Teaching takes everything you’ve got

Voices - 14 December 2017

Participant Rachel Burnett shares a reflection as the year wraps up from her first year teaching English at Dargaville High School.

The Northland sunshine is tempting outside. But inside, the tension is building. Our main character is dying of dehydration, walking endlessly in a mostly dried-up lake, giving us a running narration of the mind games he’s playing to keep himself alive. I’m the one reading the section out loud, and even I’m so lost in it that I don’t notice for a while the hand that has been raised: “Miss, why can’t he just drink the salt water?” Cue a cell diagram and 10 minute discussion about osmosis.

This is far from the only tangent I’ve gone on while teaching English. The irrational nature of love, how important it is to check the time if you think someone’s had a stroke, Hindu gods, the emergent stream of consciousness with Chicago rappers.

Students love to leave their mark on the whiteboard when they think I’m not watching. One of my favourite moments continues to be when I came back into the classroom and realised that “#folkmusiciscool” had been written in a corner of the board. We had just discussed Woody Guthrie because he came up in a novel we were studying. I thought to myself that if that was the only thing they learnt from that discussion, I could live with it.

Teaching came as a complete surprise to me when I found myself at the tail-end of a speckled and varied education: I spent my teenage years acting and performing music and taking myself far too seriously. I then went to University with the idea of becoming a doctor. By the end of my first year, I decided not even to try and apply for med school, but to continue with pharmacology. Soon after, an Arts degree joined; English, Philosophy, Calculus (which can be taken under Arts!), and Linguistics. After a 5 year undergrad and a brief but serious stint in student politics, I had choices, but no clear frontrunner.

I’ve often said to friends and family that teaching takes all you’ve got. I don’t just mean this in the sense that teaching takes all of your time, completely depletes you of energy, and sometimes compromises your sanity too! Teaching taking everything you’ve got is such a positive for me. I’ve been searching for a home for my strange patchwork of interests, and teaching values each of them. Most of all, it embraces anyone who can value learning, whatever form that learning might come in.

I’m aware that the last few paragraphs have contained a lot of listing. I would mark a student down for using repetitive sentence structure if this were an assessment. However, I think that listing indirectly makes my point for me. Any knowledge you can bring as a teacher could be one more connection to one more kid. Those who can do; but those who do lots and can’t decide because everything is so interesting and oh my goodness isn’t the world of knowledge a wonderful place… Teach!