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To All Teachers: Remember Why We Do This

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

”We do not remember days, we remember moments.” – Cesare Pavese

I remember this boy in one of the classes I was teaching, I read suspicion and uneasiness in his eyes. I was giving a motivational talk on being resilient.

“Be like the coffee powder!” I was saying. “When the hot water of difficulties and discouragement surrounds you, produce the fragrance!”

The success of the talk was proven in many classes before, or so I had assumed. Students had responded in a delightful way, and a few had come to ask me for advice. I wanted to let the thought that his dull expression to my talk was not very flattering sink in, but instead, I sensed huge compassion for him.

He was the only boy asked to leave his previous class to join mine because he was not performing up to standard. Imagine how his self-esteem must have been punctured. He was evidently feeling uneasy in his new class. This was also our first day back at school.

On the second day, when I brought in balloons for sculpting as part of another motivational talk, he was absent. Many dull expressions greeted me. They did not seem impressed with my balloon sculpting skills nor the talk.

On countless teaching days, I had walked on what I called the “lunatic fringe”. I must confess that daily, I told myself at least a hundred times not to give up working with these kids. And despite being challenged daily, I remained at peace in my heart. After all, I had asked for this! I had long accepted that I must be mad to have asked to teach this class. But somehow, teaching these kids was a big draw for me in my over 15 years of service with the Ministry of Education.

Back to the boy who was asked to leave his previous class. On the third day, I carefully selected a comprehension passage on a village boy taking part in a cross-country race. I intentionally crafted opportunities to praise him for his great running speed. His face turned red immediately, and he looked down but could not control a smile appearing. It was an amazing moment for me. Since that day, I witnessed before my eyes how he opened up to me, to his classmates, one step at a time, one day at a time. Empathy in the teaching service is a must.

Here’s another story of my journey with a student with ADHD. His parents, teachers and I walked throughhelplessness at first. The child’s impulsivity, manifested in behaviour that exhibited a lack of self-control, had escalated in intensity and frequency during the first month in school. He was getting hurt, his peers were getting hurt, and he was losing friendships quickly. He damaged his classmates’ property and took things that did not belong to him. No one wanted to be his friend.

As he was attracted to gadgets, he was caught switching on the computers in several classrooms in the mornings. Once, he even cut an internet cable in the classroom because “the computer was not working”. His teachers were challenged. His parents were challenged. As his counsellor, I was challenged.

To help him, I sought help in turn. As I consulted his teachers, many strategies surfaced. Taking a collaborative approach, we spoke at great length with his parents so that we could work on the same platform.

We fought hard to help manage his behaviour with rewards, positive reinforcement and lots of love. Another strategy we adopted was for his teacher to give him a slightly bigger physical space in class, which he defined for himself using colourful masking tape.

In addition, his strengths were celebrated in class. For example, his artwork was displayed prominently. His classmates started giving good reports of him. When an older boy complained of his past behaviour, he quickly responded: “That was the past. Don’t talk about the past anymore.”

Once, I had to fight back tears when I received a brilliant piece of artwork he had painted with the poster colour paints he had received from his father. He was a happier child.

During this time, he had also been reaching out to his classmate, a girl with selective mutism. He told her one day: “When I say ‘hello’, you follow me and say ‘hello’ too, okay?” And she actually listened to him!

Subsequently, when two teachers and I persuaded her to sit down with us, she stood and kept looking at us. But when he gently led her by the hand to the chair, she sat down. Now, that was another amazing moment.

I would just like to leave these thoughts for educators, spelled TEACH:

T – take time to talk and think

One-on-one sessions with a child can be powerful and effective catalysts in bringing about desired transformations in the child. At the same time, educators as reflective practitioners can be impactful and effective change agents.

E – empathy and excellence

Possess empathy, the ability to stand in the child’s shoes, to see and understand how it feels from the child’s perspective of the situation, and pursue excellence – it opens doors to honour and favour.

A – awe and amazement

Be continually awed and amazed. Expect the unexpected. Teaching is exciting because it brings new ventures and fulfilment in ways we never expect. Have a heart to learn.

C – care, collaboration and classroom climate

Pupils can tell when teachers care. Teachers need self-care to prevent burnout. Relationships can be a big source of stress when not managed with care. Build positive relationships as well as a caring and positive classroom climate.

H – heart, as well as harness your strengths and distinctiveness

My “doing” comes from my “being”, so guard your heart! Each of us is unique and brings to teaching something no one else can replace.

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