Saturday, 28 January 2017

We Need To Talk About The Word 'Support'...

I work as a ‘supply teacher’; in the US, it’s referred to as a ‘substitute teacher’ or simply a ‘sub’. Basically, I’m there if the regular teacher isn’t, taking the class, teaching the lessons, and making sure the work gets done.

I don’t mind the work; it can be challenging but also quite rewarding. In the best instances, I can be a pleasant break in continuity, which gives me the opportunity to speak into kids’ lives in ways more creatively and pointedly than a regular teacher might. I’ve had several kids over the years- in school or sometimes when I meet them after they’ve graduated- tell me that I was their favourite ‘sub’. That’s an amazing feeling.

Plus, the schools are always immensely appreciative of me; there’s rarely been a time when my appearance in front of a frazzled school office administrator wasn’t met with a relieved smile. After all, I’m solving a problem, sometimes at the last minute, and it’s nice to have a job where your employer is always pleased to see you.

Perhaps for that reason, schools are very accommodating of ‘subs’ and very often go out of their way to make the work environment as good as it can be. There’s never been a situation when I’ve had a problem- an unruly teenager, a faulty piece of equipment, needing a procedure explained- when the school administration didn’t go to some length to help me out.

I just needed to use the one, big, magic word: ‘support’.

Phone down to the office, or go down in person and say ‘I need support’, and it’s like you flip a switch on a well-oiled machine. Instantly, the matter is addressed.

Actually, the word ‘support’ is used all over the school. It also gets said to custodial and maintenance staff, who sometime joke that it’s basically a code word for ‘You cannot ignore me or put me off; drop whatever you’re doing and do this instead’.

I don’t ask for support very often; after all, I’m fairly confident in what I do, and don’t often need it. But it’s a very handy tool to have, and knowing that it always works is marvelous.

The one time I really, truly needed support was when I was spending the day as an ‘intervention specialist', which is a teacher who works with kids individually or in small groups on particular subjects where needs special help or individual attention is needed.

I arrived to work, as I usually do, a half-hour early; I do better when I’ve had a bit of time to wrap my head round what I need to do for the day. And as I’d never done an ‘intervention specialist’ gig before, that was particularly important.

I walked into the room and found the classroom notes left for me by the regular teacher.  Seeing as the job required working with lots of different kids on individualized projects, there were a lot more notes than usual- they ran to five pages, in very small print, and they were spectacularly technical:

‘1st period: Colton and Jessica are working on their I.S. (top basket). Drayson, Kaylee, and Tim are doing  XL on the computer (passwords in the blue notebook). Read ‘I Know My History’ with Ethan, Mya, Robbie, Sarah, and James (James needs a lot of help). Make sure Bobby works on his EXL work (bottom basket). If it's too much for him, let him do 'creative notes' (on the far table). The others can work quietly.’

‘2nd period’…

It went on and on and on and on like that, for five pages, for seven periods, every period at least as complicated and technical as every other one.

There were no explanations of the various terms or abbreviations; 

the locations of vital baskets and books in her filing system- which to someone unfamiliar with it resembled a cross between a Byzantine market and an episode of ‘Extreme Hoarders’- was indecipherable. 

I looked at the shelves on the four bookcases in her part of the room, which were crammed, top to bottom, with books, baskets, and notebooks… I looked at her table, which had several other baskets on them… I looked at the clock; Drayson, Kaylee, Tim, Ethan, Mya, Robbie, Sarah, and James (and the amorphous ‘others’) would arrive in about 15 minutes…

I was absolutely, thoroughly at sea.

I tried to ask for help from one of the other women in the room, but how exactly to you say, ‘Ummm… how do I do any of this?’ without looking incompetent?

There was nothing for it; I walked down to Carol, the office administrator, looked deep into her eyes and said, ‘I need support’.

She shot from here chair and went to work.

Within three minutes, it was decided by Carol, the school principal, and me that the best course of action was to move me from that classroom to a 4th grade class that also needed a ‘sub’. Rarely have I felt a greater sense of relief than at that moment. I know 4th grade; I can handle it with no problems.

The best support that could have been given to me was to get me out of a situation for which I had very little expertise, and which would have been a nightmare for me and the students. 

I’m telling this story to make a point about the word ‘support’.

Over the years, I’ve heard the word ‘support’ used as a mechanism to shut down debate and discussion around important issues. 

In the face of disastrous wars or foreign occupations, we’re told, ‘Well, you have to support our troops…’

In the face of a cruel, counterproductive, and unjust occupation of the West Bank, we’re told ‘Well, the Word of God says you have to support Israel…’

In the face of an arrogant, incompetent domestic or foreign policies, we’re told, ‘Well, the Apostle Paul said we have to support the government…’

When I hear the word 'support' used in this way, I always feel like quoting Inigo Montoya from 'The Princess Bride': 'You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means'...

What I learned in my half hour as an ‘intervention specialist’ is that sometimes the best way to ‘support’ someone is to get them out of the situation, fast.

So, in the days and weeks to come, don’t let people shut down your critiques, criticisms, and resistance to injustice, pride, arrogance, and bigotry by dangling out the word ‘support’.

The best support you can give to troops might be getting them out of a wasteful, useless situation; 

The best support you can give to Israel is demanding that they stop their war on Palestinian autonomy, end the illegal occupation, and constructively build the peace;

And the best support you can give to President Trump- and the nation- might be removing him from office… 

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