- Karen Zey
“Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” (How Teaching Gets in Your Blood)
Updated: Feb 28, 2022
By Karen Zey
(Student names have been changed.)
I got the job! Grade one, like I hoped for, but in a downtown neighbourhood where I’ve never set foot. My fingers twitch the first time I approach the treeless schoolyard stretching across an entire city block. What’s behind those aging brick walls and second-story panes of glass? A thousand elementary students, mostly children of recent immigrants with limited or no English.
While my class of 6-year-olds plays outside before morning bell, stooped grandmothers in kerchiefs and black dresses linger on the sidewalk outside the chain link fence. The yia-yias keep watch over the scramble of little bodies in the junior yard. They touch the crucifixes at their throats and call out warnings in Greek, doubting that we can keep their precious babies safe.
How I yearn to do all I can for my first-graders: Melina, with her shy smile and long dark curls, so proud in her crisp white blouse and pleated tunic; bright-light John, always ready to shoot his hand into the air; and pale, boney-shouldered Dimitri, who cringes at loud noises. All those trusting little faces looking at me. When they take their first steps as readers, it feels like I’ve performed magic.
By June, my belief is unshakable—Grade One’s the best teaching gig ever.
Dropping enrollments in the 80s, the annual anxiety of teacher layoffs and last-minute recalls. I take night courses and transfer to special ed. I land miles away from Grade one in a Junior Learning Opportunity Type 4 classroom, housed in a regular school.
My first student, Mark. A ten-year-old who laughs from his belly as he tests each rule with some shenanigan, never the same thing twice. How do I curb his exuberant mischief without crushing his spirit?
Davey, a sad, sweet-faced boy whose stepmother bemoans his physical frailty and how his skills fade after each seizure. All I can do is keep him happy coming to school. I swallow my own sorrow when dad and stepmom tell me they’re placing Davey in a group home.
Robbie, a quiet 11-year-old angel who mystifies me. He’s lost in his own thoughts as he drifts through daily routines, mesmerized by picture book covers. Years later, I will learn about autism and the different ways children move through the world. But at 27, all I see is a gangly, silent boy with a fleeting smile. I teach him to write his name, discover how to make him giggle. He loves school. Is it enough?
Part-time mainstreaming doesn’t erase the “special ed.” label that shadows my kids in the hallways and on the playground. They’re guests in someone else’s class—gym, art, drama, music—welcome only as long as they remain quietly compliant. Is special ed. a place of protection or a silo of exclusion? What’s the answer? All around me the school-scape is changing. Pilot projects in full integration, the shrinking number of special ed. classrooms.
Finding My Niche
Everyone belongs. I embrace inclusive education with the devotion of a religious acolyte and move to a post as resource teacher. A new role helping struggling learners inside and outside the classroom, coordinating integration plans for students with high needs.
Remedial specialist, disabilities advocate, problem-solver. I love the sacred weight of multi-syllabic hats, the shining light of a mission to help the most vulnerable kids. Jake, a storm brewing on his 8-year-old face after Mom kicks out her latest boyfriend. Andrew, age 10, finally deciphering the squiggles on the page, eager to read out loud. Kerri, a girl fixated on tiny Mr. Men books, who loudly demands all chairs at empty desks be fully pushed in. I do my best to calm, coach and connect with these children. Hold back my tears when a second-grader whispers she’s too hungry to do her math worksheet Burn with anger when I witness a colleague slap a rambunctious 9-year-old across the face, then summon the courage to report a teacher 20 years my senior. Yet every week, every year I witness the grace and wisdom of master teachers when I co-teach in their classrooms.
How could I ever leave this job?
On the Road
The sagest educator I know convinces me to help children with disabilities in a different way. My life as a consultant begins—a teacher of teachers, covering two dozen schools.
I boost my readiness for new territory with a glossy 1999 pocket atlas for the glove compartment. Each difficult place I land holds the unexpected. A mother with daggers in her eyes when I suggest her child be screened for autism, suddenly breaking down into uncontrollable sobs. A flood of grief over her child’s difference. I list all her daughter’s strengths in a quiet voice before I pull out the paperwork, which she signs. A Kindergarten teacher with a stricken face, lost for words, after a girl whispers in her ear about a nighttime monster sticking objects inside her body. A social worker intervenes with the child, and I reassure the teacher that she said the right things, that she can pull it together and teach the next day. I build a layer of armour, one student, one tragic story at a time. And call on others for help when I’m in over my head.
