2016 TEDxKitchenerED Interview... Enjoy!
Meet Bob Kline! Bob is a teacher at Huron Heights Secondary School in Kitchener, Ontario. He co-founded his school’s grade nine orientation and mentorship program; since then, not only has his Leadership and Student Council program tripled in size, but they alo won two consecutive ‘Most School Spirit’ awards at the Ontario Student Leadership Conference!
In order to learn more about Bob, we asked him some questions. He talks about his love for English and books, wanting some technology-free classes in the education system, having fun at work in order to survive, and more!
Spoiler alert: every summer, he takes a train across Canada in order to get away and meet some incredible people.
Keep reading to learn more about Bob!
Question: Growing up, what was your favourite subject at school and why?
Answer: I always loved English; I’m a lot like my dad in that way. I used to lay on my bed and read books all day long, so much that my mom used to get worried that I wouldn’t have any friends if I kept it up. She used to kick me out of the house to play outside. Books captured my imagination and I always felt like it was the English classes where I could really be creative and talk about ideas. A lot of my love for English also had to do with my teachers; they were all so different. Some of them would banter with us, some would wax philosophical and ask probing questions that seemed impossible to answer, and some were grammarians who hammered us with exercises. They are the people who helped me realize that I wanted my life’s work to somehow involve stories.
Question: Is there a teacher or professor that really made an influence on your life, possibly beyond just school? If so, looking back now, how do you think they did it?
Answer: My English professor in university named Judith Miller had a profound impact on me. I met with her during office hours once to ask for advice. I remember the dimness of her office, the shelves filled with books, and the look in her eyes when I told her my situation. She told me that people ask for advice because sometimes it’s easier to be told what to do rather than to make our own decisions. Then she gave me these instructions: "Go for a long walk in the woods, and when you come out of the woods, you’ll know what you need to do. The answer is already inside of you; sometimes you just need to listen to yourself and have the courage to act upon what you really already want.“ Well, I went for the walk, and her advice worked. Now I listen to myself a lot more than I used to.
Question: Education can happen in many different locations and ways, not just through a traditional school system. Where is one other place that you learned the most?
Answer: Every year I ride the train across Canada just to get away, and over the course of the trip there’s lots of time to get to know people from all walks of life. I’m blessed to have lifelong friends who I met on the trip, but most of the time people come in and out of my life as they embark and disembark the train at different spots along the way. A magician from Toronto, a singer-songwriter from interior BC, a retired CEO of a very successful company in Guelph, a violinist and poet from Haliburton, a married couple from Texas, a retired radio shock jockey from who-knows-where, a dog trainer from Halifax… I could go on and on. It’s the stories they told that I’ve learned from.
Question: If you could change one thing about the education system today, what would it be and why?
Answer: I would designate certain courses as ‘technology-free’ and require students to take at least one of them each year. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not anti-technology. My school is full of excellent, innovative staff who have brought our building to the forefront of classroom technology use and I’m on board with increasing access to technology, but I also believe that students need balance. In my view, the most important skills we can instill in students are the human skills that don’t involve a screen, and we need to be intentional about providing opportunities for students to develop them at school. Check out an essay by Alan Lightman called "Progress.” The essay is a bit dated now, but Lightman raises some questions that we should still be thinking about. Or watch the opening monologue Glenn Close delivers in the film called 'Heights’. Here’s the thing: A lot of people don’t understand that we’re in a postmodern era of education and that schools are fundamentally different than they were not just in the post-war years, but even 2 years ago. Society can’t even keep up with the ethical and moral conundrums that rapid advancements in technology have caused, so people need to realize that it’s ok and important to slow down sometimes in schools. I hazard to suggest that someday it will be considered 'innovative’ to put away technology entirely - what a paradox.
Question: What is your favourite quote, and why?
Answer: A number of years ago one of my colleagues, Brian Henry, delivered his retirement speech and it transformed my working life. He said, “In this line of work, you have to have fun every day to survive.” In staff work areas it’s really easy to 'debrief’ all the challenges we had throughout our day because let’s face it, our colleagues 'get it.’ But after Brian’s speech I realized that debriefing or rehashing the challenges from my day wasn’t helping anything - it was like choosing to swim around in a pool of stinky garbage. I also realized that everyone has their own crap to deal with, so why should I pile more on? I decided to consciously leave negative experiences inside the classroom if they happened. I’d take a moment to reflect before walking out the classroom door, but I would physically leave whatever conflict had happened inside the room. Since then I’ve noticed a huge difference in the way I feel at work. His words also had an impact on my decision to teach Leadership and that’s certainly fun every day!
Question: When was the last time you had a big epiphany/“aha” moment, and what was it/what triggered it?
Answer: I dropped out of a part-time PhD program even though I was loving it. I was commuting to Toronto for classes on top of my own teaching, coaching, and other student activities; it was busy but manageable. At a Christmas dinner party that year I met a man who had suffered brain damage in a workplace accident. He was telling me his story and kept repeating that people should live in the now and enjoy each day. Life is simple, he said. When I left that party I knew that I wasn’t going to follow through with the PhD. I realized I had everything in my life that I needed, and that I would still be totally happy even if I didn’t achieve my dream of earning a PhD.
