Emily McInnes - Let's Talk Teaching
Teachers don’t get enough credit or recognition. Period. It’s not an easy career path and your successes and rewards are measured in… well, not in cash. But teachers play a key part in our lives. They influence who we are - they shape us. We wanted to know what it’s like to be a teacher today - in the age of smartphones, fake news, and the fight for equality, - so we reached out to Emily McInnes, a young Teacher at the Toronto District School Board.
Tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I grew up on Prospect Road, in Nova Scotia. Anyone who has been to Nova Scotia, and driven from Halifax to Peggy’s Cove, has likely driven past my house and didn’t know it. My childhood was wonderful and privileged: supportive parents; great friends; sports teams; creative outlets; summer camps; water sports; etc. It also had some challenges: my parents were separated when I was in Gr. 7; I struggled to fit in in Middle School (who didn’t?); and I uncomfortably wriggled through finding my own identity in a small community that was both nurturing and isolated.
The internet tells me that you studied Journalism. What led to that decision and did you learn anything that stuck with you?
It was actually less Journalism, and more the Foundation Year Program (FYP), that made me apply to King’s College. FYP is essentially the world’s toughest reading list. It sounded like a challenge and I was up for it. I decided to try the Journalism elective but it wasn’t for me – I preferred making up stories instead of reporting on real events that were unfolding. Not a great habit for a journalist. So I finished my elective and then completed a Combined Honours in English, History, and Philosophy.
"We need to teach indigenous history in Canada because we can’t understand our country without it. "
Let's talk teaching. When did you decide that you belonged in front of the classroom?
I think I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. When I was younger, I wanted to be a firefighter or a teacher; and then an artist or a teacher; and then a lawyer or a teacher. Always a teacher though. I worked as a camp counsellor for a few years as a high school student; and as a Writing Tutor at university. After my undergrad, I travelled to Latin America and taught with my cousin at a school in Ciudad Vieja, in Guatemala. I remember our first day: we assumed we’d be shadowing a teacher and oriented to the building. Instead we were given a boom box with some random CD and taken to a room with 30 children. We spoke zero Spanish. The class was awkward to say the least, but we managed to get them playing Follow the Leader, Simon Says, and by the end of the class, we had taught them a few English words, thought on our feet, used our creativity and communication skills to make the teeniest of impact. That was it.
Everyone has one life-changing teacher. Who was yours and what did he/she do to influence you?
I have been lucky to have had several. Mr. Stewart was my middle school Social Studies teacher, and basketball coach. We would start each class with a ‘Current Events’ discussion where we would read the paper and discuss what was affecting the world. I will never forget that and as a teacher, this has become integral to my own classroom: we always discuss current events and I connect texts and curriculum to current issues to make the learning relevant and meaningful.
While studying at OISE, there were some incredible teachers. Rob Simon and Patrick Finnesey may have had the biggest impact on me and my teaching. My understanding of critical literacy – connecting literature to real world events – came from Rob; and my passion for social justice – understanding that teaching is necessarily political – was fostered with Patrick. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am without their inspiration, knowledge, and support.
Word is, teaching (especially here in Ontario) is a challenging thing to get into. Can you talk about the struggle and how it relates to your journey finding permanent work?
The problem with teaching is there are many people trying to get into the profession, and very few who leave before they absolutely need to. I think it is reflective of the kind of people who tend to teach – most of us are sincerely and passionately committed to education and love the job. Even retired teachers are continuing to supply teach. The year I entered Teacher’s College, Ontario put into effect Bill 274 which meant that hiring practices would be based on seniority first. The Bill meant a tedious process of becoming a permanent teacher: first step: get on the supply list; work at varying schools tirelessly attempting to leave great impressions; then apply to be on the long-term occasional list (LTO) covering teachers away on maternity or long-term sick leave; at this point every day feels like a job interview where you need to make yourself indispensable. Many teachers get stuck in this stage for years and years. I was lucky: after 3 years of LTOs, I managed to apply and get a permanent teaching job.
I’ve come to think of it like most professions – it takes a few years to make a name for yourself and begin to move through the system. The lack of stability is frustrating though. I was surplussed from my school’s needs this year, and moved to another school- luckily, an amazing one. This is the first but likely not the last time this will happen to me. I have friends who have been permanent teachers for 9+ years and continue to be bumped from one school to another based on staffing needs, but little consideration for their sense of stability and lives.
We've never had more access to information than we do today. What effect does this have for today's teacher? Does it make it easier or harder?
Both. Ironically with more access to a wider breadth of knowledge, student research skills have weakened. There’s a focus on teaching tangible research skills like assessing the credibility of a source and properly crediting that source. It’s frustrating because students can plagiarize easily – they have access to hundreds of ready-made essays, analyses, and assignments. This challenges me to design new and innovative assignments that they won’t be able to find online – which is good for all involved. Access to information is also invaluable as a teacher to find resources and lessons. I can discover articles, TedTalks, podcasts, and easily share them on Google Classroom with the whole class. It means teaching and learning can take place outside of the classroom much more easily.
