You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Most Important Job

This week, I had a meeting with a colleague I admire greatly. I am giving up a sessional instructor position at our local college, a job I have really enjoyed for the past three years. Teaching education students in their final year of university has been extremely rewarding. It has been a wonderful way for my to clarify exactly what I think is important in teaching and learning. Unfortunately, it eats up a great deal of time and leaves me with less energy to devote to my other jobs. I was wearing too many hats and, as my colleague observed at the end of our meeting, "wearing too many hats can make you bald."

I have held a number of paying jobs in my life. Painter, bus boy, toy assembler, hockey school instructor, lawn maintenance technician, substitute teacher, teacher, team leader, vice principal, interim principal. Each of these jobs has been interesting, rewarding and fun in its own way. I honestly don't think of what I do right now as a job. There is a significant distinction between going to work and what I do, which is "going to school." I don't love everything about my job - in fact, writing this post is helping me put off writing report cards, a task that I really do not enjoy. I really believe that what I do is important. My job is meaningful and it helps make a difference. I'm profoundly proud of what I do for a living, but it is not my most important job.

Today is Father's Day, which is the inspiration for my post because being a dad is truly the most important job I have. I have learned this from a number of great role models, like my own father. Last night, mom and dad came to visit us. After supper, my boys, my dad and I went for a bike ride through the river valley in our community. It was fantastic to get three generations out on our mountain bikes and try to keep up with dad, who is easily the strongest cyclist of the group. Even though he is in his sixties, my dad continues to ride, race, teach and promote cycling of all kinds. He works in a bike shop and will be an ambassador for the Trans Rockies mountain bike race this summer. I have learned the importance of passion and dedication from my father. Many of my best memories of childhood involve him.

We used to travel to hockey games, practices and tournaments across Canada and the United States. When I graduated from university, we made a point of doing a major hike or trip each summer. Since I have had my own children, we try to get together for a canoe trip, bike ride or fishing trip on Father's Day. My absolute best memories of dad are the hours and hours we used to spend fishing. We had an old square stern Sportspal canoe. Dad would row and I would sit near the stern as we trolled around, fishing for trout, walleye, perch or pike. We faced one another for hours at a time and I would pepper him with questions when the fishing was slow. We would usually get out three times a day - early morning, early afternoon and later in the evening. I learned so much from my father on these fishing trips and they really are the things I treasure the most.

I have learned from other great role models. My grandfathers were two completely different men. From one, I learned the importance of duty, history and discipline. He was a hard man with a soft spot for animals and children, particularly his grandchildren. My maternal grandfather was a calm, meticulous and caring man. He taught me to shoot pool, play cribbage, mow a lawn, and persevere in the face of pain and suffering. My father-in-law, who passed away last fall, taught me about the sheer importance of having fun in spite of everything that happens to you. He lived his life to the fullest and the enormous crowd at his funeral said everything about the impact a simple man can have on people.

This morning, I woke up very early and had the house to myself. I enjoyed the quiet and the opportunity to get caught up on some things I had recorded on the PVR. My day got off to a perfect start, though, when my eight year old came downstairs, settled on my lap, gave me a big hug and said those words that mean so much to me and serve to remind me of my most important job...

"Happy Father's Day, Dad".

Friday, June 11, 2010

Come Together!

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague while I flipped burgers on a gigantic BBQ grill. She was telling me about her daughter who lost a friend recently, so a group of friends had gathered at a local watering hole in to remember him. My colleague said something that resonated and inspired this post. She noted that, for her daughter, the simple act of coming together to remember a friend was most important - more important than attending funeral or memorial service.

When I was in my early twenties, I lost one of my best friends. He died suddenly in an automobile accident. It took me and my group of twenty-something friends completely by surprise. What I remember most about dealing with his death was coming together with those friends, school chums, and teammates. We attended the prayer service, then we came together at an Earl's restaurant to eat and remember. At the funeral, we sat with our families and acquaintances. Afterward, though, we came together at a local pub, this time to drink and remember. As the night wore on and we moved from pub to home to club, we remained together. It was a hard time, but we worked through our numbness and disbelief together.

Coming together is incredibly important in the work that I do. Recently, I had the good fortune to speak at another school about our school's experiences with improving student writing. More than anything, I was proud to emphasize how everybody "bought in" to what we were doing. The school I work at has an amazing staff. Time and time again, they come together to make incredible things happen. From school improvement projects to June clean up to staff learning days to retirement celebrations to special events, everyone in the building comes together. As a group, our staff understands that it is impossible to accomplish anything on your own. It is so nice to be a part of our "come together" culture.

