helped me refocus during the first few days after hearing the news. He advised that time is the only thing that will make the pain go away. He was right. Nothing I did would help me sleep or eat any better after the news really sank in. Everyone deals with loss in different ways and I learned a lot about myself through this tragedy. Organizing my thoughts and writing this post really helped.

In school, I had a renewed sense of connection with my students, and it reaffirmed to me that the things we do day to day: the curriculum, the deadlines, the assignments, it’s not that serious. It is the aggregate actions from of all of us: teachers, parents, and all the adults in our children’s lives, that’s what makes a difference, a little bit at a time. It really does “take a village” to guide a young person into a good citizen. Losing one with such potential at a young age is why it hurts so much.

Madi may not be with us anymore, but she will live on, through me. As I continue to work with young people, I will forever strive to be better at what I do. When I face moments of weakness, Madi will give me strength to keep getting better. That’s how I will honour her.

Goodbye Madi. I hope to see you again, so I can tell you all about the lessons you taught me when you went away.

Teachers are immigrants

I am neither an American or a Muslim. The events of the past 24 hours has struck a cord with me. As a human, we can all find something to relate with each other.

My family emigrated from Hong Kong when I was 10. We had no means to do it, just a rumour from a relative of a relative that Canada may be could be granting asylum for people without status (never came true). We lived in government housing in Hong Kong, and my parents emptied their bank account, left home with a plane ticket and hope for a better life.

We had no business immigrating to Canada. We had no money and my parents did not have any desirable skills that the Canadian government were looking for in workers. The only thing we had going for us was tenacity and hard work. We had no legal status in Canada for many years and our immigration application was basically doing everything to delay our deportation date. Meanwhile, my father immersed our family into Canada and Canadian culture (“Don’t be so loud, the Canadians talk very gently”; “You need to learn to skate and play hockey, the kids love it here”;”Study hard, don’t give them a reason to deport us”). My parents bought a house with no money and 2 mortgages just before the recession of the early 90s hoping to show Canada that we want to be Canadians really badly. My younger sister and I were beginning to integrate into Canadian culture and as each day passes, it becomes harder and harder to re-integrate back to Hong Kong. Any mistakes would mean we might have go back to a place that was more and more foreign to us.

So we thought we would be deported when my father was charged with shoplifting.

He forgot his tape measure at home. So he grabbed one off the shelf in the store to measure the wood he needed, forgot that it was still in his pocket when he walked out. A moment of forgetfulness was going to undo years of hard work and living in fear. Luckily, the client my dad was working for (Mrs. Bellamy) wrote a letter to the courts, vouching for for him and the charges were dropped. (A decade later, my father would be given a community member award by Toronto’s Chief of Police for apprehending an armed mugger)

As a teacher, I have taught many students of many backgrounds all with their own stories. I have always found students of the Muslim faith to be wise beyond their years, and kind despite the negative portrayal of them in popular culture and media. The current events in the US will embolden some people in Canada who have their views legitimized by the leader of the most powerful country on Earth. I cannot dismiss it and say “that’ll never happen in Canada”. There is too much at stake. I have countless reasons why I love Canada and all the people in it, but we need to continue to welcome everyone. I’m here because of the generosity of the Canadian government, its programs to help the poor, and the many different citizens living in it. (My wife did not know her dad for the first 10 years of her life as he was living in Canada while hiding from communist Vietnam after the war) Canadians believe that we’re all better off when everyone is better off. By welcoming everyone, we do risk letting in some bad apples. That is the price of true freedom. I’m willing to pay that price.

“A painting’s beauty is in how the colours are put together to make a whole picture, not making distinction in its individual colours.”

-Beyond (a band from Hong Kong who wrote this song about the Apartheid, inspired by Nelson Mandela.

Teacher have confessions

When I said goodbye to my friends at my previous school, I had to get a few things* off my chest that I wasn’t very proud of. 

At the photocopier:

  • When the photocopier jams, I walk away and don’t tell anyone.
  • When someone is trying to fix a jam, I tell them I have a class so I don’t have to stay and help them
  • I only photocopy at 8:25 in the morning, right before the bell rings
  • If someone is making copies ahead of me, I tell them that I have a class so they let me go ahead of them (but I actually have prep).
  • When the person in front of me forgets to logout, I don’t tell them so I can use their code.

Lunch:

  • Those are my dishes in the sink (sorry!)
  • That’s my mouldy food in the fridge (sorry again!)
  • I don’t cover my food in the microwave (thanks for cleaning it up!)

