It’s the teacher that makes the difference, not the hours

Rick MacLean
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Turns out, her first name was Mary. But that wasn’t something a Grade 6 student needed to know in the 1960s when he was sitting in the second row from the door.

Mrs. Bell expected you to show up on time, listen carefully, put your hand up when you had a question and speak clearly. She could silence a class of 35 restless students with a glance. And she did whenever necessary.

Did she spend 874 hours a year in the classroom, as they do now here on P.E.I., or 950 as they do in Alberta?

No idea. But she loved reading and we knew it. She expected us to do our best and we did, because we didn’t want her to give us that ‘I’m so disappointed in you’ look. However many hours she had with us, it was enough. We learned.

It wasn’t the hours that made the biggest difference. It was the teacher.

And I’m guessing that’s likely the right answer to the question making the rounds since the recent unveiling of the school calendar for P.E.I. for the next school year. The calendar features 181 instructional days, just like this year. That has some people in a steam.

Should Island students be spending only 874 hours in class in a school year, the second lowest in Canada, they ask. Or should it be 950? After all, a kid going through 12 grades in Alberta will spend about an extra 1,000 hours in school compared to an Islander.

That’s an extra year of learning.

Should there be more PD professional development - days? Or less? More homework? Or less?

Common sense says there is a range. Inside that range learning happens. Outside those numbers, learning suffers.

But beyond that, I’m guessing it’s all about the teacher, their knowledge of their subject, their love of learning, and their ability to connect with their students. That’s what matters most.

Take the case of my childhood friend, Brendan. He sucked at math.

Sure, he could add and do a percentage. In fact, for a word wonk with a natural-born gift for the gab he won provincial public speaking contests year after year - he was pretty good. But he couldn’t talk his way past Mr. McCarthy, our Advanced Math teacher in Grade 12.

Brendan’s downfall was the quadratic formula. Picture a bunch of A=B=C’s with X’s and lots of brackets in between and you’re on the right track.

It just would not stick in Brendan’s head. Class after class, Mr. McCarthy would grill Brendan. Finally, unable to watch it any longer, we pulled Brendan aside one day after school and drilled it into his head.

Confidence soaring, Brendan swaggered into our next 121 Math class, ready.

“Brendan, what is the quadratic formula,” Mr. McCarthy demanded in his booming voice.

“X = -B, plus or minus the square root of B squared 4AC, over 2A.”

Silence. We looked at each other. That was the answer. We’d done it. Mr. McCarthy looked at Brendan. Then at us. Then back at Brendan.

“Are you sure?”

Brendan never took another math class.

He started an arts degree the next fall and, months shy of finishing it, quit to become a sports reporter. It made sense for a guy who spent every waking hour playing road hockey in my driveway. Good shot. Mediocre stick handler.

A few years ago he wrote a book about a member of the NHL champion Detroit Red Wings Forward Thinking: The Danny Cleary Story.

Mr. McCarthy would have been proud of him. I’m sure of it. So would Mrs. Bell. He was in her reading class too.

Organizations: NHL

Geographic location: Alberta, Canada

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