Recently, we held our family barbeque and movie night. It is my favorite night of the school year (Student-Led Conferences are a close second). As I write this, I can't see clearly through my glasses because they are covered in burger grease. My eyes are very sore from 2 hours of non-stop grilling. I smell like a Big Mac wrapper and the dog won't quit licking my pants. Make no mistake - the Family BBQ is not without drama. People invariably have to stand in line for burgers, kids regularly overindulge in the infamous McDonald's "Orange Beverage", and I spend the first 3 hours of the event in a state of constant worry and thought. could this possibly be my favorite night?

This night brings people together in a very special way. A very diverse group of people appear. Parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and neighbors attend for a free burger or hot dog. Each family brings (or should bring) a dessert or salad. Some are homemade and delicious, some are bought at 7-11 on the way to the school. People from across the street come over to see what is going on. Tonight, a fellow stopped by and wanted to sell a box of CD's and cassette tapes to us for $10. One of my BBQ partners had him talked down to $3 and a free burger, but somehow the deal fell through. There is a colorful character who lives around the corner from the school. He runs a skate sharpening business and has a pet parrot. Tonight, he showed up on his bike and brought the parrot. On his shoulder. To a school yard full of inquisitive children. How's that for a recipe for disaster? The addition of the colorful characters and people who wouldn't arrive at the school unless there was free food makes this night extra special. I just love it! It is a success because our staff comes together with our school council, the families in the school, and the community. We truly work together to make a great event.

Last year, we added a great twist to the family BBQ night. We hire Fresh Air Cinema to hold a "walk-in" outdoor movie event. And this twist adds a"if you build it, they will come" element to our family BBQ. It is amazing to watch people filter in. The screen starts going up as people first arrive with their pot luck item and lawn chairs. Many people choose to sit and watch the set up. This year's film crew was composed of two of my former students. They got to know my oldest son, who is fascinated by engineering and electronics, quite well by the end of the night. To their credit, they put a lid on his simmering pot of questions. Even better, they made a point of telling me what an interesting child he is. Indeed...

From the end of the BBQ to the beginning of the movie, there is nearly two hours of time to fill in. Many families come, set up their chairs and head home until shortly before the show. Many families, however, choose to stay for the entire time. It is amazing to watch how people come together for these events. There is music, dancing, soccer games, frisbee throwing, chasing, tag, hanging out and playing on the playground. During this time, nothing is organized, it just happens. It really is amazing to watch because our staff bring their families. Our families bring their families. Odd characters and members of the community arrive. Tonight, a group of sketchy looking teens came to smoke, but they stayed out of everyone's way and I decided that if these "tough" kids wanted to watch G-Force on a gigantic outdoor movie screen, they were welcome to do so.

It is incredible to see how people "come together" on a night like this - it reminds me of the community picnics, gymkhanas, and rodeos I attended at the local community hall as a boy. It has elements of family reunion, outdoor festival and circus sideshow. At the end of the evening, though, I can only look back and smile. I think of the the work our school staff puts into setting up, ordering food, preparing salad, setting tables, washing dishes, mopping floors. I think of my companions at the barbeque - wiping grease off their glasses and taking mild abuse about the long lineup for a burger. I think of the wide range of families who arrive - some for a free meal, some for a free night out, some because their children don't want to miss a single school event, but most for a genuine chance to be together with our school community. It's magical, and I wish our society did more things like this.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Take Your Kids Outdoors!

My goal here is to issue a plea to parents, teachers, grandparents, caregivers and anyone else who has a say in how children spend their time. Get them outside. Please. The joy of being outside with your children is difficult to describe, but it's possible to summarize in a look or a sound. A month ago, I took my son's Cub group on a hike. I knew where we were going, so everyone had to follow me. This meant that I got to arrive first and take in the looks on the kids faces as they approached the canyon we were going to follow. The look can be summarized as a sudden stop in forward momentum, followed by a significant widening of the eyes and opening of the mouth. The sound? Simple. "That is SO COOOOOOOOOOOOL!"

The canyon you see in the picture above is, possibly, my favorite place on the planet. I've taken hundreds of students there. I camped at the edge of this river on my honeymoon. I have fallen off rocks, scraped my arms, and fished this canyon with my children, my best friends and even my mother-in-law. Every time I go there, I feel connected to our world in a way that is really difficult to explain in words. You have to FEEL it.

