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.


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.


  • 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


  • 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.


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.


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


Teachers like to Talk

Especially on the picket line. What else is there to do when you have 4 hours to kill while marching on the sidewalk? You can only eat so many donuts…


My main man Mr. Pugi, who knew he wanted to be a teacher at an early age.

So I started talking to my colleagues. I asked them a simple question:

“How did you get into teaching?”

The answers I got were interesting and as expected, long. I asked over 16 teachers (1 for every day of the strike) and most answers belonged in one of four categories that I’ve created. There were some hybrids but for the most part, these are the four:


The family of teachers. With so many “teacher couples” on at school, I can only imagine how many more teachers are ‘created’ through lineage. Are there any other professions where there are so many in the family that are involved? I have heard stories of a colleague resisting teaching for most of her life but still ended up being one! I envy these teachers because teaching is part of their life. I always feel bad for my wife (who’s not a teacher) when I have my teacher friends over and the conversations inevitably veer towards teaching. I love talking shop with my colleagues but I’m sure it my wife is tired of hearing the same conversations again and again. Imagine if all your family dinners have years of teaching experience to draw from? All the questions that can be answered because you literally have hundreds of years of teaching to draw from? This is just what I imagine a family of teachers would do. Who knows, perhaps they hate it when that happens!

Career Change

Most of these teachers didn’t stumble into teaching from a previous career. The colleagues I talked to all had some connection to teaching before they switched. I did find some similarities to the ‘teachers of lineage’ when asked: “Why did you switch to teaching?” The answer from each career changer at my school (albeit a small sample size) was family. “My work would not give me the kind of schedule I want for my family” was a common reason. These teachers who changed careers (I’m generalizing) are the most diligent and “realistic” people in our school. I think it’s because they’ve experienced the ‘real world’ and understands that there are some things in education (and life) we cannot control. They also know that teachers (and any worker, really) are replaceable, so they roll with the punches when they’re being told what to do. I find that the most common teacher complaint is when we’re told what to do. We’re so used to ‘being our own bosses” in our own classroom we forget that yes, the principal (or whoever that has the power)’s job is to tell you what to do. My best student teachers were the ones who have had some experience in industry and treats teaching as a job, not an extension of school.

The Calling

The most noble of the four. “I have always wanted to be a teacher, ever since I was (insert absurdly young age).” or “I had a great (insert favourite subject) teacher and I wanted to be just like him/her”. These teachers love what they do and exudes it everyday to their students. Students revere these teachers at my school (They would walk on glass for these colleagues of mine). These teachers knew exactly what they wanted to do at a young age and planned their life to achieving that goal. There was an example of a colleague who quit, then came back to teaching because she hated the (much more prestigious and higher paying) job she switched to. Now that’s admirable.

The Falling

This is the most touchy group of the four. Some other names for this category:

  • Plan B (too negative)
  • I have no idea what I’m going to do so I’ll trying teaching (too long)
  • Those who can’t do, teach (too close to home)

Yes. There are teachers who fall into teaching. No, it’s not because they can’t do anything else. Many found what originally planning to do was not what they envisioned themselves to be doing. There were many different paths: lawyer, veterinarian, doctor, scientists, the list goes on. It doesn’t mean they love teaching any less, or are any less capable. Every single teacher in “The Falling” group already had seeds of teaching in their life: Piano tutors, life guard, coaching, referee… etc. All of these teachers had experience working with younger people, helping them learn. After they ‘fall’ into teaching, they were so glad they found it again.

Of course after talking about themselves, the immediate question my colleagues have is: “Now it’s your turn, how did YOU get into teaching?”

If you’re interested, here’s my story.

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 need to vent

Teaching is a stressful job. To relieve that stress, we often vent about our work. We usually vent by complaining (sometimes too much) about stuff we can’t control. If we didn’t find a way to vent the stress, it will be the students who suffer the consequences. There’s nothing worse than an apathetic teacher suffering from burnout. Imagine dealing with children of any age without any patience. It’s not a pretty picture.

Empathy for others is an important part of a teacher’s mindset because we need lots of it to help our students. Teachers would do anything for their students to help them succeed. Most teachers I know have gone the extra mile to ensure the best for our students. Whether it’s volunteering for clubs and teams, writing “creative” reference letters, to buying them lunch because they’re hungry, or standing in frigid weather with a student because their parents are late. We empathize with the student’s plight, because we were young once too.

So you’d think that teachers who work with young people everyday are very empathetic towards others. And they are.

Until they talk to another teacher.

Complaining to another teacher about teaching is one of the worst experiences you’ll ever have. For some reason we lose the ability to empathize and immediately seize the opportunity to vent. The strategy we use is: “Me too, AND I’ve had it worse”.

  • Teacher A: “My period 1 class is so tough, they’re always off task, goofing off, and there’s 33 of them! I could barely fit them in my tiny classroom!”
  • Teacher B: “Oh ya, I’ve had classes like that! I once had 40 kids in a class and they had 60 IEPs! I had to check them for weapons before class and we were in a portable! We only had one table and it only had 3 legs!”

This is a common one:

  • Teacher A: “I also have so much marking”
  • Teacher B: “I have a lot too! I’ve got 90 tests and 80 essays and 10 labs to mark!”
  • Teacher A: “Thanks. I feel so much better.”

It reminds me of standing in a long line up and someone starts to line up behind you. Does it improve your position in the line? How does knowing someone who has it worse make you feel better? Imagine a psychiatrist doing that?

  • “You think your wife is crazy? I’ve had 3 divorces!”
  • “Ya ya ya, that’s nothing, let me tell you what MY parents used to do to me!”

At our school, there is one person we can vent to without having to suffer through the “Me too, I’ve had worse”. Karen always listened, empathized, and offered helpful advise. She was our “Staff Psychiatrist”.

Staff Psychiatrist

Staff Psychiatrist

Even when there was no feasible solution to the issue at hand, she was able to relieve your stress by offering a kind word, a gentle smile, a warm hug, or a funny story to make you feel better. She has the ability to put things into perspective when you think the sky is falling, or (gulp) when your “issue” really isn’t a big deal.

Sadly, I must describe Karen’s voluntary psychiatry work in the past tense. For her, stress relief is simple: Early Retirement. At her retirement party, many teachers spoke about how Karen made them feel, starting from the first time they stepped foot into our school. I don’t remember the first time I met Karen, but I knew that whenever I was stressed out, I always found myself in her office, just talking about stuff. She’d ask me questions to take my mind off things, and we’d have discussions about a myriad of things unrelated to work. Ever since her departure a few months ago, I have felt my stress level increase and it’s all her fault!! Our school won’t be the same without her. If you read about me in the news getting into trouble at work, it’ll be due to a stress induced meltdown (students beware!). All the recent changes at our school hasn’t helped either, but that’s another post for another day.

If you haven’t crossed paths with someone who helps you relieve your day to day stress at work, how do you keep from going crazy? How many of you have a “staff psychiatrist” at work?

If you don’t have one, me too, and I have it worse: I know what it’s like to lose a great one.