What My Years of Teaching Taught Me

September has always meant bittersweetness to me. The first rain after three or four totally dry months having me luxuriate in the smell of damp earth soaking in much-longed-for water, yet also signalling the end of summer’s lazy days.

And for anyone living on a rock bang in the middle of the Med as I do (that’s Malta), rain is an event. It’s what makes everyone gush with lamentation (few are the squeals of pleasure); creates even worse traffic snarls; momentarily dips the mercury in thermometers, and has hapless pedestrians getting soaked by two pairs of screeching tyres deliberately splashing the puddles and streams of rainwater. Crouching against the wall is all in vain. (Anyone who is still new to the island will eventually find out that in Malta you are more likely to get drenched by sadistic, speeding vehicles rather than by pelting rain.)

For teachers and students, the last week or two of September spells ’BACK TO SCHOOL’. When I was a kid the new scholastic year invariably began in the first week of October translating into three complete months of holidays. By the time I began teaching, someone had had the malicious idea of curtailing those three glorious months during which no one even walked within the shadow of a school building.

Today’s national demand for constant babysitting has our schools a whisker away from 24/7 open doors meaning hundreds of children spend most of their lives within the confines of a school. No wonder so many of them hate the very word and what it stands for.

We’ve just had the first rain of the season and up to a year ago I’d either be relishing the last days of a holiday abroad or huffing and puffing as I frantically prepared/revamped notes while learning a novel, play or an anthology of poems, weeks before I would be teaching the stuff. Oh yes, as I indulge into nostalgia for my recently ended teaching career, I readily admit that I’ve done both procrastination as well as diligent daily doses of preparation in such blistering heat that it is an effort to breathe. I’ll leave it up to you to guess which method worked best for me.

But nothing compares to the all-over body-slap of being back to the grind on the first day of term facing old and new students while all of us would rather be still asleep and crawling out of bed for an afternoon swim, swanning into chill-out evenings and revving up for late nights. I could write books about those first minutes of being sized up by a classroom of totally unknown teenagers ranging from 14- to 16-year olds … and sizing them up in return.

My first teaching experience kicked off at the beginning of November several moons ago in an all-girls Catholic Church school a mere 20-minute walk from home. This was immediately after the first mid-term break when we are most likely to be still in summer clothes, though students switch to a scaled-down winter uniform. (That’s the stamp of our British colonial past still lingering on private and church schools.)  I was not that much older than the teenage girls in front of me and most of the older ones could very well have been the younger sisters I never had.

A big part of me was appalled at myself having to bow to economic reality. A bigger part of me was terrified.

Taking on the job was a matter of ensuring a salary at the end of the month during an economic downturn. For three years, I had been the ‘Accounts Department’ of a parastatal firm which had just closed shop prior to this career move. Now I had the responsibility to teach basic accounting and commerce – option subjects. I had no university degree, no teacher training, not an iota of teaching experience. Nor any ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ to teach. In fact, I never ever wanted to become a teacher. A big part of me was appalled at myself having to bow to economic reality. A bigger part of me was terrified.  Despite a chatty façade, I am a very introverted person. How did I feel facing a class for the first time ever? Just like Mary, Queen of Scots must have felt when about to be beheaded.

What saved me were two classes of lovely girls in Years 9 and 11 who I somehow gelled instantly with. In contrast, the Year 10 cohort comprising 37 girls – had me toss and turn for countless sleepless nights to overcome a palpably toxic animosity. The two extremes taught me my first ‘big’ teaching lessons.

Lesson 1: Be firm, be fair, both underlined with compassion.

I remember giving a test to the Year 11s at the end of November. It was school policy to ask for the signatures of both parents as ‘proof’ of parents seeing the result. So, I gave the girls a couple of days to hand in the signed papers. A week later one of my A-grade students had not handed in her ‘proof’ which had me voice my annoyance with more than a tinge of sarcasm.

‘Well,’ she piped up walking to my desk and placing her test paper on a pile of uncorrected work; ‘My mother has already signed it, but my father abandoned us a good while back; and spare me any reference to broken families. I’m not broken.’

The class literally froze. A never-ending, awkward pause. Back then, separated couples were still far from the norm. Tongue-tied, I proceeded with the lesson on autopilot. Needless to say, I was shaken … and stirred. Whatever was left of the day and most of the night was spent in deep reflection. The next day I apologised to her right in front of the rest of the class and I gave the girls time to ponder and discuss what I had just said about the error of making assumptions even when there is no ill intent. We did not experience one unhappy or tense moment for the rest of the year. What I did not say out loud was: ‘To hell with sticking blindly to school rules that have no compassion.’ Yet saying it to myself became a daily prayer.


Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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  1. I WASN’T CALLED Of TEACHING OUT OF ECONOMIC REALITIES LIKE Ms. ZARB. It was either teaching in BROOKLYN, New York, elementary school built in 1870 or put on a military uniform for the United States. It was an easy choice. For three years i dodged traffic in my small VW, and tried to change the world of 9-year-olds who were society’s so-called “castoffs,” African-American children who could barely read a word, and were shuffled into a decaying building with no book, no materials, and certainly no hope. It was easy to become a radical activist, a young zealot hoping to destroy the existing system and to create a rich environment for the 30-odd students in my classroom. My constant combat against the primitives in the bureaucracy did pay off–and it was exhilarating as Ms. Zarb suggests. Several of my students did become real scholars hungry for reading, mathematics, anything that i talked about in our tightly-packed classroom. But just as MS. Zarb intimates, the struggle against administrators is a tiring one, sapping dedicated teachers of energy and any zeal for their work. I eventually couldn’t manage the petty thinking, the conformity, and had to leave what was the most satisfying work in my life. At least Ms. Zarb and myself enjoyed many bright moments, touching the lives of our students–and to this day I wonder if the love of learning i gave to Kathy, Ronnie, James and all the others are bearing fruit. I HOPE AND HOPE THEY ARE.

