High school in South Africa spans a period of five years. I spent the first three of these at a boarding school. ‘Why?’ I hear you ask.
I read too many stories about British schooldays when I was a youngster, so I believed it would be one long midnight feast and adventure upon adventure. Reality was a far cry from that, and so, my final two years were spent back in day school with my friends from the Junior school.
The problem was that they had moved on with their lives and friendships and there was no room for me. I did what misfit teenagers the world over have done – I acted out to draw attention to myself and soon found myself in a great deal of trouble.
My parents could not cope. What had happened to their well-behaved child? Who was this stranger who had come home in her place? Everyone thought I was heading for a fall. Everyone that is, except for Miss Evans, my English teacher.
She was a diminutive woman with the spirit of a Jedi warrior. Her passion for English was where we connected, and her classes were a light in the gloom of those days. It was through her care and wisdom that I realised I could achieve anything I wanted. Through her encouragement I applied for and was awarded a bursary to study and eventually became an English teacher.
I left school and although I was grateful to her, I did not give her much more thought until a few years ago when I heard that she had retired from teaching. On a whim I wrote to thank her for the part she had played in my life. I was so surprised when I received a reply. This was some of what she wrote:
‘ . . I was so touched by your letter. Teaching, for me, has always been its own reward, but yours was one of the few thank-you notes that I have ever received from a pupil. ‘
If truth be told, teaching in South Africa has become a beleaguered and embattled profession over the past twenty years. Schools try to muddle along without the requisite number of teachers and many schools have no principal. In areas where funding exists, parent bodies appoint teachers, but where funding is a problem, inadequate teaching occurs by sometimes untrained teachers.
A few years ago, scores of teachers took to the streets to strike in an attempt to persuade the government to look at adequate working conditions and benefits for its members. More recently, temporary teachers appointed with a promise of permanent appointments in the near future were summarily dismissed, leaving pupils stranded and teachers looking for work.
So, why did we decide to become teachers? Why is it that we still teach?
In my case it was a special teacher who believed in me and saw my potential. It need not have been a real teacher but could have been a Mr Chips or Sidney Poitier in the movie To Sir, With Love. Or it could have been Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society encouraging you to ‘Carpe Diem – Seize the day’.
Some years back a dear friend gave me a poster, which now has pride of place in my classroom. It reads: ‘The Wonder of Teaching is Watching Caterpillars turn into Butterflies’ – and that sums it up for me.
When I think of what it is that keeps me going back, year after year, these are some of my reasons:
- It’s bumping into a past pupil in town, who says, ‘You encouraged me to keep writing, and I have just published my first collection of poetry’
- It’s watching the lights go on in the eyes of a Senior class when they eventually get Lady Macbeth;
- It’s when one of my pupils struggles against and overcomes her impoverished, single-parent background; first works for a couple of years to afford it, and then becomes a human rights lawyer, so that she can carry on fighting for her people
I am, by modern standards, a ‘digital dinosaur’. Don’t get me wrong; I can fight in my weight category (60+), but Corona and the imposed lockdown has taught me to upskill to the point that I have an online group for my fifty matric English kids. We connect regularly, and even if I do most of the nudging, it’s great to get an occasional, ’Thanks, Ma’am’ and a happy emoji after I have sent back a literature essay with umpteen corrections and comments. I think we teachers are all working with far more focus, knowing that they depend on our input even more now.
When I became a teacher I knew that I would not be earning a king’s ransom. I knew the hours would be long and that without the holidays we would not survive. I knew it would be stressful and often thankless.
But, I also knew that I wanted to make a difference; that this was not just a job, but a vocation, a calling.