Non-Academic Mentors

This post first appeared on the UVenus blog at http://uvenus.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/non-academic-mentors/.

There are three women, all with PhDs, who are probably the most important to my development as an academic and now as a mother and entrepreneur.  The first is my dissertation supervisor.  She was the first (and only) person to get excited about my dissertation research topic and guided me through my research, without dictating how the work should look (unlike others who tried to steer me in a direction I wasn’t interested in going). She had an unconventional path to her job as a professor; after getting her PhD in French, she followed her (now ex) husband, did a law degree and a masters in law, then became a French professor.  She has held just about every administrative role that doesn’t require a special hiring committee (assistant dean, associate provost, special assistant to the president, senator, etc).  When I announced I was going to run (uncontested) for Graduate Students’ Association President, she laughed and wished me luck.  For that year I was GSA President, during our meetings about my dissertation (I defended my dissertation proposal while President), we would trade war stories about university politics and meetings from hell.  She supported me in all of my work, and continues to do so.
 
In hindsight, I should have gone with someone who would have pushed me towards an approach that was more “marketable” rather than just simply what I wanted to do.  I should have had a supervisor who would have discouraged me from getting involved with university politics.  Instead, I went with the person who allowed me to explore all of my strengths as an academic, learning valuable skills along the way; skills that I never expected would help me in my new life, my new role.
 
The two other women aren’t professors.  One of the women, I met while I was GSA President and selected to sit on our university’s hiring committee for a new president.  We hired a search firm, founded by a PhD in history who 15 years earlier couldn’t find a job in academia.  She now is CEO of the largest and most successful higher ed search firms in Canada.  I didn’t know it at the time, but her example, her success outside of academia provided part of the inspiration I needed to be able to break out on my own.
 
The other woman is also not a professor.  She is a mother, translator, writing, teacher, editor, publisher, award-winner, change agent and all-around inspiring woman.  She got her PhD from the same school when I did my undergraduate and masters degree.  When we first met, she was the first person I had ever met who had a PhD and wasn’t a professor.  She had carved a life for herself doing what she loved, and it didn’t involve full-time employment with tenure.  I looked at her life, on the brink of starting my own PhD and was at once inspired and terrified.  I was about to embark on the path to being a professor, and here was someone who had done something different.  A reminder that life could be different.  I wasn’t, at that point, interested in being different.
 
It’s hard when you’re a PhD; you only meet other PhDs who (mostly) want to do the same things you want (your fellow students) or PhDs who have achieved the dream (your professors).  We never meet PhDs who have done something else with their degree.  We have been taught that these people are failures.  As a woman, at least for me, there seemed to be an added pressure of becoming a professor, in the name of women and equality. 
 
But the three women with PhDs I mention here represent something else, and allowed me to become who I am today, just by being who they are.  Wonderful, smart, caring, respected and successful women in whatever they chose to do.  Now, I aspire to be the same, in my own way.

The Resiliency of Trees

I was “trained” in literature.  As a result, I tend to see symbols, metaphors, and analogies all around me.  Some days, it’s obvious, like the terrible parenting day where (among other things) my son broke my “Best Mom” mug.  Or when the Internet ate, not one, but two of my initial blog posts for this site, forcing me to start all over again.

Other days, I have to work hard to make meaning from what I see around me.  I live in an area that was recently hit with heavy rains and flooding.  Because of the poor weather and conditions, I had not ventured outside much in the weeks that followed.  When I finally did hit the highway, I was struck by how the landscape had changed.  Rock formations that had lined the highway had crumbled from the onslaught of water.  There were huge canyons running down those same walls where the water drained.  But most striking to me were the tress that had slid down the rock faces and where now clinging to the edge.