In your opinion, what's been the biggest change in the classroom since you were a student?
I’m so relieved that social media was non-existent when I was a student. At best, it’s a constant distraction; at worst, it’s an addiction and a dangerous tool for constant bullying and social pressures. It’s especially bad for girls. Recent findings from CAMH’s Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey shows that girls in Ontario are twice as likely to feel stressed, hopeless, and overwhelmed and social media appears to be a leading cause.
You could be a lawyer or a hotshot executive. Why do you teach?
My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. A hotshot executive was never my style. There is a beautiful concept in Judaism called “Tikkun Olam” which means “healing or repairing the world”. The belief is that the world is fundamentally broken, and it is humanity’s shared responsibility to heal, repair, and transform the world for better. I feel like my way of helping to heal the world is through education. It’s where I feel I can make an impact. Teaching is a person to person profession and you really can make a difference in the lives of the students you teach. It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility that some days, quite honestly, I don’t feel up for. But it’s pretty amazing to know that a student decided to pursue Law because you inspired their interest in the subject. Or that you were the one person a student felt they could talk to about the shit going on in their lives, and without which, might not have survived high school. Or that you were able to change someone’s perspective about inherent bias in a way that will forever impact the way they interact with others. I also love the creativity within teaching. I can read a cool article one day, and teach it the next. I can learn constantly as well – I learn alongside my students and they teach me so much – including the latest slang and best new music. Summers off aren’t terrible either.
"...it’s pretty amazing to know that a student decided to pursue Law because you inspired their interest in the subject. Or that you were the one person a student felt they could talk to about the shit going on in their lives, and without which, might not have survived high school. "
What's the one thing you wish more people knew about being a teacher?
I think some people don’t understand that teaching isn’t a career; it’s a lifestyle. You teach people, but it’s one of those jobs where you deal with every element of life. It’s not just planning and instruction in front of the classroom; it’s people skills; it’s noticing a student has been absent for two weeks and trying to figure out why; or observing that a student is struggling socially or emotionally and connecting them to helpful resources; it’s social work; it’s psychology; it’s coaching; it’s parenting; it’s giving advice to a student whose friend just overdosed; it’s teaching life skills; it’s modelling positive balance and attitude and correcting negative behaviours and attitude. It comes with long hours and significant pressure because teachers are an essential support network for some students. It’s a lot of weight to carry. It’s rewarding but it’s exhausting.
Millennials bashing is a real thing. They are lazy, entitled, selfish. Any truth to these insults? What are today's youth really like?
Sure, some truth. But with any generalized statement like this, it’s also far from true for many students. I have been fortunate to teach a number of students who are truly inspirational. They are more open-minded, progressive, and engaged in politics than I ever was at their age. They are creative and multi-talented, respond to kindness with kindness, and appreciate being treated with respect. I taught one of the young women who helped create Ontario’s new Sex-Ed curriculum (now outrageously rescinded). I taught several students who turned a Black History Month Show into a school movement for racial equality. I have been in many classrooms where students who are a little different were welcomed with patience and acceptance.
I would say alongside high rates of depression and anxiety, there’s a lack of resilience that’s concerning. Students experience academic, social, emotional pressures and the fear of failure is real, and if/when they do fail, there is a panic that isn’t healthy. Rather than considering failure as a necessary step to success, failure is viewed as an end point you must avoid reaching. I’m planning to start September with a lesson about people who have failed first, and then succeeded; like Albert Einstein, who almost dropped out of university, Dr. Seuss, whose first manuscript was famously rejected 28 times, Vera Wang who failed to make the Olympic Figure Skating Team, prompting her to take a job as an assistant at Vogue which got her started in the fashion industry.
You took a stand on social media not long ago and made it clear that you will be teaching indigenous history despite the recent government cancelation. Why is this important to you and why should people care?
Along with the recent sex-ed curriculum cuts – the government retracted the newly created 2015 curriculum and reverted back to the 1998 curriculum – we are moving dangerously backwards in many ways. Education is often called “society’s great leveler” and this content is important for us all to understand. Growing up, I was only given an opportunity to study indigenous communities through a problematically ‘exotic’ lens. The Ontario curriculum has made significant strides forward, emphasizing not just tragic content like the legacy of Residential Schools and the Sixties Scoop, but also content that celebrates the incredible resilience and successes of indigenous people – like Richard Wagamese, Wab Kinew, Tanya Tagaq. Thanks to workshops by the TDSB’s Aboriginal Education Centre, and the Ontario Federation for Indigenous Friendship Centres, my eyes have been opened to a side of our history that is just starting to be told widely and publicly, as it was suppressed for so many years. Students don't know this. Most adults don’t know truly what happened. We need to teach indigenous history in Canada because we can’t understand our country without it.
Words by: Adam Meery
Photography: Bettina Bogar