Rapture

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Rapture.  If I had but one word to describe my legacy to SFU, it would be rapture.

I didn’t attend Teacher’s College because I wanted to be a teacher. I attended Teacher’s College because I had a scholarship that covered one year and after that one year, I could teach to support myself as I attended university and studied the more important stuff.

I held tight to that attitude until I stepped into my first classroom as a student teacher. As luck would have it, the regular teacher was ill leaving me on my own.

Twenty-four seventh graders welcomed me and asked, “Hi Miss Thompson, what do you want us to do this morning?  We usually start with English.” With that one question, the thrill, the excitement, the opportunity, the responsibility of being a teacher struck me, and my heart literally skipped a beat.

By the end of that short practicum, I knew there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do, wanted to be. I was nineteen years old and since graduating from Teacher’s College, have been active as a teacher in some capacity every working day of my life.

Every time I have entered a classroom since that day, except for a short month not long ago when a dark cloud had stolen my health, I have felt that same rush of privilege, of purpose, of joy.

Simply, I love teaching. My students recognize the authenticity of my sense of rapture and again and again, it passes through me, somehow, to them. And through them to their students. A fire is lit and that fire burns with the passion that comes with loving what you do and knowing what you do has great purpose. Like a torch, the fire is handed from one person to the next, on and on and on.

Innovation. If I were allowed a second word to describe my legacy, it would be innovation. I am inspired by possibility and create new opportunities for learning whenever I can. Simon Fraser has been good to me, allowing me to follow my dreams and introduce new courses, new programs, new ways of being and doing.

Innovation not for innovations sake, but as a response to a specific need. A pragmatist, I can put energy and will and all that I have learned into filling an empty space that begs to be filled.

As faculty leader of the Secondary Module in our Professional Development Program, there were plenty of opportunities to respond to needs in schools across our province and country. An oral tradition and blended model where practicing teachers work with professors, there is no limit to what is possible and to the challenges that come your way.

“You say this is an alternative module,” Rod McVicar, Faculty Associate and science teacher extraordinaire challenged one cold January morning. “Then why is all the teaching done inside university or school classrooms?”

Retreats, whale watching adventures, all kinds of experiential learnings became a natural part of the Secondary Module from then on.

Perhaps the most thrilling challenge came from Cindy MacInnes, Faculty Associate and social justice advocate who wanted us to create a model where student teachers worked a variety of school related professionals beyond the classroom teacher. “We need them to work with counselors, police officers, elementary teachers,” she insisted.

“How are we going to evaluate their practicum?”

“We’ll figure it out.”

“Do you know how hard that will be to organize?”

Cindy just laughed.

This conversation resulted in the birth of the first Community Module, which provided us with a model of professional development that went beyond the classroom and demanded a new way of evaluation resulting in the portfolio as student driven evidence of learning.

Undergrad programs had its share of challenges. One of the most exciting was David Paterson’s request for me to come up with a curriculum which would prepare students across the university with the skills and attitudes necessary to pass mandatory writing intensive courses at our university.

The program was called Foundations of Academic Literacy and was compulsory for students with low grades or low scores in English proficiency tests. Oh great!  Compulsory for those who have inadequate ability. What a way to drive a thing into the ground.

What to do? And get it operational in two months? I took a running start and never stopped running until the program was going full tilt and was being taught by twelve of the best instructors with whom I had worked in PDP over the years.

With Dave Paterson as Director, we flung open the shutters and let the light flow into minds and hearts of over 200 students. Those students worked with a film maker, a professional story teller, were invited to sessions with faculty from all departments, all of which was designed so that student ideas, stories, and queries were heard, were listened to, became part of the curriculum. The students moved from a place of feeling inadequate to a place of confidence and significance.

When Paul Shaker, Dean, asked me how I would know if the program was successful, I told him there were two things: First, when students took the course, not because they had to, but because they wanted to; and second, when they graduated from our university.

Both of these signs of success have come to pass.

Geoff Madoc Jones was sitting on the floor of our living room, petting Annie, our new pup. He looked up at me, that look of anticipation on his face which always signaled a new idea that he’d been dreaming up for months.

That look resulted in the most complex and challenging innovation of my professional career: the creation of a new EdD program in Transformational Change.

“We did it on the Sunshine Coast,” he reminded me. “turned out to e the best model for a MEd and is still running.

“But a doctorate program. They already exist. Why do you want me to create one?

“You can do it any way you want on any theme you want. I’ll help you make it happen.”

We convinced a group of innovative professors joined us, David Kaufman and Milton McClaren among them. True to his word, Geoff published the description of the program that opened the door to folks from education, health, industry and the arts. We wanted a cross section of activists who would present a variety of perspectives and we got them.

One hundred and twenty seven students wanted into the program. I interviewed every one of them, encouraged 54 to apply and we accepted 25 candidates who had established themselves as innovators and leaders in their respective professions. Each one came with a systemic issue they wanted to change. We ran the research course concurrently through all the courses, three of which were special topics, created specifically for this program.

Though each member of the teaching team was responsible for a particular course and acted as senior supervisor for particular students, we all worked together as a team, attending one other’s classes, attended monthly meetings and conducted the comprehensives in two days with all the students and all the instructors presenting in conference style.

The archetype of shift shaper ruled my decision making in how to meet the needs of this diverse group of people and meet the demands of a conservative tradition in academia. It was a delicate dance, always full of new challenges. The rewards of such an almost impossible endeavor present themselves each semester as our students graduate with research that is proving transformative in organizations and professions across Canada.

Narrative. A third word that describes my work at Simon Fraser University has to be narrative.

Lucky enough to be part of a meeting with Paulo Freire organized by Suzanne de Castell, this eminent educator asked me a question. I hesitated, not a little intimidated by the deep respect I had for this man.  “Let me tell you a story,” I answered.  When I really need to explain myself, I naturally turn to the metaphor of story.

When I was finished, Freire said, “You are my sister.”

I was never afraid to tell a story after that.  I was never thwarted from my determination to make story telling a part of my legacy.

Despite resistance from many who felt writing personal narratives too risky, too real or not belonging in academia, narrative has become crucial to every course and every program I have created.  When I visit schools and see my students teaching through narrative, inviting students to find their own voices through narrative, my belief that every one has a story to tell and that deserves to be heard is renewed.

As a person who brings her research and teaching to the world of industry and health and the arts, I have developed programs for such companies as Hemmera Environmental Consultants, Weyerhaeuser, CBC, North Vancouver Health Department, and MacMillan Bloedel, all of whom embraced narrative as a path to personal and professional development.

Living and reliving story is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human.  In embracing story in our teaching and learning, we embrace the humanity essential to our profession and our living together in a way that embraces relationships that are engaging and respectful and immensely satisfying.

Even after 37 years at SFU, I still have to overcome resistance to the use of narrative in a new course I am proposing. The same old fears arise. This time, I am struggling to have  “Nature, nurture and narrative” accepted as an undergraduate course partially taught at my ranch where students work with horses and llamas and feathered creatures to open their hearts and minds and let a flood of memory lead them to better understand and respect self and other. It would be a first for SFU.

Firsts are never easy.

See you at the ranch!

Carolyn Mamchur
Professor, Faculty of Education