- Anna Brix Thomsen
A Teacher’s Journey To Life, A Personal Review. 100
So for this ‘anniversary’ I will share a reflection on what I have learned during the past 15 years working in the field of education. When I sat down to start writing this and reflected back on my work with education, it occurred to me that I’ve worked with education nearly half my life.
Before I started working with education I was a student myself and continued to be so for many years onwards as I progressed into higher forms of education.
I can therefore say that education has been a pivotal point in my life and one that is very close to my heart. I can’t stop thinking about and reflecting on education and how to improve the current school system. My heart breaks on a daily basis when I see children’s natural passion for learning being suffocated by an archaic system. It has therefore become a great passion for me, a calling if you will to stand up for the children in this world and in any way possible create a world for them where compassion, creativity and potential can thrive. Every day I humble myself as I realize that I still have so much more to learn and that is what this journey to life is all about.
But first, let me share where it all started:
I got my first job in the field of education when I was 17. It was an afterschool job at a local care center for elderly mentally challenged people. It was challenging to say the least, as it was my first real encounter with people on the margins of society, surviving only due to the constant care of professionals. There was the 6 feet tall 92-year-old man who would sit in the couch sleeping with a blanket over his head. He had been kicked in the head by a horse when he was 2 and had never developed beyond that age. I use to be amazed that he had survived all those years, considering that he had the mind of a 2-year-old. There was the lady with downs syndrome who would throw her knife and fork at me at meal time, not for any particular reason, but just because she could. There was another lady who I have thought a lot about during the past 15 years. She was deaf, mute and blind, which meant that her only contact with the world outside her was through physical touch. I would sit and hold her hand for hours just caressing it, wondering what it must be like being trapped inside yourself like that. I once read that blind people tend to have better hearing than seeing people and so I wondered if her sense of touch was heightened as well.
I decided to become a preschool teacher/social worker, with the tittle ‘pedagogue’ and become qualified to work with children in preschools, but also in afterschool programs, with drug addicts, at various forms of care facilities and with mentally challenged people.
Because I wasn’t entirely sure what group of people I wanted to work with, I made it my goal to try out all the various types of jobs that a pedagogue might have.
I first got a job as an assistant preschool teacher in a Ghetto where most of the residents were Kurds who had fled from prosecution in Turkey or the war in Iraq. I bonded with a young boy and I distinctly remember an older teacher instructing me to not get so close to the children. The boy had a name with a particular pronunciation in Kurdish that in Danish was translated into something that sounded silly. I decided to call him by his Kurdish pronunciation but the teacher insisted that he had to get used to being called by his Danish ‘name’.
I got my next job after I visited a pediatric oncology center in connection with some schoolwork I was doing. I signed up to become a personal assistant and for about a year I worked with a 7-month-old baby with leukemia. She had been born with leukemia, which is apparently very rare, and she would sleep close to 20 hours pr. Day. She had a big tube sticking out of her belly and her mother had been given a grant by the government to hire a personal assistant, as the child would otherwise require 24-hour care and there was no father in the picture. Interestingly enough, this child was very expressive and strong-willed. It was clear that she wanted to live. This taught me about the vulnerability embodied in a child, how fragile we as human beings can be and yet how strong a child is, even in the face of despair or pain and how the will to live is present even in the darkest moments.
I decided to go back to school to get a degree as a social worker/preschool teacher. At the time all I wanted to do was to protect children, give them some solace in a harsh and brutal world, so I planned on becoming a social worker working with abused children or troubled teens. I wanted to be the kind of adult that touches a child’s heart and shows it that all is not lost in the world, because I had met few of such adults in my life and the ones I did meet, made a lasting impression and a tremendous difference in my life.
During my training to become a social worker I had to take three different practical internships at three different types of facilities; one for younger children, one for older children and one for social work/special cases to gain experience and also decide which type of work I wanted to do after I graduated.
My first internship was at an afterschool program for older children. I remember going there with all the intent in the world to make a difference and when I left three months later I was disillusioned to say the least about my ‘chosen profession’ and calling. The afterschool program was located in a poor, working class community and many of the children came from broken or abusive families. Several times I encountered children that were abused, whose parents were drinking and every time I tried talking to the teachers about it, they shrugged, brushed it off saying that there wasn’t much we could do about it.
