It often comes as a surprise I was homeschooled. Many people ask why someone who was homeschooled would wish to be a teacher, but teaching was something I had grown accustomed to at a young age. I began homeschooling at the start of the second semester in grade 3, and continued until I was enrolled at Dalhousie University. There were different factors involved in the decision to pull me out of the public educational system. We were a military family, and were moving to different places in Ontario and Nova Scotia every 3-5 years, and switching schools was a tedious process. I had also grown sick over the Christmas break of grade 3, and it was around that time other students were also falling ill. Some of the schools in Nova Scotia had leaking ceilings, and mold was growing in the carpets, and in students’ lungs.
While homeschooling, my mother was largely my primary educator in the early elementary grades. By the grade six, I was teaching myself, and that continued all the way through grade 12. I would also have a hand in teaching my younger brother and sister, particularly when it came to math and reading.
There are advantages and disadvantages to homeschooling, but it provided me with my first taste of teaching.
From the ages of 15-18, I was in the Royal Canadian Sea Cadet program. I had the responsibility of leading classes in my first year, and quickly became an instructor in a somewhat accelerated program.
The leadership skills I gained while in cadets are still being used to this day. I had to create my own lesson plans when I was 17, and I would get better at them as time went on. I also developed my “teacher voice” as a cadet.
I have a lot of good memories while in cadets, and I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go to Korea to teach if I hadn’t first been a sea cadet. Upon entering university, I would alternate as a Civilian Instructor from time to time. It was all volunteer work (aside from being employed as medical assistant staff cadet at HMCS Acadia for a summer), but it laid a solid foundation I would later build upon.
Being able to manage large groups of youth, preparing for different eventualities, and dealing with unruly behaviour were all skills I picked up in the cadet program. Being able to keep calm during high pressure moments helped me immensely.
After graduating university, I immediately applied for my E2-Worker’s Visa to teach EFL in Daegu, Korea. For the next three years, and a bit, I would be employed by one main private language academy, and loaned out to three smaller academies, as well as a city health clinic in the eastern ward.
The first few months of my time in Daegu saw me adjusting to a whole new system of teaching. I wasn’t the best language teacher, but I rapidly improved. I taught the whole spectrum of life in Daegu. My youngest student was three years old, and my oldest was in her 70s. I taught impoverished youth, as well as the CEOs of amusement parks. Some of my students were the children of politicians. Others were relations of the then-current president.
It was around this time I began to experiment with different teaching styles, tailoring them to my specific students’ needs (otherwise known as differentiation). I also brought technology into my classroom, and introduced video editing as a teachable tool. By the end of my tenure, my students were using cameras and making videos for our classes together.
Due to the wide variety of students I taught in Daegu, I had a crash-course in pedagogical approaches. I learned to provide better scaffolding to students of various abilities. I also learned to be very nimble and flexible, as things often changed at the last minute. Everyone wanted me to stay in Daegu for a fourth year (and beyond), but I was looking for fresh challenges.
From 2011-2015, I was employed at a public middle school in Gangneung. It was there that I truly came into my own as a teacher. There were 27 classes at my school, nine for each of the grades (7-9). I was responsible for each of those students (student body ranged from 920-950 per year) as their Native English Teacher. By this time I was using Prezi in each class, and I had created hundreds of them for my own use. The students loved Prezi, and I tried to put things I knew they would enjoy in each of my lessons.
The YouTube channel I had created in Daegu was put to use in Gangneung. My school knew I enjoyed making videos, so they would often ask me to put together footage for special activities like school concerts, and sports days. I was more than happy to oblige, and the students would help me gather shots and footage. We had a good production team going.
For each vacation period, I would be given the responsibility of creating and running camps for students who wished to attend. These camps quickly became the most popular vacation programming, and by the end I had to start turning students away because too many were wanting to join.
My tasks didn’t end there. I also had afterschool programs throughout the week. Because they were similarly popular, I had multiple programs running after regular class hours. These ranged from social media, to debating, to regular conversation classes. Any student could join these, and many who did were later able to accomplish their goals (make it into prestigious high schools, and the like).
