Students take their cue from what teachers say, and do not say, as well as how they say it.
THERE are times when you get disappointed with what’s going on around you and then you meet someone like Anna. We were roommates during a recent kursus (course) we attended together and somewhere between the end of the night slot and the point when we sank into sleep, she told me her story.
Like me, she’d been a teacher for more than 20 years, been in six different schools, and had the experience of teaching students ranging from the first to the sixth form.
“I’ve had bright kids, not-so-bright kids, kids from well-to-do families and not-so well-to-do families,” she said, rearranging the little sugar and creamer sachets that I’d left scattered all over the dressing table.
“Leave that alone,” I said, feeling a little guilty. “Housekeeping will do that tomorrow.”
“Habit,” she said. “When you have to bring up three energetic and sometimes unruly boys on your own, certain habits get ingrained, almost routine.”
Anna is 45 years old, a single mother with three boys, the youngest of whom is 17 this year. Her husband had left the family to marry another woman 15 years ago and neither she nor her sons have heard from him since.
Without financial or emotional support from family members on either side, Anna somehow manages to bring her boys up on her salary as a schoolteacher. And she is doing a remarkable job of it too. Both the older boys, after obtaining brilliant results, managed to get scholarships in courses of their choice at local universities.
“My youngest boy is not so? what shall I say? outstanding academically, but he’s got his heart set on being a chef. He’s really rather good, you know. You should come over to my place one day when he’s cooking. You’ll be surprised. Most of my friends are.”
Anna also recently enrolled for postgraduate studies and is now in her first semester.
“It’s been my dream all along,” she said a little wistfully. “But sometimes you have to put your dreams on hold when there are more pressing needs.
“Like buying school uniforms and paying school fees. Also juggling time between school work, seeing to the boys’ needs and keeping the house reasonably tidy.
“It was hard, dreadfully, painfully hard, especially the first few years. It was like someone had dumped a ton of bricks on your chest but you somehow still had to get up and continue walking. It hurt each time I had to take a bus to school and someone asked me why I didn’t buy a car.
“It hurt when I overheard the students make snide comments like ‘Cikgu tak ada baju lain ke?’ (Doesn’t teacher have any other clothes?)
“But you know what actually hurt me most?
“When I saw all the other teachers graduating with their master’s degrees or PhD’s and I couldn’t afford the time or the money even though the desire to continue studying was so strong within me.”
Of opinions and prejudices
She paused, smoothened the creases on the bedspread and went on: “Well, finally, after all these years, here I am. 45 years old, in a class with fresh-faced master’s students who have just completed their first degrees. I feel like their grandmother!”
Her sons were completely supportive of her desire to pursue her dreams, Anna said.
“And I’ve been so used to multi-tasking – changing diapers between marking test papers and making dinner – that time management comes pretty naturally these days,” she smiled.
“I generally finish my assignments ahead of time. And I feel like I’ve learned so much already. It felt a little funny at first, being on the other side in the classroom. After all the years as a teacher, now I’m a student again.
“Lifelong learning? I suppose I’m coping quite well but there’s just this one thing?”
I sensed that there was something on Anna’s mind and after putting the water to boil, she settled back against her pillows and said: “I never realised how much power we wield when we are at the front of the classroom until now.”
I laughed. “That sounds like something from one of those teacher-inspirational books.”
“Okay, let me rephrase that,” said Anna good-naturedly.
“You see, there are some lecturers who use a great portion of the class time to talk about things totally unrelated to the course content. It took a little getting used to at first, coming as we do from the school classroom where almost every minute has to be properly accounted for.
“I felt like there was so much time wasted, almost as if I was being cheated. I got used to this too after a while, knowing that I just had to do extra reading later.
“But what gave me a jolt was the realisation that many of the personal opinions and prejudices conveyed from the lectern were lapped up like gospel truth by the other students even when they really smacked of narrow-minded bigotry.
“Why? Simply because it came from the person in authority in the room.
The one conducting the course. That’s when I started thinking about the role we teachers play in the classroom.
“The things we say when we are not teaching.
“Or the things we don’t say.
“Or? is there really a time when we are not teaching?”
“Do you want coffee?” I asked Anna.
An uncomfortable feeling was building up inside me and I wanted to change the topic. Also, it was a little too late in the night to do soul-searching, I decided.
We bade each other farewell after the closing ceremony the next day, joked about how we were going to use all the attendance certificates we had received in every course to demand for a higher pension when we retire, and promised to keep in touch.
Mind your words
On the journey home, I thought about all the things I might have said in my classroom which reflected my personal opinion about issues and which may not have been necessarily accurate.
It was almost a relief to realise that, apart from a silly joke or two, there was hardly any time left over during my lessons to talk about anything else.
But I did remember little snippets I’d heard.
I remembered someone telling me about a teacher who informed her students that it was wrong to shop at places owned by people of a different faith.
I remembered other teachers who told their students copying someone else’s assignment was okay as long as they didn’t get caught.
That there really was no “future” for them in this country.
That they shouldn’t send greeting cards to people celebrating festivals different from their own.
That they shouldn’t “waste” time on co-curricular activities.
And that making a lot of money should be the chief end of all academic pursuits.
Whether consciously or not, perhaps we have all been guilty of communicating our own prejudices to our students.
Perhaps it has been suggested, or communicated, non-verbally rather than verbally.
And perhaps it’s something so deep within us that we can’t prevent it from showing.
But there are times when we can help it and we are ethically and professionally bound to do so.
After all, we have a moral obligation to educate.
And we constantly need to remember what that means.
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