    • Thank you once again, Edward. The joy and satisfaction of teaching are truly magical and last long after you put down your teaching tools. Do not doubt that your teaching has born fruit, rather think of how the fruit has ripened.

  2. You have a lovely way of interweaving the different fabrics of your past Noemi, the various shades and colors for which you thread your quilt. That you were able to make beautiful vases out of clay, to shape young minds even though you were skeptical about teaching… It only proves that you never know what fate may have up its sleeve. What you think today may be a completely different reality tomorrow. Beyond your journey as an educator, you are also a student of life. You are a dreamer and I still believe you have plenty more to share with the world at large…

    …and for the record, this perfectly captures you… “Of course, I am biased because I find literature magical. Which subject has you plunge into the complexities of the human heart and mind that can never date? Which other subject opens windows upon windows on history, the arts, psychology, sociology, socio-politics, religion, philosophy, economics and every other possible sphere of human action and interaction in a symphonic synthesis?

    • Thank you, Aaron, for your time and appreciation. Though I love the use of your metaphors, shaping ‘beautiful vases’ was never my wish or goal. Education is all about leading out which entails spotlighting the many facets of whatever prism is under discussion. This entails teaching how to think not what to think.

      Yes, I am a dreamer and one of zillions who have a lot to share.

  3. Exceptional style of writting that conveys author’s emotions and thoughts in a very special way which must attract the readers.
    Written by the pen, but also from the heart. Sharp and brilliant mind of the writter took us in the scholl days where we found out one of the most imoprtant things in life. Learning. We learn as long as we live. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to read such a brilliant and emotional article.

  4. It is strange that I have not seen this article as I follow BIZCATALYST 360 ° very carefully.
    Obviously this is an interesting article and a story. Congratulations on the intensity of your life and your successes.
    My wife was a teacher and her old students still call her or stop her in the street.
    The teachers are civil heroes, they must return to being revered and, above all, better paid. Every day they are called to deal with a system of intimidating complexity. Sometimes they don’t have the right structure, they are certainly underpaid.
    In the long journey of a school year, how many things can happen to a teacher who tries with dedication to play his role? Sharing his passions, his knowledge, his ideas on teaching, is like pouring a lot of sweat. Not to mention the slalom that a teacher puts into practice every day in the world of an increasingly bureaucratic school and from the many refresher courses, specializations and endless meetings. And those parents who often don’t work as a team with those who are trying to do their job at their best? Forget it, we should write another article about it.
    But you did and do even more. Certainly the experience of a teacher who, it seems to me, you remember with nostalgia, was also useful for everything else. This is the magical circularity that is the guiding star of teaching and that makes this job extraordinary, because, as the great Seneca wrote, there is a double advantage in teaching, because, while teaching, you learn.

    • Thank you so much for your comments and moreover for your appreciation for teachers worldwide. You really nailed it when you describe their daily working lives as a ‘slalom’. If only more parents had your insight and sensitivity! If only our curricula would reintroduce the Classics! Great to hear how loved your wife is by her former students. Kudos to her.

  5. Noemi Zara writes a wonderfully heartfelt article about teaching. Her marvelous insights into her own feelings about teaching teenagers is drawn from her years of experience and from a deep understanding of her students. Teachers as well as anyone who has been a student should read Noemi’s article!

  6. Thanks for sharing your article Noemi. Many teachers in my family and among my friends . It’s a grand journey.

    “We’re trying to give the young people something that can help them, and we don’t know exactly what it ought to be.” (Wendell Berry)

    “Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.” (Colleen Wilcox)

    “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” (Anonymous)

  7. Just beautiful Noemi! I have clients who are teachers, and despite the challenges of disrespect and unruly behavior, their love for teaching transcends all. You are amazing! The proof of your impact is evident as students come to assist years later. Just think of the others whom you have influenced in ways you may never know. Truly, the profession of teaching is a calling not a job. Thank you for this!?

  8. I loved your article! Teachers are heroes! The task of imparting knowledge especially in these times with budget cuts, social issues and so on there is so much more to your day that a teacher had to undertake in years past. We need more teachers. Yours is noble work although your are grossly underpaid. All of our kids are grown but there are grandchildren that are in school. If I may ask you a question which is why aren’t isn’t grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. not being emphasized ro given diminished importance? How can we allow our children to spell words as they hear them not as they are supposed to be spelled? Thank you for all that you do and have done.

    • Thank you Joel for taking time to read and comment on my post. The endemic lower of standards is indeed worse than sad shoddiness because I see it all as deliberate plan to generate sheep that will not question the Establishment. The debasing of language reflects a debased society as Orwell so incisively noted. I used to tell my students that I morph into a witch with the longest fangs and the most poisonous talons when correcting their work. At first, they would laugh. But they soon got the message when they saw their marks. It was the best spur to learn their grammar, syntax and spelling which I would revise with them for of course you have to help them come to grips with whatever they do not know.