I was also volunteering to give English lessons to my co-workers who taught other subjects. Many of them wanted to practice whatever English abilities they had gained decades ago. We went on many adventures together, within, and outside, Gangneung. We were also able to talk about deeper topics due to their maturity.
If that wasn’t enough, I was also asked to help brush up my English co-workers’ skills. We would discuss pedagogy, within the context of having an EFL class. This resulted in me helping oversee a committee made up of English teachers from other Gangneung middle schools tasked with coming up with new reading curriculum. I was also asked to help select English teachers from other schools when contracts needed to be renewed, as well as copy edit a book of poetry another teacher was publishing.
For two years, I was also involved with the Global Youth Leaders program. This was an initiative between the City Hall, and the NGO: Inter-City Intangible Cultural Cooperation Network. Youth in the ninth grade took leadership classes and learned how to be civically active. This afforded me the chance to further experiment with lesson content. I created different lessons on bullying, and geopolitical crises. I helped design a model UN. I also designed and facilitated two role-playing scenarios, the first involving a refugee camp in Jordan, and the second involving a logging crisis in South America. The latter had students from Toronto participating with my Gangneung students.
By the end, I was hugely involved with the educational community in Gangneung. The head office of education for the city wanted me to run the EPIK program for my fellow foreign teachers, but I bowed out. I knew I was returning to Canada after seven years of teaching experience. It was time for me to get my B.Ed. degree at the University of Ottawa.
The University of Ottawa
At uOttawa, I had different practical experiences that were part of my program. The first was a Community Service Learning (CSL) experience that introduced me to my initial practicum school. During these three weeks I co-facilitated a poetry unit on Remembrance Day with some 7/8 gifted students.
Some of the classes we had brought us to other schools. A partnership with Pierre Elliott Trudeau School had my classmates and I planning a science-based activity. This activity would later be used when elementary students from Kitigan Zibi came to campus.
My practicum during my first year had me largely teaching math to 7/8 EFI students. I was also able to design a mock election unit for them (Prezi 1, Prezi 2), because I was doing a second CSL through Elections Canada and Encounters with Canada. This separate CSL had me going to the Encounters with Canada facilities once a month, and teaching a module based on the theme of that week. I created three Prezis for that, Medicine, Democracy, and Arts and Culture.
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to be a language teacher again. The University had teachers from China studying pedagogy, and they wanted language classes. So for four weeks, I slipped back into the role of being a conversation instructor.
With the start of my second year of the B.Ed. program, I was placed into an elementary school’s grade five class for my second practicum. There, I was teaching all the main subjects, and dealing with behavioural problems as they arose. Social studies and Math quickly became my students’ favourite subjects, but we would also get into poetry battles with one another (something that sprang up during walking around on duty). On my final day, a few students wrote a poem for me, and decided to add a melody to it.
— Zackary Downey (@ZackaryDowney) December 16, 2016
My experience with that school, and those students, gave me reason to come back the following semester. I had convinced a few other classmates to help me put together a Star Wars Club that would focus on mental, physical, and emotional well-being during the lunch recess. It was a smash success by nearly every measure.
My final three week CSL saw me return to Encounters with Canada, to act as a chaperone. There, I organized and facilitated tours, as well as classes on different subjects. For anything that had to do with technology or history, I was the go-to guy. It was an amazing experience, during which I toured all over the Ottawa region.
La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México en Canadá
After graduating from uOttawa, I landed an ESL position with UNAM-Canada, which is the satellite branch of the premier Mexican university. I had the opportunity to teach university students and professionals at various stages in their careers. Some of my students were undergraduates, while others were doctors and lawyers. It was my first real chance to take all that I had accumulated over the years in Korea and Ottawa, and see what I could do with it.
Each day, I would have three hours with my homeroom class. During those hours we would go over English in Context-type classes that helped them navigate conversations and everyday situations. Then I would switch rooms and teach history and culture to another class for 90 minutes. My history classes were a runaway success, and my homeroom classes would often demand I bring some of that content into theirs.
It was an incredible experience, and one I very much enjoyed.