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 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.

Teachers Fall into Teaching

After speaking with my colleagues during the strike work stoppage, I heard different stories of how teachers got into teaching, and here’s mine.

I didn’t know about teaching as a job, profession, or career. As a student, I only saw the teacher behind the desk probably as my students see me now: Someone who just existed in the school and nowhere else. I don’t know why, but the thought of my teachers getting paid to work never crossed my mind. I had no family members in the profession, and neither of my parents finished high school, let alone university. Most of my older cousins who did have post-secondary experience lived in Hong Kong, where I was born. I had very little guidance throughout my academic career growing up in Canada (I immigrated here at 10 years old). For me, the guidance from my parents was simply, “be educated”. While it gave me a lot of freedom to pursue things, it wasn’t very practical. I had no idea what was out there for me. I just took courses and programs that I thought were challenging (sometimes too challenging), stuck with my interests, and hoped a job would come out of it at the end. I struggled to finish my degree because I didn’t know how to ask professors (or peers) for help. I tried to do everything on my own. It wasn’t until late in my final year of university that I learned that there was such a thing as teacher’s college (A passing comment by a buddy of mine). Not having that information also meant I missed the application deadline! Whoops. After I finished undergrad, I got part time jobs (I had 3 at one point) hoping they would become full time jobs, and one did. I learned so much in that one year of “real work” and it made me a better teacher today. During this time, I also concentrated on researching this new thing I learned called “Teacher’s College”.

Gr9 Sci

A Grade 9 ESL science class during my first practicum.

Once I knew I wanted to become a teacher, it was all or nothing. I applied to every single teacher’s college in Ontario because I didn’t know about the ones in Buffalo/Niagara Falls or I would have applied there too. It cost me almost $1000 to apply and I didn’t get in to most of them, but all I needed was one. I still have my rejection letters from the other schools as my motivation and because I don’t want to forget how badly I wanted to be a teacher once upon a time. Getting into teacher’s college was a dream come true for me, perhaps it was because for the first time in my life, I had a real goal, and saw the end of the academic tunnel. I had found something that I wanted to do, and I knew I had a chance to be good at it (most of my friends told me so).

I’ve been a high school teacher for 11 years now. I was very lucky to “fall” into my calling. I also know of teachers who “fell” into teaching and stayed because it was a comfortable, good job. These teachers are professionals and do their job to the best of their abilities. You cannot be a teacher for very long if you don’t care about students and learning. So yes, some teachers fall under the inflammatory phrase “Those who can’t, teach”. I’m probably one of them, and I will not apologize for becoming a teacher. I’m also pretty sure that many people “fell” into their current job too.

No, teachers are not perfect, but is there a perfect profession? Is there a workplace where 100% of the employees are perfect all the time? I will boldly proclaim that teaching is one of the few professions where the people in it are trying to be better at their job all the time. For most teachers, it is not just a job, but it is a place where we feel we can affect the world around us in a positive way. With the turmoil in Ontario public education due to declining enrollment and an aging workforce, we have to remember that we must invest in education for the benefit of society. The “economy” should not be a factor in education. John Green said it best in an “Open Letter to Public Education”.

Teachers are learners

This was My First Tweet. It has been five years.

Sadly, it still is so true. Who wouldn’t want a perpetual weekend? I have spent 5 years on twitter (kind of, more on that later) and I have learned so much to the point that I’m a different person than the one that wrote that grammatically incorrect tweet 5 years ago. Just like any new learner, I was doing it wrong at first. My account was locked, and I was only following famous people and my not so famous friends. My only followers were my friends, and when I needed to talk to them, I texted them instead of using twitter. After awhile, I felt that twitter wasn’t all it was hyped up to be. I didn’t care what the celebrities were eating and I definitely didn’t care to see what my friends were eating, unless they were going to bring it to me (they didn’t).

I stopped using twitter for a couple of years after that. Looking back, I didn’t have anyone to teach me, and I couldn’t see the value in it. I locked my account and worried about being followed by students (I was denying any student requests to follow me). I don’t remember what prompted me to start using twitter for school. When I did, I went through the learning process, but I got to learn it with my students. I made mistakes, learned from it, and it has been transformational experience for me. I try to follow(back) students who choose to follow me on twitter, and I have been following my students for 2 years now. I was nervous about doing it at first, and I learned even more lessons along the way. I had to un-follow a few students that were posting things I did not wish to see on my timeline, but it gave me an opportunity to talk to them about it in school. There are many positives to following students, mostly it’s the enhanced connection I have with them. It’s tough to get to know the quiet students in class sometimes, and I was surprised by how different they were online. Students have approached me in the hall to tell me that it’s a good thing that I’m on twitter. They told me it “actually made me look more human”. Well then.

Someone once told me that it’s more important to teach the student first, curriculum second. Somewhere along the way, we forgot about the relationship aspect of teaching and learning. I have noticed a change in the relationship I now have with my students. I know a lot more students at my school, including students that I haven’t taught, and they know me better as well.

The best part of my learning in the past two years was that there are many educators on twitter! I have made new connections and have seen different perspectives about education from all around the world. These teachers also share! It’s great to see that there are so many dedicated and innovative teachers out there. Having these connections has made me a better teacher. There are so many great educators in the twitterverse. I can’t wait to meet more and learn more from them. (This will definitely be another post later)

Here are some anecdotes from my time on twitter:

Students are a great resource, and they tell me what they’re interested in learning about.

I got some positive reinforcement from a student when I had the privilege of introducing our valedictorian this past year.

We don’t give our students enough credit because they appreciate our work. Eventually.

Recently, I had a task that I needed help with. So I asked for help on twitter. The response was awesome. It turned into quite a funny story!

My personal favorite:

I once helped a student who was stuck in her bathroom via twitter.