I quickly realized that there was a distinct problem in the group of colleagues I was working with. I had looked forward to learning from older teachers, but every time I met them in the teacher’s lounge they would gossip about other teachers or complain about the boss. See the boss was quite new there, he came from outside the school and for some reason the older teachers didn’t like him, or perhaps they didn’t like the fact that one of them hadn’t been promoted. So by the end of my stay there was a full on mutiny going on where several teachers constantly tried to threaten and undermine the boss, essentially to get him to quit. When I left I started wondering if I wanted to be a teacher after all, especially if this was the kind of work environment I was going to enter into.
My next internship was at a shelter for battered women. Again I entered into the job with the hopes that this time I would find my calling and be able to make a real difference. Contrary to the work at the afterschool program, the social workers and teachers that worked at the shelter were professional and sober. It was a fascinating world to enter into but also very tragic. Most of the women had children with them and most had been exposed to domestic violence at the hands of their children’s fathers. Nearly all the women were in a constant state of inner turmoil and many went straight back into the arms of the men that had beaten and raped them, children in hand. This taught me a lot about the complexity of the human mind and how difficult it can be to support someone who is so brainwashed that they feel safer with their abuser than without.
I got the primary responsibility of being the caseworker for a young woman with two children. She was only a couple of years younger than me. The youngest child, a small girl around the age of 1 was so under stimulated that she could barely keep eye contact, let alone sit or talk. The mother was in such a survival mode and turmoil that she never touched the children, never hugged them or caressed them, but most would yell, all the while changing their diapers and feeding them milk from a bottle. The older son had already started showing signs of violence as he would throw tantrums and bite and hit. He had witnessed the abuse first hand. He was two years old. Eventually the woman moved out and moved back in with her boyfriend, the domestic abuser. It was what most of the women did, and it made me realize and reflect upon how stubborn our minds are and how it takes much more than good Samaritans to support someone to change their perspective on life.
At the center there was a stark sense of disconnection between the women who lived on the center and the women who worked there. The women living on the center seemed to be suspicious towards the women working there, seeing themselves as ‘lowlifes’ and the women working there as these ‘posh’, ‘upper class’ women who would never understand them or their situation. It made me realize how ineffective it was that the workers would sit in their office all day, almost like they were holding court, rather than being out in the ‘common areas’ with the women and children. It made the environment sterile and institutionalized and I couldn’t see how it would help the women to break out of their abusive patterns. So I made it a priority to spend time with them, to cook, to play with their children. Eventually they started sharing stories with me, they cried, they opened up. I didn’t do much more than simply being with them and listening to them. Here I learned about what it means to place yourself in the shoes of another person and unconditionally and how important it is that, to support someone you can’t be in a position of superiority or distance. This obviously doesn’t mean that one can’t also be professional – but simply that one can stand equal with someone and listen to them as an equal, even within being a professional.
My last and final internship was at a preschool in a posh suburb. It was an experimental preschool where most of the parents were in some creative field or another. There was a movie director, a photographer and an actor to name a few. The preschool had a completely different structure and a different set of principles than I had ever experienced in any other school before. First of all, there was no ‘teachers lounge’ for the teachers, which I remember, came as a shock to me initially. The leader of the preschool was a charismatic and passionate man who, when I asked about it, stated “If we would need to take a break from the children, then we would be doing something wrong.”
See, in most preschools and other childcare facilities, the teachers will experience and indirectly express a constant need to get away from the children. The noise levels are almost unbearable, the workday is long and hard and most of the day is spent doing boring activities that somehow are considered ‘educational’ but that the teachers are for all intents and purposes detached from. What I realized, through reflecting back on my years in preschools is that the adults will go into the ‘teachers lounge’ to ‘escape’, to be ‘themselves’ – thus implying and indicating that they can’t be that while they’re with the children. Often when you see teachers at a preschool, they will be standing away from the children drinking coffee and talking about ‘adult stuff’. Very seldom will you see them engaging in play or immersing themselves genuinely in activities with the children.
