Two weeks ago, a colleague and I conducted pre-arranged Literature holiday classes for twenty students who will be sitting for their national examinations in three months. At its lowest point, we had four out of twenty students turn up for class one day, citing a variety of reasons. I was devastated – a mixture of emotions ran through me like laundry liquids tumbling in a washer.
A part of me should have seen it coming, really. One week before the holidays, I set the class a short written assignment. Two days later, none of them bothered to complete it. A week later, I had seven assignments turned in despite numerous (apparently, obviously empty) threats.
It has been two weeks since. If I could be honest (and often, we cannot afford to), I am still deeply affected by what happened. That day, my Facebook status update read:
Today I learned that work involves learning to suffer and manage humiliation and disappointment, while being taken for granted at the same time.
It was a bad, ugly, vile-tasting concoction of humiliation, anger, disappointment, frustration, angst, concern, weariness, and how-you-would-feel being taken for granted. I wanted to lash out at them in anger, but I was too tired and disappointed to act on my frustration as an educator. I wanted to convey my concerns, but I was too angry to speak rationally and graciously to them. I wanted to be cool and pretend it did not bother me, but I was too humiliated to let it pass. At the end of the day, no decision I could have made would have resolved the situation, there was no perfect solution to the problem.
Then the mind began playing the “I Should Have” game. I should have came down harder on them from the beginning. I should have given them drills rather than try to deliver inspiring lessons. I should have gone straight to business rather than try to get through to them by being a supporter, encourager, motivator. I should have, I should have, I should have… Those words and their equivalent counterparts can suck the hope of life out of you. It was so strange that R could relate exactly to whatever I was saying over dinner yesterday. It turned out that she was going through the same doubts and angst with her graduating classes!
One and a half weeks ago in one of our staff learning sessions, we viewed a clip on someone who insisted that Teachers Are All Failures. (Whoa, right.) He seemed to be trying to validate our professional existence by undermining it – trying to make us realise that, contrary to our popular Singaporean mentality for success, failing was a norm; failing was the norm. We could never ever deliver a perfect lesson, he says, we would always be able to do something better. There would always be something we did not do, or did not do well enough, or should not have done, or could have done.
If we give ourselves enough time to sit and think on it, that list of possibilities to make a lesson, a teacher-student conference, or a moment at school be better, is endless. We would never be able to say we have “done our best”, because there is always something more we could have done. As a form teacher of my Secondary Two class, the list of things I can do for my kids is infinite and eternally non-exhaustive. The school prescribes certain procedures we need to follow, but I could also email or call the parents every week to update them on their child’s progress, I could write my kids personal letters to encourage them, I could sit down with one kid per day to give them attention, I could celebrate every child’s birthday, I could set up a class Facebook page and update it with memos, reminders and jokes every other day, I could put up a class birthday chart to build camaraderie, I could speak to the subject teachers to find out the progress of my students… you get the picture. This is just one role an educator in a school plays. “Doing our best” is infinitely out of reach.
Sounds depressing already?
Well, the truth is, I am trying to come to terms with this. We know it is depressing, and it sucks to admit it, but it is the truth (and I’m certain this does not apply only to teaching). I need to learn that as a teacher, we will never have the luxury or privilege to say “I have done my best.” We will never live a day where we can declare, “I conducted the perfect lesson.” But do we beat ourselves up over our failures? Do we condemn ourselves because I could have done this, or because I did not that?
I believe the beauty in the life of an educator, our lives, is in four words:
it works out anyway.
There is always a reason (and many more) to blame ourselves for the failures in our day-to-day endeavours. But rather than play the blame game and end up living a shorter, unhealthier and more dissatisfying life, we could choose to recognise and live each day with a smile because it works out anyway.
It sounds like I am all ready to shirk responsibility, but not when God comes into the picture. Our God is a planner, and He has already worked things out His way. Rather than look at our infinite list of “I Should Haves” as a list of reasons why we did not meet our potential or hit perfection, we should look upon them as points of reflection. Mollycoddled them earlier in the year with devastating consequences? I will learn to avoid that next year. Pandered to their requests too easily in a bid to get them to like me and feel inspired? I will be more aware of that and try an alternative approach next year. Our “I Should Haves” should help us to step higher and higher – in spirit, knowledge and experience – not drag us down.
You see, our life as an educator is not made up of right and wrongs that will pave the way to a path of success (for ourselves, our students, or whomever else). It is made up of choices. Each of these decisions (to punish or to spare, to command or to inspire…) do not carry with them a value of Right or Wrong, but they do lead to different outcomes. Sometimes these outcomes bring an instant smile to our faces, sometimes these outcomes make us cry before we laugh, sometimes the smile only surfaces years later.
The beauty of it is that we will never know, will we? We will never know what truly are the outcomes of the choices we make everyday when we educate the kids under our charge. It is scary: the prospect of having no Right choice, but a gazillion of potential choices with possible outcomes, I suppose. But when you think of how God oversees the lives of our kids, and He will work it out in His way, in His time, I am mighty glad and thankful we are not the ones responsible for writing the life story of our kids.
God is. And in love, He will write a great story for each of them.
I guess this is one truth I have come to learn this year as an educator. There are things, perpetual struggles even, that we need to learn to live with, accept and perhaps celebrate.