I think I’ve said this before on this blog, but I’m about as middle-upper class as they come. Although my parents taught me the value of working hard to get what we want in life, I have never wanted for anything. I have always had food enough to be a little bit picky. I have always had clothes enough to appreciate style and good quality. I have always had the opportunity to participate in at least one extra-curricular activity. Finally, getting a post-secondary education was never a question… It was only a question of WHAT I would be studying.
I had never even been exposed to poverty. I was a starry-eyed 22-year-old young woman wearing rose-coloured classes starting her internship in a high school in northern Saskatchewan. It was that year that I learned, for the first time, that there are some things more important than school.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that getting an education is important; it’s just that for some kids, it isn’t (and can’t be) at the top of their list of important things to worry about. When I started interning, I was frustrated by a portion of my students who were frequently late to class, often sleeping and lifeless during discussions or work periods and rarely, if ever, completed assignments. I couldn’t understand why this happened day after day. I didn’t know what to do except keep talking to the kids and to try and figure out with my co-op teacher’s help how I could help them get through our classes.
About half-way through my internship (about 2 months after meeting these kids) when I had started taking on more of the teaching responsibility, two things happened that absolutely changed my world. The first was during lunch supervision one day. I saw one of my students who was in an afternoon class with me. He often fell asleep in my class. The day I saw him, he was sitting with a group of his friends but had no lunch in front of him. I asked if he had forgotten his lunch that day. He then told me the story of his family. He had four younger siblings. He had made lunch that morning, but their family could afford only one lunch per day and it wasn’t his day to bring lunch. The siblings all took turns bringing lunch. I immediately offered him my lunch, which he refused. That day was the first time that I realized that there are some things that are more important than school.
The second thing that happened was an incident with another student. This was one of the students who NEVER finished anything! I was quite frustrated with this students, particularly because this student was so smart! I had many talks with him about “playing the education game.” It didn’t matter how smart he was, if he didn’t do the work, his marks wouldn’t reflect it. One day, I made him come to my room during lunch break and complete one of the assignments. He seemed happy and almost relieved that I had given him that opportunity. I didn’t understand it, but was relieved myself at not having to fight him about it. The next day, he asked if he could come back and work in my room. I agreed. This became a daily affair. We chatted, he worked on whatever assignments he needed to do, not just my assignments. Then one day I couldn’t be there so told him that he wouldn’t be able to use my room. He told me that was okay, but the assignment I had given would probably not be done. I asked him why and he finally explained: His father (who was uneducated) believed that by wanting to get an education, his son was turning his back on his family and snubbing his father in the process. The father had a bad temper and would often scream and yell and sometimes beat him if he did homework at home. I was flabbergasted. I was sick to my stomach. Needless to say, I told my co-op teacher and we made sure that from then on the student had a safe refuge to work. That just solidified for me that there are more important things in life than school.
Those incidents during my internship have shaped who I am as a teacher. They have helped me understand that there are most often reasons beyond laziness and lack of caring that students don’t work in my classroom. Sometimes I forget in the moment, but I think back on my internship to remind me.