Changing Direction

One foot after the other–generally good advice, especially when you know the journey ahead is going to be a long one. Getting started is the hardest part. “What’s the use?” you wonder. Fortunately friends or circumstances are generally there to give you that much-needed kick in the …


Assuming you made the appropriate preparations the journey proceeds relatively smoothly at first. There’s always the thrill at the start. It takes a long time before you lose that thrill, wondering what’s behind the next corner. Long hours, less-than-ideal working conditions–not a problem. You know that much lies ahead and you want to get through as much as you can now.


Careers can be like that too. It’s so exciting being part of the ‘young blood’ knowing that your contribution, your impact is just ahead. You just need to march onward, gather strength, knowledge and skill. Soon you will be the one making the difference.


But the road is long and after a time you discover that there’s not a whole lot of room for deviation. The path is narrow and well traveled.


It also looks pretty worn.


Dad mentioned many times about how he got his early education–in his early years, the pre-great-war years of the last century in a two-room schoolhouse. It was heated by a simple wood stove and the students were expected to bring yaffles (armloads) of wood each day. They sat on benches and wrote on slates. Discipline was strict. Few stayed much beyond grade three, even less beyond grade six. So few went beyond grade nine that it wasn’t even taught at the school; students had to move away. Dad left home at around 14 or 15 and went 130 km away to finish at St. Bonaventure in St. John’s.  And yet, so many insist we bring education back to those good old days. That’s how you do it!

Aside from the five years he spent in Boston during the 1930’s he spent how whole career teaching. He started around 1924 and retired in 1969, at the age of 65. Most of his career was spent in a small two-room school, not unlike the one he was taught in. He was successful; his students did well mostly through a combination of determination and plain old hard work. His thing–getting the students to do their work and making sure that he valued them.

In those old schools there was no gum-chewing and you had to remove your cap.

When I began teaching in the early eighties we were expected to get all students to remove their caps and not chew gum. I mostly did that. It didn’t help the students learn at all. In time I mellowed, came around a bit and focused more on teaching and learning and less on being in charge. A subtle change in direction that did not really require walls to come tumbling down.


One Monday evening about 10 years ago when my oldest was much younger he came home without his $40 cap. I asked if he had lost it–after all that was a lot of $$$. No, his teacher had confiscated it. I said nothing. He was to get it back on Friday. On Friday when he came home without it again I asked where it was. He’d neglected to ask for it in homeroom so, when he’d asked for it later that day his teacher said because he forgot they’d keep it another week. Again, I said nothing. But I could not help but judge. The hat was returned eventually when the teacher had decided he’s learned sufficiently. He’s in his mid twenties and still wears a hat. He can still be forgetful too.

The daughter of a friend of mine wears dental braces and has to make periodic ten-minute visits (they average $300 a pop) to the orthodontist’s office to have them adjusted. Though she carries a smartphone her parents cannot use it to let her know they are outside waiting for her. Instead they have to go inside. For security reasons they have to wait at the door; it is locked, and get someone from the office to page her. Students are not allowed to use smartphones during class time. Apparently we have to physically and electronically quarantine our students from the rest of the world during school hours. And yes, of course it’s true that for every invention you can create a teenager will find the most creative ways of misusing it and smartphones are no exception. But still…


A little story I heard a while back–probably all made up; you know how it is with these stories–but what the heck; it’s a good one.

A popular magazine ran a contest to see which reader-submitted pot roast recipe would be the best one. The finalists had a cook-of, broadcast live and the winner was chosen and interviewed.
Q–What’s your secret that gave you the edge.
Winner–I trim off the two ends of the roast before putting it in the roaster.
Winner–Because that’s what my Mom always did and I got the recipe from her.

The mom was tracked down–she did not live far away.
Q–Why do you trim the ends off your roast?
Mom–You have to if you want it to turn out just right. I learned it from my Mom and she made the best pot roast!

The grandmother, as it turned out, was still alive and not living too far away either. She was tracked down in the nursing home.
Q–Your grand-daughter just won a contest with her pot roast. We found out that you were the original inventor of the recipe.
Grandmother–oh, yes, I spent quite a few years working on that recipe. You have the list of ingredients and all I can add to that is to select a good cut of meat and to watch the oven temperature.
Q–but your daughter and granddaughter said that you also used to trim off the ends.
Grandmother–Yes, I did that too, for as long as I can remember.
Q–they said that was your great secret; the one that made your roast so much better than everyone else’s….
Grandmother–No, my roasting pan was small. Yes, I always did it but it was to make the roast fit.



Much was written this past year on twentieth Century Learning. Quite a lot spoken and written. Do a web search for yourself. You’ll see a lot about fluencies and skills: media, creative, collaboration, problem-solving and such. (This is not to imply that the ditching of core subjects is being advocated–it’s not). You’ll also see widespread agreement among the writers that there’s simply too much information out there for us to expect students to ‘memorize’ it. It’s far more important for them to adopt these fluencies so they are able to handle information; work with it.



Wearing hats is still frowned on. Chewing gum is not allowed in many classes. Many math teachers still insist that you rationalize the denominator in rational numbers and expressions. Cursive writing is considered by many as essential. Smartphones are still banned in many schools despite their tremendous capability.

Oh, and the chairs are generally hard and not adjustable. The ones for teachers are rarely much better.


That said, there’s light ahead. A recent article in the NYT described how some schools are moving away from the uncomfortable but cheap straight-back and toward ones that are more more ergonomic while still being affordable. Many districts are actively working on this for both teachers and students.

