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What Can You Do?

I recently returned from speaking to a warm and appreciative group of teachers in Edmonton, Alberta. And I was moved by one teacher’s story that stands for so many others:

She teaches, among other things, home economics. Since “anyone” can “do home ec,” she gets sent the students who can’t, or won’t, do “hard sciences” such as physics, chemistry, or biology. Of course, cooking and baking are pretty much the application of physics, chemistry, and biology, so she does the best she can to focus these students on what they have already demonstrated are subjects beyond their grasp.

Meanwhile, she presides over a room in which Grade 10 students are in one kitchen area, Grade 11s are in another, and Grade 12s in still another. They know each other, of course, and want to visit, view, compare, and harass. So she has to teach them not to leave “McDonald’s” for “Subway” in order not to (a) contaminate other work spaces, (b) distract people working over hot stoves, deep fryers, and the like, and (c) generally muck things up.

Meanwhile, she is having to monitor six (six!) special-needs kids who are being “mainstreamed” (= “we administrators loftily don’t want anyone to feel left out” = “we administrators cynically don’t want to pay for special-needs instruction”), including one child so handicapped she is unintelligible beyond cries of delight or distress. The educational assistants are there, too, trying to calm or direct the students, but one of the kids is almost deaf, so now our teacher has to try to preside over three levels of instruction (Grades 10, 11 and 12) while other adults are almost yelling in one corner of the room.

Meanwhile, half the kids in each class have not brought the fees  to buy the food needed for the classroom. Those of us of a certain age remember not bringing special fees to school, ever, but if you’ve been a parent of school-age kids over the last couple of decades, you know that there are now fees upon fees. What used to be paid out of taxes is now nickel-and-dimed (or, more like, tenned-and-twentied) out of parents by schools without adequate funding.

So now our teacher has to spend time after the school day courteously e-mailing recalcitrant (or just forgetful and hard-pressed) parents for money–because the school itself lacks the staff to go after the funds. No senior administrator seems bothered by the teeny-tiny possibility that a teacher’s role toward pupil or parent is compromised by adding the activity of a collection agency to the educational portfolio.

Meanwhile, one of the special needs kids insists on a hug while our teacher is trying to demonstrate a moist-heat technique to the Grade 11 students. She fends off the child as sweetly as she can, but he, uncomprehending, bursts into tears while the kids she’s trying to teach each cope with the scene in his or her own way. The assistant scurries over, and five minutes later the teacher resumes her lesson–less those five lost minutes in an eighty-minute period in which recipes take as long as they take whether there are interruptions or not….

Meanwhile, she knows that next year her class will be yet bigger: a course which used to be limited to 24 will be stretched to 32. Yes, 33 per cent more responsibility with zero addition of resources.

What can she do?

I told the teachers a lot of things during my address, but here’s one: Do at least one thing really well, and that will mean doing at least a few other things barely adequately. As the saying goes, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” and a lot of duties imposed upon many of us nowadays are worth doing…but just barely.

If, instead, we try to do everything asked of us reasonably well–say, at a “B-” level–we’ll feel “B-” about it all. And exhausted in the process. And that’s a lousy way to live.

Work at something, at least one thing, at an “A” level. It might be small. It might not even be noticed by others. But you’ll know you did a great job of it, and the feeling of excellence you draw from that task will inspire you in the rest of what you do.

Meanwhile, practice “prudent neglect” of the stuff that doesn’t matter much. There is only so much energy and only so many minutes to spend. So spend well: putting resources where they can do the most good.

It’s too bad we cannot do everything well, but we can’t. So don’t spread yourself thinly, if evenly, over everything you’re called upon to do. Take stock: Drop entirely what you can drop; discharge your duty minimally where you must; and concentrate upon what you can do well, giving the maximum blessing to others and, not incidentally, to yourself.

I believe that, and I try to practice it. I hope it will help you, too.

…But I still grieve for that teacher in Alberta who goes back into that classroom tomorrow. No one should have to work like that, teach like that, or learn like that. In Canada! Refusing to pay higher taxes and refusing to hold school boards and administrators to account is sowing the wind….


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