Monday, April 01, 2024

Impact: "I don't remember anything you taught."


Frank found me at lunch in the staff room, and he brought me a package that had come in the school mail.  I took it and looked at it.  It was a bulging envelope that looked like a child had written the address.  It wasn't ticking but I still went back to my classroom to open it. I'm glad I did.

Inside was an amazing card filled with heartfelt words from Stephanie, a student from over 20 years ago.  There was also a picture of Stephanie and her beautiful family.  The bulging part was this pre-inked stamp that had an impression of my face and my name on it.  I was struck by the time, thought, and work that went into all of this.  I was deeply moved and was glad I opened this in the privacy of my classroom at lunch.  

Luckily, Stephanie had included her email address.  When my students returned to the classroom, I told them about the card and the contents of the envelope.  I told them this could be them in 20 years; I think it was stunning for them to think they will grow up, get jobs, become mommies and daddies, and might still have the wherewithal to write to that weird teacher they had back then.  My grade 2/3 students started asking me questions, and instead of answering them myself, we wrote Stephanie a quick email, thanking her for the package, and asking her their questions.  Steph was great.  Even though she is a busy working parent, she answered the students' questions. 

She and I also sent emails back and forth.  She explained how she found me (I tend to move around, as you know) and that her son in kindergarten had written my name and address on the package .  She also updated me on her life and about students who were in my class the year I taught her.  She still keeps in touch with some of them!  Some were married with and without children. Their travels. There were people in property development, finance, tech, law, a chef, a pilot, etc.  Some are still close friends and were in each others' wedding parties.  It was interesting to see how everyone turned out.  

I remember that year well. It was kind of magical.  They were a really nice bunch of kids who were up for any idea I had. I was returning to elementary after teaching at middle school for a couple of years.  My first year at PWE could have been a disaster. As teachers know, a first year in any school can be rough as you figure out who's who in the zoo.  But this group came together very quickly.  It was like a family.  Sure, we got on each other's nerves and had some tension now and then, but like any family, we knew we were there for each other.  

And that was a straight grade 5 class. Here in my district, students go off to middle school in grade 6, so we just had one year together. No getting to know me as they went from kindergarten to grade 4. I had no history with them, no reputation. No, we had a very definite 10 months to be together.  (Less actually because I was off almost the entire month of February when I had a couple of dental appointments, I caught a bad flu, and then my daughter was born.  My daughter's hospital pictures have excellent pictures of me red-nosed and missing my front teeth.)  For a while, I kept in touch with that class through Facebook and we even had a couple of reunions. 

What we remember 

The part that I want to share with you here is the part when Stephanie wrote about what she remembers that I taught her: nothing.

She checked with her friend, Katbie, who was also in that class and she said the same: nothing.  "We honestly don't really remember what we learned..."

Interesting, I recently received an email from Jason who I taught a few years later than Stephanie but at the same school, and without prompting, he wrote, "To be honest, I have no idea what you taught us..."

Now, you might might think as a teacher, this would be horribly, horribly depressing to hear that my students remember nothing from what I taught them, but I think what my former students write is an important message for us teachers to hear: the part that stays with our students is not WHAT we teach them, but it is HOW THEY FELT while they were learning that has the lasting impact.  

Steph and Katbie did not remember the "big things" I taught. They do mentioned some of the one-off or time-filling activities that I put so little thought into. The rest of the quotes from above are: "We honestly don't really remember what we learned ... but we definitely remember all the fun we had when we here learning," and Jason's "To be honest, I have no idea what you taught us...but I recall clearly the way you treated us."

We teachers put so much time and energy into the details.  We sweat over the littlest things.  Of course we are paid to teach content.  Of course we are trained to teach skills and concepts.  But if we want long-term, lasting effects, these former students can testify that it is all about the feelings and relationships that we nurture within them that will have the most IMPACT.  Even at this late stage in my teaching, I am grateful for this reminder and lesson from my former students.   

Thank you, my friends.  


Classroom Design postscript

When I taught Stephanie, Katbie, and Jason, I was not really thinking at the front of my mind about classroom design, but back then I was thinking about what conditions I needed to teach the way I wanted to teach. Steph sent me photos from the year I taught her, and it is funny: in none of them are the students all sitting in their desks, and in none of them am I standing at the front of the classroom.  I guess even then, furniture was a fluid thing.  Heck, back then I was more of a fluid thing.  I was starting to think back then: "What do I want my classroom to do?" and "What do I want my classroom to say?"

