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What My Years of Teaching Taught Me

You may very well ask why I gave up teaching when it yielded the happiest years of my life. The answer is health issues that precluded me being in a classroom ever again. The first months of coming to terms with my new reality left me maimed beyond the definition of the word. Now, I have come to accept that you cannot control all that life throws at you. Meanwhile, cherished memories of the laughter, the anecdotes, and the learning curves will never fade.  These memories have ultimately spurred on what I would like to share in this article.

The agonising over my students not heeding my explanations (let alone advice) never ceased. No teacher can win over every student. Yet every student should prod a real teacher to question long-held notions. Which is why thinking over your teaching plans and reflections of what worked and didn’t are so important. By teaching plans, I don’t mean the perfectly futile paperwork involved in lesson planning. I mean pondering over and mapping out what you are really going to teach, how to teach it and above all make it meaningful to hearts and minds that do not come in one shape, colour or size. By reflection, I mean ongoing self-assessment while scrutinising your very innards and not just your face in the mirror.  This combo of planning and reflection provides Lesson No. 3

Like any seasoned teacher will tell you, teachers learn best from students which is why mega lessons are the ones where both teachers and students can say that they have learnt something before the bell goes. This entails saying loud and clear that just by being adults does not mean we have all the answers. Nor are we always right and we do make mistakes – loads of them.

A few years back I had a student who suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. It was sheer torment to see him sweat blood in his struggle to meet the demands of the IB Diploma Programme. By the end of the course, the entire staff (including myself) had given up on him and had even made it clear to his parents that his chances of making the grade were next to zilch. Yet when the results came out, we all had to eat our boots and moreover, rejoice in his more than respectable results. His tenacity and motivation are an eternal eye-opener to the strength of young people facing impossible odds.

So why bother to listen to us when the sparring of egos is blatantly obvious? Because most of us have more experience of the swings of life. And if our words offer a guiding light, then we are worth listening to. Also, because kids have to learn before they earn. Admitting that we do not know it all but showing that we genuinely care is Lesson No. 4.

My experience of mentoring – Lesson No 5. – was based on what I had missed out on during my own school years. A listening ear and a guiding hand, especially to learn how to study; to plan and execute revision; to face the jitters of examinations, and to give examiners what they want. Once more, listening to students’ concerns and reaching out to them after much reflection provided the key.

More crucially, to learn for life and not merely to pass examinations. If an author’s work does not make you question your body and soul; you have failed even if you score the highest marks became one of my mantras. I would go even further. Whatever subject you teach, the most important lesson for kids to learn is that in a world in which we can be so many things the path to happiness lies in being honest, humble, grateful and above all, kind. My father taught me this through his actions no matter the situation. Many a time I failed miserably to live up to his example. Yet I never stopped believing it no matter how hypocritical this sounds.

Over the years a good number of my former students reinforced this perception even in little things unravelling during the school day. The last group of IB students I taught sparkled with an incredible ‘let’s rock together’ dynamic. I would marvel at the group chat they sat up to bolster each other through an avalanche of assignments, tests, and examinations. Us members of the teaching staff had a great deal to learn from them.

I’d like to end my tribute to the wonderful young people I had the privilege to teach with a narration that will always give me goose bumps.

A few months before my father passed away, he had reached the stage of depending upon round-the-clock oxygen cylinders to breathe. This worked out into 3-4-5 sizeable cylinders a day. Although home delivery was available at an exorbitant price, it was not guaranteed on a daily basis and the supplier’s depot is located on the backside of the moon when compared to my parents’ home address. Thankfully, my father’s only surviving brother in Malta plus a few friends and neighbours pitched in to help out. Nevertheless, the commitment this entailed began to take its toll.

One late afternoon, the phone rang. It took me a few seconds to recognise and realise that it was one of my former students enquiring whether I needed any help. I never found out how she got to know of my predicament because I had not seen her for a decade. Nor would she let on. Caving into her repeated offers to help, I ended up telling her the truth.

‘Leave it up to me. I’ll see what I can do,’ was her parting shot. The impact of her call took a while to sink in.

Two days later, more or less at the same time, the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, I found myself facing four thirty-year-old men who looked vaguely familiar.

I was utterly gobsmacked. They were four of my former students – including her brother – who I had not seen for twelve years and who had blossomed into three lawyers and an IT guru. I could barely pronounce a word except for a totally astonished greeting. The leader of the pack very calmly and gently said:

‘Miss, we’re here to help you out. We’ve got it all planned. Here’s the roster. The only thing is that we can only come over in the evening after work.’ I have no words to describe how incredibly moved I was. Still, am. They never missed out on a single delivery. Two of them even turned up for the funeral. Nor does the story end there. Today, ‘the leader of the pack’ is my boss driving a group of companies with an awesome vision.

I’m not that big-headed to claim that my teaching played a big part in moulding them into the fine gentlemen they grew up into. As students, they had always stood out for their kindness and decency. However, teachers have a huge responsibility to do their best to walk the talk.

Today’s youngsters are living in a much more challenging world than the one I grew up in. They may be more confident and assertive, yet James Baldwin’s observation will always hold true: ‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’

One final comment. Lessons 1-5 are all Number 1.

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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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