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When Teaching Is ‘Life’s Purpose,’ Challenge Is Opportunity

  • 8 Min Read

Kimiko Shibata was born to teach. A third-generation educator after her father and grandfather, Shibata’s vocational path seemed preordained. But it was the joy she found in working with children that really sealed the deal. “I fell in love with working with kids,” she said. “It gave me energy.”

Now, working as a multilingual learner (MLL) resource teacher at the Waterloo Region District School Board in Ontario, Canada, Shibata teaches students from kindergarten through eighth grade. She sat down to talk with us about the joy she finds in helping students achieve their goals, the challenges of supporting students in more holistic ways and why educators really need to take care of themselves if they want to serve students in a meaningful way.

The Journey to Teaching

My grandfather and both of my parents were teachers before me. I grew up seeing my dad do his thing and knowing what a huge part of his identity that was. He was definitely a teacher at heart. I shared my dad with all these other children: They were his and he was theirs too. I kind of just always had a part of that in me.

I really fell in love with working with kids; it gave me energy. I loved watching their little brains work. When a kid finally gets something, you almost see the lightbulb going off—that is so rewarding. It’s a really special thing to see. I worked in day cares before I became a teacher. During that time, I just completely loved the toddler program because I got to witness that amazing brain development in action, that early literacy acquisition. When I was a little kid, I had some speech, language and motor delays, so I guess there’s always been something magical for me about the mastery of key developmental milestones, especially language.

I love the age groups of little kids and I really wanted to get into teaching in a different setting. I just loved it and I still do. Everything we do in education, we do for the kids. All that effort, all that time, everything we put in, it’s really so that kids get what they need. And in turn the world gets the gift of these beautiful little humans who will make the world a brighter place for all of us.

Lessons in Happiness, Purpose and Accomplishment

I find a great sense of purpose that continually just energizes me in my work, even in really challenging times. I’m so fortunate to get paid for a job that the world actually needs. It’s a job that makes the best use of my skills and my talents. There’s a word in Japanese for it: ikigai. And it means your sense of purpose, why you’re doing something, your life’s purpose.

I think that’s a really special thing—when you can find a job that is not only about making money. When your job is actually something that excites you and that you’re passionate about and that you love doing and you literally make a difference every day with other human beings, that is incredible—that’s amazing and very, very rewarding.

I consistently experience that ikigai in my work. That’s a beautiful thing. And I recognize not everyone has that—it’s such a gift.

I consistently experience that ikigai in my work. That’s a beautiful thing. And I recognize not everyone has that—it’s such a gift.

Being able to help people every day and being able to welcome newcomer families is very rewarding too. Getting to do initial language assessments on kids and then going to brag to their teachers about what they can do, what literacies and experiences they bring. I love bragging about kids and I get to do that all the time, which is wonderful.

One great thing about teaching today is the technology. With tools like a digital portfolio, you can upload videos of kids reading and talking. And if you’re doing an assessment, you can have a tablet there and record what the kids are saying. That idea of watching how kids’ brains are working and how they’re processing—being able to actually capture it digitally like that—is a game changer. There’s only so much you can capture on a piece of paper that you can hand to a teacher, but with technology, they’re right there.

Toward a More Holistic View of Students (and of Teachers, Too)

Over the past couple of years, we’ve had to figure out how to support students and their caregivers in so many new ways. This whole experience really has exacerbated and exposed the weaknesses of our existing support systems, not just within schools, but in our communities at large as well—from affordable housing issues to finding clothing, getting enough food and accessing Wi-Fi and devices to access remote learning. When everything shut down, we realized pretty quickly which kids and families were getting left behind and the ones that were really struggling. We spent a lot of time as a school board reaching out to offer support. We need to address the basic needs of our students before all the higher-level thinking can happen. When kids don’t feel safe, when kids don’t have food in their bellies, when kids don’t have a safe place to sleep at night, they are not getting what they need and they can’t focus on learning. It’s not even fair of us to try to throw that at them.

Dealing with this has been rewarding, but it’s also been a huge challenge, absolutely. It’s a big stress on top of all the other stressors of the pandemic. We’ve also had to deal with increased absence rates in both staff and students. We’re going out and trying to cover classes the best we can to try to keep schools open. I think there’s high stress and there’s the potential for extreme dysregulation for staff, which then of course trickle down to students who are also feeling dysregulated. And if they’re with educators who are dysregulated, that’s not a great combination.

We’ve been doing so much professional development on trauma-informed pedagogy and making sure that we’re working that into everything we’re doing with children. We also need to make sure we’re working that into all that we’re doing with the grown-ups who serve the children. We’re no good to them if we’re not taking care of ourselves. This has been a really good time for all of us in education to take a step back sometimes and take care of ourselves, because we can’t pour from an empty cup and we are no good to those we serve if we’re not taking care of ourselves.

We’ve also done a really great job finding workarounds and embracing technology to make sure that supporting our students never takes a back seat. There’s so much going on and it’s easy to lose hope. But kids keep us coming back. Working with kids is so cool because they know what’s what.

Talk to any five-year-old and they’ll tell you what the most important things in life are.

It’s generally not the stuff that grown-ups tend to obsess about.

Transforming Learning With the Ed Tech Tools

This is a time for us to learn and improve.

We are working hard on engaging staff with new learning and collaboration in a time of really high occupational burnout, so I’m finding that things like on-demand video content, slide decks and documents that are centrally stored in a blended learning environment have been helpful. This makes the concept of PD (professional development) in your PJs possible: that on-demand access whenever people want to engage. It brings those opportunities to the people we would’ve lost if we had to rely 100% on doing PD in person.

When we first started really using ed tech tools, we really didn’t know how to make virtual learning personalized and how to develop relationships with the folks we’re working with online. We’ve learned so much. The skills and strategies that you’re using in a virtual environment are different from in person, but there’s also stuff that you can’t do in person that you can totally do online. The ease with which you can do some things has been eye-opening.

Educators have not always been as collaborative as we could have been in the past. This whole digital world is opening all of these really amazing possibilities. A lot of this new collaboration is happening asynchronously: We can co-plan and co-assess without literally sitting in the same room at the same time. The past two years kind of forced us into doing it this way. In some ways it’s been more efficient and in some ways we’ve been able to plan better for kids. There are fewer barriers, especially physical ones. We get to connect and do things together in an unprecedented way. I hate that word, “unprecedented,” but it’s true.

I hope we continue to leverage our technology tools. I want to continue to explore how we can make technology more accessible and learning itself more accessible for folks with a variety of learning needs. I get so excited when I find out about new features of programs we’re already using or new apps and things that can make learning and communication better for our communities. Folks are working really, really hard to make accessibility a priority. I’m very excited to continue down that path of accessibility and see what we can do with technology.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Featured image provided courtesy of the WRDSB Communications Department.

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