Here is one of the photos that Stephanie sent:

Apparently, I decided to hold a volleyball game in the classroom.  

What do I like here?

  • I like how young I look and how black my hair is.
  • I like seeing all those familiar faces.
  • About design, Greg?  Oh, right.
    • Desks are in different configurations for different kinds of purposes.  
    • Some wood-natural elements.
    • High ceiling with lots of light.
    • The pull down map (remember those?) was really used as a pull down screen for my overhead projector (remember those?)
    • No teacher desk in sight.
    • Carpet was quiet and comfortable, and only being a few years old, did not smell. 
    • The hanging vitruvian man-like (dudes in a circle) art.  I should do that again.  
Things I would change:
  • Design?
    • Visual distraction: take down the posters. They were bright, distracting, cluttery, and I never referred to them.  Just visual noise.  
    • Yikes!  Is that a CHALK board?!
    • Tall, open shelving.  See above about visual distraction.
    • Desks? No, back then, it was really the only game in town.
    • Maybe create different zones for different activities?  Tough with 28+ students in a late 90s classroom.  
  • The suspenders.  They gave me shoulder pain, though they did keep my pants up when I did not have a paunch. Yet.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

The New Building, Finally.

You might remember that last year I moved to a new school after swearing I'd never move to another new school.  You may remember that we were housed in a different school last year while we waited for this school to be finished.  You may remember that my wife broke her hip earlier that August.  The week before we opened in our new building, we unpacked and moved in.   

Going down the ramp to the lower section

The tour

Actually, let me back up a bit.  Back in June, on the actual last day of school (no kids), while we went out for breakfast to say goodbye to our excellent host school, Frank (CSE principal) arranged to have our boxes and materials moved to the new building.  While we didn't get to unpack and arrange our stuff, we did get to tour our new site for about an hour.  

We were very excited!

Because our school was still under construction, we could not stay all day.  To add to the excitement, we even met the new hires: new teachers and an education assistant.  

June 2023.  Still under construction.

The back side where one playground goes,
in front of the gym and the library/learning commons.

The "before" shot:
My teaching mountain
(Can you see the dismantled risers?)

Okay, now fast forward to August.  
I had one day to unpack my stuff to be reasonably set up for school.  No, this wasn't a district or a school or even a construction restriction of time; it was the limit I set on myself.  I wanted to be at home as much as possible to help my still-recuperating wife with care and driving to appointments.

Usually, I like to take at least a week, to get used to a space and chat with my co-workers, (How was your summer, nice new shirt/tan/tattoo/spouse, etc.), but this time, I sent an email telling people I only had a day to get ready and I was going to close my door and just get it done.  They were very understanding.

I cranked up the tunes, and chipped away at the pile of stuff I had, lovingly collected over 3 decades.  I went with a zone defense, dismantling the mountain a box a time, putting stuff in pre-determined zones so I would not have to retrace my steps.  

I amazed myself and got to a point that I had things looking reasonably organized and ready for my first group of students.  I must have also amazed one of the district guys who moved the stuff in because he walked by and told me he didn't think my classroom was going to be ready for September based on the volume of stuff he moved in.   

Here are some "after" pictures of how my classroom looked for the first week:

nice big windows with a generous counter

Frank ordered these versatile tables on wheels.
Some have whiteboard surface and
the tops all flip up for storage and for display.
(Notice: no risers.)

A decent amount of storage

The interiors of the rest of the school all have a warm feeling, using natural textures and light:
A cozy nook under the stairs
for reading or just relaxing, refreshing, or refocusing.

Well-lit hallways
with warm, wood panels

They built a school on the side of a mountain?
There are challenges to building a school on the side of a mountain.  The kindergarten students have to go down some stairs to get to their doors to their classes.  If you kick a soccer ball over the fence, you can kiss it goodbye.  It confuses they heck out of people when they come out of the parking lot to go to the office, and then they realize that the front of the school is on the top floor and the rest of the school is downstairs.  

But there are some huge upsides to having a school on a mountain:

1. We have a great trail that runs beside our school.

2. We have a cool playground that is incorporated into the side of the hill. Students could get dropped off above and take the slide down to their classrooms below.

