Friday, June 2, 2023

Andy Young: Learning from the learners

By Andy Young

It’s graduation weekend for several local high schools, which has me thinking about why I got into teaching in the first place.

When I began pursuing a career in education it was for the same reasons that I assumed other aspiring teachers did. The prospect of a steady job that helped impact the future was inviting, as were the inherent fringe benefits, which included receiving universal respect and support from parents and administrators, being held in high esteem throughout the community, and being regarded with a blend of admiration and awe by each young person I interacted with, either in one of my classes or on one of the teams I coached. The prospect of a seven-figure salary didn’t hurt, either.

Educators enjoy far too many intangible rewards to list here, but I recently experienced one of them: the privilege of learning from a student. Where I teach, the final requirement for Grade 12 English class is for students to prepare a three to five-minute valedictory speech, then deliver it to their peers. The assignment combines writing, reading, listening, speaking, and thinking, a quintet of skills each young person will need on a daily basis for the foreseeable future, and quite possibly for the remainder of their lives.

I listened to several dozen of these presentations last week, and although many had similar themes, each oration was as unique as its presenter. Not surprisingly, nearly each speech was relatable to the audience, since with one obvious exception (me), everyone listening to the prepared remarks was the same age as the speaker.

One particularly memorable opus stuck out to me; it came from a young woman who recounted how challenging dealing with school during the Covid pandemic was. Remote schooling became the norm for the last three months of her freshman year. The following autumn she was initially excited about returning to normalcy by physically attending school two days a week, but between all the regulations (masks, staying 6 feet distant from others, etc.), she eventually found it easier to just stay home and do school via computer. The tuning out, getting distracted, and low grades that followed were predictable, but what wasn’t was another insidious form of collateral damage: difficulty interacting with others. “During my junior year,” she wrote, “I didn’t really care to talk to people or make friends because I was so used to being alone all the time.”

As she delivered her remarks, I was impressed with her ability to articulate what was true not just for her, but for many of her peers as well. But after processing her words I had an epiphany: I too experienced difficulty socializing during (and to some extent after) the pandemic, and for the same reasons she did. It really is comfortable being alone: too comfortable, in fact. But thanks to an exceptionally perceptive person nearly a half-century younger than I am, I remembered that social skills, like physical ones, need to be utilized. And if they aren’t, well, the phrase “Use ‘em or lose ‘em” comes to mind.

Thanks to an insightful young person’s articulate description of how she dealt with a significant challenge, I’ve rededicated myself to getting out and mixing, even when it’s more convenient to just stay home.

Teaching, as it turns out, has been everything I imagined it would be. Administration has my back, I’m universally respected in the community (as far as I know), and I do indeed enjoy earning a seven-figure salary annually.

Even if two of those numbers appear on the right (or wrong, if you prefer) side of the decimal point. <

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