Game-changers: Teachers who changed my life
Mrs. Stevens was strict. Mrs. Stevens scowled. Mrs. Stevens got after her students. Mrs. Stevens had fiery red hair. Mrs. Stevens was not some people’s favourite grade 2 teacher but…she was mine because Mrs. Stevens loved reading! Mrs. Stevens was, for me, a game-changer.
Teaching is an intensely personal experience, richly coloured by our own personal beliefs and worldview. Game-changers are people who force you to examine your beliefs and come to a place of action, who give you the tools to make up your own mind and move forward from there.
Mrs. Stevens would gather us all around her for read-aloud and I would become lost in another time and another place. There was something magical about those stolen moments between math stencils and spelling lists. It was a time like no other. I can see myself as if it were yesterday sitting cross-legged listening with every inch of my body to the sound of Mrs. Stevens’ voice. I was drawn in. I was hooked. The only thing that could break the spell was the sound of the book being closed. A collective groan of disappointment would follow and then off we would go quietly back to our desks, back to SRA and workbooks, biding our time until the next read-aloud would sweep us away between the pages to learn more about ourselves, others and the world in which we lived.
It was not until years later that I realized that Mrs. Stevens was the first to plant the seeds for what would become a lifelong passion for literacy and literacy education. In the magic garden of read-aloud, I found what made school meaningful to me… and I never looked back.
Throughout my educational career, there have been other teachers who have come into my life, each one unique and each one contributing to the defining moments of what makes me the educator that I am today. These are my game-changers:
Lynn Butler-Kisber was my very first professor at McGill University (Montreal, Canada). I was fortunate to have her for an entire year, back when English Language Arts was a 6 credit course. I will never forget her quick step as she entered the classroom pushing her cart filled with goodies…picture books, manipulatives and movies of her days in the classroom. I loved that class and I loved Lynn. I wanted to be Lynn. I would sit there totally mesmerized by her stories. She would read to us, she would talk to us, she would share with us and all the while she would prompt us to think for ourselves, to consider our opinions, our connections, and what we were going to do once we were out there in the field with a class of our own. It was the questions that we had to ask of ourselves and our students as we turned the pages of the beautifully illustrated picture books. We learned not to only appreciate what the text had to offer but the responses and conversations that we brought to and from the text. Rich dialogue that pushed us to look, interpret and become more aware as we explored the whole-language approach to literacy. Although I did not know it at the time, this course and the conversations that flowed out of it became the underpinnings for my interest in Critical Literacy.
Abigail Anderson, architect and writer of the English Language Arts curriculum for Québec’s teachers. Strong, opinionated, passionate and brilliant. There was never a time that I left her presence without having learned something new and usually it was more than one thing. Wow! She made my head spin. How could someone know so much about literacy? How could she time and again speak so eloquently and always draw reference to both theorists and novelists alike in order to get her point across? I would hurry home and look up the person, the quote or the book that she had offered. I knew that I could be a fearless teacher and take the risks required to implement a Freirean pedagogy because that was the pedagogy on which our very ELA curriculum was based. She believed in critical literacy and she put her money where her mouth was by having it live and breathe in the Québec Education Program that she had envisioned. Abigail Anderson was my game-changer because through her actions I saw the words of Paolo Freire come to life in a tangible way – and I knew what I could do to follow that same path.
Janet Radoman had the patience of a saint with her students. She was a true teacher. She was gifted in the ability to take anything, no matter how convoluted and explain it in such a way that everyone present could understand and then apply. She was a constructivist in action, an advocate for her students and a champion for the unheard and voiceless. She was the teacher that would throw away a planned afternoon math lesson if a child of hers entered the classroom sweaty with excitement and full of questions regarding the fistful of worms they had found in the schoolyard after a lunchtime rain shower. She not only listened to her students, she engaged them in critical conversations, inquiry and dialogue. What her students thought and felt mattered. This is what she believed and this is how she taught. Janet Radoman was my game-changer because she taught me how to bring critical literacy into the lives of the children we teach.
These four women prompted me to reflect on what I believed about literacy education at different points in my life and how I chose to teach to reflect my beliefs. I will always be grateful to them. And you, who have been your game-changers? I would love to hear your stories.