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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To Whine or Not To Whine

Posted on June 21, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

I did not submit a blog last week, despite my undertaking to write one every week as part of my discipline of writing.

Why? I was just so depressed. Once again my beloved profession has had to suck it up at the hands of an education department that mostly doesn’t know its nether regions from its elbow.

Ever since we became a democracy (?) the powers that be have been doing a duck and dive with regard to their demands and expectations of the
teaching profession. I can understand their wanting to move away from a system that perpetuated the wrongs of the past regime, but surely one does one’s homework before throwing it all out?

Instead, since then we have been revising the revisions of the revised OBE system. Every two or three years, amendments are made; an enormous
amount of money is spent; teachers are ‘trained’ by trainers who read long documents badly. Then things carry on for a while and before you know it, the process starts again.

The latest in a string of these is something called CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement) – methinks the word Research should have been added after Curriculum 🙂  Once again a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing and very little transparency has educators now facing another spate of ‘training’. One week ago we were told it was going to happen now – in our July Holidays!  Fortunately, our unions were awake and reminded them that we need a term’s notice before they take our holidays away. So, guess what we have to look forward to in September?

Needless to say, we were not a happy bunch of campers.

Until tonight, that is.

I have the privilege of teaching at an amazing school where, although sport is worshipped (we are South African, after all) matters cultural really have an important place both in and out of our curriculum. We are regularly treated to the talents of our various school bands, one of which has won acclaim nationwide in band competitions. Two years ago we produced the South African première schools’ version of the musical of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, playing nightly to full houses.

But tonight I was invited to an open rehearsal of the choir and our fledgling strings ensemble. It is cold, pretty much the middle of winter, but I needed to show my support so off I went. I was entranced. The strings opened with a beautiful rendition of Hornpipe by Handel, followed by a choral piece of Elgar’s. Then some angel voices captivated us with a range of numbers from Domine Deus by Regnart  to A Boy and a Girl by Whitacre. The concluding number was a combination of strings, choir and an additional bass guitar section in a compelling interpretation of Iris by Goo Goo dolls ( from the sound track of the movie City of Angels)

It was only an hour’s performance, but I left there totally transformed. My previously disheartened outlook had lifted and I began to remember why it is that I teach. I have a poster in my classroom that reads, “The Wonder of Teaching is Watching Caterpillars Turn into Butterflies”.

Tonight I saw Butterflies

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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.

http://about.me/rickywoods

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