AWARD WINNER | 2008 IPPY BRONZE MEDAL
“This is a story about decency, family politics, family, fear, and triumph.
Teaching is the canvas, but the portrait is so much richer and more colourful. This book will capture and absorb you. Fear of failure is a powerful motivator, and, as John Fioravanti battles and defeats his demons, you will find yourself cheering for him as if he were contesting a sporting event.
Teaching is not a discipline confined to schools, and the lessons in this book about planning, listening, empathizing and sympathizing have applicability to all professions and walks of life − from a police lieutenant training officers to a sales manager teaching sales representatives and everything else in between.
John Fioravanti shaped, elevated, and improved the lives thousands of young people. After you’ve read this short story, you’ll be fulfilled and uplifted.”
By: John Fioravanti
Published: Spring 2014 (print & ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-9936558-0-7 (print); 978-0-9936558-1-4 (ebook)
eBook: | Amazon.ca| Amazon.com | Amazon.uk
Print: Amazon.ca | Amazon.com | Amazon.uk | Indigo
EXCERPT FROM A PERSONAL JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF TEACHING
In the fall of 1990 I was transferred to my present school, St. David Catholic Secondary School in Waterloo and faced a very new challenge: I was teaching at the same school where my daughter was enrolled as a grade ten student. As the new head of History there, I was teaching several of the senior courses, all of which were single course sections. Sure enough, in the following year, Dianna chose to take the grade eleven course I was teaching. I was pleased because it was one of the reasons why I had asked for the transfer to St. David. I wanted to teach my kids the skills I knew they would need in high school and beyond… but I was also mindful of the fact that most teachers try to avoid teaching their own children. I was excited and concerned at the same time. I knew that I would have to handle this situation very carefully –– mainly for Dianna’s sake.
My anxiety about that issue was not diminished as Dianna flew into my classroom, waving her timetable at me, gleefully announcing that she was in my class. Well, at least she was not concerned about it. Thankfully, my daughter was a model student who did not require any discipline. On the contrary, my concern had always been that her perfectionism caused her unhealthy stress. We had a great relationship at home and, thankfully, that carried over into the classroom. The only time I became uncomfortable was when she would tell my wife what daddy said in class each day.
The course Dianna took from me that year was ‘Society, Challenge and Change’, which was an introduction to the fields of Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology. Throughout the course there were many opportunities for me to illustrate important concepts with real stories from my own family. I realized quickly, though, that I could not share those stories with Dianna’s peers in the classroom with us. I also had to consider the fact that Dan was already at St. David in grade nine and Dominic would be following soon, so stories about them wouldn’t be a good idea. I had to get very creative in a hurry. So I used stories from my own family growing up in Dundas.
The other major issue that arose was to make sure I evaluated Dianna’s work fairly. I didn’t want to appear to favor her in any way, and unfortunately, I over-compensated and inadvertently marked her first assignment much harder than I did those of her peers. After that first assignment was returned, I was approached at the end of class by a girl who sat across from Dianna. She asked if she could see me for a few moments at lunch. I agreed, not suspecting what was to follow. When she arrived, she asked me to hear her out and not get angry with her. I had taught this student before in grade nine and we had enjoyed a good relationship, so I smiled and told her that I’d behave myself. She took a deep breath, and then told me she had seen Dianna’s paper and that she believed it was far superior to her own; but I had given Dianna a lower grade. She said she thought I had unconsciously marked my daughter’s paper by a stricter standard. That deflated my sails in a hurry. I looked this young lady in the eye and told her how much I appreciated her courage and her honesty, then sent her on her way, promising to fix the problem. That night I decided to collect all the papers back the next day, and to remark every paper. I told the class I thought I had made errors in judgment on some of their papers and wanted to re-evaluate them all. I did find errors I had made on other papers besides Dianna’s, so I adjusted a number of the marks. I apologized to Dianna at home, telling her I would do my best to be more vigilant in the future. She forgave me and told me she trusted me. I got past that mistake, but I never forgot it.
