After I finished my undergrad degree, I went to Lakehead University for teacher’s college because they had an outdoor experiential education program. I was excited – I loved working with teenagers, I loved being outdoors so it seemed like a perfect fit.
My first class was in a beautiful old stone building. I was staying with a friend temporarily and she gave me directions. I walked to class. I sat with a fresh notebook and bright eyes ready to learn everything I could about quality education. My teacher started class and he didn’t seem as enthusiastic as I was but I wasn’t too worried. I settled in, taking notes.
One of the students asked a question about how the recent proposed sex ed curriculum had been struck down and the teacher said he wasn’t surprised. “They wanted to teach sexual orientation in grade 3 and 4, far too young,” he said.
I froze. I can’t be sure what he meant, but what I heard was “we couldn’t possibly tell students that young about gay people.” At the time, I was questioning my sexual orientation and suddenly felt very unsafe in the class. I looked around and all the other students seemed undisturbed and continued taking notes except for one girl who put up her hand and politely disagreed.
I met up with this girl in another class, introduced myself and thanked her for what she said. We became fast friends. I’ll call her H.
School continued to disappoint. All the teachers seemed to be talking about experiential education, but none were modeling it. The classes were boring, the homework was easy and within a few weeks H and I were talking about dropping out. “If we drop all our classes by Friday, we’ll get our money back,” she whispered to me one day as we sat in the auditorium for a school meeting. It was tempting but it seemed too early to give up completely. Plus what would I do if I didn’t become a teacher?? Dropping out seemed like jumping off a cliff.
In November I started my teaching placement where my supervising teacher was kind and innovative and let me try out my unconventional teaching methods. Despite the freedom she allowed me, I still felt unable to do what I really wanted. I spent my evenings and weekends lesson planning and felt proud of my work. But it felt strange standing in front of the class being in complete control.
I was used to working with teenagers outdoors. We would be painting a fence or cutting back the tree branches on an overgrown hiking path. I would spend 5 – 10 minutes teaching the task and then the rest of the time we would work together. If they were doing it incorrectly or had stopped working because they got so engrossed in a conversation, I would give feedback or urge them to keep going but the rest of the time I could chat and get to know them. We would sing songs, play games or tell jokes to pass the time. I worked with these teenagers for two months each summer and got to know them intimately. As the summer progressed, their bodies got stronger, they made friends with the each other and their confidence grew. I loved the work.
Classroom teaching felt like the opposite. As soon students finished an assignment they would ask me what to do next. If I didn’t know I’d have to make it up. I told them when to sit down, when to be quiet, when to answer my questions, when they could or couldn’t go to the bathroom. They looked to me, never to each other, for answers. I felt like part stand up comic and part disciplinarian. And nothing about it seemed fun or empowering for my students.
And I realized I didn’t want to do it. Although I loved working with youth, classroom teaching was not my calling and to be any other kind of teacher, you don’t need a teaching degree. So I dropped out.
I felt empowered by this decision but when I woke up new years day in 2011, I was terrified. I had spent new years eve with a couple of friends and that was the last concrete plan that I had. I woke up with the expanse of my whole life in front of me and no idea what to do…
To be continued…
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