I’m finally beginning my Masters degree in Education! Instead of starting with one of the core courses, however, I decided that I would join my friend Andrea in this class instead, hoping that she could show me the ropes a little (and she has!). It is already so interesting, but all those liability issues that used to scare me when I was teaching 17 years ago are coming back — there are so many potential legal issues and instances that I’m remembering (and that make me shudder), namely:
- When I was a substitute teacher in AB, I was called in to be a “warm body” in a shop class. If I am remembering correctly, the teacher had an accident and did not have any lessons plans for me. He was hoping that since the students had gone over the safety and since they all knew what to do for their projects, that they could just continue with them – some of them included welding, grinding, etc. I was a little nervous about it, but I agree that I would just walk around the classroom and supervise, although I really couldn’t help with their projects other than maybe with design considerations. It was on the 2nd or 3rd day of the subbing contract, and I was speaking to a student about revising the design for his project, and another two students rushed over. One of them calmly told me that he needed to go to the office/ see the nurse, as while he was grinding some metal down, he accidentally lit his crotch on fire. I asked his friend to go with him, and I did not hear anything further about his injuries until the next day. I spoke to the teacher over the phone the next morning and was informed that I should do some paper work and [make up some] testing from the books on his shelf, and then I could sign out a VHS machine and some videos from the library – there would be no further shop activities while I was there, and/ or until he returned.
- I was awarded a yr-long term contract for teaching a grade 4/5 split. Grade 5 was the year that students in Calgary AB went to an overnight camp for a week in the Kananaskis area – Camp Chief Hector. I was very excited to do this activity with my class as I remembered doing this when I was younger, and it until they could find another substitute teacher with WHMIS certification. It was also a camp that I went to every summer and where I had created many fond memories. Initially, the Vice Principal was going to go with my class [not me], but she could not, and so at the last minute they agreed that I would go. The parents were pleased with me as their child’s teacher, and did not have a problem with me chaperoning them on this trip. The students slept in tipis with camp counsellors, and the teachers slept in a separate log cabin by the mess hall. Teachers could join any activities with their students during the day that they wished (archery, canoing, arts and crafts, navigation, swimming…). Teachers were only responsible for ensuring that their students took their medications properly, if required, and to plan an activity for their students for an hour before supper every day to allow the counsellors to meet/ plan the evening activities. The first before-supper activity that I planned was a relay race in which the students had to put on costume clothes over their own clothes and then spin around three times, run back, and then take off the clothes so the next student in line could put them over their clothes and so on down the line…the students had a lot of fun doing this activity and while some fell down after spinning, nobody was hurt and everyone was laughing. I was called into the program coordinator’s office. They did not want me to continue with the relay race as they were afraid that someone would be hurt. (!) I was very angry and confused as the activity was on a flat field and the students seemed to have so much fun together during this activity–and in my opinion, the students would have a higher chance of hurting themselves tripping over the roots and tree branches on the paths as they ran from their tipis to the mess hall for meals or running in the dark to the campfire activities.
- At the same camp/ same year, I was asked by one of the other teachers, since I drove up there in my own car, if I could run out before lunch to a store to get some feminine hygiene products for her and some beef jerky for one of the other counsellors. I gladly went to pick up the items at a store a few km up the highway and came back right away — gone about 45 minutes in total. My absence was noted as another teacher was looking for me to see if I wanted to do my pre-supper activity with her group, since it was art and I was ‘artsy’. I was called into the office again later that evening, and reprimanded for leaving the site. I didn’t realize, although I understand why now, that I was not supposed to leave the site in case one of the students had an emergency. All of this information (rules and guidelines) were in a booklet that I did not actually receive as the vice principal still it–stupidly, it did not even occur to me to get the booklet from her before I left for the camp as I was familiar with the camp and remembered (from my childhood perspective) what happened at the school camps when I was there.
