On teaching

I’d like to take a moment today, it being World Teachers’ Day and all, to acknowledge all teachers out there and tell you you are doing one incredible job.  I know.  I used to be one.

I became a teacher more or less by accident.  Teaching was the one profession I had sworn I’ll never do.  My mom was/is a teacher, and when my sister and I were growing up she worked for a bastard of a principal who believed his staff’s lives belonged to him, resulting in my sister and I more or less raising ourselves as she fulfilled all her extra-curricular obligations that had her coming home after dark many nights.  I decided early on that this wasn’t for me and my resolve merely increased as I grew up and became aware of the rubbish she had to deal with on a daily basis.

So it happened that I found myself without work back in 2007.  I was looking for positions in my field, with very little success, when a friend suggested I hand in my CV at the school where his fiance worked.  I handed in a CV containing no training or experience in teaching and two weeks later I was teaching Geography – a subject I didn’t even take at school.  (In hindsight I should probably have negotiated for a higher salary as they were obviously desperate.  Ah, well.  Live and learn.)

This was in the middle of the school year.  The next year I started studying teaching through a distance-learning university, but it was slow going as I had started teaching English as well and only had time for a couple of modules at a time.  (I don’t know how it works elsewhere, but in SA languages are probably the most work-intensive subjects on the curriculum.  In a couple of subjects the teachers might have more prep than language teachers, but no subject even comes close to the amount of marking language teachers have, and we don’t have teacher’s assistants.)

Another year and I was suddenly head of the English department by dint of all three English teachers who were my seniors leaving in the same year.  At the end of that year both the Principal and Deputy Principal resigned and I was asked to fill in for three months as Acting Principal to give the school’s director (it was a private school) time to find a suitable replacement.  I ended up doing that job for three years (though at the end of the first year my job title was officially changed to Deputy Principal – it couldn’t be Principal as I was still not a qualified teacher: as I was now effectively doing the work of three people, one of them a language teacher, there was no more time for studies).

In a short five-and-a-half years I have experienced teaching at every level in the hierarchy.  I have provided counselling and support to learners who were bullied, raped, and kicked from their homes by their own parents.  I’ve had to expel learners who broke just one rule too many.  I’ve supervised school dances, waiting at the gate until the last kid’s parents finally came to pick them up two hours after the dance had already finished.  I’ve done more detentions than I care to remember.

I’ve testified at disciplinary hearings which resulted in the dismissal of staff members.  I’ve had most of my staff members, whom I once considered friends, despising me at one time or another and blaming me for their mistakes.  I’ve defended those same colleagues against parents who believed their children’s lies about those teachers, even while knowing the teacher was every bit as guilty as the child.

I’ve been shouted at by government officials for things over which I have no control.  I’ve argued endlessly with parents who refuse to pay school fees or believe their children can do the things they do.  I’ve watched helplessly as one of the smartest people I’ll probably ever know threw his future away by refusing to study and resisting our best efforts to help him.

I’ve spoken at the memorial services of a girl in one of my classes who committed suicide just a few days before my wedding, and of our dear old security guard who died from old age last year.  I’ve called the ambulance and performed first aid for quite a few kids who collapsed at school .  I’ve explained to more seniors than I would have preferred why they did not pass their final year and what their options were going forward.

I will always remember the two kids in five-and-a-half years who came back afterwards to say thank you.

I’ve also had to deal with all the jokes about teachers – some of them from my immediate family members.  Those who can’t do, teach.  Teachers shouldn’t complain about their working hours – they work half day and get four holidays a year.  If you’ve ever said that to a teacher, call him/her now and apologise, for you knew not what you did.

In South Africa teachers only work until 2pm, but they start at 7am when most people are only waking up.  Of the seven hours spent at school, at least five are spent teaching.  A question for all of you in office jobs: how many hours of your day do you spend actively interacting with other people face-to-face?  One?  Two?  And how many people at a time?  And it’s probably a safe bet that they’re adults with more or less the same priorities and work ethic as you?  That’s not the same as thirty-five teenagers who’d rather be outside hanging with their friends for five to seven hours a day.

