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What My Years of Teaching Taught Me

Lesson 2: Be honest in your need to change

Meanwhile, the Year 10 class was still on a high making my life a misery. With the countdown to Christmas, I was desperate for a solution. More so since, the headmistress – a nun – was clearly not looking favourably in my direction. Nor did she mince her words. Seeking help from colleagues is a double-edged weapon when a staffroom is chock-a-block with women. Most unhealthy to put it mildly. The students used to joke that the only male in sight was the gardener or the school chaplain whenever he turned up. Their evoked wisdom was sadly a lesson that fell on deaf ears and myopic eyes.

Back to the awful 37-strong Year 10 class. One particular double lesson ground to a halt thanks to their meticulously planned total resistance. I wanted to walk out of class and the school for good. What I actually did was walk to the front of the desk and stand silently there watching them until everyone turned silent.

The silence turned into grating nerves. Then, I said: ‘Girls, this can’t go on we have to find a way out. Let’s talk things over.’ And we did, hesitantly at first, though the sassier students eventually fired up an open and lengthy discussion. The next day, I played Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Like a bridge over troubled waters’ as an extension of my ‘Good morning!’ It sounds cheesy but it must have struck a chord because we had a great deal of changing in our attitudes towards each other to go through. Thankfully, the animosity gradually melted away.

I’d be lying if I had to say that my first four years as a teacher were simply ecstatic. And not just because everyone has down days in any workplace. To begin with, the novelty of teaching business subjects soon wore thin because the business world has never been me. Even more significantly, my relationship with the love of my life ended in heartache rather than in marriage and having children. To make it even more complicated he was an elder brother of one of the very girls I was teaching.

It was also dawning upon me that my teaching stint was not turning out to be of short duration – something that I was still fighting against given my aspirations and having studied to become an interior designer – or I was not quite sure what – yet with English Literature as my Holy Grail. For the simple reason that I adored the works of British authors.

Oddly (perhaps not so oddly) both traumatic situations and the rut I had fallen into shaped what came next. After four years I did walk out the front door of that girls’ school for the last time and walked into university to read a B.A. Honours degree in English. And another four years later I was back in a classroom – this time teaching English Literature and language to Sixth Formers in what was then Malta’s undisputed top-tier Sixth Form.

Once again, economic reality played its part.

But this time round was no case of force majeure déjà vu. This time it was a ‘Yes’ to a daily mountain of homework to correct, ‘Yes’ to an ill-paid job and exploitive working conditions. ‘Yes’ to obnoxious students I will never click with. ‘Yes’ to lousy parenting that inevitably rears ‘problem children’ when the latter are victims (not perpetrators) of infinite variations of neglect.

Outright insane?

I would say ‘Yes’ to that too. As I would say ‘Yes’ to the immense joy of teaching young people. And the loudest ‘Yes’ to an impossible-to-describe satisfaction cascading from teaching literature and critical analysis even when exhaustion becomes a daily companion. And even when grieving my beloved father who passed away after an excruciating illness and who I nursed till the very end.

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?

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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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24 CONVERSATIONS

  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.

    • Thank you John for your fulsome praise. I don’t mean to sound ungracious but this incredible platform is so replete with great writers and greater souls that I am truly honoured to be included.

  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!

    • Thank you Ellen for your appreciation and comments. I’d like to reciprocate (though it’s not enough) by encouraging everyone to plunge into Ellen’s photography. Her insight and sensitivity runs deep and deeper.

  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!?

    • Thank you Darlene for taking the time to read and comment. Like any ‘giving’ profession, teaching is definitely ‘a calling not a job’ as you so rightly put it. Love for teaching amply proves that it is in giving that we receive.

  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.

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