Teaching — inspiration becomes vocation
Did I do it to make myself feel better? Was it simply the sacrifice one makes for monetary reimbursement? Was it a vocation? Did I simply follow in footsteps trod even deeper than one might imagine?
Through many steps and an assortment of adventures and part-time study, I became a teacher. Teaching, in those days, was seen as a profession, not merely a job. A job was something like packing groceries or deep-sea fishing. But a profession, well, that was hard to get — it meant gaining a qualification and having a set of skills that couldn’t be mastered by just anyone and certainly not without formal training. Teaching is meant to be one of those professions that is also a vocation, although I’m not sure how many teachers today view their work as a vocation. I certainly didn’t when I fell into teaching. It was just an opportunity I took.
I was working as a life model when I was offered employment in a school that led me into training to be a full-time teacher. I liked being paid, albeit a salary not commensurate with the time put into the job, but I liked teaching, learning and passing on facts from the curriculum. I can honestly say that it increased my self-esteem and in turn, I became better at classroom management and control of the students, so much so that I specialised in it later.
This probably makes me sound like a megalomaniac. I wasn’t. I made every effort to be kind to my students as I remembered many of my teachers not being kind to me when I was at school. I also remembered those teachers who showed me care and dedication. I enjoyed being with the children. I set and marked their homework, I prepped them for exams and I laughed a lot in their company. I was lucky enough to experience teaching both High School and Junior School students.
However, when I went out to a pub or club, I’d lie when asked, and say that I was a trainee-embalmer or a nurse. Anything seemed better than being a teacher. Such a position of strength and demanding respect in so many societies, yet in 1990s London it was the kiss of death on dates to admit that I was a teacher.
But what kept me in the profession? If I didn’t want to be identified as a teacher, why did I continue as one? The reasons were twofold. The first reason was a teacher in South Africa, Johannesburg to be precise. She taught at Kingsmead College and was called Janet Unterslak. She wasn’t my English teacher but she ran the poetry club on Tuesday afternoons at my High School. She let me sit on the table, read out poems and she praised me even though my understanding was limited, me being the youngest in the group. She fostered my love for poetry. She walked with intent and purpose around the school and carried a wicker basket which contained her books and teaching files. I can see her, short hair, standing about five foot 1 or 2, marching up and down the school pathways. Well, even if she wasn’t like that, this is what I remember and memory is always subject to the whims and fancies of the subconscious mind. When I taught, one could tell I was coming up the corridor due to the clipping of my heels on the concrete floors, marching. My flamboyance and often alternative teaching methods were wholly inspired by her. I wonder if she’s still alive now. She inculcated a passion for poetry that runs through my veins like white blood cells. I’d love to say to her, “look what you fashioned on those Tuesday afternoons.”
The second reason I stayed being a teacher and later why I taught out in the Marshall Islands, was a book I read when I was 12 — “Tisha” by Robert Specht, the story of a young single teacher in Alaska, a state where, many years later, I considered going to teach. I thought it was the call of Alaska that took my imagination when I was 12. It seemed so exotic to a young girl living in South Africa where it didn’t snow and where the sun shone until around 7 pm every night. I longed for days that never ended and nights that eclipsed reason. I longed for thick-haired dogs and little school rooms. Little did I realise that it was the call of teaching in my bones. I guess it was, after all, a vocation, inspired by a story and an exceptionally capable and kind teacher from my childhood. Ultimately it wasn’t about the money, the status, the control or the fact my mother was a teacher. I think, somehow, I was destined to teach and Janet and the book shaped my destiny as early as the age 12.
I taught until, sadly, I burned out. Like so many teachers before and since, the profession bled me of my energy and enthusiasm, restricted my teaching to examination points from a narrow curriculum and poked fun at my vocation until I was too exhausted with being day parent, social worker, confidante, planner, and teacher to my students. I was emotionally drained and physically run down so often from late nights of marking and planning, no sleeping in, no spare time for my own play. Do I regret leaving teaching? No. I am forever glad of the skills it gave me and the many things I passed on to my students. However, I still teach my clients now that I am qualified as a psychotherapist.
Ultimately I did do it to make myself feel better. My self-esteem rose with every successful moment and it was a vocation, otherwise I would have searched for a better-paid job. I didn’t just step into the shoes of my mother and uncle who were teachers, but into the shoes every other inspirational teacher I experienced and benefited from.