Photo: Freeimages.com – Elliot Jordan
Teaching grade school and parenting are very similar. Both involve educating children, and both require great patience. My first foray into teaching wasn’t successful, but it helped me become a stronger person and prepared me for eventual parenthood.
In May, 2000, I earned my teaching degree from the University of Ottawa. I white-knuckled it through the program, suffering from depression. While functional, I often felt in a fog—it was hard to focus and express myself confidently. I kept a mask of quiet to cover up my social inadequacies. I got by academically, as I could write well, but I never felt quite right, always anxious.
I interviewed with the Toronto District School Board and obtained a full-time position as a Grade 6 teacher at Regal Road Public School. I was excited, but very nervous to begin my teaching career. I was to start in September, 2000.
In August, I set foot in the school and set up my room. I remember the old, magnificent building: its brickwork, vaulted ceilings and creaky hardwood floors. The odd mouse would scurry along a wall, rustling behind boxes. Staring out the enormous classroom windows, I marvelled at the urban canopy of trees that blanketed the “city within a park.”
The first day of school fell on a fine and fair Tuesday. I planned it meticulously, outlining my introduction on cue cards, so I wouldn’t forget anything. Smiling from ear to ear, I greeted my class and beamed, “Hi, I'm Mr. Shiau—welcome to Grade 6!” It was a time of promise and excitement for us all. For many students, I was their first male teacher.
“I have one rule in this class: R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” I said, then launched into a class discussion—what it is, what it looks like, what it feels like. I proclaimed my love of reading and writing, The Tragically Hip and Chinese food. We gathered in a circle; everyone had a chance to introduce themselves and share their favourites.
The day went well. Maybe I can do this, I thought.
Two weeks later, I stood in front of my class, stunned like a deer caught in the headlights of a gas-guzzling Hummer. A newly minted teacher with 34 energetic students awaiting instruction, I felt unprepared, hapless, alone.
The morning bell always rang at 8:40. I came to dread the din of little feet stomping up the stairs. I steadied myself for the incoming cohort of children—some brash, some shy, others thoughtful. After O Canada and the requisite moment of silence, our mornings began in earnest with Language Arts.
Eventually, pseudo-order devolved into chaos. Erasers flew out windows, paper airplanes knifed through the air. I felt like Gulliver, under siege by an army of Lilliputians. My blood did a slow boil. I thought of the Seinfeld episode when Lloyd Braun tells George Costanza: “Serenity now … insanity later.”
I lasted less than a month in that classroom.
Many teachers rarely leave work at work. There is always something to do and not enough time to do it. Lesson planning, marking, preparing materials—usually something gets brought home. Feeling overwhelmed, doubtful and disorganized, I was losing control of my class, which exacerbated my depression. I planned less and the students were, understandably, acting up. By age 11, they knew they were being fed a steady diet of busy work.
One day, amid the noise, hijinks and emerging pubescent behaviour, I lost it and screamed at the top of my lungs: “Be quiet! Shut up!” I knew immediately I couldn’t continue teaching in my current condition; not only was I being unfair to my students, I also wasn’t being fair to myself.
So I did something rash: I quit. My principal gave me a few days to clear my head. He tried his best to convince me to stay. He had faith in me when I did not. I decided teaching wasn't for me, at least at that point in my life. I told my students I had personal matters to attend to and left; I was in the wind. I found temporary respite, but quitting only postponed the pain. I slid deeper into the bowels of depression.
The replacement teacher had the students write letters to me—a wise exercise to help them deal with my departure. Their feelings of remorse, sadness, hope and anger were sealed in a beige interoffice envelope. Every now and then, I read their letters. I can feel the old classroom: its dusty smell, creaky floors and laughing children. I am touched by the honesty, rawness and warmth in their writing, moving me to tears, smiles and guffaws. Although we were together only a short time, they made a lifetime impression on me. I regret not being there for them.
Failing as a teacher provided me with one of my greatest life lessons: From failure comes the opportunity for growth. In dealing with depression, I have become a better, stronger person; a more compassionate parent. I’ve learned it’s okay to ask for help.
I think of my first class every so often, now grown women and men, and wonder how they're doing. If I could see them, I would tell them they deserved better. That they taught me so much more than I taught them. I wish we could gather round at circle time once more—because I never got the chance to say: “I'm sorry.”