High School Teacher Simon Carpenter on Students & Teaching

He’s one of those teachers you want to chat with over a cup of coffee, long after graduation. A person who you think has endless wisdom and compassion for the world. Someone you have a thousand questions for.

I’ll be honest, the conversation outside this interview was more fun – mostly because it was more personal. But since I can’t share all that stuff with you, here’s hoping you enjoy what Carp had to say.

Some of my favourite photos/memories with him from school. If you have one to add, send it over with a short shoutout – I’ll add it into the post 🙂


Grade 9 Geography Class – 2010. “Geography is the study of everything”

How did you become a teacher?

I became a teacher because everything I was doing, in every job, I found myself falling into a role where I was teaching or instructing in some way shape or form. I was always teaching new employees, being asked to give direction and guidance, that sort of thing. Then, after getting my master’s degree in Ireland, I found myself being unemployed and trying to make ends meet. I started teaching computers and technology to people who didn’t know how to use Microsoft Word or Excel. When we moved to Toronto I went into the not-for-profit sector and wound up being laid off, because that’s a shaky sector.

So I went around and asked my friends what they think I should do, and it’s almost as if there was an intervention because every single person said “you should become a teacher.” So I went and volunteered at an organization called Pathways to Education where I met high school kids, and for the first time in my life I was coming from the perspective of someone who is there to instruct. I loved it. These kids who were considered bad, tough, I got along so well with them. Because I didn’t treat them like they were less than me in any way, instead like equals in our partnership, I absolutely adored what I did. I realized teaching was the thing that would make me happy.

For me, and I think for many people, what happens is the career that’s going to make you feel fulfilled is something you almost can’t avoid. It finds you as much as you find it, and teaching kept clawing at me until I very reluctantly did it.

My father is a university professor, and I didn’t want to be the stereotype that followed the generation before it.

What do you get from teaching? What do you go home with?

Exhaustion. The first week in September every teacher goes home and cries, it’s so brutal. But it’s good. Teaching doesn’t give you anything back, students do. The thing about teaching is that you’re engaging in a very personal and direct relationship with a lot of people in a very important and formative point in their lives. And if you can unsettle that dynamic and shake it up a bit to create an environment which is different than the one they’re used to, students are going to respond in an overwhelmingly positive way. eStudents genuinely open their hearts. Teaching is something you put your heart and soul into, and the more of yourself you put into it the more that comes back to you. And so every single day you get moments where students get that Aha! moment. Today I went up to a student who had just had a setback. She dislocated her knee – she’s a very high level athlete – and a couple of kind words from me broke her whole facade. Tears started flowing from her eyes and I was able to cut through all of the bullshit and be very human and dynamic about it, to help her in a meaningful way. And she’ll remember that, that moment of me being human with her as opposed to authoritarian. It really makes all the difference. I can bring something to students and make their life better, and in turn they do the same for me in whatever way they can. That’s building relationships, and that is what I teach.

What was your proudest moment as a teacher?

I had a real turning point when I taught Daniel’s class, actually. They did assignments about Dorian Grey, and him and Viktor had these whole scenes set up on the overhead projector and acted out different roles and really connected with the characters… I remember their presentation from years ago – it was that bad [Ed. Note: Sarcasm]. In reality it was with his cohort that I learned how to let go in teaching. I learned what we were talking about earlier, about how a good manager puts the right people into a job and then lets the people he hired run with it. As a teacher I’ve learned to let students develop their own questions and watch them gain the confidence to answer them on their own. The level of engagement you get with that is unbelievable. The proudest thing I’ve done as a teacher is learned that.

What are the biggest challenges to the profession?

