On teaching

I apologize in advance for the excessive rhetorical questioning.

Lately I’ve had a lot of conflicting thoughts regarding my role as an educator here. Teaching, regardless of where you are, is a ridiculously difficult profession. What is a teacher supposed to do? Quite simply, the job of a teacher is to transfer knowledge. However, at any point on the job, a teacher may also be required to serve as a (loosely defined) babysitter, counselor, stand-in parent, energizer, IT expert, school nurse, role model, life coach, lawyer, police officer, social worker, therapist, motivational speaker, secretary, the list goes on. I think this is especially true in poor communities where there is no market for ultra-specialized professions. Why hire a school secretary or a counselor when the teachers can do that? What is the purpose of a counselor in a place where college is a rare dream and “counseling” is a foreign concept? Thus, we teachers often find ourselves with far too many shoes and only two feet.

Aside from the extra roles we are often asked to play, teachers have our work cut out for us in the classroom. It’s a daunting task to serve as the sole ambassador to a whole category of knowledge. What if I teach something incorrectly? What if my students constantly question my authority? What if my teaching methods turn these students off of this subject forever? Students learn in different ways – some are visual learners, some are repetitive learners, some are audial learners – but with 45 minutes a lesson, it’s impossible to cater to every learning style.

Students also learn at different paces, and come in at different levels. I have some students who can barely read or write. I have students in the same classes who already speak English at conversational level. How in the world am I to even the playing field and teach a class that will engage both ends of the spectrum? I suppose I should add “great equalizer” to the list of extra roles.

And what if your students don’t care? How can you force somebody to learn if they are unwilling? When my students don’t study or do their homework, or when they skip class, it makes me worry about their future and mine. Students must be evaluated, and teachers are evaluated on how well their students perform. Here in Mozambique, teachers are often chastised if their students don’t score well on the provincial exams. Instead of making them better teachers, this punishment leads teachers to ignore cheating – or even to help their students cheat by giving them answers while proctoring or changing their scores later. The thing is, now I understand: it completely sucks having your success measured by anonymous outside sources. But this makes me think, what is the goal of education? Do we want the students to learn the information, or do we just want them to get good grades so we can all pat ourselves on the back? Cheating is rampant here, but only because everyone wants to be successful. We forget that the true success in school is learning.

Another thing that people often overlook about teaching: public speaking. A teacher must be an excellent public speaker to keep their students engaged and enthusiastic. Public speaking is about 75% of the job (especially when you are only equipped with a chalkboard, your voice, and your mind). While I have no aversion to public speaking, I wouldn’t put it on my list of talents, or on my list of favorite things to do – especially in Portuguese. It takes a great deal of self-confidence to stand up in front of 120 unruly, hormonal teenagers every day and teach in a foreign language. Yes, I am teaching English, but my students are at the lowest level, which means a lot of Portuguese instruction. And with my eighth graders, sometimes Portuguese doesn’t cut it, thus English goes to Portuguese goes to Xitswa, and a lot is lost in translation. Language difference aside, public speaking is difficult and exhausting! At the end of most teaching days, I have a hoarse voice and a headache.

I could go on and on complaining about teaching. I could talk about how, as a teacher, there is no “off” switch – every time I see my students, no matter where, I must constantly play my work role. I could talk about how much I struggle walking the line between disciplinarian and cool young teacher. I could talk about that one time my 8th grade class made me cry and want to quit. But if I’ve learned anything in Peace Corps so far, it’s that negativity is fruitless, and the relief that comes after a good whine is only temporary. So here comes the positive spin:

Yes, teaching is an insanely undervalued and demanding profession… but what an honor! What an honor to be charged with the role of educating future generations. What an honor to be given a position of such influence and importance in the lives of so many. What an honor to watch a student master a new skill, and be able to say, “I taught them that.” My students may drive me crazy at times, but when they show up by the dozens for English Club, or when they greet me in the villa in English, or when they say, “teacher, one day I will visit you in America,” I can’t help but think, what an honor.

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*Photo credit goes to my roomie – we teach the same classes and I gave her my camera one day to take pictures. I will try to get some more of my own soon!

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One comment

  1. During the time I taught English in Japan and France, I thought the most enjoyable aspect of my job was the feeling that my students were enjoying English. When that feeling was tangible, teaching English became so much more fun.

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