Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Unprofessional Cover Letter

(How nice would it be if I could just attach this to my CV. Instead, I have to edit this into something shorter, drier, more professional, citing more experiences and touting my accomplishments. While trying to write my new cover letter, this was what happened when I just started to type without thinking...)

When I graduated from the University of Windsor in 2006, I thought I knew a lot about teaching. I was raised by a teacher, and have had several personal and work experiences linked to education in the last 12 years, so teaching was a logical career choice. Like my colleagues, I’d successfully completed all of the requirements we needed to get our Bachelor of Education diplomas, and had truly enjoyed the experience gained from practice teaching and the various projects assigned throughout the year. I went through the application processes for teaching jobs, wrote my resume and cover letter, prepared my portfolio, and held my breath for two months, hoping that a school board would be interested.

When I interviewed for a position to teach overseas in London, England (through TimePlan Education Group), it seemed like a wonderful opportunity for both travel and work experience. Upon arrival in the UK and orientation into ways of the British school system, I found myself working as a supply teacher in East London. Hired to replace a teacher on extended leave for illness, I was lucky enough to work with a wonderful group of Year Three children (ages 7-8) at Roger Ascham Primary School. This placement lasted for a month, at the end of which the Head Teacher requested that I cover another illness leave in one of their Year Two classes for two weeks. This placement was extended fortnightly from the middle of October until January, when I would either continue with the same class or be placed in the school’s nursery as their teacher.

The class I had been working with was a group of 30 children, with 13 countries represented, and multiple religions and degrees of religious practice, which was something I had been taught about during university, but had never experienced personally. I made it a personal point to never discuss my personal faith or beliefs, lest the children become influenced by them, and each week we had children sharing religious articles, pictures, or stories about their beliefs. We celebrated our diversity and discussed how essential it is that people respect each other’s differences, and try our best to learn what we can about other cultures and religions. This process was not always easy, as several children were from quite traditional households, but we were lucky enough to only experience some minor troubles between students that did not require parental involvement.

I consider myself very lucky to have been asked to remain with the Year Two children, as we had grown quite a lot together, and I had developed a strong bond with my class and their parents. These children had been taught by 8 different teachers in their first 5 weeks of school, and had no set expectations or objectives for their schooling. As a result, there were a lot of behaviour issues within the classroom, most of which took quite a lot of time to resolve. During the half-term between October and December, I worked to develop not only a strong work ethic, but also a love of learning, and the confidence to make and learn from mistakes in each of my students.

It is very important to me that children learn to be confident and self-sufficient, to take an active role in their education, and develop a passion for learning. It was a delight to watch my students cheer with excitement when they learned “today we’re going to practice fractions!” or to receive challenges like “This work is VERY tricky, but I bet you’ll be good at it!” with confidence and determination. They constantly amazed me with their ability to learn, and their enthusiasm during each lesson - we agreed that learning should be fun and interesting.

Working in an inner city school in such a large city carried some consequences: issues such learning English as a second language paled in comparison when it was time to deal things like gang violence, racial issues, poverty, and absentee parents – all things that children should never experience but were all too common in east London, and our school. One would expect such a harsh environment to hinder a student’s ability to achieve, however every child in my classroom experienced academic success on an individual level. When our class was tested last winter, it was found that every student had moved forward in their learning, and I later learned that we were the only class in the school that had accomplished this. This is not to say that all of the students were working at or above the national average, but instead that even the children scoring far below the average still showed improvements on test scores in literacy and numeracy within a one year span.

Why did they improve? Many of my colleagues, the administration, and several of the parents gave me the credit, saying my passion for teaching, class management, and hard work had made the difference for their children. One mother even claimed that she and a group of parents believed that I had given their children the confidence in themselves to learn without fear of making mistakes, and the enthusiasm for learning that they had previously been lacking. If this is even partly true, I consider it the highest compliment anyone could give me.

I do believe the bulk of that credit should go to the children themselves. They needed a person to guide them, to help them build their skills, to use books and other resources as learned tools, not just entertainment – to question things they hear, and speak up when they have something to say, but they were the ones who completed the work, tried their best, learned from their mistakes, supported each other, and came to school wanting to learn each day. They learned and practice skills that will take them through life, and I do believe that they all have the potential to be a success. During a writing activity in the spring, I asked them to go to the front of their books and look at how much their writing had changed in a few short months. Yes, I gave them the work and encouraged them, but right in these books was the evidence that they did it, not me.

When July arrived, I spent hours writing final reports, outlining each student’s achievements, discussing points for improvement, and setting goals for their next school year. While writing these, I noticed that for two of my lowest ability students, I was writing things like “has developed a wonderful work ethic”, “has shown incredible improvement in their reading and writing this year”, and “it has been a joy to watch them participate more in class, and to confidently share their opinions and ideas with peers”.