3. The views.
Photo by Carrie V.
I've lived here for decades and I did not know such a view even existed.

(Carrie V is winning our photo contest)

Visitors who come to our school on days like these are always late because they can't pull themselves away from the parking lot.  

What is your new school like?
It was a long wait to get into our new building, but it was definitely worth the wait.  The daily buses are now distant memories.  Our first year core of teachers and staff was amazing and our new people are stunningly awesome.  The new building is a great facility in a breathtaking setting.  

What does my new school feel like?  It feels like home.  


Monday, October 02, 2023

The Trip

We LOVE(d) Montreal.  The food, the culture, the language, the history, etc.  Sure, we were snowed in at the airport once for 7 hours.  Sure, we almost got diverted due to a freak rainstorm another time, but it is Montreal.   And when my wife and I decided to take a romantic get away, we knew where we wanted to go.  It was the summer.  What could go wrong?

We checked out of our hotel after a glorious week in Montreal and had five hours to kill before heading to the airport, so we decided to walk to a museum gift store about 20 minutes away to buy a few souvenirs.  About 5 minutes into our walk, B tripped on some uneven pavement and fell.  

When she had trouble getting to her feet, we called an Uber to take us back to our hotel.  When she was in so much pain that the Uber driver had to carry her into the back of the car, we asked him to reroute to a hospital.  In the back of the car, B told me she thought she broke her leg.  The car pulled up and our driver ran in and got B a wheelchair and moved her into it.  Thanking him and reminding myself to tip him well, I wheeled B into the hospital.  

We ended up at the main and deserted entrance to the hospital, and all the signs were in French.  We were able to work out that "Urgence" was in the basement, and after a little wait and a lot of patience with our French, the hospital was able to admit B in Emergency. After looking at the x-ray, the Emergency doctor confirmed that B broke her hip, and that she would be operated on sometime this week, and recovery would be at least a month.  It was a lot to process: B's pain, a broken bone, surgery, staying in Montreal a month, missing the start of school, etc.  All we could ask was, "I guess we are not getting on our plane today?"

Here is how things actually played out: B was operated on the next day and admitted to a room in the orthopedic wing.  The day after that, B received some physio and I went out to buy her a walker.  The hospital wanted to release B later that day, but they didn't realize we were from out of province.  We also wanted to know more about a complication that occurred during surgery because it was going to affect her recovery.  The next day, the surgeon explained to us what had happened during surgery and that B could only put 50% weight on that leg until the bone healed.  We were then released.  A cab took us to an airport hotel.  On-line we miraculously found and booked two bulkhead seats on a flight that was leaving the next day!  As the Uber driver was driving us to the airport, we were telling him about our experience, and he said, "I think God is telling you not to come to Montreal."

No Thanks to:
  • unnamed Insurance company.  I bought cancellation insurance, only to be told after, the insurance I bought (the only one offered) was valid up until the occurrence of the first flight, and did not cover trip extension. 
  • unnamed airport hotel.  Painters banging at 6:30 am, and how can you screw up French pancakes in Quebec?

Thanks to:
  • Terence, the Uber driver who picked B off the sidewalk.
  • Inter-province medical.  After signing a form at Admitting, we haven't received a medical bill for anything.
  • Le Petit Hotel.  We had a wonderful stay there for the first 7 days of our trip, then they stored our luggage for us after we checked out and while B was in the hospital.
  • Smartphones.  While B was in the hospital, I had no where to stay.  (We checked out of Le Petit Hotel, remember?)  I kept having to move hotels because of availability, location, and accessibility.  Luckily, with my phone, I was able to find a place, book it, then navigate to and from it.  I stayed in 3 different places in 4 days.  My phone also helped me with transportation, translation from French, food (all good except the tortellini disguised as wonton), pharmacies, the walker, and communication with friends and family. 
  • Remi.  Remember my principal who moved to Quebec?  Somehow he found out about B's injury and got in touch.  It was great having him as a go-to in case our French or Google Translate failed.  
  • Air Canada.  Yes, Air Canada.  When we got to the long regular check-in line for the flight home, the Air Canada associate took one look at hobbling B and redirected us to Accessibility Services. The associate there took our luggage, then got us an accessibility rolling chair for B that would hold our carry-on and her walker.  The special chair got us to the front of the hour long security line up.  There was accessibility seating at the gate.  When our flight was called, we got on first as two big guys used a special skinny rolling chair to lift B into the plane and to her seat.  The bulkhead seats were perfect: lots of leg room, near the bathroom, and B was protected from traffic up and down the aisles and no one had to pass in front of her to get to the aisle.  Two different guys picked B up and got her out of the plane.
  • JetSet Parking.  When they heard about B's hip surgery, they parked our car right by the exit doors.
  • Friends and family who dropped off food, flowers, cards and well wishes.

