Saturday, January 26, 2013

# 36 Our House

    A sense of purpose is the key ingredient in doing and completing any project well. It can be as small as cleaning out the cluttered garage or as large as running a country, but purpose drives most of what we do well. The main hurdle seems to be maintaining the feeling as you progress to the end of the project. I find teaching fits into this category in that it comes with honourable intent, but you must be patient or that sense of purpose can and often does become clouded.

   Unfortunately, for teachers, there is rarely time to wait for noticeable results from your students; you need to keep moving, and so, rely on short term cues like tests and essays. The really long term results of your efforts may show up in a month, a year, or you may never experience them first hand. However, if you are patient, and most teachers are, the process of teaching kids is a rewarding process in which to be a participant. 

    About seven years ago, during the summer break, I get a call from my principal. He says, "Dave, you're a carpenter aren't you?" I reply, "Yes, I am, but I haven't done it for a living in over 20 years, Why?" He says,  "Well, there is this new program the board is starting, called a house building program for at risk kids, are you interested in applying?"

    According to him, I will be provided with: a project in a new subdivision, a completed foundation, back filled, first floor installed, and under my guidance, nine students will build the rest. So, I think the change will do me good, I'll go for it. I'm a little hesitant, but as the summer unfolds I grow to like idea more, and so, head into work on the first day, ready to start preparation for the job. Unfortunately, my principal has forgotten to do his paper work, and the offer is cancelled. I am disappointed for a few days, but no real damage is done, I get over it and move on.

   Then Christmas Break arrives, and I get another call from my him. This time he wants to know if I am still interested in the job proposed the previous summer.  I say, "Sure". I suspect this might be another disappointment, so I put my enthusiasm in my back pocket and get on with my holidays. When I return in the new year, I find out, "It's a go!"

   So, I ask the boss for more details, but he doesn't know anything other than what he told me back in the summer. He passes me over to another administrator in the board, and she doesn't know much either. I end up asking six people who are "involved" with the project and nobody seems to know much. I sense opportunity, and agree to take the job. My boss asks me, "If nobody knows what is going on Dave, why take it?"  I laugh, "If I am the only one who knows what's going on, then I'm in charge."

    The next month, I move over to the new school and discover that the only new project available is way out in the east suburbs and it "will take the kids three buses starting at 6 a.m. everyday." I explain that it's crazy to expect nine 'at risk' kids to engage in this activity.  The administrator sees my point and promises to find us something else. Now, you have to remember that public education is essentially a large government bureaucracy and decision making often moves with the speed of an in inebriated sloth. So, after a day of waiting, I become impatient and conclude; I will go around the bureaucrats and find a building project on my own.

   That evening I am at the doggie park and mention the situation to a neighbour. I ask him if he would like to have his house renovated, we provide labour and tools, he pays materials. He likes the idea, speaks with his wife and we have a deal, the start date will be in February. It's a renovation so there will be lots of demolition and lots of new construction. I did most of my apprenticeship in renovation, so I am pretty comfortable with the whole concept. I take the idea into work and they approve it quickly; I'm sure just to get the problem off their desks.

   So, I do a month of in class training with kids and try to defer the outdoor component until a cold snap passes. In the mean time we prefabricate a large shed in the classroom and move it to the site. The cold snap doesn't let up for a month and the first day of the job it is -20C, -30C with the windchill. I am worried about the spirits of the students, but realize, there is no turning back.

    Nine teen aged boys can have a lot of energy when harnessed, they just need to be occupied constantly. The home owner doesn't realize this fact, and neglects to prepare work for them. So, the first day, he asks us to tear down a large sun porch at the side of the house, thinking it will take a week. They tear it down, and stack it in two hours. Then in three days, we strip the entire house walls of cedar shingles in preparation for new insulation. It becomes like a game, looking for work to do, and the kids attacking it with enthusiasm and speed. The owner is impressed with their work ethic and so am I.

   In the coming months we build an entire two story, double garage with the upper floor as storage floor (probably a thousand square feet). I've framed houses before and we manage to bring the whole building within two inches of square, (that's pretty good!). The owner figures he has got himself into an incredible deal in that he has one carpenter and nine apprentices, but he is mistaken. He has a teacher and nine at risk kids who know almost nothing about building.

   Then we extend all the exterior walls out by 2 inches and install new vapour barrier, insulation plus the sheathing. The owner starts to get frustrated because as an engineer he is excessively precise and yet he's involved with a project which needs patience and flexibility. The kids become bored with the monotony of the task, start to slack off, and make mistakes. This part of the job really drags on for weeks, and then my leadership skills get a real test.

    I am spending my days motivating the kids, fending off an inflexible owner and his emotionally distraught wife, the neighbours are bitching about things like a little clay on their lawn, the sub trades lie, don't show up on time, want to argue about everything, the school wants marks and paperwork - I am getting stressed!

   Ironically enough, the at risk kids are almost never a problem. With the exception of medical appointments and various court dates they show up everyday and work well. One day I overhear a kid refer to the project as "our house", a good sign.

    In retrospect, while the kids were generally pretty good, all the adults were another story altogether. None of them cared about the purpose of the kids or my job, they were constantly consumed with looking for opportunities to financially capitalize on the program. Greed can be a heartless business.

   Everyone loves to have a tangible purpose to their day and the house building project gave these kids and me, that element. I lead the job as a team effort, which building always is, and they rose to the expectation. They were learning a lot of new things every day and rarely complained.

    As a teacher, it was definitely the most stress I have ever experienced, but I loved it. I was constantly working to remain three steps in front of everyone, doing a lot of politicking, co-ordinating jobs, listening to complaints, and trying to stare down unpredictable weather. (We had to shut down one day in April because a freak heat wave drove the temperature up to +42 C.)  It gave us all long term purpose, but included the immediate satisfaction of watching the house transform into something new.

    So, at the end of the school year, the host principal asks me to continue for another semester and I agree - with conditions. I insist on my old timetable when I return to my school of origin, or I get a guarantee of a school transfer closer to my home. She feels cornered by the proposal and backs away, so I leave the program. When I get back to my home school in September, I mention the offer to my department head, I was a little disappointed that they rejected it. He tells me that the boss is afraid he will lose me from the staff, not because he loves me, but because of my unique qualifications. Apparently, my skill diversity is rarer than I realize. I discover for the first time in my career, I have become close to indispensable! Wow!

   I return to my regular routine in the fall, it takes me at least two or three months to adjust to the classroom. The house building project makes me realize that having immediate purpose in my day is important. Now I'm back in the classroom, I have to shift back into the long term expectations of a regular teacher. During those first months back I long to be outside, working with those kids again, with regular purpose to my everyday. I would do it again, but I know I never will.