We both survived Dianna’s grade eleven year quite gracefully, but I was still struggling to fit in at my new school. The year before, my first year at St. David, none of the students there knew me and I had felt like a rookie all over again. The lack of familiar ground let the old anxiety return to haunt me, though soon I’d begin to gain that confidence back, thanks to my essay teaching method. I always explained to my students that my structural formula for an essay was not the only method that can be used, but I insisted they follow my directions until they had mastered the basics of organization. From my own personal experience in university, and that of former students, I knew my formula worked well. I remember during that first year teaching one young lady (I’ll call her Joan) who liked history and was in both of my OAC History courses. She was very bright, quite self-assured and assertive. She was forever challenging my essay writing expectations, because she found them very restrictive. I would smile at her and say she needed to prove to me she could master my method of essay writing, later she could write any way she wanted at university. She was not happy with me. A year later she returned to pick up her younger brother who was writing a final exam in the cafeteria where I was presiding. As the students were exiting the room, Joan walked over to me and gave me a big hug. She told me that I had saved her life. I was very surprised and embarrassed.
She laughed at the expression on my face and explained she was enrolled in a very demanding concurrent program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and that her essays had pulled her through the first semester. After she left, I scratched my head, totally befuddled. I was sure that this girl really didn’t like me at all the year before.
The surprise I had experienced at the hands of Joan was surpassed when another former student came to visit. I’ll call him James. This young man had transferred from a private high school for his OAC year. He was a tall, handsome young man who was very bright as well, and a hard worker to boot. As did Joan, James took issue with my essay methods. In a respectful manner, he fought me tooth and nail every step of the way throughout the course. He complied with my wishes, but he made it clear that he was just humouring me. James wrote some terrific papers and graduated with top marks. One day, several years later, I was eating my lunch in my classroom when the secretary called over the P.A. system asking me to meet a visitor in the main office. When I entered the office, there was James with a great big smile and hand outstretched to shake mine. We then went out to the hallway and he explained why he was visiting.
“I was thinking about you this morning,” he began. “You see, I finished my degree and I was thinking about how much I owed you for my success at university, and it suddenly occurred to me that you didn’t have any idea! So I came here today to thank you and to ask you something.”
I felt stunned, but I asked him to go on.
“Please sir,” he began, “don’t ever stop doing what you did for me!”
That said, he bade me goodbye and left the building. As I made my way back to my classroom, I began to smile and I thought of Ruth.
That’s a promise I can keep, I thought, and I found I had a bit of a spring to my step.
The sense of elation I felt as a result of James’ visit was to be short-lived. I was teaching my daughter’s OAC History class one day, and the topic was President Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy tactics as they related to Canada at the turn of the twentieth century. After explaining his “gunboat diplomacy”, I went on to inform the class that his tactics were also known as “Big Stick Diplomacy”, only it came out of my mouth as “Big Dick Diplomacy”! My daughter screamed out “DADDY!” The entire class exploded in laughter while I stood there totally humiliated. As the hilarity continued I began to laugh too. How would I ever live this one down? Would the school board ever let me teach again? When Anne heard about my performance at the dinner table that evening, she was worried sick that I would be hauled before the principal and disciplined. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
As I thought about this performance later, I realized that there was another valuable lesson here. I had to stop taking myself so seriously. My Freudian slip, although embarrassing, had somehow made me more human in the eyes of my students. More importantly, I began to see that I had adopted a more prim and proper demeanor at St. David, probably because of my anxiety at being the new teacher at school. I needed to return to the more relaxed style I had developed at St. Benedict. Not only was I learning new lessons from my students, but I was also relearning old lessons as well.
