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.