Memoirs of an ex-teacher

2008-10-03 00:00

When I signed up for a career as a teacher, I had visions of a roomful of enraptured adolescents hanging on my every word as life-altering educational nuggets fell from my lips — à la Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. "Carpe diem, lads!" I imagined myself shouting as 20-odd brilliant youngsters jumped on their desks to salute their slightly eccentric but oh-so-wise mentor. I would win them over with my wit, my charm and my love of knowledge. I would inspire them to think, to read and to reach for the stars. And then I actually met them.

My visions of inspiring young minds was quickly drowned in a sea of detention slips. I spent my days checking skirt lengths, confiscating iPods and practising riot control. A typical day went something like this.

The teaching day is rudely set in motion by an obscenely loud bell at 7.20 am. Perhaps it is obscenely loud because it is 7.20 am. This signals to the 30 boisterous, hormone-fuelled teenagers milling around outside my door that it’s time to storm the classroom for registration. Registration is a euphemism for structured anarchy. The next 15 minutes is a flurry of absentee slips, raffle forms, notes from obstreperous parents, excuses from late pupils and envelopes of (usually incorrect amounts) of money for the class photo/field trip/insert-event-here.

The blasted bell rings again and the hordes exit the Bastille just as quickly as they stormed it, leaving me buried under a pile of paperwork that needs to be properly filed and responded to. But no time for such luxuries as the next battle-ready battalion arrives. And so I commence with the unenviable task of cramming Shakespeare into the heads of 30-plus mostly unwilling recipients.

It’s a titanic battle of wills — one lone teacher against the masses. This requires caffeine. But alas, this is not to happen for another two hours. It’s round about now that I think wistfully of my non-teacher friends who are just beginning their work day, probably fetching a cup of coffee while calmly checking their e-mails in the quiet of their air-conditioned offices. Sigh. But I must fight on. Bless Will Shakespeare for his filthy mind. Nothing like a lewd reference or two to pique their interest.

Break time is a 20-minute, hit-and-run affair. It begins with the hazardous task of braving the jubilant throngs and negotiating my way to the staff room on the far end of the school, while deftly avoiding swinging kitbags, hockey sticks and gaggles of giggling girls with linked arms. I hastily down some (instant) coffee and half-a-sandwich, simultaneously taking part in a staff meeting where life-changing issues are debated: what size earring studs are the girls allowed to wear? Is clear nail varnish a no-no? Must Alice bands match hair elastics? Then it’s back through the throngs again to convince my pupils that they really do care about the difference between a noun and a verb.

The end of the day sees me staggering home under a kilogram of Grade 8 essays. I will add this to the already towering stack in my study. I secretly hope that the marking fairy will miraculously materialise while I sleep. If she does not, it means wading through 60 abominably written essays which inevitably take one of two forms: "A day in the life of Paris Hilton" or, even worse, the infamous "and then I woke up" humdinger. No matter many how many times I stress that pupils should write from their own experience, bringing depth and reality to their essays, I inevitably end up with the "it was only a dream" scenario. From alien abductions to Miss World crownings, I’ve read them all. And people, let’s spare a thought here for the demise of the capital "I". Since the advent of e-mail, sms and Mxit, it has sadly been replaced by its less deserving pronoun cousin, "i".

I once briefly flirted with primary school teaching. On the first day, I looked at the eager faces of these little cherubs and rejoiced in my clever move. Two tsongololo burials and a lost lunch later, I was doubting the wisdom of my choice. And the noise! I still don’t understand why 10-year-olds don’t come standard with volume control.

A primary school teacher must be a jack of all trades: a mother, a policeman, a nurse, a psychologist and a judge. Once I was presented with a silkworm of disputed parentage. Both youngsters solemnly swore it was theirs. Both were backed by a little team of supporting Grade 4 witnesses. I considered chopping it in two and proffering half to each, King Solomon style. Needless to say, I did not last long.

The moral of the story? Next time National Teacher Appreciation Day rolls around, buy your child’s teacher a chocolate. I am no longer a teacher, but have only the highest regard for those brave souls who are soldiering on. Let’s hear it for the underpaid, under-appreciated teacher.

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