Fitting in at St. David was tough in the early years, despite the fact that this staff was quite warm and welcoming. The challenge of being at a new school was coupled with another that almost brought me to my knees. Earlier in my career I had experienced a positive turning point when I became a father. Now I found that being a parent of three teenagers was causing me psychological stresses I never dreamed possible. What was wrong with my kids? Absolutely nothing. They were good kids. But they were teenagers. And the students in my classroom were teenagers. I had been teaching teens for many years; now I was living with three of my own, so I was dealing with teenaged hormones twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Home had once been my refuge, the place where I could escape each evening and each weekend to the different world of my young family. That respite allowed me to recharge my emotional batteries. I would be able to return to my classes each day with renewed patience and understanding. Now there was no respite. There was no recharging of the emotional batteries. Psychologically, I was feeling burnt out.
I remember losing my cool one day with an OAC class. One thing that really pushes my buttons is the arrival of students to class after the lesson has begun. On this day, three students arrived late and interrupted the class at three separate intervals. Normally I’m annoyed at the interruption because it derails my thought process and thus, the flow of the lesson. On this occasion the three offenders seemed oblivious to the fact that they had done anything wrong. Their attitude seemed to scream out that rules were for everyone else, but not for them. I lost it. I screamed at those poor kids for at least five minutes. For my grand finale, I threw my text on my desk with a bang, and told them to work on note making for the balance of the class. You could have heard a pin drop, and the silence lasted until the final bell. The students slunk wordlessly out of class.
The next day, this same group crept quietly into the classroom, on time, and sat in silence while they waited for me to begin. I smiled at them and asked why everyone was so solemn. A big football player at the back asked if I was ok. I assured him that I was. I asked him the same question in return. He hesitated, and then said that he hoped that I was ok after yesterday, saying that my anger had really scared all of them. Well, that revelation completely shocked me. As I made eye contact with everyone in the room, I realized he spoke for every last one of them. I felt totally ashamed of myself. I took a deep breath, and I apologized for my behaviour and I told them that I had no excuse. I also promised them that they would never be subjected to that in my classroom again.
It was a painfully embarrassing moment for me; yet it gave me pause to perform some much needed personal introspection. As I berated myself for this outburst of temper, I also realized these kids had given me an opportunity to pause and to learn. It wasn’t the first time I had shouted at a class, but I had never realized before just how frightening it was for the students. I was scarier than I had ever dreamed possible. Was I scarring these kids? As I pondered the situation and the inner turmoil that had brought it to a head, it became clear that there was a larger, more significant issue here. The root of my problem was far more fundamental than a loss of temper in the classroom. It really had more to do with how I saw my students, and equally important, what I expected of them. In time I came to see that those expectations were impossible because I was not looking at these young people as unique individuals. Oh yes, I had always accepted their uniqueness as an intellectual concept, but I had not internalized it in my heart. For too many years I viewed students in the class as a collective blob of teenaged hormones, but now that my own kids were teens, I began to recognize the different paths each of my students tried to take.
My reactions to infractions like lateness had been exacerbated by my incomplete understanding of self as a person and as educator –– my inability to see my students for themselves. The proof of this was evident in my expectation that if I provided good teaching, modeled good work habits, and encouraged them to strive for excellence, students would simply respond and succeed. I was not accepting them as they were, I was expecting them to become what I wanted them to become. I was not sensitive enough to determine how each student was developing as a person, and then proceed to meet their needs. In other words, I viewed them as young learning machines instead of flesh and blood persons in their own right, with their own personal circumstances, histories, and demons. How could these students possibly trust me to guide them if I could not respect and love them as they were?
Later I would discover that the key is respect for my students. Love is important, of course, but the acceptance of one’s unique personhood guides the love and gives it impact. These realizations came to me very gradually, and very painfully. I felt pain because I could see where my own shortcomings had somewhat short-changed the kids entrusted to me. Although I worked hard at my craft, I was forever focusing on my faults –– and that drove me to eliminate the deficiencies within myself. How do I accept these kids as they are when I know so little about them? The answer to this question was to elude me for a few years yet. Not being able to immediately grasp the answer increased my frustration, but I know now that the fog was gradually being lifted from my eyes. Unknowingly I was getting closer to understanding the heart of teaching.
Copyright © 2007 John Fioravanti