- I was teaching a 5/6 split classroom, in a higher socioeconomic community. This was the 2nd yr at this school teaching within a yr-long contract. One of my Gr. 6 students (I’ll call her “M”) was quite precocious, assertive, [appeared] confident, and came across as very ‘worldly’ to her classmates as she talked about adult topics that she saw from watching Oprah after school every day. One day the students came in from recess and they were talking about rape. The students were whispering and talking throughout the time period before lunch while they were supposed to be working quietly on their group projects. At I was walking around from group to group, I asked M what was going on, as one of the male students was getting quite upset about what she was talking about. She told me that they were talking about rape and how lots of girls in Afghanistan were beaten and raped. I tried to redirect them by telling them it was an inappropriate topic for the classroom, that they should speak to their parents about it, and that they were to be concentrating on their projects. I felt a little guilty that I did not give them a ‘straight answer’ or allow them to work through such a frightening topic, but I am not a counsellor, so I didn’t feel that it was my place to talk about it. I almost felt that I betrayed them by giving them such an ‘adult’ answer that seemed to patronize or condescend to them (i.e., “you’re not old enough to know about that”). That afternoon we were scheduled to continue reading and discussing “The Breadwinner” by Deborah Ellis, is an award-winning story about a girl in Afghanistan (during the reign of the Taliban) who had to dress up like a boy to help support her family while her father was in Prison. The story touched upon many controversial issues, but I was feeling confident that I knew how to address these issues as I was following some “pre-packaged” unit guidelines that were directly from the approved curriculum for Grades 5/6 language arts at the time. When we spoke about the issues after reading the chapter, M brought up again what she had heard from the Oprah show, that many girls in Afghanistan were forced to marry young, could have acid thrown on them, and were frequently raped and/ or stoned to death. I tried to quickly shut it down by telling them [again] that they should talk to their parents about some of these issues that they were hearing about. A friend of the boy who was upset at that morning put up his hand timidly and asked what rape was. I very quickly told all the students that I could not talk about that during class and that they would again need to ask their parents. Immediately after school, I let the Principal know what had transpired during class. I also phoned M’s parents and the parents of the boy who was so upset earlier to explain what had happened, but to this day, I still don’t know if what I said or did was the appropriate thing to do — I was afraid that the parents would be livid that I had allowed the students to talk about any of these topics during class, (including the Taliban and why Parvana had to wear a burqa, and whether it was good or bad – which I did not know how to speak to objectively at the time- even the unit notes for teachers were subjective) and that I’d be asked to drop the Breadwinner book/ unit altogether and I did not want to do that. And worse, I worried that the students would be confused and disturbed by what M had been telling them, and how they were integrating that information with what they were learning from the book, and I couldn’t think of anything to say to make them feel better or to understand! Further, how much did M even understand what she was saying? I did not want to “inform” her further of something she may not understand or have been able to handle!
- There are numerous other instances that come to mind, but I’ve got to move on…
Anyway, one of the activities for this class is a reaction paper to the following statement:
The Legal System has a direct impact on teacher instructional practice – yes or no?
I have always believed so, no question, but until I started reading for this class, I had no idea how much it actually permeates EVERYTHING! For instance, when I got into teaching, through my own experience of teachers, I suppose, I felt that my role as a teacher was very close to loco parentis to some degree, particularly at the Elementary level. I felt that I had a duty as a teacher to ensure that the curriculum was presented in a way that helped students succeed in school and in life and that, more importantly, I was there to help students find their voices, gain confidence and with any luck, facilitate their curiousity and love of learning so that they could continue to be independent and successful citizens.
Whoa! What a load of assumptions and what a recipe for liability–despite how well-meaning and naive my actions may have been at the time. My second day of practicum, one of the students’ told me [loud enough for most of the surrounding classrooms to hear] that he was going to tell his mother that I touched him (I was guiding him by the shoulder to join the reading group outside of the classroom). Many students liked me, and would give me hugs on a regular basis. And I hugged them back, and hugged them to comfort them, too. Some even found me on instant messenger (it was new then) and I had conversations with them — usually if I asked them about their homework, they’d log off or leave me alone soon enough, or I would find some excuse to log off as quickly as I could (A.W.K.W.A.R.D!). Could that have been misinterpreted? I feel like such a fool now, with the luxury of maturity and experience, but I also feel afraid to ever teach again. Could I handle the liability issues – am I too “old-school”? One of my practicum teachers told me that I was very empathetic to students and was able to really relate to them – they responded well to me because I spoke to them on their level – but it was also very difficult to maintain authority and objective distance this way, and my professionalism as a teacher could have been called to question very easily, I think.
I always feel as though my life is governed by dichotomy: the free, artistic and naive side feels that information should be shared (no copyright considerations, for instance) if it is for education, and that teaching at the elementary level is as much about instilling confidence as it is about literacy, building foundational skills, and learning to think critically (many would argue on that point that schools don’t do this enough and the mission of education in schools is only that students are supposed to learn how to follow instructions and to conform, but that’s another post…). The other side of me has grown into being over the last 15 years – the side that sees that teachers are responsible to keep students safe (something that I always just took for granted and never REALLY considered ALL the things that could go wrong), that materials come at a price, and that taxpayers are paying for a service and it is about much MUCH more than what is happening in the classroom. There’s so many considerations that I now understand as a parent, and I would like to believe that I would be a better teacher now than I was before, but I wonder what has been lost and what has been gained now that teaching has been permeated so completely by the legal system since 1867–and what has been lost and gained in my practice since I understand the legal issues and their impacts so much clearer now.