The MVP in all this (besides B):
  • Kevin.  When he heard about B's hip, he asked what could he do.  When we came home, Kevin had installed a second very hefty hand rail so B could sleep in her own bed upstairs.  It was a game changer.  Even before our trip, Kevin had offered to renovate our bathtub that we had not used in four years because of an intermittent leak that would drip into the light fixture below.  We took B's hip as a sign that we needed a walk-in shower.  Kevin ended up renovating the whole room: new shower, rerouting the plumbing, re-drywalling the walls and ceiling, tiling the floor and the shower, new fan and light fixtures, new vanity, new toilet, and then painting.  It was amazing what he did and he spent so much time away from his family.  We are so grateful for his expertise and his friendship.    

The experience we had was a roller coaster, full of unexpected twists and turns.  It definitely made us rethink the way we look at accessibility, sidewalks, and Montreal.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Dude, where is your school?

This post is a follow-up to my last one which was about moving to a new school.  So many questions following that post.

It is now late January, and you might be wondering why I didn't post about what the new school is like.  Well.........

Technically, I moved into a new school in September.  Technically, my new school opened with a small, but talented staff (6 divisions).  Technically, I am teaching the lone grade 2/3 class of 22 students.

If you saw these facts, you would think, "Okay, that sounds about right."  It is when you fill in the details that your perspective might change a bit.  Mine did, a lot.

Before the September start, we learned that our new school would not be ready for occupancy.  We learned that we would be moving into a nearby school temporarily until we could get at least partial occupancy of our own school.  A big, but not unexpected pivot.

The school we were moving into is about a 5 minute drive from our own site.  It is actually a new rebuild of a school, and they had just moved into their new site in the last week of school.  So in August, my new school, CSE, moved into new school, EIE, that had an established staff.  I cannot say enough about this "hosting" school, staff, and principal, Dennis.  They have been incredibly welcoming, understanding, and accommodating, especially given the circumstances.  It is like you finally get your new house built, you move in, and even before you can find and unpack that box that has the can opener in it, your grandma tells you that your cousins who you barely know, are coming to stay for an indefinite time while their house gets built.

And like any arrival of unexpected house guests, EIE, had to figure out a bunch of big things quickly: room assignments, schedules, furniture, etc.  Other things we worked out along the way.  As you know, I've been through a lot of school moves, and this one wasn't too bad.  Mind you, I have school materials in 4 different places, and I will have to move them again when we get the go ahead to move into our own school.  

Speaking of which...

Here are the questions I get when I talk about the lack of a building:
  • Why is it taking so long?  Like anything these days, labour fluctuations and supply chain issues are definitely delaying the completion of our school.
  • When will you move in?  I really don't know.  I thought we would be at our current site for about two months, or the winter break seemed like a logical move time, but now that both times passed, I do not even want to speculate.  [Fittingly or ironically, the symbol for my school is the Sasquatch.  Fittingly, we chose him in a school-wide poll because of his ties to nature, his watchfulness, and his quiet resolve. Ironically, our school building is like the Sasquatch: talked about, but seldom seen.]
  • Wait a second, if your school is a 5 minute drive away, how are the students getting to EIE?  A bus picks them up at the CSE site.  Parents drop their children off every morning and pick them up after school.  The bus has proved to be a popular choice as more than 90 percent use it, so we had to go to two buses.  Like our host school, the parents and students of my new school have been hugely understanding and resilient with the unexpected changes.
  • The main question I get from those who know me personally is: Do you regret moving schools? That is an unqualified "No." I was looking for one more challenge.  I knew going to a new school wasn't going to be easy.  I knew there were going to be unexpected obstacles, (like lining up in the rain to get on the bus, two postponed school-wide field trips due to wildfire smoke, more than half our school being Kindergarten and grade 1, etc.).  And the pluses far outweigh the minuses: I love my new staff, I am bonding with the wonderful staff and students of our host school who are funny and quirky like me, the building we share is really nice and has lots of surrounding nature, there is enough space outside to share the playground, and despite the finish construction/rehabilitation of the old site, there is a positive feel when you enter the school grounds.  

