I was a professional student for 22 years so I had some familiarity with teaching in my early years. I studied mathematics and physics at the University of Manitoba. When it came to time to earn a living and not wanting to travel (ironically…) I worked for a time at the University of Manitoba Cyclotron Laboratory but the pay was limited. I looked around in Manitoba for positions that could use my knowledge of maths, physics and computing but there was nothing but government and education. Educational institutions were widely distributed so I hoped I could find gainful employment teaching outside the city of Winnipeg which is a wonderful place to study and to shop but is a noisy, crowded place to live. Education also had the advantage that it was a woman’s world and I needed a woman. There were very few in physics.
The Faculty of Education had a special programme for maths/science students, turning them into teachers in one year, the same certification year as the B.Ed. students. I could get permanent certification after two years of teaching. A piece of cake, I thought. It was not to be. In spite of good marks and successful practicums, I could only find part-time work teaching. After only one year of teaching, I quit the profession. It really annoyed me that teachers with little or no knowledge of maths/physics were teaching those subjects and I could not get a job. Many schools did not even offer physics. Most schools would only hire B.Ed. students…. It is a cliquish thing about education. You get no respect if you do not have B.Ed. after your name regardless of how knowledgeable you are or how well you teach.
A decade later, I tried teaching again. I had been an inventor and house-husband, fun stuff, but not making a lot of money. I applied for a position on a northern reserve in Manitoba. It was a nightmare. Suicide was epidemic. Shooting at the school at night was a popular sport. Drunkenness and violence prevailed. Very little education occurred. I replace a guy who cracked and I lasted only five months. Near the end of my stay, a beautiful young woman attempted suicide by hanging. I had a momentary window of opportunity to intervene but she was rushing out of the building full of anger and I was rushing in from lunch. The following summer one of my best students was murdered by another student who shot himself later. In the fall, I tried teaching at a reserve closer to Winnipeg but the principal was an idiot and undermined his teachers in every way. I quit in disgust after two months.
Lawrence Einarsson had been the vice-prinicipal there. He called me 8 years later when he needed a maths/science teacher at Lac Brochet. I was reluctant but needed a job, so I went. I spent 2.5 years teaching at Lac Brochet. Lawrence knew how to run a school: hire good people and give them what they need to do the job. We were told explicitly to pass no student unless they could do the curriculum. We had all the books and supplies we needed. It worked. Students up to eighth grade were reasonably happy in their studies and were near grade level. Lawrence had been there eight years in 1997 so these were students who had mostly only been in his school. The older students were a mixed lot. Mostly only mature students who returned to finish high school made much effort. I had some classes with up to 40 students but only six or eight survived. The others were barely literate. I made a lot of mistakes but I learned from them.
In 1998, the province of Manitoba brought in a new mathematics curriculum, Western Canadian Protocol. It was like fresh air. We were finally to teach mathematics the way mathematics was done in the real world, using computers where appropriate. Since the curriculum demanded IT in the classroom, I requested and received 6 PCs. These were DOS machines but they did what I needed. I obtained simple browsers and spreadsheets for DOS and instead of a network, I distributed data and software by waling around with a stack of floppies. It was more than 20 floppies. For science, I had downloaded relevant material and made up a huge set of web-pages students could navigate with a browser.
That’s how it was at Lac Brochet with Lawrence. Whatever we needed we could get. He told us what amount we could spend and made sure the orders were sent out personally. The only glitch getting the PCs, for instance, was that the Education Authority would not pay the air-freight in advance. When I found out the PCs were stored at Thompson airport, I informed Lawrence and he took care of it. Along with TI-83 graphing calculators (of which students relieved 3 of their AAA cells immediately…) we had all the texts and equipment to do right by the new curriculum. Students who had no desire to push algebra with a pencil could now design stuff to build in Applied Mathematics or solve problems with brute force in Pure Mathematics. It was great. I had been doing maths like that for decades and loved it. Lawrence noted I was teaching four courses at once. It is a piece of cake when students can do maths to learn maths instead of having their hands held.
The other thing that was really great about Lac Brochet was a plentiful supply of mushrooms and berries. Blueberries and mushrooms grew as close as the school yard. There were places within a few hundred metres where one could harvest a few litres of fruit or mushrooms without moving one’s feet. Check out the low spot north of the football field, the burned area north of that and the mature spruce forest adjacent. Russulas are everywhere about mid-August. Then come Suillus. Then come Leccinum and Boletes. The boletes love the pines near the power plant and on the ridge about a mile north of the school along the esker.