I talk, talk, talk to teachers. Rushed lunch-hour meetings, all-day presentations in auditoriums, hushed hallway tips to a teacher coaxing a distraught child out of a corner. Small servings of advice. Modest promises of more aide time. Gentle reframing of what success can look like for a child who can’t speak, for an explosive boy abandoned by his dad, for a gifted pre-teen ruled by her OCD. I sign up for workshops delivered by those who deserve the title “expert.” Cram my cubicle bookshelf with volumes of their knowledge. And rely on remembering—how it felt, the small insights gained—when a student in my classroom made my throat tighten with panic, grow raw with frustration, or catch in joyous surprise.
But am I doing any good? Am I still a teacher?
View from the Lookout
The brass nameplate on my new office door reads Coordinator of Complementary Services.
I’ve never been anyone’s boss before. Never spent more hours on paperwork than on people. Self-doubts flit in and out of my head like tiny sparrows. I tackle budget drudgery and sweet-talk the Director of Finance to secure funding. This helps students and teachers, I tell myself. It helps our schools. Some days—because so many children carry burdens of fate or genetics on their shoulders—I drown in distressed kids, overwhelmed teachers, worried principals.
Other days, my plans to expand understanding of disabilities in our district galvanize me. On school visits, I study the clues. How many teens are lined up for office detention, and do they look calmly resigned or defeated and fearful? Is there a safe space for an emotionally fragile kid? Does the principal dole out punishment or model restitution? Does the Grade 5 teacher who points out the sulking non-reader seek tips on how to include him or grumble that he belongs somewhere else? Armed with my observations, I think ahead to the next project for making schools in my corner of the world more inclusive, better at literacy, stronger at problem-solving.
I love working with my village of educators. How did 35 years in the public school system fly by so fast?
Walk away from school life? No, I’m not ready to retire.
And yet…whenever I make to-do lists for the following year, my upcoming 60th birthday hovers in the background. As does my flagging energy for thorny committees and drawn-out evening meetings. Driving home after 11 p.m. along dark country roads, I require heavy rock music to stay alert. And the commute through Montreal snowstorms unnerves me more and more.
You’ll never feel ready to leave, says my educator friend. Schools are in your blood, Karen. Just pick a date and walk away. I sign the letter for HR and pack up my office. Each file folder I flip through brings back an image of someone’s face. The wide, panicked eyes of a mother, overwhelmed by her child’s recently diagnosed disability. The relieved smile of a novice vice-principal as I help him figure out how to handle an agitated parent. The beaming face of a just-hired psychologist, keen to get going in her schools. Facts noted on paper, moments nestled in memory.
A week before I leave, a circle of eight teacher friends from the old days throws me an elaborate party. High tea in a heritage house with an old colleague dressed as a butler. I’m the sixth in the group to retire, leaving with three decades of stories to add to our collective classroom lore of beginner blunders, strange characters and farewell fetes.
Is that who I am now, a retiree, identity rooted only in the past? What comes next?
Lost and Found
September arrives and I miss the students, teachers and principals who filled my days with purpose. I miss school talk. Whole language, authentic evaluation, inclusive education. Beloved terms gone from daily conversation. No more service guides or training proposals to write. I miss putting words on a page. How can I counter these hollow hours, this sense of being untethered?
I sign up for a local writing workshop. Hearing the new lingo brings a flutter of excitement. Aim for narrator vulnerability, unpack the moment, find the beating heart of your story. The instructor lays out feedback on my first submission with gentleness and respect. I haven’t revealed enough of myself. I haven’t let go of my big words and cautiously constructed sentences, the kind useful in budget memos but not in personal essays. At 60, I am a fumbling novice. But not a quitter. A lifetime in schools has given me the habits of patience and persistence. I was once a teacher—and I have a story to tell.
I hunker down over the keyboard and search for my new voice, hoping the words will come.
Retired from the Quebec public school system, Karen Zey now devotes her time to writing and leading memoir workshops in her community. Her work has been published in Bright Flash Literary Review, (mac)ro(mic), Five Minutes and other fine places. Her CNF has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. You can follow her micro-musings about life and writing on Twitter @zippyzey.