Day to day things:

  • Yes, I did get your email
  • I can’t wait for some of my colleagues to leave the room so I can immediately gossip about them
  • I pretend to go to the washroom during staff meetings, but I actually go home
  • I have been to one department meeting in the last 5 years

Don’t blue page me:

  • I teach during lockdown drills
  • I am always the first person to leave my classroom when there’s a fire alarm
  • I let my students go early so I can catch my bus home
  • I make sure my class is quiet during morning announcements, only when I know I’ve put in an announcement to be read.
  • I act sad in front of the students when our team misses the playoffs, but I’m actually happy because I don’t have to stay late or come early to school anymore for games and practices.
  • When students ask me to supervise a club, I reject them by saying that I’m already supervising another club, only that club is completely made up.

My colleagues:

  • I tell students that teachers who don’t wear ties are unprofessional
  • When students complain about other teachers, I make them tell me who they are and usually agree with them.
  • Whenever I gossip about other teachers, I make sure the other people know who I’m talking about.
  • I always use the middle urinal
  • Whenever I’m alone in the science office and the phone rings, I don’t answer it.
  • I always make sure I learn supply teachers’ names so I can complain about them to the admin afterwards.
  • Sometimes I’m early for on calls, but I wait outside until I see the 1st half teacher calls the office before walking in.
  • During the strike, I only showed up during shift switch and tell the morning captain I’m in the afternoon shift and the afternoon captain I’m in the morning shift

Students:

  • When a student asks me something I don’t know, I pretend to know and ask them to Google it, then report to me tomorrow so I can verify if they’re correct.
  • Every time a student calls me sir or Mr. Fong in public, I give them a bonus mark
  • I sometimes buy cookies and muffins from the students, then throw it in the garbage afterwards.
  • I sometimes postpone a test because I forgot make it
  • I sometimes “grant” my students a study period because I don’t have a lesson planned

*Most of these are just jokes, I didn’t actually do these things. Most of them.

Epilogue:

Apparently, I did do some of these (according to my students, who have better memories than I do)

And apparently, even as adults?

Teachers say Goodbye

In lieu of using up everyone’s attention and time at a meeting, I have written this goodbye post for my colleagues.

I have worked at Glenforest Secondary School for 11 years. It’s a pretty long time. I’m guessing it’s probably about 10% of my life expectancy. There have been many days when I spent more time in this building than in my own home, many weeks when I see my colleagues more than I see my own wife. I’m not alone, I know many colleagues who have been at work before sunrise, and left at night without ever seeing the Sun during the day because there are no windows in the offices or classrooms at Glenforest. I have witnessed full-out-high-volume arguments about the day’s weather between colleagues:

  • “It’s so gross outside”
  • “What are you talking about? It was beautiful when I walked in this morning!”
  • “Not anymore!”
  • “NO WAY!” (Without any tangible method to verify the statement)

These types of exchanges sometimes goes on for several minutes before someone checks… the internet (again, difficult access to Windows). I will miss those arguments. But not as much as I’ll miss the people.

Schools are just brick and mortar without the people inside it. Without the people I have met at Glenforest, I would not be the person nor the teacher that I am today. There are so many people to thank, and if you want to skip to the part about you, just hit CTRL+F and type in your name to get to your paragraph (which can be risky…) If you feel neglected, just know that I probably didn’t have anything nice to say about you — (I’m kidding!)

I have written about Karen Marsh here, without adding that she was the one who spearheaded my nomination at our union’s Teacher Recognition Awards. That gave me the motivation and drive to improve myself. Another person who did that (and more) was Anya Marin. I always imagined that I would be giving a farewell speech to her for leaving our school, not the other way around. Alas, life has a funny way of ruining our best laid plans.

To my friends the Bertovics, one of the first people I spoke to when I left the hospital after the birth of my first child. Both are excellent teachers and always thinks about what’s best for the students, even at the expense of their own time and energy. One of the most difficult days of my life was when I decided not to use movers for my move to Mississauga. You know you have a good friend when they willingly agree to help you move. Thanks, Drazen. And thanks for all the clothes and toys for my kids!

Kirsten is the consummate professional. Teacher’s colleges should invite her to give talks to teacher candidates about what is required to be a professional teacher. She respects the job and shows it in all the different ways she approaches teaching. I learned that it’s okay to love teaching from Kirsten, even if everyone else is telling you that teachers are not worthy, you keep on working and doing your best at your job, no matter what.

Aylisa is the easiest-going person I have ever met. Just so great to be around and work with. She is the person who planted the idea in my mind that change is good. Doing the same thing over and over is boring, one should seek challenge in order to be truly fulfilled. Thank you Aylisa!

Duncan is a master coach of rugby and uses those skills daily in his classroom. I wish I had an opportunity to learn more about coaching from him. Thank you for making me laugh, D.A.! Too bad “The Prosecutor” nickname never stuck.