At this particular preschool however, they had implemented the principle that the preschool should be enjoyable for all participants, including the teachers. One of the principles was to respect and honor the children’s need to play. Instead of having certain activities at certain times, the teachers would rather be available to assist the children to start activities. Instead of a fixed mealtime, they had organized a small ‘café’’ in the center of the preschool with a kitchen surrounded by small groups of tables and chairs. Here the children could come and have lunch whenever they wanted, with whomever they wanted, and if one of them accidently had eaten all their food by midmorning, an adult would be on stand-by in the kitchen to make them a sandwich or something.
This meant that the children didn’t have to break up their play or whatever they were working on to go and eat and it also meant that they were supported to learn to identify and express when they were hungry. Another principle employed by the preschool was to let the children go outside whenever they wanted to. At most preschools here in Sweden there are scheduled (read: forced) times during the day where both adults and children have to be outside. I can’t count the times I’ve seen crying children and freezing to the bone adults standing outside in rain and snow with a miserable look on their faces.
What I found remarkably different about this preschool was that many of the children actually wanted to go out. And when the noise levels got to loud or if they started playing soccer indoors, we would gently encourage them to take their activities outside. The children at this preschool learned to dress themselves fare earlier than I’ve seen in any other school. It gave them a great sense of independence to be able to choose when to eat or when to go out and I remember being amazed the first time I saw a three-year-old gear up to go out in the winter cold all by himself. From time to time we would spot a little one through the window without socks on or with the wrong shoe on each would and would go assist them, but to a great extent they would be entirely self-reliant.
The final principle that I learned from working at this preschool, that had a significant impact on me, was the principle of not yelling at the children and so in affect of that teaching the children to not get into fights. I learned that it was entirely possible to work with children without having to constantly shout and yell. I remember how embarrassed I was and how disillusioned I felt, because until then all I had learned was that it was necessary and normal to shout and scream at children.
Whenever there was a fight between two children we would go and sit down next to them with one on either side of us. We would ask them to explain what had happened – but more importantly we would ask them how they could solve their problems. So if for instance two children had been fighting over one toy, they might come up with the solution of sharing the toy or playing with it together – and so learn how to co-exist in a peaceful and supportive way with one another.
What I learned more than anything from working at this school was that things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been just because that’s how they’ve always been. I learned how important it is that at least one person at a school has the drive, passion and dedication to move the school forward and be innovative in coming up with the best possible solutions for everyone.
At this point I had finished my degree in childcare/social work and I had decided to never ever again work in preschools or any other childcare facility for that matter. I had realized that there was something wrong with the entire system and that the changes required to be implemented, had to happen at a structural level. So a while later I decided to enroll in graduate studies to pursue a Master in Educational Sociology.
After getting my degree I was more passionate about education than ever, and especially the point of changing things on a structural level, both for teachers and for children – based on what I had seen in my years of working in the field of education. Not knowing exactly where to go from there, I accepted the opportunity to start working as a teacher, which is the job I’ve had now for nearly three years.
Through these past three years I’ve learned more about education than in all my years of studying education from afar – because I now have a voice, a voice that is able to verbalize, reflect on and put into writing the things I see on a daily basis. I’ve come to adore, admire and respect the children I work with and I no longer resist the teaching-environment, because I understand the circumstances with which it has come to be the way it is. That does however in no way mean that I accept it’s foundation or what it does to children – and I am fiercly committed to exposing and changing that.
There is no doubt within me that the education system has to change if we are to turn this sinking ship we call the earth, around. Education is the foundation of everything and we are all a product and result of it. Throughout my years working in and studying education I have learned that there are so many seemingly small things we could do that would produce tremendous changes, if only we would change our focus from prioritizing that which cost the least amount of money to actually focus on creating a sustainable future for ourselves, if only we would put ourselves in the shoes of our children, our students and see life from their perspective and actually listen to them and hear what they have to say. This is what I am dedicating myself and my life to. This is why I am here. This is my journey to life.
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