My early years as a teacher

Some thoughts as a novice on the job

students in a humble classroom during an exam at my school

Being a teacher infuses me with an array of feelings. At one time, it was euphoria after bringing on an interesting class; I could see my students’ eyes perked up when they found the discussions thought-provoking, or when I managed to provide a crystal clear explanation to their less than clear questions.

The next time it was humility as I learned all the insightful thinking my students had produced at such a tender age. They taught me some lessons about life, things that you don’t find in text books. The set me on fire and I found myself saying: “Hey, I know nothing about life and what you said was very intriguing. I want to know more.”

Yet, the other time there was despair when I believed that my explanation had fallen short and I had got them even more confused. I would be very self-critical and remorseful for not anticipating the predicament of teaching.

But, finally there was the sense of reward; It was rewarding to see your students show evidence of progress, especially when they managed to provide the hit-home answers at your very tricky questions. It was a triumphant feeling to see them handle difficult problems gracefully. It was gratifying to see students at their exam, silently absorbed at their sheets, gazing thoughtfully to whip out the best results.

Still, most of the times, it was hard to work as a teacher. It was hard to keep yourselves motivated if you didn’t think your students were engaged enough. It was hard to see them harboring self-defeating attitudes. It was hard to see them fail gradually. It was hard to admit that they didn’t belong to the school simply because they had missed the formative years so much that it was almost impossible to catch up. It was hard when you have to teach, to be a counselor, a performer and entertainer and sometimes the mother figure at the same time.

So, here goes my list of fails during my years as a teacher:

1. I was being passive aggressive. I knew my students had a hard time but I simply couldn’t be bothered.

2. I entertained the thought that there was nothing I could do to help those falling behind. Their progress was not my full responsibility.

3. I worried more about how I looked to them instead of worrying whether they had made the necessary progress or not.

4. I was resentful because I couldn’t believe that parents or guardians wanted me to do more than what a teacher was technically supposed to do (to transfer knowledge and skills). It was mortifying to see how families had taken their children for granted and now a teacher should look bad because their families had failed them at first.

5. I was making a mental note which students are good, worthy of my attention, which ones are helpless and so not worthy of my attention.

6. I thought I could coast through my job as a teacher considering that my field (English) is a stable realm. Thus I would have a relatively easy life.

7. I am a teacher; I am not a class police. I teach, you learn or if you choose not to, I am fine with it.

I came up with the list after I finished reading Lucy Kellaway’s pieces in The Times and The Financial Times. As someone who started teaching last year at 57 after a successful career as a journalist, she had to admit that teaching was hard. And yet the challenge of becoming a maths teacher to teenagers didn’t wilt her will away because the job gives her “the luxury of being useful”.

This strikes a chord with me because teaching gives me a sense of purpose in my life. I feel like I was doing the holy job of shaping young souls into good characters that excel at academic skills. It feels like I can victoriously claim a small piece of them when I see my students progress.

Nevertheless, the sense of being useful came short most of the time when we saw that not much had changed. One time, after spending almost one semester learning English grammar extensively, I saw my student’s evaluation sheet and he wrote: The leasson very bored.

The misspelling, the lack of grammatical ‘to be’ and the wrong participle adjective form immediately cancelled any sense of purpose that I had harbored. I was washed over with complete guilt, failure and anger. I wanted to call on him and shame him in front of everybody, telling him that I was as bored as you because I had repeated the lessons so many times and you failed to pay attention.

But luckily I didn’t. I silently told myself that teaching was difficult when students didn’t remember well. And probably it is not their entire fault if they can’t remember well. We will never know.

I was writing this at 11 pm after a week of teaching. Some successful lessons, some less than successful lessons and because tomorrow was weekend, I could stay up the whole night ruminating my life as a teacher.

This morning on my way to work, I listened to the radio and they said that the next day was teachers’ day. My heart lit up at the thought of celebrating teachers’ day. I reminisced the days at school when we learned the quote saying that a teacher is a hero without any token of appreciation/acknowledgement.

That time I couldn’t understand what’s the deal with it. How difficult or heroic it could be to become a teacher. Well, how little did I know back then. Now, I can’t help but run a mental check on all of my teachers, the good, the less than good and the worse ones.

The good one that I remember was an English teacher who had exercised an exhaustive set of carrot and stick method to make sure students got the most of their education. This teacher did not only excel at knowledge transfer but also at manipulating psychology so that students were pushed to do what they had to do.

Now I have more respect to her than before because I have seen firsthand how difficult it can be to keep discipline in the classroom. I learned that a good teacher not only teaches, but she sets the condition to make sure that students learn successfully.

Finally, yes, teaching is hard; it is emotional; it requires you to do more than what you signed up for but there are a lot of surprises along the way. I am waiting excitingly for more surprises.

Happy teachers’ day, folks!

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