So X was musing one afternoon on the journey home in the car about how it must feel like preparing lessons for a class of students who may not appreciate or bother to even stay awake while you conduct the lesson. At that moment I gave a generic response about how getting the attention of 100% of students 100% of the time is beyond our control, and we need to realise that a goal like that is impractical. The conversation faded into something about colouring books and art after a while, but the question still lingered in my mind.
The truth is, there are plenty of truthful, human experiences that underpin that strand of thought. For X it may be the group of students he teaches whose primary goal may just be to get by day by day. For T and B it may be the students who prefer combing their hair and sleeping to listening to the lesson. For myself it may be the class of Sec 1 students whom I just cannot seem to get along with. These classroom experiences make us feel vulnerable, tired and over time it wears us out, amongst other things.
These experiences may not be uncommon to an educator, yet every end of a term or semester or year, we have our reviews, we relook at our schemes of work, and we have a candid, reflective discussion about what worked and what didn’t, and we try our utmost to make changes for the better. The process can be so long-drawn and painful because often you do not see a positive change immediately. As teaching pedagogies and activities change, so do the profiles of students who pass in and out of the classroom. There is simply no ‘one size fits all’ solution to address everything less than ideal we observe in our classrooms. But we do so constantly because those processes of refinement is part of our job and they make us better educators.
A deeper truth that not everyone recognises is that teaching is a very human job. Our students are humans; and teachers are human too. We understand that students come to class with different baggages, and they get tired after a long day of lessons, and their emotional burdens get in the way of being an attentive model student. Teachers too walk into a classroom with their own personal baggages and emotional burdens. We may be adults but it does not make those burdens less legitimate.
Many times I have walked into class and see a badly behaved student and wished desperately the next second that I did not witness that sweet the girl just popped into her mouth, or that paper plane that just flew across the classroom. The more tired I am with other things, the greater the struggle to ignore and dismiss behaviour that needs to be addressed. At my worst, I have wished that the year would fly past because walking into particular classes had become more a chore than anything else. These are dark moments I am not proud of and do not wish to revisit. It is tempting to sideline classes because there is ‘less at stake’ should they not perform. But this logic is gravely flawed because all classes of students deserve an educator’s regard and attention – they all deserve the best learning environment possible.
It is this struggle that forms every educator’s battle. We fight for our ideals because we believe so strongly that a class of students deserve our best, whether or not they are ready to learn. We feel overwhelmingly gutted when we realise we have been shortchanging our kids or have not been reflective enough in our practices. We put aside that evening appointment or that few hours of sleep for our lesson preparation because of the hope that that one lesson might make a difference in our students, even if it is just one kid. If it could help a handful of kids in that class understand this concept better, if it could help that girl gain an ounce of confidence to overcome her insecurities, we would try our best to make it happen.
Perhaps the longer you are in the service, the more tired you become, and over time these ideals may be traded for something else, like soundness of mind, sleep, family, or maybe just the sense of emotional distance for protection against your vulnerability as an educator. It is not a pretty picture, but I do believe this is the ultimate struggle I face every day as an educator. When and why, if you do, forfeit your ideals? Is it justifiable? Do all civil servants have to give up their passions and ideals in order to get by in the system?
It is very much like the battle we face as Christians – the knowing what is right versus the doing of it, the battle between the flesh and the mind. It is always a daily struggle and sometimes the obligation that drives us just fades away and in its place is indifference and apathy towards our duties.
I struggle to end this post with an inspiring piece of closing advice or visionary reflection, but I do not have any. They say the fruits of education come many years later when your students succeed in their own ways or cohorts of students benefit from the change you strived to implement in school. Perhaps we can only celebrate and take heart in the fluidity and unpredictability of our teaching experiences, like how life is.