June 17, 2013

Challenges and change: An open letter of thanks to my Westwood family.

Dear Westwood Family & beyond,

I have some news to share with you about my life journey. It's amazing to think back to when I started my teaching career as a student-teacher 15 years ago at Westwood Elementary - a Kindergarten to grade 5 school. My first "real" teaching job was the next year as a grade 4 & 5 teacher at the same school, and I have been there ever since. My, how things have changed over the years, and I'm not just referring to my expanding waist line!

From novice to master teacher: an awakening

When I started out teaching, I was newly married and then soon after my two children were born. The challenge in those early years of teaching was staying awake with sometimes only 2 or 3 hours of sleep; but somehow I made it through. I have now had the privilege of teaching both of my own kids, and there were challenges to this of course; but overall it has been a tremendously invaluable experience and I have absolutely no regrets. 

During my tenure at Westwood I have run various sports clubs: soccer, hockey, volleyball, basketball, and track & field. I was involved in many roles over the years such as the First Aid Attendant, Teacher Union Representative, Gifted Education Teacher, Computer site contact, Physical Education Representative, Department Head, and Professional Development Representative. I have given a lot, but I have also received so much over the years. Westwood has been such a family to me, in fact I have been there longer than any other home I have every lived at in my entire life! Unbelievable! 

And so this letter is an acknowledgement to all of you who have touched my life forever for the better:)

A big shift in thinking, back to school

Along the way there have been many important moments that have helped to shape who I am today. I made a life-altering decision to go back to school, ten years after I graduated with my Bachelor's Degree - something I swore I would never do, nor did I think I was even capable of doing. I received a Master of Education Degree in 2011 from Simon Fraser University. This came at an important juncture in the road for me and I found that spark again that I needed to keep me going. It radically changed my view on teaching and learning, and helped reshape my philosophy as a teacher. I have now been using the Imaginative Education Theory in my classroom with increasing intensity and application, and fun, with my students. I will offer a little background on Imaginative Education next, but you can skip ahead to the next paragraph if you like;) 

Kieran Egan (1997 & 2005) has written extensively about the Imaginative Education Theory and he describes five Kinds of Understanding (Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic & Ironic) that humans go through as they pick up and use cognitive tools through their lifetime. Central to the IE theory is the engagement of students' minds and emotions (as well as the teacher's!).  The Somatic is our first orientation to the world, or kind of understanding about the world. As we enter the school years, we pick up new tools to help us make sense and learn new things. In early primary school children see the world Mythically through the use of Binary Oppositions, which is a core feature of their thinking framework. They can see where new information fits into their spectrum of understanding. Think of it as a lens through which they see the world, and their lenses need to change as they grow. Children in intermediate grades and middle school see the world more Romantically and connect with the Heroic (or Transcendent) Qualities that are represented in the world around them. This allows them to understand and move beyond the constraints of the systems around them and gain a new perspective. These tools all allow us to get a grasp of the world around us and make sense of it, and our place in it. These kinds of understanding do not go away; rather they support the next kinds - Philosophic and Ironic, which contain a whole new set of tools respectively. 

This theory has transformed and inspired me as a teacher. Not only have I been focusing on using these imagination tools in my classroom over the past few years; but I have also been providing workshops for other educators showing examples of what it looks like in my classroom to engage students' and teachers' imaginations. I have been using these core ideas to frame my own philosophy beyond the walls of my classroom, as I strongly believe that we should all be life-long learners! As I reflect on my experiences next, I will attempt to employ these tools to help me understand and communicate where I have been, where I am now, and where I am going next with my career.

Where I have been: a rewarding & challenging year

At the end of last year I was about to be declared "surplus", which meant I would have to leave Westwood and start thinking about a new school and teaching position for the new school year. At that point, after 13 years as a full-time teacher, this came initially as a bit of a shock and I felt a bit nervous about where I would go considering I have been at the same school my whole teaching career. I have formed such positive relationships with my colleagues and in the parent community too, that it would be truly sad to go. Besides, nobody wants to be "traded" right? Strangely though, there was some excitement in this thought too. In the end, all those feelings were dashed because at the very last minute the numbers changed and I found my same spot, in the same class, teaching the same grade. So nothing was going to change, I would be comfortable again doing what I have always done, it's what I've always known. Great right!?... well, please read on...