And once those seven hours are done you don’t get to go home.  You still have sport to coach or other extra-curricular activities to supervise.  And when that’s done and you finally get home you can start marking today’s books before you start your prep for tomorrow.  How often do you take five hours’ worth of work home from the office?  Daily?  After working unpaid overtime?  And during the holidays you get to go for seminars, and sport tours, all the while thinking of the five hundred essays from the past exam waiting at home to be graded once you get back.

Those who can’t do, teach?  I’d say it works the other way around.  I’d like to see you last a week without assaulting someone or having a nervous breakdown.

This time last year I decided I’d had enough.  Granted, my teaching journey was a bit unusual, so maybe I reached breaking point a bit sooner than I would have otherwise.  But unless you are a remarkable person (and true teachers all are), teaching will change you.  It made me cynical and untrusting.  It made me lose my love for children.  It turned me impatient.  It made me prone to yell and grind my teeth a lot.

At the end of January I bid teaching goodbye.  I don’t miss it.  I hope I’ll never have to go back.  But I have gained a respect for teachers that will never fade away.

Someone who hasn’t stood in a classroom cannot know what being a teacher truly entails.

Teachers are amazing people and we should thank them every day for the job they do without complaining even nearly as much as they’re entitled to.  I know.  I used to be one.

12 thoughts on “On teaching

    1. It’s definitely not fun. And I actually had it easy. I was only responsible for academic management while the owner of the school shared the load of discipline and staff management and was solely responsible for infrastructure and finances – it’s his school after all. In public schools the principals have to handle all of those tasks.

      I think if I remained a regular teacher I might have stuck it out longer. There are at least some reward, like when you get that truly brilliant essay, or you teach the class a new poem and they just get it. It’s rare, but it happens.

      And let me say to you personally: you rock! Thanks for the excellent job you do.


  1. My wife is a teacher – and that point about supposedly having ‘four months of holidays’ and ‘short days’ is always made here too. As we know, it’s bollocks. My wife often works six or seven days a week, up to 8-10 hours a day – of which 6 hours on weekdays are in front of the kids – and the holidays are a joke. That’s when courses, prep and so forth are done. She actually gets less true holidays than people on salaried employment with the statutory 20 day leave provision, and she can’t pick days off either. My concern is that’s utterly exhausting, and there are limits to how long people can do this sort of thing for.


    1. My wife’s also a teacher – qualified in Kindergarten and is now doing remedial education. I have even more respect for teachers doing younger age groups and the various levels of special ed. They get the added comment from outsiders (and even their own colleagues) that they don’t actually work but only play the whole day. You wouldn’t say that if you saw the amount of paperwork she brought home this weekend.

      Tell your wife from me that she’s an amazing person doing an incredible job 🙂


  2. You know, it’s that phrase ‘Those that can’t do, teach’ that’s kept me from becoming a teacher. I’ve thought of it as admitting to failure but you’ve given me a different way to think about it. Although, you’ve made my annoying corporate job sound cushy compared to teaching!


    1. I don’t recommend anyone to become a teacher. You only become one if every fibre of your being tells you you must, no matter what anyone else says. It’s a calling, not a job.


      1. I think you are right, it is a calling. When I think back to school, my most amazing teachers were the ones that loved kids and they just loved their job, they weren’t in it for the money. The teachers that hated students and were there for the money gave their self and everyone in their path a very hard time.


      2. Sadly there are so many of the latter group – teachers who hate children. The only reason I even considered it as a job is because it would allow me to work with children, even though I prefer to work with them in the more informal youth group or community center context. I cannot fathom why someone who doesn’t like children would pick it as a career and they do so much damage in the process. Thankfully there are also those who lay down their lives, sometimes literally, for the kids in their classes.


  3. Oh, wow. That sounds full-on, to say the least. Both my parents are teachers and I too swore I’d never become one. Instead I trained in and worked for the health service, where I found out a lot of the frustrations are essentially the same! Teachers do an incredible job, thanks for highlighting this often thankless work.


    1. I was thinking of health workers as well as I wrote it. And actually all the people-oriented professions are equally thankless (including the food service and retail industry – specifically waiting staff and cashiers) with corporate and blue-collar types alike looking down on them. But what people so easily forget is that without these people’s jobs society as we know it won’t function properly. Tell your parents my hat’s off to them.


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