Perspectives

No longer is the teacher the sage on the stage but rather the guide at the side

By Heather Smith
June 16, 2017

Education in Canada has seen much progress over the past 150 years. For some, change does not happen quickly enough while others lament that perpetual change gridlocks actual improvement for students and teachers in schools. Although I won’t delve into the realities of teaching 150 years ago, I do know that as a female teacher today, I can be married and be in the company of the opposite sex without a chaperone, I don’t teach eight grades in the same room, my students come to school in provided transportation and…I don’t have to keep the fire stoked in the wood stove. That being said, in the 35 years I have been teaching I have seen many changes, from curriculum delivery to the use of technology in the school and classroom to teacher training, just to name a few.


Heather Smith reminisces by a Gestetner machine displayed at the AlbertaTeachers' Association's office

It is true districts and schools have attempted to keep up with changes in technology, albeit without sufficient funding, speed and supports. From the use of carbon paper with manual and electric typewriters to Gestetner machines to desktop computers and iPads, schools have integrated modern technologies. Over the course of my career, blackboards were replaced by whiteboards and now interactive Smartboards! Our students are often the technology experts!

There has also been change in the training and experiences of the teaching profession. My mother took her teacher training in the late 1940s, not that long after the end of WWII. In fact, at that time, there was such a huge shortage of teachers that she taught for a full semester in a one-room rural schoolhouse before even taking teacher training…one that lasted six months! I have taught with teachers who spent years on evenings and during summers upgrading their qualifications as teacher requirements kept increasing. In Canada today, most teachers have spent at least six years in post-secondary education before being qualified to teach. This, in itself, has strengthened the Canadian education system.

I began my teaching career in the early 1980s when most of my lesson preparation was due to the manual work that had to be completed in order to have activities or paperwork ready for students. In hindsight, I now realize I did more for my Grade 4 students in these years than I did for my kindergartners in 2015. I became quite adept at the use of the Gestetner machine and when I saw one in the Alberta Teachers’ Association offices when visiting in May, it was a real flashback to when I used it on a daily basis. I can still remember the excitement, coupled with trepidation, when the first photocopier was introduced to our little rural school. We became quite skilled at problem solving as a team when the darn thing got jammed or simply stopped working. If we didn’t figure it out ourselves, it could be days before a technician would arrive to fix it. Although, as I stated previously, schools attempted to keep up with the new technologies, the effort to provide sufficient support and training was not always successful.

As well, how I teach has certainly evolved over my 35-year career! I began by teaching reading and writing to my whole Grade 4 class using the prescribed Ginn 360 program. Everyone was taught the same lesson, completed the same workbook and phonics workbook pages and I now admit that I really had no clear idea of how well they could read and comprehend. When I taught reading and writing in 2015, I not only knew how well my students were reading but also which specific reading skills were causing them problems or needed strengthening. I worked with individual students, small groups of students and a whole class of students depending on the need that was determined by me not by some abstract textbook program writer.

No longer is the teacher the sage on the stage but rather the guide at the side. We don’t teach students what to think but how to think…and to question respectfully…and to listen to the opinions of others. There are times when solitary work is necessary but more often than not, students are working collaboratively. Sharing is no longer always synonymous with cheating because sharing ideas, brainstorming and finding solutions together to real life problems is encouraged. Students have a deeper understanding when they work with and question their peers.

“No longer is the teacher the sage on the stage but rather the guide at the side. We don’t teach students what to think but how to think…and to question respectfully…and to listen to the opinions of others. ”

For the first five years of my career, there were no students with diagnosed special needs in my Grade 4 classroom. There was an auxiliary class in my school which had space for a class of students, most of whom had cognitive disabilities. Some of these students, for some of the time, joined our classes for Physical Education, Music or Art but they spent no time in my classroom. In 1987, it was legislated in New Brunswick that neighbourhood schools and all classrooms were open to all children. I have a degree in Special Education and I am in total agreement with inclusion but I fear all students are not being well served by today’s inclusion model. The adage, it takes a village to raise a child, is so relevant when we talk about meeting the needs of children with special needs. Teachers need the support of other professionals, others in the village, to use their expertise to ensure all students are ready to learn. Wraparound services aren’t a luxury, they are essential!

I have to admit that for much of my career, I didn’t give much thought to CTF. Although this is true for many of today’s teachers as well, I now know and appreciate the support CTF has provided me through my CTF Member organization, the NBTA, over my career. I saw a difference in my maternity benefits between my first two children in 1984 and 1987, the protection of teachers under Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada and the continued fair dealing when I used copyrighted materials in my classroom, to name just a few of the results of the work of CTF on my behalf over the years.

The next 150 years in Canada will most certainly entertain many more changes in education. It is my desire that any change has more chance of success if teachers and their unions are involved in the development rather than simply brought on board as an afterthought. I have hope that the next generation of teachers, with their strong belief in social justice and human rights, will ensure students not only have the necessary knowledge but also understand being part of a wider community for which they have a shared responsibility.

Heather Smith is the President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation from July 2015 to July 2017.

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent nearly 232,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

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