I get in through the portico doors at one side of the school building. The creak of the old wooden floors echoes in the empty corridors. As I walk toward the science wing, the flutter in my chest returns. I’d managed to quiet it down on my way to school, by focusing on my breathing. Took the fresh cold air in and out…slowly, rhythmically. But it was there last night when I was trying to fall asleep, and it grew stronger with each passing hour. I tried to follow my breath, but it didn’t help. The damn thing kept me awake most of the night. And I had much to think about…
“Mr. H is concerned about his daughter’s struggle in chemistry” – the school head told me the other day. I had been called to her office to discuss “issues raised by a parent”. “Kath’s marks are high in all her classes except yours, and her father is worried that she will not get accepted to university”. I know that Kath can barely keep afloat in the chemistry 12 course. She scores at the bottom of the class most of the time. Her skills are weak, and so is her interest in the subject. But, in some way, she works pretty hard, she tries. This is the second year that I teach Kath – I know her by now. In the fall, at my interview with the family, Mr. H dominated the conversation. He wanted to make himself crystal clear: This year, his expectations of his daughter were very high! Kath and her mom didn’t say much during the meeting.
Now, wide awake, I ask myself the same questions over and over again… Is it within my power to change Kath’s situation? How much depends on me? Is it possible to turn her around, make her enjoy chemistry? How can I help her figure it out, and raise her marks? The reality is, Kath hasn’t changed from last year. She did okay, but not great, in the chemistry 11 class. But in the last year of high-school the course is tougher, and the pressure is rising. I didn’t think it was a good idea for Kath to take chemistry 12, but the family insisted. And now it’s my fault that she isn’t doing well enough, the father implies. Is it really? “Don’t take this personally”, the school head advised. “Parents are biased. Especially when their daughters get to the final year of high-school”, she added. But I don’t really know how to not take it personally. You hear this advice often, as a teacher, although I’m never sure what to make of it. Is it code for “you need to become thick-skinned”?
I sit at my desk and it feels as if my mind was taken over by this one student. It’s morning and school activities are about to start. I must get ready for my classes! I reassure myself that the intense mental juggling that today – like any teaching day – will demand, won’t let me dwell on Kath. I have her class every other day, which means I don’t see them today, only tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll sleep better tonight. Hope my outlook will be brighter tomorrow.
The day goes by fast. In the afternoon, I hear a familiar ring in my ears – the sign of exhaustion. While talking to students, my voice sounds muffled as if it were projected inside my head. How do I sound to my students? I wonder. That I looked tired, I heard from them – more than once. Soon today’s classes end and my attention is drawn to tomorrow’s. I think of my grade 12 chem class, which brings Kath to the fore again. A test is scheduled for her class tomorrow. It’s all done – I made it over the weekend. It’s a fair test, well balanced, with clearly worded questions of varying difficulty. A good opportunity for students to showcase their learning. A good chance to demonstrate how well they can think for themselves. I’m confident about the quality and fairness of the test. This is my sixth year of teaching the course, after all! I know what I’m doing. Do I? Suddenly, I’m invaded by doubts. Waves of worries surge through my mind. Did I make the test too hard? Are my students well prepared for it? Have I done the best I could as a teacher? Am I doing my best with Kath? I am so tired now, my head is spinning. But I manage to keep the doubts at bay, to stand my ground. I won’t waver just because of Mr. H. Kath is the only student who struggles in that class. She’s not the norm. The rest of the class is doing way better. And I saw this coming anyway, I forewarned everyone of her struggles…Still, I need to take a sleeping pill tonight. I must make sure that I have a brighter outlook at school tomorrow.
The class is quiet. The noisy road running through the school campus is barely audible. The students look busy, fully absorbed by the test. I told them to ask if something – anything – is unclear, but no one asked any questions so far. I check on Kath more than I check on the others. Somehow, I can’t help it. She’s calmly working away. I see no sign of struggle, she seems in control. Although I’ve seen the same before and know it can be deceiving, I feel strangely relieved. Will she surprise me this time? Did Mr. H help Kath to turn the page? Did he raise the alarm at home too, and convinced Kath that she needed to take more in her hands, and be less passive? I am hopeful.
In the evening, at home, I am impatient to start marking. My mood is good. My outlook definitely brighter. I turn on the lamp, sit down at my desk, get the tests out and start. I mark through the pile of tests one page at a time. I don’t want to know whose test I’m looking at. It’s best practice, to avoid bias. At times I recognize the handwriting, which I try to ignore. As I mark, my anxiety rises. Seems like too many tests didn’t get this question right! And for that other question, only a few students gave full and correct answers! By the time I add up the marks for each test my heart is pounding. But the results are not bad. Most students scored well or very well. A few did excellently. Kath’s score, however, is below 50%. And while I’m sure the test can’t be challenged, I know there is trouble in store for me. Another sleepless night follows.