There were so many other factors and considerations that were involved in that potential change too. My daughter was slated to be in my class; we were about to undertake a 3 year whole school project at my school - an idea that I had brought to the staff and was going to be the "lead teacher" for; other staff were talking about reorganizing their positions to make "room" for me to stay; and my principal shared about all the contributions I make as a teacher-leader which would be sorely missed. So it seemed that me staying was all for the good. One thing for sure, I was so thankful that I was able to receive such positive, encouraging words and actions from the staff I have worked with for so long. It's kind of like hearing your elegy, but you're not dead yet:)

For the time being I was so thankful that I was able to stay because a couple of months into the school year an unexpected event happened. The word came that I had received the 2012 Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence. Who me?? My colleagues and parents in the community had written letters and put my name forward, and I was so fortunate to receive that honour. So it was fitting that I was there, at Westwood, to receive that acknowledgement in front of the community I had been a part of for so long. Little did I know that they had been planning a special surprise ceremony for me for many months. The students sang a special song, former students presented speeches for me, and I was able to see many of the teachers, including the teacher I had been a student-teacher for, along with my first principal -  all of whom had mentored me through the early days of my teaching career. I was very humbled and touched by their efforts and praise to say the least! I am thankful that I was able to receive that honour in that place! 

There were many other positive aspects of staying put. I also was part of an organizing committee that held a successful conference on Imagination and Student Engagement at Westwood earlier this year. I would not trade that experience for anything, and being connected so closely to the school, working behind the scenes was such a rewarding experience. Further to that, through my work with SFU and the Imaginative Education Research Group, a colleague and myself hosted a group of researchers and university professors from Chile who came to visit my classroom and observe my teaching. I also received some amazing feeback from these moments that I will never forget.

Challenges & trying to make sense of it all

Still this, my 14th year of teaching at Westwood, has provided just as many opportunities to learn from as any other year previously, mostly in the planning of educational programs, scheduling, and implementation of ideas. You might think that a master teacher, a nationally-awarded teacher, might have all of the answers for educational issues that pop up; yah right! I have continued to have to find ways to overcome new obstacles all the way along. There have been so many times this year that I have had to search desperately for contentment. I have had to learn and apply many heroic qualities this year such as honesty, patience, and perseverance more than ever before. Sometimes this meant simply removing myself from stress-inducing situations that had nothing to do with me. What perplexed me was that usually I can help to figure things out, make a decision, and move on quickly; however at times I just wanted to throw my hands in the air and walk away in frustration. But why? Well, If you know anything about me, I just do not give up on something until I find the root of a problem...and that's what I did in this situation. There have been so many highlights from this year alone, with other times when I just wanted to give up too...talk about binary oppositesI searched my mind through all the possible reasons that could account for this. 

Where I am now: some clarity 

I spent some quality time alone, some long walks with my wife, and some prayer (always a good thing)...and I finally had a realization of what was going on. I just wasn't fulfilled in what I was doing in my career anymore and I needed a change. I have absolutely loved the time I have spent with my students this year, that has been truly rewarding; but what changed in the last year so drastically professionally for me that I was experiencing such dissatisfaction? As I searched through my mind for all the reasons, I realized something important. It wasn't all the reasons that I thought it was as I looked externally for answers. It wasn't the challenging students or overwhelming needs in the classroom, those are always increasingly there no matter where you teach. It wasn't really all the conflicts or disagreements in the staffroom, those are common to any workplace from year to year. It wasn't the overwhelming nature of the curriculum or cutbacks to education, those are "givens" in our current political climate. It wasn't the demands of parents or pressures of having to deal with problems as a leader in the school, these are aspects of the job that I enjoy and keep me engaged. These are all challenges that make working in schools with kids and adults relevant, dynamic and exciting! Well to me they do:) 

I knew that this all pointed to something else, a decision of what I had to do. I had make a decision to move on, and that was the hardest part!