And there were fish, mostly jackfish. In the spring after the ice departed you could reel in a decent jack on every cast near streams running into the lake. Further up the Richardson River there were huge jackfish lurking along the sides and bottom of rapids.
I immediately regretted leaving Lac Brochet finding many other northern schools not as well run as Lawrence Einarsson did but the Education Authority used the teachers’ pension deductions and contributions rather than depositing them with the insurer as they should. Getting no resolution of this issue, most teachers left when I did. The next year the band was placed under third-party management. They had a subsequent drop in enrollment, but I might have been able to stay there. If only we had known and could have decided in that light. As it was, I left and have taught in a different place every year since then finding little satisfaction and little reason to stay in any place.
At Lutsel K’e NT, I broke my leg while going home for Christmas and missed most of the second semester. The board did not even form a quorum to decide whether to retain teachers. Almost all left.
At Jean d’Or Prairie, AB, we had a Director form Hell who did his best to avoid recognizing teaching experience so I gave notice for the semester and he responded by giving notice for Hallowe’en. I rented a truck in High Level and drove my goods to Thompson, MB and was teaching in Whale Cove, NU ten days later. There, I first used GNU/Linux finding it much superior to Lose ’95. There I had a shack with broken windows and no weather stripping on the doors. I was paying $500 a month for heating oil and left at the end of the contract because world oil prices had doubled. If I had known the government was going to subsidize oil prices at that level, I would have stayed. The kids were Inuit and mostly very well behaved. We worked on literacy and made good progress. After Whale Cove, I went to Wasagamack, MB where there was no one to meet me at the dock. Fortunately, I arrived with only a back-pack and hiked up to the school which I found was still under renovation. We sat around for weeks while repairs were complete. I found great mushrooms in the forest northwest of the school. Unfortunately fights between gangs, death threats and arson marked the year. A few learned and thanked us for our efforts. I moved on, preferring not to live in fear.
I taught in Patuanak, SK where a few students used to come early to class to study maths and a few came to class unprepared to do anything. When it was revealed that a drug dealer was operating from a teacherage on campus, I wrote a memo suggesting some steps we could take to keep students out of his clutches. I was fired with no notice the next day… A week later I was teaching in Wollaston Lake, SK. I had the most difficult maths students of my life and some of the best fun when we cleaned up an old dark room and did photography the old fashioned way as part of physics. At Christmas the place became an armed camp with guards keeping the community safe from alcohol. At Easter there were no guards and vandals looted many building including teacherages. Mine was spared because I stayed home to guard the school and my teacherage. It was frightening with reports of people being threatened with knives. Resources were slim and it was frustrating that the school had a lab full of Macs that the computer teacher could not keep running. When one died I installed YellowDog Linux and had a fine time. The two GNU/Linux boxes were the only ones that could print most of the winter.
I then moved to Sandy Bay, SK, along with a vice principal. Again, there were mixed results. The town was alcoholic in the extreme. I stopped, looked and listened before leaving my door step every day. Still I frequently encountered happy/angry/confused drunks at any time of day. Even the principal boasted about his drinking abilities. The husband of one of the teachers had been nearly killed by a drunk the year before. No berries or mushrooms could be found in this place even though there is a good mushroom industry nearby.
I then moved to Deline, NT, which has the best fishing in the world. Unfortunately my principal was a bully and could find little good to say about my teaching and harassed us by making constantly shifting demands. I started using a relational database so I could generate the weekly reports he demanded with new requirements every few weeks. The first semester looked like a waste of time but in the second semester students saw the light at the end of the tunnel and worked hard. We had ten graduates. It was not enough. My contract was not renewed. Even though I used the old PCs from storage as a network of PCs in the classrooms so that high school students did not need to go to the lab and had wikipedia.org/Gutenberg.org locally along with several good web applications as well as desktop applications and the Internet, and I worked harder than I ever did before teaching 14 courses at once, they would not keep me. I built aquariums and had abundant plant and animal life in the classroom. I had five turtles which everyone loved. I had not even fished because I expected to be there the next year and I was working too hard to take the time. I worked 15 hours a day and seven days a week, planning, marking, teaching. You just cannot appease a bully by doing your job. He moved on too, and was only a year in his next two positions…
At LaLoche, SK, I found a very large school in a northern community with a liquor store. Students were mostly interested in sports and for the first time since I was using GNU/Linux for teaching, I was told not to use GNU/Linux because that other OS was out there. I dual booted and made GNU/Linux optional. That mostly worked because I used web applications but it was frustrating because the two systems were not identical and somethings that would work on one would not work on the other. That other OS was maintained professionally by overworked techies and there were not computers in every classroom and printing services did not work. I had people coming to the lab every few minutes during classes asking my help to print. Even though with GNU/Linux my students could print to a default printer there was no default printer in that other OS and “add-printer” had to be run at each reboot only to be erased by DeepFreeze. Only after I had given notice was this remedied. There were so many layers of bureaucracy between me and the techs that they were not receiving repeated requests to fix the printing. Two people in the path were re-writing requests for service… They would not let me run the system and they would not maintain it so I left.