I nicknamed “Hurricane Diana” because her projects and ideas picks me up, drops me off in different places and doing different things, and leaves me confused and alone afterwards because she’s on to the next huge project to do, hopefully picking someone else up and dropping them off somewhere they’ve never been. Those experiences were truly memorable, I wish I could match her tenacity in pulling such huge events off, and doing it so well.

Natalie and Jason are wonderful young teachers who have bright futures ahead of them. It was a pleasure to teach with them as a team, and I learned so much from each of them through our conversations. Both Jason and Natalie inspired me to work hard to keep up with them or I risk being left behind! (I will never forget Reading Rainbow)

I was also able to learn from teachers outside of my department. Harry is a fantastic coach and another excellent leader in our school. As branch president, he navigated us through our labour issues and even bought us ice cream! Harry’s generosity, and the way he helps with the issues our fellow colleagues encounter are something I aspire to get better at. He is a also terrible poker player.

When I volunteered to work on the photography parts of the yearbook, I didn’t know what I was getting in to. I was lucky to learn from the very detail oriented Barbara who is really good at organizing things. She is an amazing math teacher and it’s too bad that my children won’t have a chance to be in her classroom in the future.

In September, I’ll be teaching at a new school, I’ll be meeting and working with new people, I’ll be navigating new norms in a different place. I feel excited and nervous whenever I think about going to The Woodlands, but I will take all the wonderful experiences at Glenforest with me, it is a place I will not soon forget. I grew up here, first as a young, single new teacher, became a husband, then a father (twice) while working at Glenforest. I have experienced so many changes in my life for the past 11 years but the constant, the thing that grounds me, will always be the students. I was blessed to work with such a diverse group of young people at this school, I have learned so much from them. After 12 years of teaching, I have learned that many teenagers have the same issues, no matter who they are or where they’re from and I’m sure that it’s the same for all adolescents everywhere in the world. It gives me comfort to take that knowledge with me to my new school, and if I miss Glenforest, I’m not worried…

The new school I’m going to also has no windows.

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Thank you, Glenforest. It’s been a great ride. New adventures await!

 

Teachers saves lives

I have realized that teaching is my calling. I love it. It is my life.

It hasn’t always been that way.

About 5 years into my career, I was starting to feel comfortable with the job. I have some experience and developed confidence in myself that this is something I can do for a long time. I could have (and was heading towards) a teacher’s equivalent of Groundhog Day. My lessons were set, on PowerPoint, I had different versions of similar tests, and I could see myself plateauing and coast for the next 25 years to retirement.

And then Anya Marin became my colleague, and she saved my life.

Anya came into my school as I was reaching a crossroads in my career. What do I want to be? How was I getting there? Do I like this job? Is it okay to like it? Why do I get a feeling it should be something to be ashamed of when it is the most noble of professions? I had worked with many different colleagues, some who loved teaching, some hated it, and being a new teacher, I found myself being influenced by the negativity that can come with the job.

Anya is a veteran teacher of 25 years, so she knows what she’s talking about, and she also has the pedigree. Her father was an university professor and she already had her principal’s qualifications when I met her almost a decade ago. Anya chose to stay in the classroom instead of “ascending” because she loved teaching so much, and she had a profound effect on me. The most impressive skill Anya has as a teacher is her ability to read people, then empathize with them if the situation warrants it. I’m always shocked by how often she is correct when analyzing what people are like, their personalities/traits, and then treats them according to what is necessary.

Through a stroke of luck, I was able to carpool to school with her everyday for over a year and we became close friends. We had great talks on those car rides and I learned so much about life, people, society, and of course, teaching. Through those conversations, it became obvious to me that Anya has a love of learning, I love that she is never ashamed of her ignorance of something new. At school, I got to watch how she interacted with students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Her easy going personality and positivity was infectious and our science department was better for it.

Anya made me want to improve myself as a teacher. She did so by example. You’ll rarely hear her complain about a new initiative, or some change that was occurring in the school. Anya embraces everything teaching throws at her and always does it with a smile on her face. Her work ethic is second to none, her endless energy amazes me, and her love for her students, limitless.

If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the teacher I am today. Teaching is my life and Anya inspired me to make it so. When I first met her, she was the sista that I worked with. Now, I consider her a sister I cannot be without. As I move to a new school next September, I feel like my 14 year old self, about to enter high school for the first time, on the cusp of a new adventure. I’m also extremely nervous that I’ll be doing it without my mentor, my guide, my friend. I’m going to miss her so much. Thanks for always laughing at my jokes.

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Me and my big sister