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Reflections on Back to School by Leanne Lieberman

Reflections on Back to School by Leanne Lieberman

Written by Leanne Lieberman, author of Cleaning Up

This week marks a transition for me. I will turn my attention away from a summer of working on YA books, and start to prepare my grade five classroom for the school year. Despite the change of focus, teaching and writing are always intertwined for me: my students’ thinking and experiences influence my books, and sometimes my students read those books. 

These two interests of my professional life — writing and teaching — also come together in my latest YA book Cleaning Up, which features an important teacher character. Cleaning Up is about a girl named Jess who struggles with poverty and a lack of parental role models. However, she has a teacher she loves, Mrs. McConnell. Mrs. M teaches Jess how to read and memorize her multiplication tables, and also to grow plants, a lifelong passion for Jess. When Mrs. M retires from teaching, she becomes a friend and mentor to Jess. 

Initially Mrs. M was based on my coworker Anne Arrowsmith. Known for her calm demeanour, her messy classroom and creative student projects, Anne never wore jeans or even pants. She had a penchant for open-toed shoes from Value Village. Mrs. M started out a little like her, but as I continued, she became more determinedly cheerful, a little like my coworker Marg Merkley. I imagined Mrs. M living in Marg’s tidy house near the lake in the west end of Kingston. But Mrs. M wasn’t Marg either. Mrs. M was too much of a busybody. 

By the end of writing the book, Mrs. M became a character in her own right, yet she was still heavily influenced by my coworkers. She was patient and enthusiastic like my grade four mentor Anne Salter, and a tireless and inspiring leader like my vice principal Gemma Zelmanovitz. She persevered through tough teaching assignments like my coworker Cory, who taught a triple split for years in a portable. Mrs. M reminded me of so many of my coworkers who were industrious, enthusiastic and devoted, and who were also frustrated and COVID-exhausted, and who worked so hard for other people’s children. I felt lucky to be surrounded by professionals who dedicated their entire working lives to children. Mrs. M became all of those people.  

These days, teachers need to be psychologists and social workers, bullying experts and neurodiversity specialists, as well as just literacy and math teachers. But what I didn’t learn in teachers’ college back when I attended in 2000, is that so often teachers need to provide emotional support for students. 

In my twenty-one years of teaching in Ontario, most of my students have come to school and happily played and learned with their friends. However, I’ve also taught students whose houses have burned down, or whose parents died from illness or weren’t around to begin with. I’ve taught students who’ve struggled with trauma and food security, students whose parents suffered from addiction. I’ve had students I wanted to take home and raise myself. More recently, I’ve also taught children from financially stable households who just need more attention and support than their parents are able to provide. 

This fall I will reach out to my class and tell them I’m there for them if they need me, that a connection and good relationship with them will be the most important thing, more important than their oral French or math mark. My year will be peppered with breathing exercises and meditation guidance, and mini lessons on panic attacks and coping with anxiety. Sometimes these lessons will feel like the hundreds of little plastic Band-Aids and numerous Ziploc bags of ice that I’ll give out during the year — both endless and often ineffective. But I also know that some of these lessons will be a lifeline to a student, or the start of a lifeline. 

And that is what it's like to be a teacher. You give out little Band-Aids for bigger problems that you can’t solve, but hope might help, or just try to be there for a student. I know I’ll go home some days tired and depressed, but I also know that some days I’ll go home and think about all my coworkers: about the Annes, the Corys and Gemmas, and the teachers like Mrs. M who go above and beyond. And I’ll think, that’s not all we do.  


Learn more about Cleaning Up

The cover of Cleaning Up by Leanne Lieberman. The cover features an illustration of a girl looking at herself in a mirror where the glass is broken and mostly missing. Surrounding the mirror frame floral wallpaper is visible.


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