Feeling is a powerful thing for me. I grew up hiking with my parents. As I got older, the hikes got longer and more involved. Some of the greatest memories I have are of hiking with my dad and my best friend. Each summer, we took on a different "classic" - West Coast Trail, Chilkoot Trail, Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, Skoki Valley, the Skyline Trail. It was on the Skyline that I experienced one of the most powerful feelings I know - the feeling of climbing a mountain. It was not a huge peak, but it was a peak and the minute I arrived at the top, I literally felt like I was on top of the world.

This morning, I took my son and his best friends to the top of a mountain. For years, my boy called this place "Radio Tower Mountain" and I know that he has wanted to go up there from the first time he saw it. So, for his birthday, we made the trek west to accomplish this goal. Last night, as we looked up at the mountain, I know that the boys really didn't understand what they were about to do. "We're going up there? Cool." My son has been to the top of other mountains, so he knew what we were in for, but the other boys had no clue.

As we climbed and climbed and climbed, I didn't hear a word of complaint. Every time the views opened up, one of my son's friends would say something like "This is so cool" or "Wow" or "This is beautiful" or "This is amazing". I can't help myself - I just love hearing those reactions and seeing the looks on their faces. It's a look that I've seen when we visit canyons, waterfalls, hoodoos, geysers, tide pools, the ocean, the Badlands, petroglyphs and yes, even Disneyland. These are looks of light, of learning, or sheer joy.

Have you really looked at a child playing a video game? All I see is grim determination, blank stares and frustration when the quest of the next level is thwarted. It's a shocking contrast to the look of a child who has caught a fish, skied their first black diamond run, jumped off a boat in the middle of a lake, climbed a rock face or finished a difficult bike ride.

I know which look I prefer. Even better, I know that I have directly caused those amazing looks on the faces of children.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Decade?

This weekend marks a landmark for me. My little boy, who is not so little any more, is turning ten. 10. TEN???? Where did ten years of my life go? I remember the night before he was born like it was yesterday. Now, he's in grade four, he wants an iPod touch, he has a blog and next week, it's time for us to have "the talk".

When he was born, I was teaching middle school language arts. I lived in an older house across the street from my school. We had an older, sedate, obedient Chesapeake Bay Retriever. I drove a '93 Nissan SUV and a my wife drove a brand new VW (we needed a 4-door vehicle - no stinkin' minivans for us!) "Survivor", "Maclcom in the Middle", "Dora the Explorer" and "Clifford the Big Red Dog" were brand new television programs. Our camera used film. One of my best friends was living with us. I had a second hand HP computer that survived Y2K. My wife and I still went to first run, grown-up movies, including the Academy's Best Picture, "American Beauty." The hottest music included Eminem, The Dixie Chicks and Creed (and I had free copies of their music thanks to Napster.) The year? 2000.

Over the decade, my life has changed for the better in so many ways. Now, I teach grade four, I'm the vice principal and I teach a fourth year univesity class at the local college. We live in a newer house farther from the school. We have a younger, less than obedient Chesapeake Bay Retriever. I drive an '06 Nissan truck and my wife drives a brand new Subaru (which we needed for the mildly disturbed dog. Still no minivan.) We have five different cameras, including the one that uses film. We don't watch much live television these days, but my wife is watching an episode of "Glee" on the PVR as I write this. The computer I am using is an old DELL, but I also have a MacBook from school and do plenty of communicating on my iPhone. My best friend doesn't live with us, but he lives really close. We go to first run movies as a family - the last one we all saw was "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." We get a lot of our music on iTunes and now, I really don't mind paying for that music.

The overall scope of how things have changed became obvious to me when we started planning my son's birthday party. So far, his birthday parties have been reasonably big-scale events. This year, he wanted to go somewhere overnight with a couple of his best friends. We are heading to the edge of the Rockies and staying in a hostel for his 10th birthday. He wants to go fishing, hiking and geocaching. So long, loot bags, DQ birthday cakes, banners and sparkly candles.

What really solidified my son's transition from little boy to little man is the spectre of "the talk." He is in grade four, which means that he will get his first Human Sexuality education in Health. And, since I am the male grade four teacher, I will be teaching him and all of his peers. My son is incredibly inquisitive, so I know that if I don't prep him for the content of my lesson, he will grind it to a standstill with questions. I'm not overly concerned about having this conversation. My wife and I have always been very open with our kids about everything, so this won't be too much of a stretch.

It's just that...well...I have never really thought I would be old enough to have this talk. Or be turning 40. Where on earth did ten years go?

As Rowley says in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid', ZOOOEY MAMA!