For the first time in a long while I did not teach but I found a position where a new school was to be commissioned in the fall and they needed a new IT system with PCs in every classroom. I costed several setups and only GNU/Linux on thin clients would give them what they wanted within budget. The fact that their budget was ridiculously low (< 1% of capital cost) made GNU/Linux the only feasible system. Again, there were big problems. Every time I generated a list of material to be purchased, the employer delayed the purchase until prices were no longer valid. I finally demanded a purchase order number and faxed the orders myself. Then the building was not handed over until 18 August. The truck did not arrive with equipment until August 24. There were a lot of 16 hour days in a hot building before the system was ready. We had some access on the first day of school and full access by all students and teachers a few days later. The system ran trouble free for two years since. I made a few mistakes because of the rush. I needed LDAP at the start but added it on later… I apparently did not burn in some memory modules long enough and had a bad batch. Considering that we planned for a month for the installation and had only a third as much time, we did well but I aged rapidly. Then the first pay cheque bounced. Another did later so I decided to move on but stayed until I had been paid for the installation. I left a 60-page manual for operating the system and helped a couple of times by e-mail to fix glitches when a hard drive failed.
The place I fled to looked decent but there were deep and subtle problems. The first thing I noticed was that there was only one PC per classroom. It was very difficult to meet the curriculum for tenth grade science with its emphasis on using technology to collect and to analyze data so I added my machine and a couple of others I found in storage. Using LTSP, this was a pretty good system. I asked the maths teacher how she handled maths. “With calculators” I was told. Oops. Two months later, I was summoned to the principal’s office and discharged with no notice. My crimes included being rude to students and criticizing teachers. This was quite a shock to me being quite concerned with the welfare of students and teaching effectively.
I had another break from teaching and then was hired by Lawrence and the Shamattawa Education Authority. I was looking forward to working again with Lawrence, but to my surprise Lawrence wasn’t there in the fall. What a dirty trick! I am sure he did the professional thing by working on behalf of his employer and not driving candidates away… In any event it was a very difficult year. Little or no maintenance, very few supplies delivered late, no budget, not paid what was promised, not even a teaching certificate (required because my education has aged with me),… I held the lab together with sticky tape and managed to keep a few PCs outside the lab working. An incident of mal-ware could have shut the XP system down because there were no backups or installation media. Three builldings of the four had no Internet. When I set up a wireless link it was discovered that power had failed to the access point and I had no way to fix it. We were off several days for power, water and heat. As well, for the first time in 8 years, I missed a couple of days due to illness. Attendance was the lowest I have ever seen. Bullying, violence, theft, vandalism, illiteracy, drinking alcohol, smoking pot and sniffing solvents were widespread. I do not think more than half a dozen students from fifth grade to tenth grade actually learned to type. Only a few could actually create a document using a word-processor. It was quite disappointing. Applications for money for upgrading the technology were “approved” but not actively persued. Orders for spare parts and new equipment to improve the system by making the network available in all buildings went nowhere. Internet access in the teacherages was hit or miss. One even had electronics in the attic, exposed to winter. Others had electronics in the furnace room where I had no access. We did not even have keys for the buildings in which we taught for many weeks. I constantly had to beg admittance by others to get into other buildings to do computer work.
So it has been a long haul but I am not done yet. I planned to retire this year but another school has asked me to teach for a year replacing a teacher on sabbatical leave. They have XP working well and were unaware of XP’s imminent demise. I may have input into their plan for technology. They also need a website. I love servers. More reason to go on working.