Saturday, May 01, 2004

The Joy of Teaching

From the Straits Times Forum Page today

Joy of teaching - with dignity
I REFER to the letter, 'Preserve dignity of teachers' (ST, April 28), by Ms Chiu Mung Hing. For the past 10 years, I have been steering decisions about my education, career and personal development towards preparing myself for the teaching profession. I would like to affirm that teaching is a meaningful career that is worth pursuing.

To enjoy teaching, besides healthy intelligence and emotional quotients, a strong adversity quotient is also necessary and is the mark of true dignity and character.

It would be a sad day if the Ministry of Education takes action as suggested by Ms Chiu to 'preserve the dignity of teachers'. Dignity is an internal and personal quality which must be cultivated and strengthened by the individual. Dignity that can be threatened and needs to be preserved by external rank, policy or propaganda will never be respected by the discerning and questioning youths of today.

I agree that 'only motivated and high-spirited teachers' can truly contribute to educating our children. However, true motivation and passion, like dignity, are internal qualities that are founded on strong values and beliefs which no amount of external discouragement and disappointment can destroy.

I have not been slapped by any student but I have been snubbed, defied, ignored, made fun of, belittled and bad-mouthed in my earnest endeavours to teach. All of these I receive as a dignified adult who realises that not every action requires an emotional reaction. I certainly feel negative emotions in the face of such responses but I choose daily to step beyond that to explore the diseases behind these symptoms.

Ms Chiu paints a very pitiful picture of what teachers go through daily. As a result of this dismal external landscape, the conclusion appears to be that a teacher's internal landscape of dignity, motivation and passion must be damaged. Should what is external determine that which is internal?

I would like to encourage Ms Chiu to consider the power she has to affect the external with what is within her for that is the essence of why teaching is a meaningful job.

Do not blame our children for bad behaviour and poor moral character. This is a poor diagnosis of the problems we face in today's education landscape. I have learnt from conversations with medical professionals that diseases have multi-factorial causes. Children today behave in a certain way not because of any single cause. There are different people in various places fighting against causes of poor character development in today's youth. I do my part as an educator and seek above all to give my students a strong immune system of internal values, thinking habits and dignity which will help them navigate an external landscape fraught with sickening influences.

In his book The Courage To Teach, Parker J. Palmer exhorts teachers to apply inner strength to engage 'students from hell'. He shares an analogy about teachers who blame students for the difficulties they face; such teachers are like physicians who say 'Don't send us any more sick people - we don't know what to do with them. Send us healthy patients so we can look like good doctors.'

Any teacher who puts his or her heart into teaching will experience heartbreak. A good teacher knows how to heal and rise again stronger - armed with better classroom-management skills, knowledge and, most of all, experience.

I would like to share another gem from Palmer, who observes that cynicism against students and education comes not only from having high hopes for teaching dashed by experience but also because of 'the failure to interpret one's experience accurately'.

Ms Chiu's 'discouraging and disappointing' teaching experience compounded by the weight of evidence from conversations with 'trained and experienced teachers' has convinced her that she is wrong about teaching. If she had been in the company of many of the colleagues I work, eat and speak with daily, she might think differently. I teach with and among many dignified, outstanding and resilient individuals whose fire to teach - and sense of humour - grow stronger against the winds of opposition. Do join us for a canteen break sometime!


This was in response to another forum letter a few days back about the disilluionment of teachers. Check out Kay's blog for the previous letter.

Our teacher friends all agree that this teacher is a somewhat deluded individual who has totally bought into the propaganda rolled out by the Powers That Be and it has become part of her teacher identity.

I have no qualms about the fact that there is meaning in teaching and there is joy in the interaction with students. I do strongly believe that we should "give our students a strong immune system of internal values, thinking habits and dignity which will help them navigate an external landscape fraught with sickening influences. ". That is indeed part of the unwritten job description we signed ourselves up for when we put our names on the bottom line.

But teachers are people too and we are if nothing else fallible especially when we face great pressure from every avenue in school. "As a result of this dismal external landscape, the conclusion appears to be that a teacher's internal landscape of dignity, motivation and passion must be damaged. Should what is external determine that which is internal?" Yes, that is true. We cannot help the external draining the internal. It's bound to happen. The thing is how we deal with it.

Teaching like any other committment is a struggle of choices everyday. It really sucks at times and somedays, I despise everything the system stands for and somedays, I am not far from slapping a kid for being insolent. But like in a committment, you are faced with doubts and temptation of something better. So what do you do? You choose. Everyday is a choice. You can either choose to just see these three years or however long the bond is by doing as little as possible and be immune to all the rubbish that the dump truck of administration leaves on your desk/pigeon hole/email/ SMS or you could try to make a difference on days when you can and struggle to keep your head above the swill on days that you can't. It's a choice that we make.

It's not an easy choice because it does get you down at times. But my point is that we have to be realistic and take the good with the bad. Ms Teo seems to be of the mindset that the minute we are negative or allow any bit of negativity to imbue us, we're dead and useless as teachers. She is somewhat dismissive of anyone who comes into school not filled with sunshiny goodness and ready to do perform a song and dance for the classes. In other words, she seems somewhat dismissive of anyone who is less than perfect and is not Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music.

On top of that, she goes on to "not blame our children for bad behaviour and poor moral character.". While it is true that there may be more than one reason for their behaviour, it is ludicrious to use those multi-faceted reasons to excuse them, let them get away with bloody murder and not discipline them. We do not allow a serial murderer to walk free just because he was abused as a child, much as the defence may try to plead that line of argument. So why should we let a child off the hook because he eats too much sugar and plays too many computer games since his parents aren't home to watch him? Why should we excuse him if he hits us or is rude to us? Isn't that just common courtesy?

I had a principal in college whom everyone hated because she used to take us in hand and discipline everyone who got out of line. Even though my college prided itself in not having a rule book, she had no qualms about enforcing rules of common sense. We hated her then. But recently, a former tutor of mine talked about the rationale behind her somewhat tyranical behaviour. She felt that many of us weren't getting enough discipline at home and she felt that the true mark of concern was to discipline the student so that he would know right from wrong. And she believed strongly in it. This was very Confucian of her but I have no issues with the way I turned out. But that may not go down well with people today.

Principals are forced to step down because they smacked a kid on the head with a book. Teachers get reprimanded for losing their cool and call students "cunning rats". Students are given run of the school. Punishment meted out in the forms of contracts with the school, detention times where you write a reflection of what you did wrong and counselling because you bit some other kid??? Most of the time, they don't work. I've seen kids with the gift of glib, write wonderful sob stories during detention, I've seen kids who sign letters of undertaking without batting an eye and already scheming for the next big adventure. But that's discipline today and when someone tries to resurrect old school styles of discipline, they encounter serious issues with the PTB.

And the message it sends out to the students? "WE ARE KING! NO ONE CAN TOUCH US!" Watch me...

Teachers, educators, we're all human and students too. Non are perfect. We shouldn't be expected to be joyous saints and students should never be seen as matyrs of the world we live in.

Having said all this, I do admire Ms Teo for believing in everything she wrote. I just hope she doesn't get a rude shock one day when her bubble bursts and she wonders why she's exhausted. We fight the battles as they come. We have no noble aspirations that can be ascribed on a plaque nor do we see ourselves as more than the sum of all our parts. We just do our jobs.

Ondine tossed this thought in at 12:27

0 thoughts...

0 thoughts...

Post a Comment

" Far in the stillness, a cat languishes loudly"