“Ask not what you can do for teaching…”

15 August 2017

Alumna Sarah Watt (Cohort 2014) shares a few lessons she's leant over the past 4 years teaching English at Onehunga High School.

Before I became a teacher, I had never been a Mum. I knew how I would raise any kids in my future, of course, in that fantasy world of the pre-parent who inwardly shakes her head at other adults’ parenting choices and thinks she can foresee all the pitfalls. Surely it’s obvious how to deal with a tantrum, or rudeness, or silent defiance? (Judgemental, moi? Find me up one end of the Myers Briggs spectrum!)

And then I became a teacher. And one of the most important lessons I learned, very early on, is probably the most important lesson anyone can learn to get them through life with other human beings: people aren’t like they are for no reason.

Students - more than that, hormonal young people - are probably the most challenging demographic in humankind. Apparently I was one, once, but it’s remarkable how my grown-up face frowns into a caricatured disbelieving “Are you kidding me?” when they do inexplicable things like talk compulsively to their friends, laugh out loud at inappropriate times, and cling to their mobile phones despite my orders to put it away and do not get it out again. But sometimes it’s not their joy that’s making them momentarily unteachable - it’s their pain, their silent troubles, their interpretation of a situation or a comment that renders them angry, sullen or not even in class. From Week 1 I quickly realised that unless I found a way to accept, support and connect with this young person, there wouldn’t be any ako (the two-way street of teaching and learning between student and teacher) happening, period.

And of course, out of this revelation (and a lot of patient, reflective work) have blossomed the most amazing, heart-bursting moments of connection, empathy and progress with more of my students than I can now remember.

But it’s not just young people I understand better now. My up-close-and-personal experience with youths who don’t sugar-coat their feelings has caused me to see everybody in a different light. Rude customers in a shop; random strangers on the street who glare and mutter; Auckland drivers (well, maybe there’s no excuse for them) - there’s something going on for everyone. My relationships with friends started to soften and move away from judging their behaviour and instead seeking to listen, understand and empathise. These are the skills that are absolutely imperative in our mission to “make the world a better place”.

I even give credit where it’s due. I have often gone back to one of my students and said “Hey, you know you talked about X the other day? It got me thinking about something in my own life and I realised I need to be dealing with it like this. Thank you for that.” They look at me aghast that I would share something so personal, let alone take their unintended advice. But for me, teaching is personal.

I thought I was entering teaching to preach the joys of Shakespeare’s wit and that there are better filmmakers out there than Michael Bay. It was supposed to be all about what I could do for them. Instead, it turns out I entered teaching to make me a better grown-up. And to become a “Mum” to hundreds of glorious, soul-changing kids.