Chalk Dust: Memoirs of a Prairie Teacher
by Dianne Miller
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Keith Foster
$19.95 ISBN 978-1-988783-51-2
Dianne Miller’s Chalk Dust: Memoirs of a Prairie Teacher is a delightful read. Writing in a chatty conversational style, she not only relates her own stories but incorporates anecdotes of others as well, usually from their point of view. She has a passion for brilliant imagery and humour, and her prose is sprinkled with them.
For more than thirty years, from 1970 to 2003, Miller taught a variety of grades in nine schools, primarily in Saskatoon, Yorkton, and Swift Current. She reviews her career as she rises through the ranks as student, teacher, vice-principal, principal, and administrator.
One way Miller sets the context of her sixteen chapters is by describing the changing fashions of the times. In the early 1970s, for instance, styles varied from “Mini-skirts to shoulder pads to jeans. Platform heels to stilettos to Birkenstocks.” On her first day of teaching, Miller turned up in stacked heels, a shag hairdo, and hot pants.
Miller describes the chaos on that first day when thirty-seven of her Grade 4 students lined up to sharpen their pencils. In trials like this, she developed a patient smile which she managed to perfect over her thirty-year career.
Along the way, Miller encountered some students with peculiar habits – a student with a highly unusual way of focusing his mind, a stalker who was “about as likeable as an ornery skunk,” and a fifteen-year-old adolescent who confessed he was deeply in love with his thirty-five-year-old teacher.
A petite woman, Miller was amazed that teenage students, 95 per cent of whom were taller than she was, obeyed her instructions. Perhaps her policy of “fair and firm” had something to do with that.
One day Miller was put in charge of a Kindergarten classroom. Just one day. That was enough. She said it was the longest day of her teaching career. As she tried to get them to take a nap, the rambunctious kids kept moving around. “It was like playing whack-a-mole at the fair,” she said.
Miller sympathizes with teachers who have to organize young children for the annual Christmas concert. Something invariably goes wrong. In one nativity scene, for instance, an angel fell off her stool, one of the kings showed up empty-handed, Joseph refused to hold Mary’s hand, and Mary dropped the baby Jesus headfirst on the stage.
Looking back on her experiences over three decades, Miller notes that “A teacher’s role has gone from that of an authority figure transmitting information one way to that of a coach or facilitator.” For her, the key to effective schooling is personal interaction.
Now retired, Miller is “beginning to feel like a prairie grain elevator – soon to be a distant memory.” Like those sturdy elevators, she stood the test of time, continually challenging her students and elevating them to greater heights of achievement.
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