Question: If you had to all of a sudden pick a new career/job (even if you love yours now), what would you pick and why?
Answer: I’d go back to my teenage job lifeguarding at the YMCA. I’m sure nostalgia is a big part of why I say that, but the Y truly is an amazing place. In a single day I could bring joy to seniors in an aquafit class or see the wonder in pre-schoolers’ faces when they realize they can swim. Everybody loves swimming, so it’s fun to watch people having fun. At the Y there’s a noticeable 'hum’ in the building as people come and go to participate in fitness classes, lift some weights, or attend a youth group. It’s just a great place to be all because of the people who go there, so I think I could handle being there every day.
Our Leadership program at Huron Heights has exploded in popularity and occasionally I hear, “I can’t believe so-and-so is in the Leadership class” or “I would never bring so-and-so to an overnight leadership conference.”
Here are three reasons why I believe every student deserves the opportunity to sign up for a leadership class and/or attend a leadership conference or camp:
The way to grow school spirit, widespread involvement, and a culture of excellence is to invite everyone in. It’s that simple.
Many of us have been there - the challenging class whose behaviour seems to dominate the semester.
A few years into my career I discovered the key to happiness at work. Since then, student behaviour doesn’t phase me the way it used to. I leave the school each day feeling good about my practice and looking forward to the next day.
I fell into the trap of constantly debriefing my students’ bad behaviour in the department office. Whether I or a colleague started it, the discussion usually began with, “You’ll never believe what just happened in my class!” On the surface, talking about student behaviour with more experienced teachers can be a good way to learn tips and tricks, but in hindsight, sometimes these discussions can move beyond the frame of ‘ongoing professional dialogue,’ particularly when it becomes a constant point of discussion in the department office. It’s an easy cycle to fall into.
The scenario goes like this: You share your challenging situation, a colleague shares his or her own challenging situation, a fellow teacher shares another horror story, and so on. The effect of this conversation is that we all constantly re-live negative situations. In a way, this cycle of negativity is just like swimming in a pool of garbage; it feels cruddy for everyone whether it ends with a productive solution or not.
So get out of the pool of garbage.
We have to recognize that every fellow teacher faces challenges throughout his or her day. The more we pile our own challenges onto our colleagues, the more stressful everyone’s day becomes.
My personal strategy involves leaving behaviour challenges in the classroom. It’s simple: at the end of a challenging class (or even a whole challenging day), I pause for a moment of reflection after all the students have left the room. I consciously vow to leave the negative situation in the room physically, and then I leave the room. That’s it.
Leaving behaviour challenges in the classroom allows me to focus on what comes next in the day and/or tackle new challenges with a fresh, positive mindset.
This doesn’t mean I don’t value advice from colleagues; in fact, the advice of a mentor is invaluable! A good way to start is by approaching a mentor one-on-one and asking if he or she has a minute to talk through a situation. The difference between this scenario and the open forum of the department office or staff room is that it can be more focused on the topic you need to discuss. It’s also far more respectful of the fact that not everyone wants to hear the airing of a fellow teacher’s challenges; your colleague has the opportunity to tell you it’s not a good time to talk, or they just have too much marking or planning to get done at the moment.
In any event, know the following…
There is an end to challenging classes: with the end of a semester comes a fresh start!
You will learn from your challenging class.
You will emerge from a challenging class as a stronger teacher.
It was great to watch the Wisconsin Badgers defeat Villanova today. I don’t exactly follow basketball, but hey, how many people become fans of a team because they’ve visited and loved the city? Lots. I have fond memories from my visit to Madison in December for a conference with Student Activity Directors from across the US. The campus is beautiful and everyone there was extremely friendly.
One of my best memories from the conference is from an unexpected moment. I had walked fairly deep into the downtown area looking for a spot to have breakfast and found a great little diner. I realized right away that I was in a campus haunt, because the place seemed to be full of hung over college kids, almost all of them wearing Badgers gear.
A young guy and girl came in and sat at the table next to mine, and not long into their time the young man said, “I brought you here for a reason…”
“Okay…” she responded.
“Well - it’s not you, it’s me.”
I nearly spat out my coffee. I was thinking, “Oh boy… not THAT line! Don’t use that one!”
Well it seemed like they got through it.
I ran a workshop later that day on how to boost school spirit. I had this great plan and had thought of a way to blend my story as a Leadership teacher and my school’s story with some tips to share, but it all fell flatter than I had hoped. My workshop was really well attended (maybe because I was ‘the Canadian guy’), and I heard some feedback from a colleague who is trying some of my tips at his school in Georgia.
The best moment of my workshop, though, was when I told them the anecdote about the breakup I witnessed that morning. It got the biggest laugh and the best response from the group. In a way, telling that story shattered the tension my audience could see in me.
