By Laura Manias
I grew up here in London, the oldest girl in a family of four kids. For my family St. James Westminster was our church home, and faith in God was important.
St. James is the first place I was a teacher, and the experiences there and the relationships formed started me on the path to where I am today.
I am an elementary teacher for Thames Valley District School Board in London. I’m the outdoor education teacher for four kindergarten classes at one school, kind of like a gym teacher, but I include a variety of learning materials that cover multiple subjects. I’m really lucky to teach outside almost every day, in God’s creation. It’s a great job, I really love it.
Every teaching role has many, many blessings and wonderful moments, but also some challenges. Just like our churches are not the same as 20 years ago, and society isn’t the same as 20 years ago, schools and teaching are not the same as 20 years ago.
To help paint a picture of what my day looks like, here are some statistics about my school community:
430 students; 31 teachers and 23 support staff; 1 in 4 of our students identify as First Nations, Metis, or Inuit; over 85% of our students live in poverty; only 58% of the parents graduated from high school
I work with some of the most caring and creative people I’ve ever met, trying every day to meet the needs of our students, our kids. As a Christian I believe my faith in Jesus helps the staff team towards the goal of supporting these kids.
“The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways” is a daily truth in my school building. Remembering this helps a lot. In a tough school like mine, it’s so important for the staff team to be supportive of each other. I’m thankful every day for our team.
One in four of the students at my school identifies as First Nations, Metis, or Inuit. Just like in this diocese, at my school over the last couple years we’ve worked to celebrate, honor and respect the history and current lives of Indigenous peoples through monthly assemblies on the seven grandfather teachings, my outdoor classroom in that photo, and Oneida language lessons for students instead of French if they choose. As a staff team for professional development we participated in the Kairos blanket exercise, which I’ve done a few times at various church experiences, but for me the school experience was the most moving ever because we were all picturing our students who that history has and continues to impact every day!
My school is in the east-central part of London. Over 85% of the students at my school live in poverty, only 58% of the school parents graduated from high school. Many of the school parents grew up in poverty themselves, they have different values and priorities than me and my middle-class colleagues.
For the parents of families living in poverty there’s a ton of things that they have to take care of before they can parent, or be available for their kid’s emotional needs, or develop strategies to help their children learn how to behave and get along with others. In other neighbourhoods, families with more financial means, don’t have the daily anxiety of meeting the first step of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – food, water, warmth, shelter, and clothing. Many of the parents at my school are spending all their energy on those basic needs, and also handling anxiety causing situations like addictions, either themselves or other loved ones, or the incarceration of a loved one, or struggling to find work when they may not have much education. So the kids come to school not for academics, they are there to be fed, clothed, and overall, loved. Once they get that love and feel safe, we can work on academics.
I spend my day building relationships with my students, practicing patience, acknowledge their feelings, modelling talking about our feelings, talking through problems with students “You look upset” and “I’d be frustrated too if that happened to me” are common phrases I use, I remind them that I love them and want them to learn, and that I also love the other students and want them to learn too. and then we hug. They ask for hugs all the time, and it helps me feel better too! We have to love and meet the parents and students where they are, to give them the love and guidance that Christ calls us to.
“When you put faith, hope and love together you can raise positive kids in a negative world.” I’ve been a full-time teacher for almost eight years now. I’ve learned so much in that time, through reflection, and talking to God, I’m more patient and have more strategies that help me with students showing them God’s love. The best thing is that if I mess up, because we all do sometimes, I can pray whenever, ask God for help and forgiveness, and then do better, modelling for my students how to do better. Similarly, when my school day goes well, when my actions help someone, I praise God and thank God.
I have so much hope for all my students, hope that the support and love they receive at school makes a difference, hope for a great future for each student. But most importantly I hope and pray they will be happy and know God’s love, as I know it, and share it with the people they love.
Laura Manias is a Sunday school and youth leader at St. James Westminster (London)
and the lay co-chair of the diocesan youth committee.