That was when I realized why so many had given me credit for how well my class performed this year: their success was my success.

This lesson is one I will never take for granted, as I believe that it is every educator’s responsibility to be responsible for their students’ learning in every way possible. This includes dealing with difficult parents, recognizing, accommodating, and celebrating diversity, developing creative and fun lesson plans, and constantly reminding children that an education will open doors for them all over the world.

When I graduated from Teacher’s College, I thought I knew a lot about teaching. After a very busy and often stressful school year in a foreign country working within an unfamiliar system, I look forward to the challenges that teaching in Ontario will bring. I hope I can look back on myself in a year and once again enjoy the feeling of having learned so much. As it turns out, you can know a lot about teaching and still learn so much more…

Thanks for your time.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

In the North

There is a little lake in Northern Ontario called Ella Lake. A clear, glacier lake that you can find after driving 30 minutes north of Sudbury through a series of two-lane highways and a winding road (where I once hit a moose). The land up here is different from anywhere else I've been: rolling hills covering chunks of rock, tiny blue lakes and rivers sitting between birch trees and evergreens, and a fresh smell to the air that you can only find when you're far away from a city.

There aren't many camps on this lake - and yes, up here we say "camp", not "cottage" - so everybody knows everybody else, and generations of families have watched each other grow older, get married, and return with families of their own. There are a few little islands on the lake, some with camps on them, some without. I can remember taking our paddleboat out to visit friends on the closest island when I was a little girl - visits that always included stuffing freshly picked blueberries into our mouths and searingly-hot steambaths.

There is a public beach (for the people who were unfortunate to have to drive to our lake because they didn't have camps here), and a canteen where kids can buy candy and ice cream, or fresh fries and poutine. I worked at the canteen when I was in high school, helping to make the hot food, keeping things clean, serving hundreds of scoops of ice cream to adorable, sunburnt little kids, and giving wood or other assistance to the people staying in the campground. I'd wear my bathing suit under my "uniform" of shorts and an old t-shirt, and happily jumped in the water to cool off during my breaks. Free fries and gallons of Nestea, music through the stereo, and a stream of people coming by for food or just to visit - it was a fabulous first job. At the end of my shifts, my boss and I would sit in front of her little fire pit and chat with people from the trailer park who felt like coming for a drink and a visit.

I grew up with a group of children whose parents all grew up with my parents - we were another generation lucky to enjoy the starry nights and bright summer days. People I didn't know would see me and say "you're Mary and Bill's kid, aren't you!"

As I got older, my school friends would come out to visit, and we'd sit in front of the campfire until it got light out - toasting bags of marshmallows or eating cups of chicken noodle soup. Soon, we'd have little parties here when the parents were away, sampling the strange alcohol that we'd find in the cupboards. "Cookies and cream?! I thought that was a kind of ice cream!" (turned out that it certainly didn't taste like ice cream at all and to this day, I don't enjoy creamy liquor at all) We tortured the other residents with loud music, which always included the Tragically Hip, and suntanned for hours on my dock.

Being back here again after spending 5 years away has reinforced my love of this lake. Despite it's status as a Summer Home for most of my childhood, my best memories were always of being here. Now, I'm watching a new generation of kids hanging out till 6am with their friends, having saunas, playing loud music and stealing their parents beer during campfire nights. They will return every summer just like we all do, for visits and long "remember when we..." conversations while they hold whittled sticks with hotdogs or marshmallows on the end.

One of the many traditions we have out here is to find the Big Dipper in the night sky. I don't know why it started, but after running out of the sauna and throwing ourselves into the lake, we stop and look up at the constellation, usually commenting on it's position (it moves in a scooping motion through the year, so late August shows the Big Dipper looking just like a spoon scooping something up to eat) and how bright the stars are. Everywhere I've lived since moving away 5 years ago, I've always looked for the Big Dipper. In Windsor, I'd sit on the balcony with Jeremy and happily point out that it was straight ahead - something that made me feel closer to home even thought I was 8 hours away...

When we moved to London, the sky was too bright to see many stars, and I got used to the purply-orange glow that most people see above big cities. We enjoyed the lights on the buildings and glow of hotels and landmarks all around, but part of me always missed the stars.

During my visit to Cornwall with Kelly (definitely a story for another blog post), the skies were dark and clear of the light pollution of London. But I still couldn't find the Big Dipper. Resigning myself to the fact that I wouldn't see it again, until I ran out of our steambath at Ella Lake, I pointed out the few other constellations I'd learned about in the past to Kelly, who had never learned about them before (being a lifelong city girl, she wasn't used to seeing the stars like that).

