It’s Saturday morning, and for the first time this term, I have a weekend off. That’s right: my so-called half day job is not as easy as it appears from the outside. Unless you are a teacher or have lived with a teacher, you will never quite understand the demands of the job. So while I have a little gap, I thought I’d try to spell it out for those who don’t understand.
I teach English at one of South Africa’s top private schools. Our matric results sit up there amongst the most expensive midlands schools and those schools whose names you can’t say without pretending you have a hot potato in your mouth. But our school does not have an entrance exam. Newcomers are screened, of course, to ensure they would cope with the demands of an IEB matric and whether they fit in with the school’s ethos, but otherwise, we get anyone who can afford to pay the fees (or is sponsored). Why do I mention this? Well, think about it. If we get the top results in the country without expecting our candidates to have a 70% average on admission, then the results come not only because of some innate talent already present in our students, but because of very hard work on the part of the teachers (and students).
My work demands excellence in the classroom: I am expected to be present, presentable and prepared (obviously). I must be an expert in my field. I must be comfortable with technology and use it in the classroom. I should be aware of local and global events and use them in meaningful ways in the classroom where possible. I should be aware of current trends in education and be up-to-date with pop culture and of teenage interests, as well as keeping my students in touch with the classics and relevant local and global history. I must be able to assess each child’s needs and abilities and adjust my teaching to ensure that each individual is catered for academically. This is a particular kind of challenge, because in the same class there could be a child who is on track to get 9 distinctions without even trying, who needs extension, and a child who has recently mainstreamed from a remedial school who has special needs. And the 23 others in between. Each piece of work that my students hand in should be marked carefully and timeously and given the same care that my students themselves should receive – whether or not they have given as much care and attention to the given piece of work. Their marks are then recorded electronically and at the end of the term, I must comment on each student’s progress for her report (and then repeat all that at parents’ evening).
That is the expectation of teachers during lessons. I have the additional responsibility of being in charge of a whole grade. My job is to see that each child is doing fine – emotionally, physically, socially. I need to connect with the child and/or the parent when the child is absent, or sick, or has been upset, is being bullied, is a bully, needs to go to apply for her learners’ licence, or her dog has died, is looking a little thin or tired, or someone in the family is ill, or she’s not achieving marks that reflect her ability, or there is a change of subject, or she’s having a bad day. I believe this kind of nurturing plays a huge role in helping our students to achieve such brilliant results but it is emotionally and physically draining.
Of course, a well-rounded student needs to be involved in extra-curricular activities and someone needs to coach those extra-curricular activities. Thankfully, I have no sporting prowess to boast of (they haven’t yet sent me on a yoga teaching course, which would be the only one I’d be interested in) so I haven’t had to coach hockey, netball or tennis like some of my colleagues. I am particularly grateful for this because many of those practices take place at 6am, even in winter! My interests are more cultural, and the English department is responsible for the public speaking teams. Preparation for one competition takes at least 5 hours of my time, plus of course the time spent at the competition itself. Even if one isn’t involved in an activity, there is an expectation that one attends music evenings, the school production, galas etc.
I haven’t even mentioned the meetings yet. In any given week, there are assemblies, staff meetings, department meetings, meetings with student leaders, pastoral team meetings, meetings with parents. There are meetings with cluster groups – teachers from other schools to ensure there is a standard across schools. There are subject group conferences on Saturdays. Occasionally we have meetings with the school’s Council. Sometimes people come to sell us products – a new communication system or something. Once a year we take whole groups of children away on camps (and that has its own special kinds of stresses and responsibilities). At the end of each term we meet to discuss the end-of-term results of the students. These are long but necessary meetings, drawn out by someone going on about how nice the child’s mother is or how good she is on the netball court.
Don’t get me started on the parents! There seems to be a strange belief that if you pay private school fees, you are paying for good results. Many parents seem to absolve themselves of any responsibilities – it is the school’s job to mould the children into high achieving, well-rounded good citizens who can play the violin and converse in three languages while playing first team hockey. Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect. However, there are huge expectations on teachers (and students, but I think that’s another post). Very seldom do parents trust that we are professionals who have their children’s best interests at heart. They seem to think that top marks are the necessary result of hard work or worry, and they allow their children very little room for failure (as if a “B” is a fail!). They get hard-core when their children don’t achieve the results or positions (sports teams, leadership, cultural accolades…) that they expect them to achieve, with little regard for other people’s children who also have aspirations, teachers’ opinions/expertise or their children’s actual ability. For a teacher, dealings with parents like these are draining and quite soul destroying. They give the impression that they own us, and can dictate to us. Maybe they do earn 4 times as much as we do (like most of my professional friends) but their money certainly doesn’t make them better human beings. In fact, it makes our job harder, because there is that degree of entitlement that we have to break through in their children before any actual learning takes place.
Thus my “half-day” job sees me getting home after 4pm on most days. As an English teacher with four classes (and some of an Advanced Programme English class) my work is not over when I get home. If there isn’t marking to do (which there always is) then there is preparation to be done. Each class has at least 6 written assessments a term. Many of these are essays, which the students do numerous drafts, all marked by the teacher. Carefully. Care-Full-ly. And let me tell you, marking English papers takes time. It’s not the same as marking a maths paper, where there are one or two possible answers. In English, there are many possibilities, some that we as teachers and setters and markers have not even considered. As long as they are justified well, they might be plausible. It takes a lot of thinking.
Oh but the holidays, you say! Yes, we do have about 12 weeks of holidays a year. But when do you think the preparation for the following term takes place? Setwork books to be read and re-read and prepared, tests set (we can’t just use last year’s tests because someone might have seen them), interactive lessons created, technology toyed with to use in creative ways, lesson plans planned and term planners carefully designed to ensure that days off for Geography outings are considered and to ensure that there is no major clash and that students aren’t going to write more than two tests on any given day. Phew!
Sadly, what usually happens (and I’m mouth breathing as I type this) is that towards the end of term, when the pressure eases because the marks are all in and the reports are done and the adrenaline stops pumping, we teachers often get sick, just in time for the holidays. Because we are selfless like that. We’d hate to put anyone else out during the term, and expect someone to substitute our classes. Actually, it’s not even that. It’s that if we take time off, there is even more catching up to do, and ain’t nobody got time for that!
I haven’t even mentioned the sacrifices my own children make as a result of having a mother for a teacher. That’s another whole story altogether. Suffice it to say, they become resilient in all sorts of ways, and they learn life lessons by hearing stories of what not to do as a student or a parent or human being from the horror stories that they hear at the dinner table.
So next time you think that teachers have a cushy job, what with half days and weekends and all those holidays, please think again. A little compassion, a little understanding, flowers, chocolates, massages and a whole lot of respect go a long way.