So yesterday was Teachers’ Day, and I spent it being very productive. I got a medical check-up that lasted half the morning, and the rest of the day I spent at home being sick. I know a lot of my colleagues were showing symptoms of sickness on the last day of term, so maybe this is just 10 weeks’ worth of stress catching up.
Teaching isn’t easy. This isn’t some preachy post about how hard it is to be a teacher, because, to an extent, I think most people know that already. People know that the “short days, long holidays” thing is only 10% true, and that handling hundreds of kids day in and day out isn’t as easy as it might seem on the outside. Still, knowing these things and actually experiencing them are completely different things. I’ve been in this line or work for nearly 5 years now, and I feel like I’m still learning what exactly it means to be a teacher.
In celebration of my fifth Teachers’ Day, I want to share five things I’ve learnt as a teacher.
- Being a teacher is one big balancing act. You have to balance a job that takes up 90% of your time with the rest of your life. You have to find that line between being a disciplinarian, and being the fun, cool teacher whose lessons kids love coming to. You have to decide when to stop being a friend and start being an authority figure, and vice versa. You have to learn to moderate between treating your students like kids, and allowing them to be adults. You have to balance teaching with other things they don’t mention in the job prospects, like dealing with mountains of paperwork, counselling students with personal issues, dishing out career advice, managing relationship issues between emotional, hormonal teenagers and communicating with parents. Teachers wear many, many hats (sometimes all at once), and all that pressure on the head can get overwhelming.
- Teaching has given me a good idea of what parenting might be like. You feel responsible for the students in your care, you get angry when they don’t do as they’re told, you feel disappointed when they don’t live up to their potential, and you feel elated when they do. You cherish every little demonstration of effort, feel proud of every small achievement. You forgive easily and give plenty of second chances, even as you wonder whether you’re going too easy on your kids. Teaching is, of course, bereft of the long-term responsibilities and singular focus of parenting, but it does get you used to being around children and learning to think like them. I sure hope it pays off some day in the future!
- Good colleagues can make a world of difference to how you feel about the job. Teaching is a group effort, and having people around you who believe in the same things can motivate you in ways that other things cannot. I cannot count the number of times a chat with a colleague has helped me get over a bad lesson, or given me new ideas about how to tackle a problem in class. At the same time, I’ve lucked out in having people around me that I can have intellectual conversations with. Venting and ranting about school, students and the education system in general are standard items in all meet-ups involving teachers, but I cannot emphasise how destressing it can be to catch a movie with colleagues, visit museums and art exhibitions, go cycling or just talk about world issues over a good meal.
- I used to think that teaching was essentially the transfer of knowledge from one person to another, and therefore, that the more you knew about a subject, the easier it would be to teach it to someone else. Over the past few years, I’ve realised that, at least in my case, the opposite holds true. I teach Biology and English, and though my formal education has been in the former subject, I can say without a doubt that I’m stronger in the latter. Within the very first year of teaching, however, I realised that I liked teaching Biology better. I was so confident in my own knowledge of the English language that it was hard for me to look at it from the students’ perspective and understand their difficulty. As a result, I often over-pitched the content, and it took me a full year to modify my teaching to suit the kids better. Conversely, I never had a firm grasp on many Biology concepts, and so, for me to be able to explain it properly to the students, I had to do my own homework and read up further. Also, I was able to pre-empt the kinds of problems the students might have with certain topics because I had gone through the same issues myself, and thus suit my lessons to address those issues more thoroughly. In sum, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the idea that you have to be great at something to teach it doesn’t cover the many complexities of teaching. Teaching and learning must happen simultaneously for it to be effective.
- To add on to point 4, a group of ex-students came back to school to visit us during our Teachers’ Day celebrations. The ones I taught talked to me about what they were currently doing, and the common theme was how completely unrelated it was to what they had done in high school. I’m sure the impression many of them got as they moved on to higher education was that all the time they had spent memorising scientific terms, or practising math problems had been for nothing. It’s difficult for kids to be able to see it at that age (I certainly felt the same way when I was done with schooling), but as a teacher, I can see the bigger picture a bit more clearly. As much as we rush to complete our syllabi, as much as we drill our students to be able to answer examination questions in the way that guarantees the most marks, teaching (and learning, for that matter) is not just about accumulating facts or being able to whip out the right one at the right time. It is about exposing the mind to different situations and training it to think, and to think differently. It is about changing the mindset to one that is always looking for something to learn in every new situation and experience. In the hustle and bustle of daily teaching life, this often gets lost and every mistake a student makes becomes something to tear your hair out about. The aim of teaching is not to make every child perfect, but to get them to see every opportunity as a learning experience. If we don’t communicate that to the students, we’re doing them a disservice.
Big life lessons there, eh? (No pun intended.) I think my teaching experience has taught me way more than I have taught my own students, and I’m grateful to have gotten the opportunity to learn so much from such a noble profession. The learning never ends, especially not for teachers.