At a recent professional development day I was fortunate to hear Dr. Dan Siegel speak about the brain. I recognized through some reflection on his talk that I had been using the left side of my brain in an attempt to organize and deduce logically why all of this was happening without a satisfying conclusion. When I finally broke through inwardly and emotionally, I had connected with the right side of my brain, and I was finally able to identify the feelings I was having and what I needed to do. Because I was honest enough with myself about how I felt, I was able to feel hope again and have a clear vision for my future. Despite everyone else's perceptions, my own expectations, or what seemed to make sense logically; I knew I had to "do the right thing". And it's not something that I believe I can explain here completely, it's not based on what anyone else is saying or present circumstances; I believe when we follow that gut, mind, heart, intuition, spirit - whatever you want to call it - we can rise above our present situation and gain some perspective. Challenges stretch us and make us stronger and help to prepare us for the next part of our journey. I believe my journey this year is ample proof of that!

Where I am going: timing is everything

I believe that all things happen for a reason. I realized in retrospect that I had stayed for so many good reasons, including the unexpected honour I received, my daughter being able to be in my class, the formation and vision of the Whole School Project taking shape, my continued role of leadership as Department Head being fulfilled, my deepening friendships with colleagues, and more... all good reasons!! Unfortunately staying because it's comfortable and it makes everyone else happy isn't a good enough reason in the end, because that is not something that was making me happy anymore. 

And so I have been on this adventure of trying new things and bringing vitality to my own experience by creating new projects and trying to look at my curriculum in different ways, from different perspectives; but even then I have come to a plateau that has flattened out for me. I guess doing something completely new and creating new opportunities and challenges is a critical piece to my own puzzle. There comes a point when it is time to re-invent a few things and go into that unfamiliar space where amazing things can happen again. Di Fleming writes about the unknown vs. the known places where the imagination can grow. I want to go there! My worst enemy is boredom with the same routine in the same environment. Maybe this is why my family has moved to so many new houses over the years? I need to step into the realm of the unfamiliar, the unknown, the unexpected, in order to grow some more. 

As soon as I realized that I needed to forge a new path and move on, I felt an instant relief and peace from the burden I had been carrying all year. In education we use the saying "let's not re-invent the wheel" a lot, as a way to make our job manageable. I get that; but what happens when we do something well and then there is no challenge in it? There is a certain part of all of us that comes alive when we have to figure something out for ourselves and we catch hold of a new perspective, if that's something we can get a handle on. Using the idea of Binaries, I believe that there are times in our life when we don't truly appreciate something unless we have experienced it's "opposite". Sometimes when we pray for peace it doesn't mean we will instantly have peace. Sometimes when we pray for peace, we don't necessarily experience peace right away. Often when we pray for peace, the opportunity to find peace comes in and through a stressful or challenging situation. I believe this is how character is built into us, and as a result we can truly appreciate and be thankful for what peace means when it comes! 

Final thoughts of thankfulness

Honesty, patience, and perseverance have been a heroic dynamic team that have served me well on my quest this year and have allowed me to break through my own personal barriers to see ahead and beyond where I have been. This is not just a case of "the grass is greener on the other side", because I haven't known exactly where I was going to; but what I realized is that it was time for me to finally move on. What I need is a new challenge in a new environment. As I reflect back on this school year, I see how all the moments have unfolded to bring me to this place. I know that I am making the right decision, though I also understand that some lessons will continue to be learned in the process and beyond (my favourite word by the way). So I am willing to walk it out whatever it looks like:) 

I have grown from a novice teacher to a more experienced teacher all at Westwood; but I still have a lot of maturing to do, and that's why I know it's a good time to move on to my next challenge - middle school; yes I have landed a position teaching grade 6 & 7 at a middle school...and then, after that? I know what you're thinking; don't get ahead of yourself, but hey, never say never! I am excited again about my future. I hope my Westwood family will understand this - it's not personal (against you), it's personal (for me). Some things will never change though. The love and respect that I feel for the students that I have the honour to work with will always remain. It's the reason I love going to work everyday! I am truly living my life's passion and purpose, without a doubt!

I am so grateful and thankful for all the relationships, experiences, and support I have had at Westwood Elementary - which have helped shaped who I am today as an educator and person. Something I have come to understand is that the core elements that are necessary for schools to be successful, are built in relationship. Trust, for example, doesn't happen overnight, nor does it take place automatically. Trust is built through a lot of hard work, and in true connectedness to others, one risk at a time over time. At times that trust in others is tested; but never completely shaken, as I have learned this year. In everything give thanks. Never doubt, Never give-up, dream big, and always keep hope alive in your hearts:)


Mr. Jonathan Sclater