September dreams

Kids are back in school. PHOTO: LIZ MCKEEN

Reflections of a teacher

By Nadine Dawson

For as long as I can remember, I have thought of autumn with pleasure. Whereas New Year’s Eve often brings bittersweet reflections on the year that’s passed, replete with resolutions just waiting to be broken, fall has always felt like the truer season of renewal.

With school, comes the opportunity to venture forth again into the world after the playful rest of summer. Community activities offer fresh experiences for mind, body and spirit. Yoga, anyone? Badminton? Choir? Autumn gathers up its people, and we are invited to enjoy the company of others again in this ritual of homecoming.

As the air chills and leaves turn gold, we are also afforded the freedom to reinvent ourselves just a little. What will I do this year? we ask. What will I try next? If you are like me, autumn tingles with promise and finds you dreaming of new possibilities.

Teachers especially feel the rhythms of September. We are a people in love with learning and driven to share our enthusiasms with the children lent to us each year. We ponder and plan, imagine and prepare, so that when the first day of school arrives, we are ready.

Just like students, we feel jittery and excited, nervous and hopeful. We wonder what will this year bring? We long to create a space that is kind, a playground for the mind, a place where everyone belongs just as they are – and we know that first impressions are important.

September comes, and we throw open the doors. The new school year has begun!

Soon enough, the stress of firsts is over, and we wonder why we were worried. We’ve got this! All will be well! The students are predictably just as they should be – a stirring of eagerness and apprehension, of willingness and reluctance, a mystery and a challenge and the reason we are here, to stand alongside young people and help them see more clearly who they are and who they can be.

Thankfully, a pandemic changes none of this – unless we let it.

Granted, it will be a little harder to close the door on the politics of pandemics, to get over the strain and disappointments as we grapple with making education anew, to adjust to the ever-changing conditions of attending school in these uncertain times.

As a high-school teacher, I have been reminded many times over the last months that, as Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. The structures in which I am permitted to teach are intertwined with what I am able to teach. Change one parameter – the length of a class, say – and that changes the content of that class as well.

But these changing structures also offer opportunities to reimagine what schools can be. They help us see what it is that matters most. They encourage, indeed, demand innovation and experimentation. To our surprise, some new approaches work splendidly; to our dismay, others fall flat. Throughout it all, we remain faithful to our duty to care for one another as best we are able.

This September does not resemble pre-pandemic Septembers.

Yes, we will carry on the privilege of teaching and learning. Yes, we will grapple with the ideas of literature, the strategies of mathematics, the processes of design. And we will connect with one another again in myriad ways.

Yet we are likely to be more anxious, less at ease in our environments, less confident of our place.  The eyes may be the window to the soul, but they do not tell the full story. Mask-wearing renders it frustratingly difficult to discern who is speaking, let alone what people are feeling and needing. Our experiences of the pandemic thus far are as individual as we are, and very, very real. Many of us will carry into the classroom past failures and worries about the future. Many of us feel the burden of both weariness and wariness.

I am no different.

I do, however, carry additional responsibilities as a teacher – to shield my students from that which would interrupt their learning, to minimize the noise so that they may find their place in the silence, to help them direct their concentration on freeing and shaping the best iteration of themselves.

I happened upon a little book at Singing Pebbles this week called ZEN Happiness by Jon J Muth. I can’t help but think the wisdom it contains can help us along the way. It is relentlessly optimistic, and we can all do with a reminder that this period of great challenge, too, shall end. Moreover, it sets out 12 teachings that reposition our view so that we can see more clearly just how powerful we really are.

If I had to choose only one teaching to copy out and post where I could read it before beginning each day, I would select the following: “With our thoughts, we create the world.” Indeed.

I wonder who we would be if we were to ask, not just as autumn returns, but at every turn, What is the most excellent thing I can do with this moment? and then, regardless of what anyone else might think or say, simply begin.

Pandemic or not, here we come!

Nadine Dawson is a mother, an artist, a teacher and the author of Lavender, Longing, Love; A Choose Your Own Adventure Memoir. She lives in Old Ottawa South.

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