I did my student teaching at an underprivileged school in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s an amazing school, with incredibly dedicated teachers doing great work with teenagers from a particularly rough neighbourhood. Many of these kids come from broken homes, have been driven into gangs, and subjected to drugs and violence on a daily basis. Teaching large classes (45-50 students to a class) in this school is not an easy task and was certainly an eye-opening and challenging experience as a student teacher. Many tears were shed.
However, while there, I had the most incredible mentor: an inspiring woman and a phenomenal teacher. She had given up a job at a well-known and prestigious private school to work with these students. Observing her was a masterclass in classroom management and how to engage and excite students; it was a real privilege to watch her at work.
One day I asked her how she does it: how she manages to stay enthusiastic and hopeful when she has students coming to school high on drugs, when she deals with disinterested parents, when she knows that many of her students have – statistically speaking – dim futures ahead of them.
Her answer has informed my teaching ever since.
She said, “For many students in your classroom, you may well be the most stable adult presence in their lives. You need to honour that, and live up to it. Just by turning up every day, by showing a genuine interest in them, by being ‘on their case’ and setting boundaries, by believing in them and demanding the very best from them – you just may have a positive impact on their lives.”
Don’t get me wrong: teachers are not social workers. I know that. We don’t have the time or specialised skills (major kudos to social workers). But, alongside imparting knowledge, we can do these things: we can be a stable presence; we can turn up for our students; we can be fully present to them. Sadly, my mentor was right – for many students that is more that their parents do. Indeed, I once had a parent-teacher conference with a mother who said outright, “You probably have more face-to-face time with my kid than I do.” It’s sad, but true (and I’ll add it to the pile of other issues that I can’t fix).
So, I can’t do anything about the difficult home-lives of my students, but being a stable adult presence in their lives – I can most certainly do that.
Teachers really are heroes.