A majority of these tress were still green and in bloom.  You could see their roots holding on and already beginning to explore their new surroundings, looking for the best place to hang on, get water and stay grounded even though the ground had shifted beneath them.  And, a small number of tress had already bent themselves vertical again, standing up while their roots were growing more beside them then underneath them.  Grass and wild flowers were also starting to grow on these rock faces, from the dirt that had slid down the sides with the water and erosion.  Nature in all of its destructive and resilient beauty.

This resiliency is not new to me.  A little more than ten years ago, I was living in an area that was hit by an ice storm of epic proportions.  Trees had inches and inches of ice caked on them.  Metal towers that carried power lines crumpled like paper under the weight of the ice.  Some places lost power for more than six weeks.  Driving, you saw these bare trees, bent under the weight of the ice, running parallel to the ground.  But once summer came, the highways were lined with green leaves all over the trees.  It looked like nothing had ever happened.  Ten years later, you can still see bent trees in the winter, but many of them have righted themselves, pointing upward towards the sky once again.

I wonder if the trees hanging over the edge of the cliffs will climb their way bag up the hill, roots slowly pulling the tree towards more stable ground.  But, another heavy rain could just as easily push those trees  all the way to the ground, uprooting them and leaving them for dead.  I really hope the trees just stay where they are, hanging over the side and flourishing.  Because I never would have noticed those trees if it weren’t for the fact that they had broken free from the rest, been given the opportunity to appreciate the resiliency of trees.

I looked at those trees and they looked like I feel, pushed out from where I was comfortable, pushed over an edge, hanging on for dear life.  Except I was the one who pushed myself over that edge by choosing to start my own business, leaving academia behind.  And now, will I bend upward and flourish, spreading my roots to secure me, or will a heavy rain fall? I look at those trees hanging on, and I remind myself that I will hang on, too.

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And Happy Mother’s Day!

What My Mother Taught Me

My mother instilled my respect for education and educators. She read to me early and often as a baby and small child. She sent me to reading school when I was four so I would know how to read in English, even though I was about to start school in French. She sent me to French Immersion school, so I would grow up knowing two languages. She allowed me to chance school boards (kinda like a district, but not really) for high school, so I could go to a more academic rigorous school and get away from the students who had bullied me all throughout elementary school. She never let me give up. She never accepted a poor grade from me. There was never a question that I would go on to university.

But one of the most important lessons she taught me, a lesson that has taken me this long to learn and appreciate, is the lesson about who you know. She went beyond “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” No, with my mom, it was “It’s not who you know, it’s how you use them.” This was a lesson she learned from her own mother, a lesson she pushed onto us, my brother and I, every chance she got. It’s a lesson she keeps trying to teach me, even today.
She understood the importance of networking. She knew that she didn’t have the connections we needed, but she wasn’t afraid of reaching out, beyond her circle, into other circles, in order to give us a chance to live out our dreams. Want to be a journalist? Here is the email address of a guy who was friends with a former co-worker with whom I went to see The Rolling Stones with 10 years ago. Getting a PhD? A friend of mine who I went to university with that one year is now president of a college. Contact him. Writing a book? I don’t know anyone off the top of my head, but let me ask around. I’ll see what I can find.
She tried to lead by example. But she also encouraged us to reach out beyond our circle, like to examine what the parents of the kids we coached swimming did for a living. My brother got some of his first photography work that way. When I told her I was starting my own business, she immediately began to run through the list of all my contacts, as well as her own, in an effort to help me drum up some business.
As I look back at it, it’s because of her that I feel comfortable on a social networking site like Twitter or Facebook, comfortable reaching out and asking for help (if you’re often on the receiving end of my requests, then you can blame my mom). I don’t think my mom, or her mom, ever imagined that their advice could eventually lead me to reach so many different people, but here I am, learning about social media, website development, education reform, charter schools, homeschooling and unschooling. And I am learning that I am a part of something very much larger than myself.
Thanks, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

Thanks to my Teachers

In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Day, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank a few of the teachers who made a lasting positive impression on my life as a young student. And I want to reflect on what features they all share, what made them all have such a huge impact on my educational development.

