I’m Not Sister Pauline

The year I graduated was the year they stopped handing out probationary teaching certificates. For years, newly minted teachers in my jurisdiction had been required to put in two full years of (presumably successful) classroom duties before they could be granted a “permanent” teaching certificate. So why the fast-track for the class of ’84? Were we exceptionally fine specimens of pedagogic proficiency? Had we been treated to some new cutting edge curriculum in our final year at the Faculty of Education?

No. We were just very likely to be unemployed. The powers-that-be, having taken a cold, hard look at the local job prospects for new teachers, concluded that there would be a significant number of us who would have difficulty securing full-time teaching positions over the span of the next two years. So they handed us permanent teaching certificates and wished us well.

This policy about-face helped make sense of the bulletin board display that had graced the wall outside the Faculty office all year proclaiming in upbeat posters a myriad of  “other things you can do with an Education degree besides teach school.” It also made sense of how, in spite of graduating at the top of my class with a secondary-school focus in English and Theatre, I found myself come September at a small-town school, 90 minutes away from civilization, responsible for grades 2 thorough 7 Music and grades 7 through 11 Art. But hey, I was one of the lucky ones who actually got a job.

I had no training in the kind of music education that is mandated in the elementary school curriculum. I could read music and play the piano, and I was good at winging it. As for the art, I had taken one university course in my final year of education which was, essentially, “An Introduction to the Provincial Art Curriculum for Teachers Who Have No Art Training But Might Get Stuck Teaching it Someday.”

On the strength of that shaky beginning, I was the “Art Department” at the school for two years. And to tell the truth, I did a pretty good job. I learned very quickly that, if you understand a few fundamental things about art education, there’s quite a lot you can do, even if you don’t think of yourself as an “artist.”

In fact, the hardest thing about that first year as an art teacher wasn’t the art at all. It was Sister Pauline.

I never actually met Sister Pauline. She had been gone for a full school year before I arrived on the scene, but I quickly learned that the teacher who had carried the art courses in the interim had been viewed by staff and students alike as “temporary.” It appeared she viewed herself as temporary too, because she had maintained the art room pretty much as Sister Pauline had left it.

And Sister Pauline had left a lot. She was, as many long-time art teachers are, a masterful scrounger and collector of all manner of things that could be repurposed into art projects. The art room itself was a repurposed science lab, and the shelves that lined the walls overflowed with jars and boxes and bags of… you name it. Feathers, bits of tile, modeling clay, scraps of fabric, and — my personal favourite– gazillions of little glass baby-food jars full of eggshells that had been broken into tiny bits and dyed every possible hue. In a large storage closet stood a huge kiln for firing pottery, surrounded by shelves spilling over with paper in defiance of several fire codes. On the floor next to the kiln sat an open bag of greyish powder, its contents spilling out across the store-room floor. When I knelt down to read the label I discovered, to my horror, that it was some form of powdered asbestos! My first independent decision of my teaching career was to holler for the custodian to “get that frigging bag out of here and dispose of it properly!!!”

Sister Pauline left a legacy that was even more oppressive than the clutter in her classroom. She left the legacy of her formidable reputation.  Sister Pauline had reigned in that art room for twelve years. Even students who were just entering seventh grade and had never had her as a teacher knew what they could expect when they walked into Sister Pauline’s classroom. She was larger than life–so much so that even after a year’s absence her personality and teaching style continued to echo noisily around the art room and reverberate out the classroom door and throughout the school.

At first I attributed it to my own inexperience. It was easy to second guess myself, being new to the profession, new to the school, new to the community. But when we got to second semester and I was still fending off unsolicited feedback from both staff and students that invariably started with the phrase “When Sister Pauline was here…”– it dawned on me that I was going to have to start speaking up and pointing out one very important fact.

I’m not Sister Pauline.

When I realized I could actually say that, it was a big turning point for me.

I’m not Sister Pauline. Yes, I know she did it that way, but now we’re going to do it my way.

I’m not Sister Pauline. I know she always allowed that, but now I’m the one who gets to set the rules.

I’m not Sister Pauline. I know she would never have taught it that way, but I am actually following the curriculum.

By the time I came back for the second year, I had managed to train everyone to stop invoking Sister Pauline as though she was the patron saint of art instruction. It took a little longer to stop second guessing myself.

In my thirty years of teaching and management, there have been other Sister Paulines.  I never cease to be amazed by the human capacity to cling to the way things were in the past, even when that past is gone, never to return. Each time I have arrived in a new leadership position I have been “welcomed” by folks who are eager to tell me how the last manager did things. Or, for that matter, the manager they really liked who retired ten years ago.

It’s not that I don’t value organizational history. On the contrary, I am certainly not interested in reinventing wheels and fixing things that aren’t broken. But if the only argument you can come up with for not trying a new way is that once upon a time someone else did it a different way… then I’m sorry to say you don’t really have a case.

I’m not Sister Pauline. And neither, for that matter, are you.

~      ~     ~      ~     ~

A loose riff on today’s Daily Prompt: “Tell us about the experience of being outside, looking in — however you’d like to interpret that.”

4 thoughts on “I’m Not Sister Pauline

  1. Pingback: of wtf moments « Anawnimiss

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