So I fell in love with teaching, not the bad idea kind of love that leaves you crying in your room, writing bad poetry and anxiously checking your calendar, but the energizing, good-for-you, makes-you-want-to-be-a-better-person kind. After my time as a TA, there were some dalliances with a private high school. I was totally unqualified for the work, but it was fun for a while (Hey kids, remember the Jakobsonian analysis of Macbeth?). Then a last minute cancellation landed me at Overland Learning Centre, and I fell for it — hard.
It was a heady atmosphere then; the air fairly crackled with intelligence. The immigration system created a real meritocracy in those days. There was the cute jean-clad teenager (I thought) who turned out to be the head of pediatrics at her country’s leading teaching hospital. There was the student who came to me for advice on his 14-year-old. He didn’t understand how to help his son navigate Grade 9 because he and his wife had both been enrolled in university at that age. There was also the time when an older student quietly pointed out a younger compatriot. She whispered to me that he had won the Gold Medal from his country’s top law school, but that he would never be able to work there because he had been too involved in student activism (Guess which country it was — you’ll probably be wrong.). The very fact that he or she was sitting in the classroom was an indication that each student had excelled in his or her field. I fed off the energy, blissfully conscious of being the dumbest person in the room.
And there was the subject material. Now it’s not often that you hear a person wax lyrical about pbt TOEFL (or any other iteration of the test, for that matter). It was a truly terrible test, but it was an easy one to game. In those days, when score requirements were less sophisticated, most institutions were only interested in the overall score. Listening was a total write-off, with its 1950s idioms and inadequate sound system. Reading was a gamble. The strategy was to produce students who would score 100% on the grammar. The grammar was difficult and obscure, but it was rule-based and internally consistent. I loved its mathematical elegance. Each class was an exercise in finding the right metaphor to help the students understand a concept. As they were almost exclusively from STEM backgrounds, they took to it easily and enjoyed the process. Their successes were more a product of their own innate intelligence than the result of anything I had done. I suppose I received more positive feedback than I really deserved, but I accepted it gratefully.
It wasn’t only the intellectual side. It was just as important for me to create a classroom that offered safety and validation. At different stages of my life, I found different parts of myself that I could offer as a basis for empathy: whether I was a harried young mother or a 45-year-old wondering just how my life had turned out that way, I felt that I could relate to many of the struggles my students were engaged in. At the same time, I knew there was a limit to my empathy, that almost all of them had suffered hardships I would not even be able to imagine. I respected their experience, trying to build a space that offered them privacy and dignity as well as companionship. At every step, I felt enriched by my efforts, honoured to have a chance to reach out to them. In trying to help them find meaning in their new country, I found my own sense of purpose.
So for perhaps the first time in my life, I had found a job that I truly loved; what’s more, this was a job that loved me back.