To clarify the shift in my thinking, let me point out an important development that has taken place in my relationship to my profession.
My first teaching job was as an assistant English teacher at a tiny French primary school outside Ottawa. I was nineteen, and had just left my home province for the first time to study at University of Ottawa. I had no family or friends in Ottawa, and my boyfriend was living in Montreal. I was not lonely, particularly – I gathered a bunch of acquaintances from my dormitory pretty quickly – but I had nothing in the way of deep connections – what sociologists would call “primary relationships” – nearby.
I wasn’t enjoying my university program much, but teaching soon became a source of powerful emotional satisfaction. The students clamoured for my attention and hung off me like kittens. I had some significant educational and emotional breakthroughs with students having difficulties with English. The sixth-grade teacher – a young man uncomfortable with the middle-aged discussions of mortgages and medical problems in the staff room – quickly became a friend, and suggested one day that he and I go out onto the playground for recess; soon we were doing that every day, playing with the kids instead of talking to other adults.
These fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade children became my primary relationships – I was madly in love with all of them, and the other important people in my life were all very far away. I accompanied them on field trips and spent every hour I could at the school, often without pay. My contract finished in April, but I stayed on as a volunteer until the end of the school year, going to the school five days a week and neglecting my own studies.
When I finally left Ottawa in June, I was heartbroken. Over the next couple of years, I went back to visit the school several times. They had new university students filling my old position, but teachers and students alike told me that for these new people, the job was just a job, and that they were nothing like me. I was proud of this. The fact that the school and the children had become my entire life because I really had nothing else didn’t seem unhealthy or unrealistic.
The following year, I became even more isolated. I had finished university and took another assistant English teacher position, but full-time, at a high school in a village outside Quebec City. The village had a population of about five hundred, and everyone my age had gone away to university or jobs in the city. There were no movie theatres or bookstores, and I had no driver’s license. The school was my only source of social contact, and it once again became my whole life.
The students were, in some cases, almost my age, and many of our connections became “friendly” to the point that we were almost “friends.” My roommate was the leisure activities administrator at the school, so I soon began helping her by chaperoning dances and taking trips with the volleyball team. When I came home at night, I could either sit in front of the television for hours or I could lose myself in planning elaborate classes and puzzling out interpersonal issues I was having with students.
These young people became replacements for my friends and family. It made me a very good teacher, in a way, within that context – I cared enormously about their success both in the classroom and in their lives. The following year, one of my former students became my roommate when we both moved to Quebec City, highlighting the blurred line between the professional and the personal that had existed all along in my interactions with them.
Throughout the years afterward, I repeatedly found myself in similar situations. I would move away from my regular life and immerse myself in teaching a five-week language program, or would leave the country to teach overseas. (The only constant, for a while, was my husband, but our marriage was fraught with problems, so it became even more important for me to find emotional fulfillment elsewhere.)
When I had to be a teacher in a different context, however, my feelings started to change. During my first few years of teaching CEGEP, I had built a community of friends here in Montreal, but my personal life was still very unstable, and so I still found ways to use my job to connect with others in a way that I didn’t in my everyday life. A couple of years ago, however, my father moved to Montreal, so I now have a steady family presence here. I also became involved in a committed and healthy relationship.
It is as though solid primary relationships with people who are, not thousands of miles away, but immediately present, has cast my role as a teacher in a whole different light: my students are no longer filling a void. What is more, those “primary relationships” with my students were always an illusion. I was projecting something that was never really there, and now that that projection is gone, my enthusiasm has also diminished. My energy needs to be reconfigured and re-channelled, and this is a difficult adjustment.
(Next post: how exactly has my approach changed, and what does this have to do with “a firm hand”?)