East Vancouver dad easily confused by public school system

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school kids elementary public vancouver bc
Columnist Grant Lawrence got a lesson in how the elementary school system works when his son began Grade 1 this September. Photo by Dan Toulgoet/Vancouver Courier

By the time you read this, you should be well ensconced into the real New Year that is September. It’s the month when we get our asses off the beach and get back to work, lean into new projects, wear pants and, if you have young kids like me, scramble madly to get them back into school and into their various activities.

I find it incredible that it was easier to score tickets to the Who in the 1980s than it is to score swimming lessons for my kids in 2019. I won’t get fooled again: next year I’m camping out in front of Templeton Pool.

As summer winds down, anticipation for your kid’s new grade revs up like a Blue Bird bus. Every adult we met for weeks leaned down and asked my six-year-old son the same well-intentioned question: “So, are you ready for grade one or what, mister?”

My son would smile meekly and nod his head, no doubt thinking to himself, “Geez, this Grade 1 thing must be a big deal.”

When the first day of school finally arrived, my wife practically wept with relief after surviving our first two-month East Van summer with our kindergarten graduate and his three-year-old sister. My wife practically wept all over again when she found out the first day of school was one-hour long.

An hour-long school day after two months off? It’s like those pig races at the PNE: 30-minutes of hype followed by a 10-second race.

The other query everyone asked my son was: “So who is your teacher going to be, huh?”

For time immemorial, when you finished kindergarten in June, you already knew who your Grade 1 teacher was going to be. In my case, it was mean old Mrs. Campbell. She wore her hair like Princess Leia and ruled the classroom like Darth Vader.

Like the Sith Lord, Mrs. Campbell’s fierce reputation preceded her. If you dared to step out of line, she wouldn’t hesitate to smack you hard across the hand with the metal edge of her ruler, which she did to me several times during the course of a rocky Grade 1. The upside was that Mrs. Campbell taught me how to read.

Nobody seems to remember when the system changed, but my son had no clue who his Grade 1 teacher was going to be. For the entire first week of school, the frustratingly elusive answer was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It’s a strange purgatory, like having to wait until the final night of the regular NHL season to find out the playoff pairings.

I asked some teacher friends about the wait. One told me that it was all about assessment. They needed to do headcounts and carefully balance the split classes.

Makes sense, but couldn’t they do that, you know, the week before the kids actually show up? No, another teacher friend told me, that’s the whole point: they need to see which kids actually do show up.

I couldn’t help but imagine what the teachers could be doing in there that entire first week.

Were the students in the gym playing unsupervised dodge ball en masse while the teachers gathered in a “war room” of sorts, each teacher picking kids like you would in a hockey pool, with the kindergarten teacher providing the scouting tips?

My son’s teacher weighed in on this.

“While I wish I could tell you that classroom placement is as fun and exciting as a hockey pool, I simply can’t,” he told me. “It is actually a great deal of work. The process begins in the spring, and continues right up until students meet their new teachers. We spend the first few days of the school year with our previous year students to go over the code of conduct and rules of the school to set the right tone with student expectations in all communal areas. When it comes to emotional needs of our students, seeing familiar faces the first week helps reduce any stress the student may be feeling. We look at many factors such as individual learning strengths and needs, relationships and friendships with both peers and staff, and requests of parents. This process is a very long one, as you could imagine. At our school, the goal is to have the best learning environment for every child that promotes diversity, inclusion and educational excellence.”

Hard to argue with that.

Finally, on the Friday afternoon of that first week of grade one, my son burst out of the school doors at 3 p.m., shouting out the name of his Grade 1 teacher. He couldn’t have been happier.

Happy New Year.