My favorite teacher in elementary school was Mrs. Cummings. She said funny words like tiki-boo, told us stories of growing up in Scotland, and read Charlotte’s Web, giving Templeton the Rat a (best to my memory) Cockney accent. I had her in both Grade 3 and 5 and she was my first English teacher, responsible for making sure that a bunch of kids who had just spent their first three years of school entirely in French could read and write in English, too. She taught us cursive writing and coming into her class represented the time when we could finally use a pen to write.
Mme. Vasile comes a close second and she was my favorite teacher in French. A drill sergeant, I had her in Grades 4 and 6. We used to have weekly lists of words that we needed to know how to spell, their definitions, what part-of-speech they were, and, if they were verbs, how to conjugate them in up to seven different tenses. I knew more French grammar coming out of Grade 6 than I ever knew again. She also taught us art and while we sat doing our projects, she would tell us stories about her dogs. Her car, a big American boat of a car, maroon, was always the first one in the parking lot in the morning, after the janitor.
In (what would be considered) middle school and high school, my favorite teachers were two math teachers, Mrs. Pasquale and Mrs. Ryan. Mrs. Pasquale used to let us have “Bad-Joke Fridays” is her class was the last class of the day on a Friday. She taught us how to do math competitions, teaching us tricks and plays to do math faster and more efficiently. And, she loved Monty Python. Mrs. Ryan was responsible for teaching us trigonometry. She had a chant that she taught us in order for us to remember the values of sign, cosign and tangent. She would have us march down the halls, chanting. She was another dog lover, and told us stories about how she became a math teacher because she was absolutely hopeless at physics.
My other favorite teacher in high school wasn’t actually one of my teachers, but my debating coach, Mr. Y (I can’t for the life of me remember how to spell his last name). He was a history teacher, and he had been away for a number of years to work on his PhD and a CBC documentary on World War Two. He, among other things, drew the maps for the program and at one point, described a battle on camera while standing in the field in France where the battle had taken place. He also shared a love for Monty Python and Star Trek: TNG. He brought us to debates, coached our team, put up with our ridiculousness, and taught me how to make an argument.
In college, I had another favorite math teacher, Mme. Desrochers. I had her for three of my four required math classes, including two levels of Calculus. She was excellent at explaining the concepts we needed to learn, made our classwork and homework relevant to what we needed to know for our exams, and was particularly beloved by students who had previously only studied in French because she took the time to explain and to translate terms. She also loved Monet.
Finally, in university (there’s a difference in Quebec), my favorite teacher was Anne Scowcroft. She was “just” an adjunct, but she was by far the most demanding and most rewarding teacher I had. She was the one who taught me about editing and rewriting, about never settling in my writing, and how to present my writing (and myself) professionally. We all wanted to earn our grade from her, to impress her. She was a local writer who made her living doing freelance, translating and teaching. She ran a small writer’s circle, wrote poetry and homeschooled her children.
All of these teachers share a number of characteristics: they were demanding but always worked with us so we could meet those demands; they made whatever subject they were teaching come alive, made it relevant and/or interesting and exciting; they were organized and consistent in their approach to teaching their subject; they were passionate about what they taught; and, they brought themselves into the classroom.
I think that that’s the one thing that sticks out the most for me about all of these teachers: they allowed themselves to be human. They shared parts of themselves with us, what they loved outside of the classroom, outside of their subject area. Their passion about math or reading or writing or history came through to me, but it was wonderful to hear them be just as passionate about life outside of the classroom. I’m not sure why. Was I able to more easily relate to them? Did it inspire me because I shared their varied passions, but also understood how people could misunderstand that passion (I loved swimming – no one else did)?
Passion and humanity. Consistency and high standards. Dedication and willingness to help. These are the qualities I aspire to posses as an educator. And I thank these teachers, who will probably never read this blog, for inspiring me to become who I am today.