No, it’s not Teachers Day. Does it have to be?
I found a quote on Goodreads from what happens to be one of my favorite books, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, as follows:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
(By the way, this book is a much under-rated and ignored English fantasy novel – but I digress).
It struck me recently that, while there are many lofty sayings about teaching, the profession seems to have somehow been downgraded in modern times. As the historian Jacques Barzun once said:
“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”
How and why this has happened, I am not sure. However, I have heard stories about a teacher turning his back to the class to write on the blackboard, and having missiles thrown at his head. I have heard about teachers being waylaid in hallways by groups of students. I have heard about threats, abuse and physical attacks on teachers. Not long ago, a physics teacher at a “name brand” Kingston high school went to the media, after alleging he was assaulted by two members of the school’s highly-vaunted track team.
Considering all of this (and this is Jamaica I am talking about – I know that teachers the world over may well face similar situations) it amazes me that our teachers keep going. Incidents like this – and all the many much smaller conflicts and challenges teachers face daily – must be extraordinarily stressful and demoralizing. How do they do it?
Underlying much of this seems to be a kind of disregard for the teaching profession in Jamaica. An acquaintance of mine, who is a teacher, recently observed that when he told an old friend he was still teaching, the reaction was one of disdain – from someone who had a job in the tourism industry. Somehow, the old friend thought her job was much more prestigious, and being a teacher nothing to be proud of.
To be sure, teaching is not glamorous. But, has it ever been? That’s not the point of it. It’s about providing the right environment and the right guidance for children to learn more – and to want to learn more. I never put my teachers on a pedestal – but I never forgot the best ones. I always credit my French teacher – an often bad-tempered Scotsman – with my love for languages. Despite his less than lovable personality, he inspired me. My Australian English literature teacher, with her passion for epic poems that she read out loud in class, let my imagination fly. My brother is now a teacher. He has much more patience than me. I know he cares about his students, despite the frustrations and stresses of the job.
Well, there are two teachers, one of whom I met recently, who simply fill me with awe and admiration. One is Dilip Ragoo, a teacher in Clarendon, who is what they used to call a “quiet storm.” It is clear that he loves teaching, and exploring new horizons with his students. He is very engaged with environmental and climate change issues, which of course I love! Mr. Ragoo constantly seeks out new learning opportunities for them, and I understand he is a great mentor for both boys and girls at the school. He is an enabler.
I met the Principal of St. Michael’s Primary School in downtown Kingston on a rainy morning recently. As we chatted on a balcony, looking down on the puddle-filled schoolyard and at the forbidding red-brick walls of the Tower Street prison beyond, Ms. Juliet Campbell McPherson told me how many of her students struggle on a daily basis with the presence of violence and abuse. The fabric of the community has worn thin, exhausted by so much violence. The fabric of their home lives is frayed and in danger of disintegrating. The principal has been at the school for twenty-five years. Her nurturing presence has helped to make the school an oasis in what is a frightening world for a young child. Ms. Campbell McPherson could have moved on to more “prestigious” schools – but she stayed.
So, I have problems when people look down their noses at teachers.
As someone once said, it’s not what the teacher teaches you that matters so much. It is how they make you feel.
Yes, Merlin was right. Learning is the only thing that never fails.