I’m back in the school head’s office. I’m told that Mr. H gathered “an entire folder” on me. He finds it unacceptable that “nothing changed” since seven weeks ago, when he first raised “the problem”. What he means is that Kath’s marks didn’t change – they are as poor as before. “There isn’t much more I can do”, I say. “I’ve tried and continue to try my hardest to spark Kath’s interest. I try to leave no question unanswered. I try to clarify every topic she struggles with. I give her extra help as often as I can. Not sure what else I can do for her. What does Mr. H think I should do?” “He didn’t make any suggestions”, the school head says. “But he expects us to do something.” She sounds more puzzled than worried, bemused. “He seems to me a little obsessed” – she adds. This isn’t helpful, I think. She tells me to meet with Kath’s guidance counsellor and “come up with a strategy”.
By now, Mr. H had brought “the problem” to the attention of not only the school head, but also the guidance department, and the head of science as well. But he hasn’t (yet?) approached me. I feel shaken and hurt. And what bugs me the most is: Does anybody at school think that it’s up to me to fix “the problem”, that I’m not doing my best? I’m just not sure! Clearly they’re concerned that a parent is unhappy, and sympathetic toward my being in the eye of the storm. But I’m looking for some concrete support and can’t find it. I get no opinion or advice which I could hold onto while trying to weather the storm. After today’s classes end, I meet with Kath’s counsellor. The only strategy we come up with is that I keep doing what I’ve been doing all along. And, at the end, she tells me that “we must appease the parents”. As I mull over this advice, a sense of loath rises in me. Why does this feel like quagmire? I feel trapped.
A couple of weeks have gone by. I’ve managed to push Kath to the back of my mind. Whether they have to do with student behaviour or academics, new issues come up all the time, keeping teachers busy. I’ve come to expect school life to be an emotional roller coaster. Which is good now, I’m glad for it, because it doesn’t let me dwell on Mr. H’s complaints. At least for as long as no one brings up the issue again – and, thankfully, no one did over the past two weeks. Not that I forgot about it! It still weighs quite heavily on my mind – especially when I have my chemistry 12 class. Such as now, when the students are writing a quiz. Worries and doubts re-surface. What happens if Kath does poorly again? Will I be called again to the school head’s office? Will I hear more about the growing file of complaints that Mr. H is collecting? Will I be put on the spot again, without getting any support or help? Will I have “to appease” this parent and, if so, how?
When I’m done marking the quiz, I panic. With only a few exceptions, the class results are weak. And Kath’s is, once again, the lowest score. I know, it’s only the first quiz for this new topic. I know, its main purpose is to give us – myself and the students – feedback on how we started the topic, and what we must revisit and improve. I know, I should do what I’d done in similar situations in the past; I should give the scores and quiz back to the students, and review it with them. I keep reminding myself the obvious, but this time I can’t see myself doing it. This time I feel threatened by Mr. H. Anxiety grows louder in my chest and my ears. And I can think of only one way to calm myself down. I go over the quizzes again.
When I open the school door next morning my head is throbbing. My eyes sting from crying and lack of sleep. As I walk down the narrow corridor of the guidance department, I notice one of the doors is open. I feel a strong urge to talk, to share with someone my state of mind, to unload. I knock on the door and get invited inside. And I start telling how guilty and unprofessional I feel. How I ended up bell curving my chem 12 quiz scores. How the pressure I feel to appease Mr H. hurts my integrity and teaching. I’m having a breakdown in the counsellor’s office. I must try to get some perspective. What the hell is happening to me?!
I made up my mind. I won’t come back next year. When I receive the school’s offer to renew my contract, I make an appointment to see the principal. The meeting is short and formal. I give the principal my letter of resignation and she inquires about my reasons for leaving. I tell her that I’m harassed by Mr. H, and both my teaching and my well being suffer. She isn’t up-to-date on the situation. It’s not her job to deal with such issues. She has two school heads, department heads, as well as guidance counsellors to take care of it. She tells me that she understands, and she trusts that “I know what’s best for myself”. She wishes me good luck etc
It’s the end of the school year and I have mixed feelings about leaving. There is relief, but also sadness – in almost equal measure. My anxiety is gone now, and I’m sleeping much better. Ever since he has heard about my resignation Kath’s dad backed off. At graduation I’m in high spirits. Also, in tears. It’s my sixth – and last – graduation at the school. I’m flooded by memories. The truth is, I feel close to many of the people I met here. I’m grateful to most of the students, parents, and colleagues with whom I shared my path for the past six years. Yes, day-to-day life was often gritty, emotionally draining. And yes, this year I felt pushed to the edge. But now, looking inside myself, I find no bitterness. I feel warmhearted, somewhat melancholy. “It’s a closed chapter” I tell myself – It’s starting to sink in.
We stayed late at the restaurant, my colleagues and I. It was my farewell party and we had a good time. Over the years, we’ve been together through thick and thin. As I walk home I’m thinking how much I’ll miss them. I pass by restaurants and cafes abuzz with people. June is a light-hearted month. Schools end and the summer is here – many are in holiday mood. From the corner of my eye I notice a familiar face behind a restaurant window. I turn and see Kath and her dad talking over dinner. A sudden jolt in my chest makes me walk faster. “They must be celebrating graduation”, I think. “What are they talking about? The chemistry class? Me?” It dawns on me that I’m not healed. I was bullied and I’m still sore. “It’s a closed chapter” I tell myself – Is it?