I’m not a career teacher. It’s what I do for a living, but it’s not my speciality or my interest. But I do care deeply about education, and I feel pretty passionate about kids getting a good one.
When I first came to Japan, I found Japanese teaching methods quite surprising. Teachers here tend to be quite lax about discipline compared to teachers back home – when kids to fall asleep in class, don’t do their homework or chatter (even while the teacher is talking), Japanese teachers seldom blow up like I’d seen countless teachers do during my own school career. It feels a bit too lax sometimes – kids can get away with breathtaking rudeness, or worse.
Yet when I went back to South Africa last summer, I found myself absolutely horrified by some of the stories I heard about teachers there. Things like teachers who stroll around during tests and make snarky tutting sounds while peering over students’ shoulders, or lean over and inform students in a whisper that they have failed the test. Teachers who sneer and make incredibly hurtful and immature comments while returning papers. Teachers who don’t have a very good grip on the curriculum and treat students’ education like a troublesome burden. You kind of have to ask yourself: what the hell are these people doing in the profession?
I certainly don’t think all teachers are like this (and people are prone to exaggeration sometimes). But I realised at that point that Japanese teaching methods had made something of an impact on me. I no longer saw educators as arch, British public school-types, imparting gems of knowledge while staring down students through a pince-nez. I might not think that the Japanese teacher-as-doormat system is all that great either, but there has to be something in-between.
And then this year, I was privileged to work with a teacher who was the absolute epitome of everything I’ve ever thought a teacher should be. The teacher in question reminded me of my own favourite teachers (none of whom made nasty remarks during tests) – someone who loves their subject and is fantastic at making it fun, interesting and intriguing. Someone who laces their lessons with fascinating anecdotes and doesn’t mind talking about random stuff for ages, but somehow still manages to keep kids interested in the subject and doing well at it. Someone who never has to raise their voice to keep students from getting out of hand. The kids look forward to this teacher’s lessons so much that they literally post a look-out in the corridor, and when the teacher is spotted, an excited ripple runs through the class.
Now isn’t that the way it should be?
I think good teachers are severely undervalued. They are basically the doorway through which young people enter society – they play such a huge role in our socialization. I think that low pay and low prestige mean that the profession as a whole has a hard time, sometimes, attracting people of a high calibre who are willing to make a career out of it. I think that there are a lot of factors here, but I also think that it’s time to put aside that famous saying of George Bernard Shaw’s, “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.” Good teachers CAN. A good teacher will go on inspiring kids for years to come; a bad one… well, their effects will last just as long. We should be helping teachers to be amazing.