The game-changer for me is Frank, my new principal.  He is like a combination of Job, Sisyphus, and that Max character on TV's New Amsterdam.  Like Job, Frank gets a heap of challenges thrown at him constantly, as if to test his resolve, his faith in his school's ability to endure.  Like Sisyphus, these tasks are never-ending; (mixing yet another metaphor), it is like he is playing Whack-a-Mole with a broken off switch.  Like Max, he meets these challenges with a positive "How can I help?" attitude that is deeply inspiring.  

So whenever people ask me where my new school is, my best answer is: "Wherever Frank is."

Saturday, June 25, 2022


I'm moving.  Again.

It's a new school.  Again.

Remember how I said I wouldn't move, and definitely not to a new build?  Yeah, no.

So how did it happen?  It was a series of small chips.

I ran into my friend, Leanne, while I was shopping for a Mother's Day gift.  We had a nice visit in the middle of the summer dress aisle.  She said, "I was just talking about you today at my school.  We saw there was a new school opening up and I said, 'I'll bet Greg is going there.'"  I told her I had NO interest in going to another new school and that I only had a couple of years left until retirement.  Chip.

A week later, Frank, the principal at the new school had his Connecting to Kindergarten (a welcoming to his incoming kindergarten students and families) event hosted at my current school.  I was away that day and didn't attend, but those who did said how enthusiastic and inviting Frank was.  He had created this culture and vision for his school, despite not having a staff and the building was not yet finished!  No building, not staff --- no problem!  Chip.

Rewinding a bit... Months earlier, Frank was named as principal of this new school.  I was really happy for him.  I had worked with him a few schools back, and respected and liked him immensely.  I never thought we would work together again, and when he was named to be principal of the new school, I thought that sealed it in never working together again.  Frank came by my school occasionally because it was the newest school in our district.  We would talk about design elements and furniture choices we had made in opening this school.  At that point, I had no interest in moving and besides, there would be so much competition ahead of me for the jobs at the new school, that the point was moot.  Little chip.

Fast forward to the day I saw Leanne ... it might have even been the same day.  I found out my dear colleague S, passed away.  S was always a great inspiration to me.  She had the toughest job and the toughest students, but she had the BEST attitude.  She always told me to look for the joy in every situation and to look where I could help.  Her death was like this large piece that had cracked inside of me, but had not completely broken off, this chunk just hanging inside me.  Big chip.

A few weeks later, on a Thursday, the postings for the teacher jobs came out for the Frank's school.  I looked at them and just laughed: only 6 classroom positions!  Four of them at K and or 1.  Who the heck would post on a single 2/3 or the 4/5?!  I laughed again.  Then I thought about it.  All night.  Chip.  Chip.  Chip.  

The next day it was constantly in the back of my mind: "Should I stay and just ride out my last couple of years?  Or do I have one more new school, one huge challenge left in me?"  I went back and forth on this one.

At home after school, I was talking to my wife about possibly posting on the job at Frank's new school.  She didn't seem too surprised.  She just smiled and said, "Go where you'll be happy.  Go where you'll be needed."  When she said that, to both of our surprise, tears started streaming down my face.  I don't know if it was the lack of sleep, pent up exhaustion built up over the last couple of years, finally grieving over S, or my wife's advice being so close to S's advice.  But that big last chunk finally broke off.  And I had my answer.  

I posted on the 2/3 job that day.  I had my interview in the rain, under a tree, on a park bench, with Frank later that week.  I didn't like my chances because I'm sure lots of people applied to work with Frank, and in my district's hiring system, I was a lower priority.  But somehow the planets aligned and I accepted the 2/3 position at the new school.  

It was the weirdest and fastest job process for me.  One Thursday I am not looking for a job and then next Thursday, I am going to a place I said I would never go.  But realistically, it was a private, emotional sculpting process, months of one chip at a time.