It was almost 30 years ago, in the final few days of my undergrad. I was walking into the department office for some last minute paperwork. Vince was walking out. He said he was glad he bumped into me. Vince was a bit older than the rest of us. He was already married and had come back to school after working for a few years. He was graduating also, and going back home to the west coast. Which is what he wanted to talk to me about. He had a part time job at the school board, in the adult high school program across the street from campus. He didn’t want to leave his boss in the lurch. He thought I might like the job. He told me to go see the school’s director if I didn’t have something already lined up for the summer. I didn’t. He had told her I might drop by.

A few days later, I found myself in a classroom full of adult learners, most of them older than me. Technically, I had been hired as a tutor, to supervise study sessions in between formal classes. But for as long as I worked there, which was through much of grad school, some teacher or other was on some kind of medical leave, and they needed someone to take over a class at the last minute, or sometimes part-way through the term. I was teaching and tutoring what I called the three languages: French, English, and Math.

Some of them were people who had dropped out of high school and were returning to complete as adults. There were the sisters who had both dropped out in grade 9 and had decided together to come back to school at 18 and 20, respectively. They were from my neighbourhood. They did everything together. They never thought they would read a book, much less enjoy it. They really got into Cyrano, and not just the recent-at-the-time Depardieu movie, either. The actual book. They did a presentation on it. It was good.

There was the guy who was training to be a WWF (as it was at the time) wrestler. After he dropped out, he had taken some correspondence courses he saw advertised on TV, but he found that potential employers didn’t put much stock in that qualification. He felt he’d been cheated. He had tried out at a few gyms that had produced wrestlers, but no one had offered him a spot yet. By now, he had decided he needed a plan B if pro-wrestling didn’t pan out, so he was back in real school. He was pretty good at math. In theory, the administration didn’t approve of students eating a whole roast chicken during math class, but nobody else seemed to mind, least of all me. It didn’t get in the way of his studying. Work ethic wasn’t a problem. He had to bulk up.

A significant portion of the students were recent immigrants who needed to learn French and English (this was Montreal), or who just needed a piece of paper to get their qualifications recognized in Canada. Some were young, and some were old. Some were just starting out, some had careers.

One grey-haired Caribbean gentleman apologized profusely that he only spoke broken English. This was before Google, so I had to ask him what that was. He was a very thoughtful writer. Over the course of a year, we determined together that since his assignments consistently got high marks, and since a bunch of people in English class relied on him for extra help, his English couldn’t be all that broken. I was glad he eventually agreed.

There was the ARVN veteran who always sat in the back. He had a good job and a family. His English was sketchy and his French non-existent. His employer was paying him to be in school. I had to give them an attendance report. With a high school diploma, he’d be able to get ahead a bit in the company. He was quiet and effective. He was a good presence for the younger guys, who some days weren’t quite sure why they were in school. Again.

There was a young woman who had just arrived from Egypt. She was ecstatic about being in school and learning new languages. She wanted to read everything. She wrote a lot. She commented on anything we discussed in class. Her interventions were consistently helpful and on point. One day, she didn’t show up. As far as I know, she never came back. I was puzzled. To this day, I’d like to know what happened.

The diversity of those groups was electrifying. The opportunities to capitalize on the various backgrounds and experiences to explain the material created a super-charged learning environment. I had an endless supply of material to draw from. I could hardly keep up with them in their headlong rush at knowledge. I mostly tried to ask the right questions at the right time and to nudge them when they needed it. In that kind of teaching, listening was a lot more important than talking. The incredibly diverse group of students I worked with during those years all have one thing in common: They taught me how to teach. I am grateful to all of them.

(Note : I was inspired to write this post by Shawn Graham’s excellent On Teaching High School)

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