Besides, there’s plenty of evidence that the system works. Despite what some may think we’re still creating decent, productive young people who will go on to make their mark, hopefully to make a positive difference.

But it’s not easy. Here in Canada, there once was a time when we could expect the standard of living for families to almost double with each successive generation. Those days are gone. Reports such as this one show that we are making only very small gains in family income–around 5.5% in 33 years–and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. In short, while we are moving ahead a bit, it’s getting harder and harder. We have plateaued for now, it seems.


But there’s light ahead. Economically, it looks like the worst is over. Socially and politically? Well, it depends on who you ask. The economists are a bit gloomy maybe but at least as was mentioned recently, not ‘doomy.’


The way ahead may seem set out for us. At first blush it’s hard to see the options. but look: it would not take much to jump that concrete barrier and go right. That wire fence; climbable; you can go left if you try.


There is a path ahead but it’s no trouble to get off it if you want to.


You may have to bog through a bit of slush to go one way or, perhaps you may have  to wait a bit until the time is right if you wish to go the other.


2012 is behind us now. We have already brought in the new year. The fireworks are spent. It’s time to stop ruminating about what might be and time, instead, to just get on with it.


Perhaps it’s time to break off the beaten path for a bit; time to maybe search for a new one. To do that it may be necessary to challenge a few well worn ideas.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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18 Responses to Changing Direction

  1. John Burke says:

    Is the need for ergonomic seats enhanced because we have made classes longer, I wonder? 🙂
    Way back in the day we’d sit for 40 min. max before we got up to visit the next room. A teachable 30 min was about what teachers had, and all students had to endure and be seated for, too. Schools are moving to semesterisation with classes not 40 min, not 55 min, but now expected to be between 1.25h to 1.5h.
    With kids more accustomed to rapid access technology, can we make better use of less time, I wonder?
    Anyway, I babble – nice read again, Maurice.

  2. Martin says:

    Some interesting thoughts there Maurice I liked the pot roast story. Did that happen in your family? Sometimes in looking at the road ahead, it’s from the point of the moose trapped on the road between snowdrift walls. There seems to be only one way ahead. Sometimes I felt trapped the farther I got into my teaching career as pensionable years piled up while I wondered if I was in the right profession. I was ….am now retired, and can look back and know that I did the right thing by staying in. Thanks for the time and effort you must have put into your post. Best wishes, Martin

    • I came across that story almost 20 years ago and forget the original source. Frankly, I am not even sure if it’s true. It’s nonetheless a good one! Like you, I have had my own doubts from time to time but have persevered. Now, late in my career I am so very glad I did. I am also not sorry for the times I failed to toe the line :>)

  3. Pingback: Change « cultureactiveuk

  4. cultureuk says:

    Oh I love how this post wanders along corridors and pathways before stepping out into the woods – very Stephen Sondheim in its metaphors and allegorical-ness (bad grammar, sorry). Photos 2 & 4 are a bit disconcerting – the art department need to get involved here and cheer those alienating corridors up a bit! Thanks Maurice for the thought provocation and the pot roast!

    • Yes, those corridors were UGLY but, in some ways, perpesented how the career has felt from time to time. …and in those times my own art dept. needed to step in :>)

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  5. janonlife says:

    What a great post, Maurice. Thank you for leading me along those paths and corridors towards it!

  6. johnlmalone says:

    I’m glad I read this blog. Although it was a long one I read every single word. Perhaps because I too was a teacher in Australia for over thirty years. Many things in your blog sound familiar to me. I love the allusions to the road less travelled. I enjoyed the journey of this blog. good to hear from you again

    • Thank you. Thirty years counts as a long journey, doesn’t it. It’s amazing how much we here in Newfoundland Labrador have in common with Australia. Our history (a long standing aboriginal population that collided into a forward charging British empire), our geography (primary coastal and with a very uninviting interior), our economy (primary natural resource based) and finally our demeanor (tough, resilient but cooperative). All the best!

      • johnlmalone says:

        thanks Maurice — and thanks for subscribing to my blog. I have added yours to my very small ‘list of favourites’

  7. My father went to one of those one room schools only to grade 4.

  8. Much food for thought here Maurice. I do not know where education is going but I’m not very optimistic about where it is at the moment. This comment box is too confined a space for me to gather my thoughts on this huge matter. Suffice it to say that I know it will not be me who changes the system. As it is currently configured (in the U.S.) it does not and cannot function for the average student (my opinion). That being said … there are a few for whom the system does work … and they certainly shine. Who know whether the ‘good old days’ were indeed any better … I think not … though as I’ve already pointed out today’s model is not to my liking either. What holds the future? D

    • That’s the big question, isn’t it! Far too often cost-savings and international assessments play too big a role. Nobody is saying they are trivial but they are not the only issues! And yes, totally agreed–the good-old days were not so good. As always I am hopeful but, like I recently said on your blog, that hope comes at a cost. We must be prepared to back up our ideals with our resources, energies and efforts.

  9. Thank you for your thoughtful, humorous and subtle way of talking about some big important issues. I appreciate your liking me at Engaging and look forward to ‘meeting’ again!

    • Thank you. Too often those big issues get explored in an overly-energetic, one-sided (almost ‘bullying’) fashion. It’s been my experience that things are generally much more complex than they are generally presented and a quiet, less intimidating presentation often creates the type of dialogue we really need to explore them.

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