Why Teachers Are Not 'Those Who Can't

2014-04-05

Himalayan News Service

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Students affected with schools’ closure in Gorkha

Naturally, I began teaching for prestige and money. I wouldn’t want to be amid cocktail parties listening to some puffed-up acquaintance on a six-month consulting stint drone, "Yeah, I mean teaching is great and all. But what will you do next?"

Shortly after completing my student teaching last fall, I applied for part time jobs or sometimes for projects outside the teaching field. In one of my interviews, the interviewer lit the cigarette and reviewed my resume, "Chelsea International Academy. Very good. Chelsea! You’re with a good school. Best handwriting and player award. Teaching experience: English. Teaching?" He looked up from the paper. "But you have such a good degree! Why waste it teaching?"

I would like to state that nowadays everybody asks this question to me and many other teachers. That’s up until this point; I have had no need to defend my ambition. The truth, of course, is bleaker. So bleak that I am always ready with response.

"Who wouldn’t rather have you teaching their offspring?" The interviewer sat back and took a long drag. "Well, I never thought of it like that," he conceded.

We live in an age when people lament the state of public education in the same breath that they dismiss teachers as "those who can’t." I cannot count the number of times a well-meaning acquaintance has assured me that I am qualified to do other things besides teaching. That, by implication, I don’t have to teach. In fact, I want to spend my life teaching. I love teaching. And ritzy degrees aside, I don’t think I will ever feel qualified to do it as well as I’d like.

I feel extraordinarily blessed to have been called to a profession in which I am always learning. It is a grueling but exciting, gratifying work. As a student teacher in Bhaktapur last fall, I looked at my students’ clunky boots and spiked hair and adored them. Naturally, there were downsides. On bad days, I felt I was preaching to a swarm of gnats. Yet as wretched as my students could be, it’s been far more distressing to be told by adults that I have wasted my degree.

There are notable exceptions. Fellow teachers have been nothing but kind, witty and encouraging. Without a fiercely funny, intelligent mentor teacher who believed in what she was doing, I never would have survived my student teaching. Many parents with children in the public-school system are deeply interested in recruiting and retaining gifted teachers. Yet there are people both inside and outside this public school culture who continue to wrestle with assumption about who is and isn’t teaching, often arriving at troublesome conclusions: that teachers are poorly educated, ill suited for high-caliber jobs, unwilling or unable to have more glamorous careers.

Though it is decidedly unglamorous—I spent all three months of my student teaching exhausted and encrusted with chalk—teaching is deeply rewarding. In my classroom, there was nothing more exciting to me than witnessing a student write first a good sentence and then a good paragraph. Yet as victorious as I felt when a student nailed down a provocative thesis, employed a stellar verb or gracefully moved textual evidence into his or her paper, I was even more gratified to hear that I had touched a student personally. "He was the only teacher who didn’t question my black hair, mongoloid face and comprehended the meaning of my having it," one student wrote in an evaluation. "I think you will be a good teacher someday," one of my more challenging students told me as I passed his paragraph, "because you always make me feel like I’m doing well." I look forward to the day when teachers are as rewarded outside the classroom—with both higher salaries and greater respect—as they are within.

Students, not teachers, may be the greatest beneficiaries of increased respect for educators. If insinuations teachers are unqualified for other careers upset educators, these notions alienate students. I remember vividly one afternoon proctoring in-school suspension. Eager to chat after a morning of enforced silence, a tall, gangly boy asked: "You are a student teacher?" "Yes." "Where you from?" he inquired, his words reverberating off the dusty linoleum. "KMC," I responded. "KMC College?" he asked, flashing a broad smile. "Damn! What are you doing here? I mean, you could have been like a doctor or a lawyer or something!" "I am at Chelsea Int’l Academy, I want to be here," I said, smiling at his sudden animation. "Don’t you think you deserve good teachers?"

"You know I deserve only the best," a sullen boy in the far corner cracked, raising his head up off the desk. As humorous as I found the moment, I could not help wincing at his irony…

(For your suggestions and comments, please contact me at 9803685286, email-amarsherma@gmail.com or www.amrlimbu.blogspot.com