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.