Teaching – The wonder of seeing caterpillars turn into butterflies

Secondary school in South Africa spans a period of five years. The first three I spent in a boarding school. Why? I hear you ask.

I read too many stories about British school days when I was young, so I thought it would be one long midnight party and one adventure after another. The reality was far from that, so I spent my last two years in day school with my friends from elementary school.

The problem was that they had moved on with their lives and friendships and there was no room for me. I did what misfit teens all over the world have done: I acted out for attention and soon found myself in big trouble.

My parents couldn’t cope. What had happened to his well-behaved son? Who was this stranger who had come home in his place? They all thought he was heading for a fall. All of which are, except Miss Evans, my English teacher.

She was a tiny woman with the spirit of a Jedi warrior. Her passion for English was where we connected and her classes were a light in the gloom of those days. It was through her care and wisdom that I realized that she could achieve anything she wanted. Thanks to her support, I applied for and got a scholarship to study and eventually became an English teacher.

I dropped out of school and although I was grateful to him, I didn’t think much of it until a few years ago when I heard he had retired from teaching. On a whim I wrote to him to thank him for the role he had played in my life. I was so surprised when I received an answer. This was part of what she wrote:

I was very moved by your letter. Teaching, to me, has always been his own reward, but his was one of the few thank you notes I have ever received from a student.

Truth be told, teaching in South Africa has become a beleaguered and embattled profession over the last fifteen years. Schools struggle to get by without the necessary number of teachers and many schools do not have a principal. In areas where funding exists, parent agencies assign adjunct teachers, but where funding is a problem, untrained teachers sometimes give inadequate teaching.

A year ago, dozens of teachers took to the streets on strike in an attempt to persuade the government to seek adequate working conditions and benefits for their members. Recently, temporary teachers appointed with the promise of permanent appointments in the near future have been summarily laid off, leaving students stranded and teachers looking for work.

So why do we still teach? Why did we decide to be teachers?

In my case it was a special teacher who believed in me and saw my potential. He doesn’t have to have been an actual teacher, but he could have been a Mr. Chips or Sidney Poitier in the movie.To the lord, with love. Or it could have been Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society encouraging you to Carpe Diem – Sixteen on the day.

A few years ago, a dear friend gave me a poster that now takes pride of place in my classroom. It reads: The wonder of teaching is to see caterpillars turn into butterflies – and that sums it up for me.

When I think about what keeps me coming back year after year, here are some of my reasons:

  • She is that barefoot theater student who keeps coming back to say hello, even years after she has finished her training;
  • He comes across an alumnus from town who says, “You encouraged me to keep writing and I just published my first collection of poetry.”
  • It’s a boy who shows up on a Monday morning to wish you a belated Happy Mother’s Day.
  • It’s watching the lights go on in the eyes of a senior class when they finally get Lady Macbeth;
  • It is when one of my students fights, but overcomes, her impoverished and single-parent origin; she first works a couple of years to pay for it and then she becomes a human rights lawyer, so she can continue fighting for her people

When I became a teacher, I knew that I would not earn a king’s ransom. I knew that the hours would be long and that without the holidays we would not survive. I knew it would be stressful and often ungrateful.

But he also knew that he wanted to make a difference; that this was not just a job, but a vocation, a calling.

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