Monday, May 14, 2018


A few weeks ago I had occasion to drive from Windsor through Kitchener-Waterloo on my way to the U.S. Whenever I pass through the area, I always stop in the Canadian city I first called home after immigrating in 1999: Waterloo. I don't have friends in the area anymore, but I still like to have a vegetarian meal at the Jane Bond and take in an art house film at my old haunt, the Princess Cinema.

It was dark when I arrived in Waterloo, but I recognized my old workplace: the Equitable Life Insurance Company of Canada. For five years I was a systems specialist. In that role, I wore many hats--from being a one-woman software support hotline to quality control of data files. I taught myself to code in VBA and created custom solutions for my team. I really enjoyed creating GUIs (Graphic User Interfaces) that were dummy-proof. Using my little apps, it was impossible to make a mistake or wrong decision. The programs I wrote shoehorned the user into right decisions. I didn't have any formal I.T. education, yet they allowed me to do that.

Driving past the unassuming headquarters of the life insurance company with its darkened windows late that night, I could almost not believe that the memories flooding into my mind were MINE, memories of my own life just twelve years ago. This English teacher used to write code. I used to joke that I could make MS Excel do just about anything shy of going to the corner and bringing back coffee.

The next day I rose and drove the rest of the way into New York state, passing turn-off signs for Niagara-on-the-Lake. Once again, the memories astounded me. Could it be that I had once stayed overnight at the Pillar and Post because our clients there needed a custom solution to a data upload problem? Yes, my employer had sent me (a lowly liaison to the I.T. team, not even a member of I.T.) to figure out a way to get data out of their payroll system and modify it in all the ways necessary for upload to our system. It took me an afternoon, but I found a way. I made the impossible possible.
The Pillar and Post, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Another memory came after that, a memory of the day that Scott, an actuary and my boss' boss, came to my desk in frustration over the months and months that it was taking I.T. to develop our company website. He almost never emerged from his office, so I was surprised to see him standing over me. He said, "Kelly, if we paid for it, would you be willing to go learn ASP?" I said I didn't know what ASP was. He said it was a web programming language. I told him I wasn't sure, maybe I would be willing, and why did he ask. He said, "Because if you were working on the website, it would be done by now."

He was (still is, I'm sure) a man of few words, so his vote of confidence has stuck with me all these years. I call those words to mind when my self-esteem needs a boost. Yes, damnit, I'm smart and very capable. I'm a hard worker. I study on my own time to be the best I can possibly be at what I do.

Why am I reminiscing tonight? You can probably guess.

When I first arrived on the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) scene, I had a lot of the same feelings as I have at all the jobs before this one. I felt my superiors--from my boss and her director all the way up to the folks at IRCC who pay them to employ me--trusted me and believed in me. I felt seen, my gifts recognized and put to good use. Have you heard about Google's 'genius hour?' I have been blessed to almost always land in jobs where I'm given leeway to use at least some of my on-the-clock time to experiment. No employer has ever regretted giving me that play time. It has been during that time that I've solved long-standing problems for my employer. I believe that every language teacher also needs time and room for 'principled eclecticism' and action research.

The cheerleaders of PBLA who leave comments on this blog have more than once accused us of just whining or being negative. I have a whole video percolating in my mind to answer that accusation, but meanwhile I would like to suggest we do something here and/or over on my The Joy of ESL Facebook page. I'm not normally one to dwell on the past or live in the future, but just as an exercise, I'd like to ask if anyone wants to talk about joy on the job. Do you find your job to be a source of joy in your life now? If not, was it before? Or could it one day be--even hypothetically?

If you feel like it, tell me about a time you were happier in your job than you are now and what it is that made the job fulfilling at that time. OR tell me what you dream of as the ideal classroom space or SPO. If you could wave a magic wand and have MCI and IRCC direct the taxpayers' money the way YOU ask them to, what would that look like? I have some ideas of my own, but I'd like to hear from you first.

1 comment:

  1. In my dream, the wand that I would wave would bring back the good old days and the pixie dust I'd sprinkle around management would wake them up, make them smile and say to me, "You're a great teacher and your students all seem so happy to be coming to school! We trust you to do the right thing. Oh and by the way, have some fun in your classroom because a miserable learning space is one in which no one will learn." My classroom would be transformed. The binders would be hauled away and we'd have a bonfire in which all of my students would wear their traditional costumes and cheer as our (new) management smiled on with pride at the dawning of the new day. If they wanted to, students could empty the binders and instead of being full of government mandated nonsense, we could have a contest to see who could come up with the best new and creative ideas for language learning and fill those binders up with 'real' authentic materials designed and used by ESL teachers for ESL students. (Also ESL would be the only acronym permitted) : ) My utopia - as opposed to the dystopia I now find myself in - would be one in which everyone is treated as an equal in our multicultural community and respected for independent thinking. We would work together praising one another's great ideas for learning in the classroom and the only workshops or PDs we would be allowed to have would be ones in which we discuss and share ideas about teaching - welcoming new ideas, encouraging free thought. We would laugh in the staffroom and joke about how we dodged a bullet with PBLA, but 'phew' thankfully someone came to their senses!!!
    I used to drive to work in the morning thinking to myself, "I'm one of the few people smiling on my way to work." We had multicultural days every year in which the students brought in food and wore costumes to showcase their heritage (they've been cancelled since PBLA started - too much work to do - students are already missing too much class time was the argument oh and something about the 'funders' ). We used to have potlucks on special occasions. What an amazing teaching opportunity they were (now cancelled). We used to have bake sales and garage sales to save money for school trips which the students loved; the end of year school trip was a day for all to look forward to (now cancelled). We had all school Christmas parties with choirs and student presentations. We had speakers and trips to the art gallery and museums. We went outside on Earth Day and picked up garbage and had prizes for the students who picked up the most. We had conversations about which students we thought were ready to move based on their English skills. Most importantly of all, we were respected by management and they were on our side. They trusted us to do the right thing, and anyone knows that a workplace where the workers are allowed to trust their instincts - well honed over many years of practise- is one in which great things can be accomplished. All of that is gone now. We are slaves to PBLA. Students have adapted - those that have stuck around - but the new mantra is "Are we having a test tomorrow?" A girl in my class actually said to me last week, "I heard that this school used to be fun."


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