On Bucket Lists and Immortality and Legacies

Posted on May 21, 2012. Filed under: rickywoods | Tags: , , |

I’ve never given much thought to the idea of leaving a legacy.

I have been blessed to have two wonderful sons – now men – so, watching them emerge and realise their own dreams has always been enough for me. It’s not vicarious living, if that’s what the cynic is thinking. I have a very fulfilling job as a teacher and for the past thirty years it has been sufficient.

Then, last year it dawned on me that I had a decade left until I would be retiring. Something about that thought was the ‘spur to prick the sides of my intent’ (with apologies to the Bard) and I started looking at other options. I’ve always thought of retirement as a bit of a death sentence if one is not actively involved in all sorts of interesting pursuits – and if those pursuits can help to swell the coffers of a miserly education department pension, so much the better.

The obvious starting point was looking at the things I loved doing. For so many years I have been teaching others how to write and I figured it was time to do some of that for myself. I enrolled for an online writing course where I met a diverse range of people, each with something to say and looking for a market to say it in. It was en enormous learning curve for me: one personal website and a blog later, I was so excited by this new world that had opened up for me. What’s more, I had begun to earn some money from freelance writing. Nothing terribly difficult or creative, but once in a while I would see my name in print and it gave me such a kick!

Out of nowhere I was dealt a heavy blow – my father died – and my life as I had been living it was turned upside-down. I went into survival mode, having to deal with all the legal and other complications that such an event brings.

I stopped writing.

Then, a week ago I received an email telling me that I had one follower to my blog!  In that moment things changed. I went back to have a look at the scant writings that had been posted there. Five posts. Four comments.  Dutiful responses from loving friends. But this was different. Someone who was not obliged to do so had taken the trouble to read what I had to say.

It made me realise that there is still so much more that I want to do before I ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ (oops, again!). The first of those is to pursue the writing that I had started on.  A weekly or at least fortnightly blog must be part of this discipline.  I have once again enrolled in a writing course – this time complete with assignments and commentary from tutors.

Who knows what the future will bring? More about that in a later post!

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The Wonder of Teaching

Posted on May 15, 2012. Filed under: rickywoods, teaching | Tags: , |

It’s been a year since I last posted something. Life has a way of sideswiping the best-laid plans. But now I’m back – and determined to write again. The post that follows is not a new piece of writing, but in days when I feel disheartened, I look at it and it gives me purpose again.

High school in South Africa spans a period of five years. I spent the first three of these at a boarding school. “Why? “ I hear you ask.

I read too many stories about British schooldays when I was a youngster, so I believed it would be one long midnight feast and adventure.  Reality was a far cry from that,so my final two years saw me back in day school.

The problem was that my old friends had moved on with their lives and there was no room for me.   I did what misfit teenagers the world over have done – I acted out to draw attention to myself and soon found myself in a great deal of trouble.

My parents could not cope. What had happened to their well-behaved child? Everyone thought I was heading for a fall. Everyone that is, except for my English teacher.

She was a diminutive woman with the spirit of a Jedi warrior. Her passion for English was where we connected and her classes were a light in the gloom of those days. Through her care and wisdom I realised I could achieve anything. Through her encouragement I eventually became an English teacher.

If truth be told, teaching in South Africa has become beleaguered and embattled over the past fifteen years. Schools try to muddle along without the requisite number of teachers and many schools have no principal. Where funding exists, parent bodies appoint teachers, but otherwise inadequate teaching occurs by sometimes untrained teachers.

A year ago scores of teachers took to the streets to strike in an attempt to persuade the government to look at adequate working conditions and benefits for its members. Recently, temporary teachers appointed with a promise of permanent appointments in the near future have summarily been dismissed, leaving pupils stranded and teachers looking for work.

So, why do we still teach?  Why did we become teachers?

In my case it was a special teacher who saw my potential.  It need not have been a real teacher, but could have been a Mr Chips. Or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society encouraging you to Carpe Diem – Seize the day.

 A dear friend gave me a poster which now has pride of place in my classroom. It reads: “The Wonder of Teaching is watching Caterpillars turn into Butterflies” – that sums it up for me.

