There's nothing better to keep your mood in check, your mind in shape and your spirits high than facing a group of young, expectant students two or three times a week – and throwing every ounce of your energy into helping them learn a new subject.
Whether in a school room or a community centre, in a college or a university. Teaching is giving back at the highest level. It's giving of yourself. It's tonic for your soul. Nothing makes you feel better about who you are than sharing a little of yourself. You can't buy that feeling. Whether you teach a child to knit or a classroom of serious professionals the secrets of success.
I am convinced that everyone has something to teach another human being that will be of interest or benefit. Teaching refocuses your energy. Teaching is a gift. And teaching is learning.
My mind has never felt so agile. Teaching is the steepest learning curve I've ever encountered. I'm constantly challenging myself. And wow, do I make mistakes. I have a genius for mistake-making and I've discovered it's best way of all to learn.
I encourage my students to try new things, to take risks, to make mistakes. Lots of mistakes. They think I'm a little mad – but we know that already, don't we. The point is, it seems to work. Students get into the spirit of risk-taking and mistake-making and they begin to branch out beyond their comfort zones. Every time I walk into a classroom, I'm outside mine. I like company.
Of course, I didn't know any of this when I was hired to teach the second half of a Women's Studies course in the summer of 2007 at Seneca College. I had a smattering of teaching experiences – in the 1980s in the journalism program at Humber College, as a guest lecturer, also in journalism at Centennial College, at the now defunct Learning Annex during its hey-day.
Nothing like what I'm teaching now.
This week, I finished my fourth term teaching Women's Studies, the course I was originally hired to teach. It looks nothing like what it was back then. I never teach a course the same way twice.
I adore my students. Every class is a mini-United Nations with young people from all over the world coming together to learn from each other, share their cultural experiences and morph quickly into a vibrant learning laboratory. What an education.
My contract has just been renewed for the Fall 2009 term. Six hours, two classes, at two different campuses. Somebody up there loves me. This is my dream come true.
Right now, I have a pile of final exams waiting on my dining room table to be marked, several assignments still due in, final grades to be computed and my new Fall Addendum to finish for the course I've developed called Leadership in Society – a course where students learn about leadership through doing volunteer community service. All this has to be completed by 10 a.m. on Monday, August 24.
And I'll do it because I am passionate about teaching, the courses I teach, Seneca and the students.
Have I ever told you that I graduated from Seneca back in 1971?
Seneca saved my life. No kidding.
Were it not for Seneca, I don't know where I'd be today, but I doubt I'd be here at Coming Out Crazy, blissfully posting to you and responding to your comments. Engaging with you and learning so much from you.
Back in September 1968, at the age of 19, I ventured through the brand new doors of Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology's Newnham campus at Don Mills and Finch in north Toronto – apprehensive, raw but ready to learn.
Seneca was my last chance.
I was a broken soul. It was Seneca or bust. Get a job. But there was no job I could do and even if there was, no one would have ever hired me. I was in educational limbo and an emotional ragbag – without a shred of self-confidence.
Until then, an academic "untouchable". No teacher had ever really been able to reach me in the public school system. I was labelled a "chronic underachiever" – with untapped and untappable potential. Finally, after two failed attempts to complete Grade 13, I was forced to drop out of my academic stream in high school with only one skill – typing.
Two years earlier, I spent eight months in The Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. A year later, I discovered my diagnosis was schizophrenia. I didn't know this diagnosis was wrong. It stuck for nine years. I just buried it at the back of my miind. What else could I do.
I had blown secretarial school, too. Bored silly, I played hooky every afternoon, cut classes and spent hours reading through the fiction section at the library – until my parents caught on.
Not my happiest hour.
Then I read about the brand new Community Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology that were opening up in Ontario for dead-end students like me. In 1967, without Grade 13, we didn't qualify for university. Grade 12 in an academic stream gave you a ticket to nowhere. I certainly wasn't marriage material, so college looked like my last hope.
These community colleges were a revolution in Ontario's post-secondary education system. Headlines of the day hailed them as "promising for bright people less inclined to philosophizing than 'doing things' – a progressive sphere of opportunity with trailblazing training to shift students from the industrial age into the age of information."
For one thing – computers were in their infancy but there were very few people trained to use them.
Seneca wasn't too far from where we lived and one two-year diploma program looked intriguing.
Applied Communications Media – a veritable smorgasbord of tantalizing courses including journalism, photography, TV and radio broadcasting, film production, advertising, marketing, public speaking, sociology, psychology, drama, even communications theory.
Seemed tailor-made for my histrionic nature, innate curiosity, uncanny knack of engaging people in conversations about themselves, plus my deplorable academic record.
My application was accepted and I was in. I could say the rest is history, but that's not the case. It wasn't the curriculum so much as the instructors who were able to reach out to me. Most were straight out of the working world. As enthusiastic about teaching us as we were about this new, exciting, cutting edge, avant-garde educational environment. They cared about us. Not their personal academic research. They didn't have any. We were their proteges, their educational challenges, their experiments. They wanted us to succeed as much as we did.
I was very fragile and made sure my psychiatric history was no secret. In those days, students didn't go to guidance counsellors to have "Academic Accommodation" forms filled out to give to their teachers, like they do today. You had to advocate for yourself. So I did.
What a difference it made.
With these young teaching mavericks who were only a few years older than their wards, I found my niche and myself. Suddenly I could think intelligently and creatively. I had flunked English in high school because I never fit the mold, but there was no mold to fit into at Seneca. My ideas were suddenly valid and interesting. My essays scored straight A's.
We, students, were pioneers and our teachers, a brave new breed of precedent-setting post secondary educators. Mine believed in me, nurtured me and encouraged me – a revelation. I always believed I was an academic imbecile and as for my mind, the Clarke Institute shrinks had labelled mine a lost cause.
I marvel at the curious synchronicity of life.
And all its gifts. Why not consider all your gifts? Then go out and find someone to teach them to. It's not that hard. Whether it's swimming or volunteering your services somewhere. It's the teaching that's the pay-off. You'll feel like a million bucks.