By Peter C. Conrad
Many elements play roles in the creation of a teacher: what kind of teacher one is and how well they do, whether they are well liked or dreaded by the students. My journey to becoming a teacher is as varied as my arrival as a published author.
Like all teachers, I attended university; starting with a Bachelor of Arts in history, English, studio art and art history. A Master of Arts degree in history followed, graduating with a thesis a traditional publisher wanted. After revisions and gathering photographs, Training for Victory: the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West was published in 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War and the establishment of the air training plan in Canada.
To pay my way through all those years at university I was an Olympic style weight lifting coach, competitive swimming coach, learn to dive instructor, canoe instructor, swimming and life saving instructor. I had instructing jobs that dated back to before I left high school. I enjoyed of these jobs, but was told continuously that there were few opportunities in teaching, so find another line of work.
As I coached and instructed at the university, a group of parents consistently commented about how I was a natural teacher; soon asking me why I was not in the College of Education. I repeated the same accepted comments that there were no teaching positions available, as the Baby Boom generation filled those positions. These parents insisted that there would be an opportunity for me if I attained my Bachelor of Education. I shrugged until the day came when several approached me on deck and told me they were professors in the College of Education and they were sure that I would find a position.
I entered the Education with high hopes and attained my degree in 1992, and to my surprise attained a position in a town not far from the city in January 1993. The position was available as the regular teacher left on stress leave. It took minutes to understand why. With optimism, I completed the contract, expecting another from the same district that I had taught, but the dreaded interviewed ended that: all position were filled and they foresaw no opportunities until the Boomers retired around 2010. I remained a supply teacher for the years that followed and continued to publish.
The university I went to had a particularly good program in preparing teaching material and distance education: Instructional Design. My writing background prepared me to write content for lessons, and editing. I quickly picked up contract work doing just these things for institutions in Canada and then the United States. Tele-commuting mixed with matrix management: the practice of working for several project managers at the same time, each expecting nearly full time work took its toll. By 2001, my wife graduated law at the university and I was ready to go home: Edmonton, Alberta, where I graduated high school.
In Edmonton, I worked for the Heritage Community Foundation, producing Edukits and content for the Alberta Online Encyclopaedia. Completing this contract, I immediately was engaged by Folklore Publishing to write Canadian Wartime Prison Escapes: Courage and Daring Behind Enemy Lines, published in 2007.
I accepted a position as a supply teacher with Edmonton Public Schools, and again found myself in a contract position coving for a bereavement leave. But, like all stress leave contracts, it came to an end. I was a supply teacher again, which led to the ironic twist. With my background, it should have followed an academic path, in fact those who knew me would ask me to take their Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) students and conduct discussions about the Napoleonic Code or the causes of World War One to mention a few topics. Another, more poignant observation was made as I traveled from one program to the next: I excelled working with those who had autism, learning disabilities, was comfortable working with students in treatment for mental health issues. Instead of being invited to participate in the professional development for AP or IB teachers, I attended training in Non-Violent Crisis Intervention.
My past had caught up with me. I was the only member of my family that does not have autism, but to avoid questions and continue with the general rule of denial in the family, my mother insisted that I should not be tested, although I was clearly very different from my siblings. The result was that I was placed with the learning disabled students. After the family moved to a remote farm in the South Peace region of Alberta, I attended school in High Prairie and was placed in the DISTAR program. Every year I asked to be tested, but was stopped by the demands of my mother. The program was defined by a series of workbooks and work sheets that were carefully allotted to each student for the year. According to policy we were to be self-paced. Every year, I completed all assignments including all enrichment activities without having to re-do any. The process was always complete by the beginning of the last week of September.
The school policy was to have all the students remain in the Special Needs program room, except for test days when we would be sent to our classes to write regular tests, without having attended any of the classes, to allow on going evaluations that demonstrated that we all should be in Special Needs. I frustrated the teachers by always passing the tests. I spent every opportunity I could to attain the regular class worksheets and materials to prepare on my own for the tests. When other students were unhelpful, I would wait for the teachers to leave the classrooms at lunch and sort through their materials to find what I needed.
In the DISTAR room the teachers asked me to go to the other students and help them with their work, which I did. I was in effect in an assistant teacher’s role from Grade 4, until I was removed from the program in Grade 8, when I had refused to go the Special Class, demanding to be tested. The tests were completed and I was declared free of any indicators for autism and received a new nickname from the teachers: Precocious, the classification given for the result on an IQ test.
As a youth I was very aware of what teachers did and had developed some of the skills of an elementary school teacher. I started to think how I would teach everything I saw. I developed naïve ideas that even the most needy in the Special Needs class could develop high levels of functionality with the right approach, materials and books. This influenced too many of the book projects I completed to face rejection and disconnection with traditional editors.
As I worked in a wide variety of teaching environments I received high praise as an elementary teacher, Special Needs teacher and work in rehabilitation programs for students on probation: teachers and principals discuss long term teaching opportunities only to be shocked to find out that my training was in Secondary English, Social Studies and History. These contradictions between abilities and training has placed me in an ironic position of being highly valuable in a variety of situations, where too few can work, leaving me to travel from program and school to school, rarely on term contracts, but always busy.