When I think of what it is that keeps me going back, year after year, these are some of my reasons:

  • It’s bumping into a past pupil, who says, “ You encouraged me to keep writing, and I have  just published my first collection of poetry.”
  • It’s watching the lights go on in the eyes of a Senior class when they eventually get Lady Macbeth
  • It’s when one of my pupils struggles against and overcomes her impoverished, single-parent background, so that she can carry on fighting for her people

When I became a teacher I knew I would not be earning a king’s ransom. I knew the hours would be long; that it would be stressful and often thankless.

But, I also knew that I could make a difference; that this was not just a job, but a vocation, a calling.

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Don’t Treat Me Like a Mushroom!

Posted on May 30, 2011. Filed under: rickywoods, teaching | Tags: , , , |

If you always feed me garbage and keep me in the dark, I begin to feel like a mushroom.

Welcome to the world of being an employee of the state.  I am a well-qualified, professional person who, in the corporate world would be accorded the respect (and the salary) I deserve. I have a number of post-graduate qualifications and more than 25 years’ experience in my field. I also run the largest department at my place of employment, with acknowledged success, I might add.

Why is it then that the people who hold the purse strings never manage to get things right? I would like to cite some examples by way of explanation:

  • Three years ago I was officially promoted into a post I had filled (unofficially) for the previous two years. This meant a nominal increase, for which I was most grateful. Six months later all educators (oh, I forgot to tell you that I am a teacher) were awarded something called an Occupation Specific Dispensation increase  –  related specifically to being educators. Things were looking up!
  • Three months later I was informed that as I had only been in that promotion post for six months, I did not qualify for the increase, so they were going to be deducting the amount that I had been given, in monthly increments over the next two years.
  • Then in September last year educators all over South Africa went out on strike for better wages, housing and medical benefits. The union to which I belong called for a show of solidarity, so I struck (if that is the right word) for one day, knowing that I would not be paid.
  • In February this year we were told that, owing to an administrative issue they were not able to distinguish between those who had struck for one day, or those who had downed tools ( or is that chalk?) for longer. Thus, they would deduct four days’ pay from us all and at some stage ( not specified) in the future they would refund us what was owed.
  • Add to this the fact that any salary advice reconciliation is only ever received three or four months after the relevant pay date and you have a recipe for disaster.
  • Where in the corporate world does it happen that someone is given something and then has it taken away?  Who would tolerate not knowing from month to month what they will earn – or having any way to find out?

I love my job. I love being in the classroom with teenagers who are alive and fresh and new every day. I love the fact that they teach me – often far more than I will ever teach them.  I love the fact that relating to them on a daily basis keeps my mind open to the changes that are inevitable in life.

But who ever said that in order to be a teacher, you have to be treated like a mushroom?

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Teaching: my love-hate relationship

Posted on May 25, 2011. Filed under: rickywoods | Tags: , , |

When I think of the many frustrations of my job, I wonder why it is that I am still here more than 25 years later.

We are not valued in our profession. Not in the terms that matter out there.  When I look around at my colleagues, there is not one person who does not have at least a four-year degree. Many have added to their initial qualifications; there are two or three with PhD’s and a string of them have M-degrees either completed or in the process.

As the years pass, the focus has become more and more child-centered. I am all in favour of this: one only has to think back on the Dickensian days of vicious beatings by the beadle to know that it was wrong. Many of our fathers and brothers can relate horror stories of boarding school days and prefects who thought they were gods, meting out an unfair system of fagging and caning. Yet, when they found themselves in  senior positions they perpetuated the violence, never thinking to put an end to it.

But what is left ? Teachers find themselves in classrooms overfilled.  In an attempt to address the horrors of past regimes, those in power refuse or are powerless to assist teachers when it comes to issues of discipline.

Young teachers, straight out of the halls of academe and full of idealistic notions, are unable to cope with the increasing bureaucratic demands. And so, sooner rather than later, they are lost to teaching as they are won over by the lure of easy money which the four holidays a year in education cannot beat.

I know I have painted a bleak picture. So, why am I still here? Why is it that 25 years later, I still get up with a spring in my step each morning?

It’s because every day I am faced with the opportunity to make a difference. A young man, always in trouble with authority, has begun to pay attention in my class. Why? In his words: “Because you treat me like a human being”

No amount of money can give me the thrill that I get from seeing the light go on in  the eyes of a teenager when they finally get it.

It’s still the only place I can see myself ten, even fifteen years from now.


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