That day I felt the pressure to deliver a bang-up workshop to fellow educators, yet I learned that the best way to ‘deliver’ is to capture the spirit of the place I'm visiting. To settle in there, even if there’s limited time. To relax. To observe. To listen. And to enjoy.
Keep going, Badgers.
The best teachers I've ever known are storytellers.
I have few memories of the classes where I didn't feel a personal connection with the teacher. That's not meant to be an attack on the good people who work hard in this profession; it's just that it's hard to deny a strong correlation between a teacher's personal touch and the willingness of students to engage the content.
Jarmo Puiras with his booming Finnish voice taught me the differences between romantics and realists while he spoke to us about what motivates Jay Gatsby. Leslie Brien took a strawberry Snapple out of her filing cabinet at the beginning of each class - I remember that - and I remember the way she spoke about Hamlet's motivations with such wonder that it made us wonder, too. Ian Clancy told us about his own running days while we were out for mileage. He had us all over for a pasta dinner the night before we left for the Ontario Cross Country Championships.
I still hear their voices in my head. Mr. Puiras and Mrs. Brien still motivate me to love the text, and Coach Clancy still motivates me to keep running.
Murray McArthur squinted up at us (in a chemistry lecture hall, of all places) and told us the correlations between James Joyce's life and the exploits of Stephen Dedalus. It was then that I had my own epiphany that in becoming an English teacher I was fulfilling my father's unrealised dream for himself. Linda Warley showed me the theory behind life narratives and taught me how to deconstruct, construct, and theorize memoir. It was her passion for her own life history that drove her to love auto/biography studies, and that drove me to focus on Canadian memoir for my English thesis.
Walter Epp took our History Curriculum class to different sites around Thunder Bay and showed us that the history of these many places together create the history of the whole place. He even dressed up as historical figures and memorized their own words - he brought them to life.
Tell your class a story and they'll all stop to listen - I mean really listen.
My colleague Joe King may get fired up about hockey, among other things, but his students love going to math class because of him and his stories. He's one hell of a math teacher and his students get so caught up in his rants that they don't even catch themselves falling in love with math.
My colleague Leo Malatches had a nerf football that he would get the kids to punt through his arms. I saw him doing that when I walked past his room one day. I was in my second year of teaching and he indirectly showed me that it's ok and important to have fun in class, and that anyone can do anything whether it's punting a football or analyzing a challenging literary text.
My recently retired colleague Jack Nahrgang is probably the greatest storyteller of them all and I regret never sitting in on one of his classes, but I didn't have to to know that he's the real deal. In schools we all know who's the real deal. He took his students across the ocean to see the European places that he had taught them about, and when they came back they constructed real life models of historical artifacts and landmarks. When Jack speaks inside a classroom he brings his listeners to the place, to the time. His voice - oh, his voice - students will never forget it. In his retirement I know he will write.
The best teachers I've ever known are storytellers. That's the humanity in every curriculum, regardless of the subject.
The aftermath of my TED talk has been pretty overwhelming. I've received so much positive feedback about my message, and I've made several wonderful connections with educators who are innovative in all aspects of teaching.
I ran into a colleague at the track last night who was one of the football coaches back when I was a high school student. We had a brief conversation about my talk and I really started thinking about some of the teachers who are in the background of my speech. As I moved forward and became a teacher myself, I ended up working with a few of the teachers who worked at my own high school growing up and even coached both the football and the cross country team, and I have to say they are amazing educators who I deeply respect. Looking back at my talk and how I delivered it, I should have figured that into it somehow.
These men that I now call colleagues, they have devoted a huge chunk of their lives to coaching kids - making track & field, football, and other great things happen in the lives of young people. My running coach, who I allude to in the talk in a brief way when I talk about the funny image of a 'green shorty short day', became a Vice Principal and has spent a huge chunk of his career dealing with the very situations I talk about in my speech, making kids' lives better by protecting them.
I still don't know how to fully sort out that situation, that memory, of the football players calling us faggots. I guess that's why in my talk I say that we just kept running. It was a different time, and somehow the crew of kids at that time were just resilient enough to slough it off and keep going. I have learned as an educator that in the world of kids things are said that the adults never know.
If we went back to that time I don't know if I would have dealt with it any differently as a young person - maybe I should have said something; maybe I just did the right thing and kept going. My colleague who I saw last night at the track, he told me that he would have done something had he known it was going on, and I know in my heart that he would have and that my coach would have protected us in the best way he knew how, too.
In the end despite that memory, my high school days were pretty awesome. My coach was one of the most influential men in my life, and the staff at my high school did the best they could to make high school the best days of our lives. I hope that my talk didn't imply in any way that the adults in the situation just let it all happen.
One thing is for sure - My talk is about how kids these days are more accepting of each other than they've ever been, how they treat each other better than they ever have - this culture of respect among students is in large part due to the hard work and care of the very teachers who were around back in the day.