The greatest teachers’ day gift ever

I walked into the classroom today, half anticipating the day’s programme but also dreading the work that would have to come with it.

Another practice exercise today, and then a review of the quiz results from about a week before.

It’s not the exercises I’m dreading though, those mundane, simple problems are the least of my worries.

The problem, if we can even call it that, is this heavy feeling of responsibility. All teachers will know what I’m talking about.

That feeling you get when you see your kids fool around in class when you’re explaining a really important concept that could make or break their grade; the unshakeable cycle of confidence and doubt where you go from feeling reassured that your students have understood the lesson to the nagging unease that sets in when you start questioning whether those kids really “get it”.

That pressure weighs heavily on all teachers, and rightly so. We are told we get paid a premium to “mould” the future generation of Singapore. In Singapore, education is still seen as a miracle panacea for the problems of inequality and poverty. Teach a man how to fish they say, and he’ll feed himself forever.

The truth is teachers are inadequate.

We try our best at times to get the kids to listen to us, and many times this blows up in our faces. If you think this only happens to the worst performing teachers in the block, you are wrong.

One of our top performing teachers, a humble man and quite the outspoken character, has been giving pep talks and short briefings to teachers since last year. It’s part of the principal’s plan to “raise staff morale”. Truth be told, many of us feel it’s an exercise to fulfill some KPI set by MOE. Not that we have any choice in the matter, so we try to make the best of it.

Yet even this outstanding educator’s speeches were always filled with one word: “Fear”. Fear of the unknown, fear of changes, fear of being unable to carry forward the message to these kids we’re teaching. Fear that our students will do badly. Fear that somewhere or somehow, we are all just charlatans trying to make a living out of teaching the future generations, when in reality we are probably just as clueless as these young kids.

Close friends have told me to put these thoughts out of my mind and just focus on teaching the content and making sure these kids pass their exams. There are techniques for doing this, practice makes perfect, remedial lessons, drills, exercises and other pedagogy.

Yet the fear never goes away. It is an ingrained part of me now to worry about these kids like they are my own.

So today I walk into class with a mixed set of test results from their previous quiz. Some have done badly, some exceedingly well. I know the ones who are always performing and count my lucky stars to have them.

My mind however is on those who did not do so well. Honestly, I’m angry with them, for obviously not paying attention to the concepts I taught. They could be distracted, and it’s so easy to be distracted at their age. Or maybe it’s something deeper, a difficult home environment, or a general disinterest in academics.

And just as my worries threaten to overwhelm me, I am alerted to the usual drone of the class monitor who commands the students to rise. I greet them, they bow, I spend a little time telling them about the lesson today, and it’s business as usual.

Or so I thought.

I asked them to take out their textbooks, and they did.

Students came up to me and took my handouts to distribute to their classmates, without the need for me to ask.

Then there was this unusual, but pleasant, intensity of focus, as I went through their quiz results. They seemed genuinely interested in learning and I could even see the usual disinterested ones looking a little more serious than usual.

I admit at certain points I was a little worried. This class is known for being a little rowdy, and I’m not sure what has gotten into them today.

By the time I finished the lesson (and we finished early!),  I praised them for their good behaviour and settled down for a little down time. Maybe a short chat with them to find out why they were behaving so differently. But from what I gathered, nothing unusual had happened.

I left the class feeling a little confused, yet secretly thankful that I’d gotten away with an easy lesson today. After all, it was Teachers’ Day, and the students would be called to the assembly soon for a short celebration before being dismissed.

Silly me.

It did not dawn on me until the end of the day that I had received a remarkable Teachers’ Day gift from my students. A subtle, quiet nod for my efforts, the kind that will put a teacher’s worries to rest. At least for a day.

The writer is a local teacher at a primary school.

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