On my last night in London, I sat in Naomi's back garden, sipping Moroccan tea, and reflecting on the year that had passed. I was telling her all about home, and how excited I was to be going back to Canada to see all of the people and places I was missing so much. While we were talking, I glanced up at the sky and there it was...

The Big Dipper - I could believe it.

An entire year away from home and not once had I seen this little set of stars, and suddenly on my very last night in England, there it was.

I'm not sure what it meant that I saw it that night, but it reminded me of the feeling of bundling up in a warm sweater with my best friend and a cup of soup, lying on my dock at 3am, looking at the stars and feeling like everything in the world was perfect. I couldn't wait to see our sparkling little lake again.

This little lake isn't fancy, and neither are the people who live here - we drink cheap beer and watch hockey, we drive boats that have scratches on them with old (often clunky) motors, our beach has some pebbles on it, and the swamp grass is threatening to take over part of it. The fishing is terrible, although you can drive for a very short distance to find lakes with huge pickerel and other fish. Some of the camps on the lake are old and run down, and there are bears in the forest all the time. We only have a couple of months each year to really enjoy the warm summer days, and during those we deal with horseflies and giant mosqitoes. Our road is bumpy and often full of potholes - you can always tell the locals based on the way they drive on that road - either avoiding the potholes or running straight over them. We don't have resorts or restaurants, and you have to drive for at least 15 minutes to get to a store. But the people all know each other, take care of each other, and generation after generation have stared up at the skies above on summer nights, pointed out the Big Dipper, and said "this place is just like heaven".

And to us, it always will be.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

One of those days I'll never forget

I've had knots in my stomach for three days now. Nervousness, lack of appetite, and falling into trances of deep thoughts while I was supposed to be participating in conversations. Daydreaming about recent events and the impact they are going to have on the rest of my life has finally been fun (and even joyful)...

Last Sunday...
We were walking in our favourite park in London, Ontario, Harris Park. We used to always take long walks along the river, staying on the footpaths that are more difficult to walk through because it feels like you're in the middle of nowhere, and nobody else is around. We always stop at certain little clearings to sit on hanging tree branches and watch the ducks or just listen to the birds singing and the water rushing past the rocky shores. It's such a peaceful place - I couldn't figure out why Jeremy was acting so squirrely until we came to a clearing in the path where the Thames (which is nothing at all like it's namesake) rushes over rocks, past a field of wildflowers, to where a large tree hangs over the water as though it's trying to dip its branches in to cool off. It was ridiculously hot outside and I was in the middle of complaining about needing a giant bottle of water when he grabbed my arm...

... and got down on one knee...

I looked down at him in disbelief - he was so nervous, he could barely get the words "will you marry me?" out as he slid the ring onto my finger.

I looked at the shiny ring (which was his grandmother's engagement ring - something that makes it way more special than anything else he could have given me), and realized that even though I have had doubts about my future, that I'd never imagined it without him. No matter what has happened in my life since we've met, he's always been there for me and has loved me even when I have most certainly not been loveable.

We sat on a large branch that hangs over the river afterwards, talking about what had led him to this point (apparently something he'd been considering for months), and gazing at the ring on my left hand. We couldn't stop smiling...

Since that point, we've told a few very close friends, but wanted to wait to tell our families until this weekend, when everybody would be together. That meant waiting the whole weekend until today, when we meet at Aunt Kim's for an annual dinner, then head down to the Canal for the parade of the ships and an always-amazing fireworks display. I could barely eat a bite of food because I was so nervous / excited (which was unfortunate because the food is always incredibly good). I kept imagining all sorts of scenarios in which we could break the news, but nothing seemed to work out. People coming and going, people not coming home, leaving to get other things - frustrating trying to get a large group of people to all stay in the same place for longer than a few seconds.

Finally, we just told everyone to stay in one place for a second, and Jeremy said "We got engaged!" This was just a few hours ago but I already don't remember the first few moments after that, other than it being a blur of tears and hugs and congratulations.

We sat under the fireworks display later in the evening, with our family all around us. My mom grabbed her camera and took a picture of us sitting under the bright, colourful lights. I've never felt so content or proud, just sitting with him and our loved ones, knowing that we'd all be joined as family. We're so lucky to have such wonderful families.

Four and a half years, countless ups and downs, thousands of kilometers traveled, it all lead to that moment...

No matter where we end up, no matter what else happens - where he is, that's home.

In Other Happy News,
I've been awarded TWO awards!! The Thinking Blogger Award, and the Rockin' Girl Blogger Award! Not only is it cool to recieve such great compliments, but they've come from one of my very favourite bloggers, who instead of moving TO London, England, actually moved away from that wonderful city all the way across the world to New Zealand. If you think I was brave, you should check hers out - she's funny, insightful, and can even make her own soap!
(now I need to figure out how to put those little icons on the side of my page)