The biggest issue facing education is money. It is being completely and totally choked out of the system, which is very difficult to deal with. At the same time, the push to incorporate technology is a major problem. Screens and technology are changing the human brain. We’re being asked to peddle technology and I feel like we’re being told to push crack on children. There is no need for us to be promoting it. Everybody gravitates toward technology instinctively – we love our screens. We should promote healthy use of it, yes, but what’s more important is getting down to the basics of reading, writing and being able to critically think and question. Those need to be put on the table first. So at the same time that money is being choked out of the education system, it’s also changing in a way that is probably unprecedented. Your generation and my generation are wired differently. You’ve been raised with the screen, I had it introduced to me in my 20’s and it’s a radically different relationship. Education needs to completely shift in the way we do things, and evaluations need to reflect this present relationships. We’re failing our students deeply and desperately.

How are you fighting that?

My role in this, and the way in which I try to shift the system, is quite simple. I ignore technology. Many students will say my class is the most enriched class they will ever take, though I probably use less technology than any other teacher. So I’m bringing the enrichment through discourse and elevation of the discourse and questioning. I’m teaching students to hit conclusions and to see them as the start of a thousand new questions instead of the answer to one. As soon as you get students to do that, you’re deeply enriching without doing all those other things. And then students start using technology to answer questions they have as well as come up with new ones. So, in all, I try to empower students to use technology the right way. I bring old school education front and foremost in value and it seems to work.

What makes a good teacher?

Number one, you have to like people. And I don’t just mean young people, but people. Young people just happen to be people that are smaller, but they’re still people. And there are some people who go into teaching and they aren’t great people people. That’s a big problem, because they’re miserable.

The second thing is you have to be prepared to deal with conflict. People are going to be rude and disrespectful to you without any provocation. You need to deal with adolescents in a way that is kind, compassionate and caring while still calling them out on their bad behaviour. The lippy kid who tries to get the one up on you in class, you have to deal with that in a way that you don’t lose your cool. You can’t get angry, it’s not an option. If you do you’re taking it home with you and you’re going to be a bitter person.

Aside from that it’s like any other job. There are wonderful and fun things, like the classroom, and things that are horrible. Like dealing with paperwork and administrative BS and marking.

But you loved my essays, right?

Yes Dana, always. Yours were the best. [Ed. Note: Let’s all pretend he wasn’t being sarcastic, for my ego’s sake.]

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to go into teaching?

If you can do anything other than teach, I would go and do that. But if you can’t do anything other than that, you don’t need advice. You’re going to be just fine. If that’s who you are, it’s just going to flow.

Favourite student moment?

I have to go back to when I was learning how to teach, right after my first practicum. It was a really interesting experience, because stage fright is an amazing thing. It’s intense how terrified you are when you have to stand up and teach. It makes presentations seem like a cakewalk. Anyway, at the end of my first practicum, a student I was teaching came up to me and said “I know I’m not allowed to do this” and she threw her arms around me and gave me a great big hug. She said to me “I’ve only had you as a teacher for three weeks but without a doubt you’re the best teacher I’ve ever had.” That was my first teaching experience, and I just went oh my g- I’m really making a difference.

What have you learned about communication in your career?

Despite the fact that I spend a lot of my day talking, there’s a big reason we have two ears and one mouth. Shut up and listen. We should spend a lot more time as a species genuinely listening to why people are expressing themselves. I’m not saying we have to agree, but we have to listen. The more you do, the more your students will listen and respect you.

What is your definition of success?

I would say the greatest success I have is as a father. My daughters are my world and they know it. And yet I’m not a pushover and they respect and love and cherish me and everything falls from there. But that’s not what you’re asking.

Success comes in the form that more days I’m really happy to go to work as opposed to running away from it. I’m paid to do something I enjoy to the point that I feel like I’m ripping someone off. The measure of success, for me, is the former students who want to talk to me. They come back and say “you’re changed my life in some way” or “you’re someone I value and would like to keep in my life”, and if in their eyes I’m a successful teacher, then I am.

There you have it, folks. Seven coffees down, ninety three more to go. I hope you learned something. And to Mr Carpenter, thank you for being not just an incredible teacher, but a great role model to me and all your students.

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