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Teaching 'fantastic job,' rookies say
Being positive is in but hugs are out for new breed of teacher in Ontario classrooms

Saturday, August 18, 2001

Even idealists have their limit.

The rookie teachers who attended a four-day workshop this week in Toronto vowed not to yell at children, send them into the hallway, threaten them or even use the word "punishment" -- the phrase "logical consequences" being much more positive.

They also promised not to gripe about politics, and to give the public-education system a much-needed injection of adrenaline.

"It's a fantastic job, I think it's the best job in the world -- you get to teach kids," said Michael Whelan, a 36-year-old former "bad kid," later a bartender, disc jockey and broadcaster, who has taken a job teaching at a downtown school.

But the young elementary-school teachers become pragmatic when they discuss what is and is not appropriate in touching their students. They know enough to accept the instructor's word that hugging is verboten, even in primary grades.

"A gentle tap on the shoulder is really all that we should do," Julia Arnold, a 30-year employee with the Toronto District School Board, explained to a class of 16 teachers either new to teaching, new to the board or returning after a hiatus.

"At one point in time we were be able to hug the kids," she said wistfully.

"We have to be much more cautious of how we touch our students -- male teachers in particular."

Her comments launched a rueful discussion.

One teacher, who gave her name only as Margaret, and who taught for 10 years, then took four years off before returning this year, advised her colleagues to let themselves be hugged without returning the hug.

"The little ones will come up and hug you around the knees, and you can stand there but you can't hug them back."

That struck Stacy Amacher as quite sad. The 28-year-old had worked the past few years as a massage therapist. "I see a lot of kids who need that," she said. "In their homes, a lot of kids don't receive touch."

Margaret agreed. "You're with the children for six hours a day in primary grades and you are almost a surrogate-parent figure in some instances." But she is cautious. "It's a pretty litigious atmosphere."

Hannah Lin, 26, who has taught Grade 1 in a private school, told her peers that she gives "verbal hugs," instructing her young charges to give themselves a pat on the back. (However, by Christmas, when she has become better acquainted with the children, and knows their individual comfort levels, she does dispense some hugs.)

Mr. Whelan, one of just two men among the 16 teachers in Ms. Arnold's workshop (in all, about 350 teachers attended this week's training sessions), said that when he meets with a student after school, he will make sure the door is open and he has a second teacher with him.

A psychologist at the University of Toronto said that by eschewing all hugs, the school system could lose the feeling of comfort and caring that helps children open up to their teacher.

"It isn't rocket science to say that when we don't reciprocate with the signals of warmth, intimacy and caring, we can lose the trust -- trust and expectation of positive regard. Those are very important to a student's learning," Richard Tiberius, who teaches in the faculty of medicine, said in an interview.

Adults are skilled at determining quickly what level of touch is appropriate for other individual adults. "Now why can't a schoolteacher learn about those differences in children, and learn how to fine-tune it? We can do better than that," he said.

Some might wonder if these young teachers are masochists for entering the Ontario school system at a time of turmoil.

Teachers, both young and old, have been leaving in large numbers. Provincewide tests have torqued the pressures on teachers. Work-to-rule campaigns have left bitter feelings. New teacher-training regulations have brought renewed accusations of teaching-bashing against the government.

But the new teachers accept all that with a shrug.

"What is is what is," Laura Ratkay, 27, said. "I can just make do with what is available. I don't have any grievances."

Mr. Whelan said the system needs new blood. "Why now? Because now is precisely the time for enthusiastic, committed people to be involved in public education. Philosophically, universal public education is what defines Canada."

"It seems it needs a jolt, a shot in the arm," Ms. Amacher said.

They do not believe they will succumb to that dreaded teaching disease, burnout. Not "if you have a teachable spirit," Ms. Lin said.

"A lot of people quit when they stop learning."

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