Why do all good things come to an end? Back in 2007, Nelly Furtado posed this question in her hit single, and back in 2007 I was supposed to be a secondary one kid in St. Andrew’s Secondary School (SASS). I was in Perth, Western Australia for the whole of 07’ and I came back in 2008 as a Sec 2 kid to the open arms of SASS. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful journey that led me back to where I started. And so it was, that on January 2nd, 2015, I returned as a relief teacher to the very same school that raised me. Two and a half months passed, and on a warm Friday morning I stepped into St Andrew’s Secondary School as a teacher for the last time.
Before I start going full sentimental with the goodbyes, I’d just like to keep composed, and touch on three key takeaways from my experience as a relief teacher.
- Teachers sacrifice a lot
You always hear awesome things about being a teacher; that they end work at 2pm and that civil servant pay is actually pretty decent and they have one month of holiday in June and another month in December and oh my gosh that’s not fair everyone in the corporate world only gets 14 days and it’s just kids how tough can it be? Yeah, you get the sensing, that teaching is quite the “easy” and undervalued job. I believe many people choose not to be teachers because they feel they are “better than that”, that they could probably take on a bigger challenge in life and make a “bigger impact to society”. Well, mud to them, because let me tell you straight out: teaching is tough shit. In the world of teaching, there are a lot of variables that play out in the background that society is blissfully unaware of.
Most of the teachers end their regular timetables at 1:45 PM, but I always observe a bunch of teachers spread out at the wooden tables outside the staffroom after school. They are crowded around by a group of students, giving consults that last till as late as 4. Teachers sacrifice their own time to give these consults, and on paper, they have no obligation to do so. I myself have given some consults, but not nearly as many as the full-timers. Consults are pretty interesting because you actually have a smaller audience so you feel like you’re teaching more effectively. But at the same time, it’s draining to put in this extra effort after the entire morning of slogging it out. But they’d gladly do it, because after all, they still care for their students.
Besides these extra consults, there is at least one after-school staff meeting (if you’re lucky) and two CCA training days per week (again, if you’re lucky. The school Rugby team trains at least 5 times a week, even on weekends). So with all these considerations, ending work early is really an illusion. Most teachers only have one day in the week that they can leave school early, and even then, an avalanche of marking greets them at home.
Holidays aren’t as festive as you might think either. Teachers are at home (or even in school) making long-term lesson plans, goal setting, crafting worksheets and marking the worksheets they created last term. In my opinion, the effort and sacrifice more than justifies this “decent civil servant salary”. Other jobs may be tough, but teaching is certainly no less tough.
- Teaching is not a one-man show.
I used to think that teaching was like hosting the Ellen Show, you just step on up, do that cute little dance, crack a few jokes, make the entire world interested, and then step on down. Well, it isn’t. Teaching is an insane balance of everything and anything. What do I mean by that?
Firstly, you have to balance between micro and macro management. One minute you’re giving out general instruction, and the next minute you are scuttling about, answering the specific questions of individual students. It takes tremendous skill to vacillate between both roles so your class knows exactly what you want. And that is assuming you have an attentive class. If you have a noisy class that throws things around and threatens to get into a fight every five minutes, then it’s a whole new ball game.
Which is the second challenge: discipline. To maintain some classroom decorum, you have to bargain with the students and make sense to them throughout the lesson. They will bargain for second chances, ask if they can eat in class, and give a myriad of excuses to get out of line. There is no one minute you can take your eyes off them, no moment in time you can fully turn your back to them. Between the bargaining you have to manage your volume effectively, and more importantly manage the way you punish them. You cannot be too lenient to the point where they crawl over your head, nor can you be too strict to a point were they lose all respect for you. It all hinges upon the right balance of attention and discipline, and from that, you get effective teacher-student communication.
As you can already guess, teaching is nothing like hosting your own stand up comedy. It took quite a few lessons to understand this, and after two months, my classroom management is still an area that is sorely lacking. I wish I could be more versatile and adapt faster, but I don’t blame myself. I believe that most teachers take years of experience to master this, and even then, it is never truly perfect.
- Teachers need constant encouragement and support.
Teaching is one hell of a demanding job. Outside lessons, they are juggling a thousand matters to do with admin, marking and parents. During lessons they are juggling forty-odd students. Anything can go wrong at anytime. We have a lot to think about, and when something goes wrong, we often blame ourselves.
We partly blame ourselves for all sorts of things like poor test results, parent complains, and even when our students are late for class. We are expected to have some control over the class, so when there is a slip, we feel bad.
For instance, I once had a class where one student lost his temper and injured another student. This happened in the split second when my back was turned to the class. It was total chaos, and after the lesson, I had to make an incident report and do a bunch of things to ensure that punishment was meted out and that things were settled properly. At the end of it, I felt terrible. I tried very hard to rationalize, that it was too sudden, that things like that just happen, that boys will be boys. But like how water tends to flow to the lowest point, the blame always led back to me.
We will never admit it, but through all this negativity, we desperately need the assurance that we’re not screwing everything up for the kids. It may be that some experienced teachers have seen a lot through the years and so manage to hold their own, but either way, some sort of doubt does creep in. I was fortunate that I got the assurance from my colleagues that this sort of experience is inevitable. There were tough times but we’d talk it out. There were even meetings that targeted problem students and in the aftermath, no one was left alone. They knew I was new to all this, and whenever I helped out with their lessons or marking they’d occasionally place throat remedies and fruit juices on my desk. Sometimes I would even find lunch on my desk. We helped each other out, and I was taken aback by how immensely kind and supportive they were.
The only thing possibly better than support from my colleagues is support from my students. Sometimes after lesson they’d tell me how engaging it was, and that my style of teaching is refreshing even though I was shaky and uncertain during the lesson. Even the small gestures like the casual hello and a simple “how was your day?” can really make you feel a lot better amidst the everyday pressure. Sure, the students can turn into devils mid-lesson, but as I discovered early on, their childlike innocence never fails to reveal itself now and then. It makes you feel like for all your efforts, there is some positive result reflected off their care and concern. That in itself makes a lot of things seem worth it.
Ultimately, saying goodbye has been made very hard because of the above. All the encouragement and support, all the smiles and benign gestures have all melted down to harried goodbyes, a few thank you notes and nice firm handshakes. No, it hasn’t always been rainbows and butterflies, and yes, I’ve had my lows even within two short months. But within these trails hid important lessons, and with these lessons I have found some purpose in my life.
Every experience has taught me a lot, but what will truly stick with me is the kindness of both my colleagues and students. I hold them in such high esteem, and if my path ever takes me back, it is to be part of this family again.