Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ode to teachers

I was thinking of posting about teachers, then Lilian wrote a post on her past teachers, which sparked my grey cells further. So many of our childhood memories are based on the teachers we had. Teachers are such a central component of education - they can spur you or scar you.

I had one primary school teacher, Mrs K, who traumatised me so much that it left an indelible mark on my memory. She was a bitter, bitter woman, I suspect largely because she didn’t have a son. This is NOT a judgmental statement against parents with daughters, it was an open fact that she yearned for a son and was very disappointed she couldn’t have one. She kept trying and finally stopped at 4 daughters. She often lashed out at her students and was pretty much hated throughout the school. (She once threw a girl’s school bag out the window down 3 floors).

But here’s the awful part: she lived in the same block of HDB flats as my family, so she and my parents knew each other. You would think that would make her nicer to me and my sister, but NO. She would be hypocritically friendly and polite in front of my parents, but in school, would often single me out to pick on. Once, half the class forgot to do something but she only yelled at and punished me.

It got pretty bad, I was terrified of her. I’m not sure why she hated me so much. I was extremely quiet and bookish, never the trouble-making type. Maybe because at that time, her eldest daughter was also in the school and about the same age as me, so she was, in some insane manner, threatened by my good academic performance. She even tried to turn my other teachers against me (a teacher persecuting a primary school kid! What’s up with that??) I know this because another very kind teacher who had a soft spot for me later told me how she had always supported me despite Mrs K’s crazy rants.

I’m pretty sure I said something to my father but in those days, complaining about teachers wasn’t the done thing (plus my father is absolutely the non-confrontational type) so I think the inaction fuelled her malice further. I know Mrs K continued to teach until her retirement recently. Why are these teachers allowed to ruin young lives? They should be locked up in a box and shipped far, far away from children.

My point is that the impact of a teacher on a child’s life is enormous. When I think back, the teachers I love the most are not the ones who taught well or the ones who were most interesting – they are the ones who were most supportive. My late piano teacher, who taught me for a decade and remained a close friend for the next 15 years, was someone I cherished because she believed in me and taught me to believe in myself. She was more like a mother to me than a teacher, always there to counsel or just to lend a listening ear. I was pretty devastated when she passed on.

So often we become who we are because of our teachers. If you think about it, during our schooling years, we frequently spend more time in proximity with them than with our own parents. How many times have you heard a successful person acknowledge Teacher XX “for inspiring me to pursue my dreams” or “for making me believe I can achieve whatever I put my mind to”? Too many to count, I bet.

On the other side of the coin, as I’ve described, we also remember the ones who DON’T believe in us. Ironically, I wonder how much this plays in spurring achievement. I read a story about Olympian Michael Phelps, how he suffered from ADHD and his teacher told his mother, “Your son will never be able to focus on anything”. Famous last words.

On his Life Thru A Lens album, pop superstar Robbie Williams wrote this poem:

Hello Sir, remember me?
I'm the man you thought I'd never be
The boy who you reduced to tears
Lad called 'thingy' for six whole years.

Yes, that's right, my name's Bob
The one who landed the pop star's job
The one you told, look don't touch
The kid who wouldn't amount to much.

Well, I'm here and you're still there
With a fake sports car and receding hair.
Dodgy Farah trousers that you think are smart
Married to the woman who teaches art.

Married to the life, married to the school
I wanna sing and dance Sir; now who's the fool?
Sing and dance, you thought I was barmy
Settle down thingy, join the army.

And who are you to tell me this?
The dream I want I'll have to miss
Sir is God, he's been given the right
To structure lives overnight.

Now I know life's true path
Tanks and guns that'll be a laugh
No, not me I'm a mega civilian
I won't lead my life riding pillion.

But thanks for the advice and I'm sure it'll do
For the negative dickheads just like you.
As for now I've a different weapon
Stage and screen is about to beckon.

And here I sit in first class
Bollocks Sir, kiss my arse.

Bad boy Robbie is all about shock and controversy, but you can clearly hear the antipathy and vulnerability in his lyrics. I wonder how much of Robbie’s success was triggered by his determination to "prove 'em wrong".

So interestingly enough, uninspired teachers can elicit success from students as much as inspired teachers, though unwittingly so. But I know which ones get my thanks.


Lilian said...

That's a pretty bad experience you had. I've had mean teachers but their meanness was spread around fairly, everyone got the same treatment. To pick on one kid, that's plain vindictive, especially since the kid's not a troublemaker.

I've been lucky that all my teachers have been pretty fair...some were even nicer to me than I deserved. If I were a teacher, I'd dislike me too! I couldn't hide my boredom, I talked a lot in class, doodled ALL the time even on borrowed textbooks, passed around caricatures of friends I'd drawn just to make them laugh,...maybe I had ADHD!

So I would say my memories of school days are positive, I mainly remember the funny bits about school, some were outright hilarious! I was always in the group that was up to no good. I didn't find anyone particularly inspiring, my brain was always on the lookout for the next funny moment. Parenthood and adulthood haven't done much to change me I guess.

monlim said...

I think it's a great attitude towards life, to always look to the lighter side. I think it's tough to be a teacher in today's context, where parents can be over-protective and sometimes even over-bearing.

bACk in GERMANY said...

That must have been painfully awful!

Agree on the part that parents today can be a notch too protective. Sometimes it unfortunately diminishes the teacher's authority to teach in a classroom...

With that said, there are also many loco cases... wanna check out the no. of mental patients in IMH who used to teach???

monlim said...

Really ah? Did they go mental because of their students???

bACk in GERMANY said...

Not free to comment, since I don't have the actual statistics...

To be fair, teachers do undergo lots of stress... from students, parents, HODs/principals, colleagues, exams, syllabi etc... on top of that, erm, personal issues, family, lifestyle etc...

So cut them some slack lah. :)

monlim said...

I know, what I meant was that the students are the ones giving the stress to the teachers! Teaching in SG is no joke, cos you also have to handle a lot of admin stuff.

Lilian said...

I really pity the teachers in Singapore. Unlike in the old days, they are no longer accorded deferential treatment cos these days, many parents are (or think they are) more qualified than teachers. I've also heard horror stories of rude little emperors in classrooms, reducing teachers to tears.

Add to that the non-teaching work piled on them. What to do when schools try to run themselves like corporations, going for SQA award, ISO certification, benchmarking, all those kind of nonsense implemented by civil servants. I really empathise with them and understand their frustrations.

monlim said...

I think schools being run like businesses is just utter rubbish. How can you gauge the worth of education in dollar value? That's why money only goes into medal-winning sports and BADMINTON GETS CUT!!!!

Alcovelet said...

No joke about the teaching profession here. I hear from a friend whose hubby was an ex-teacher that the actual "worth" of teaching and making sure students understand (including home visits, yes, some teachers do this!!) is not considered very much at all. Rather, it's how much money you can pull in for projects or how you can bring your school glory by making the kids win awards for band, marching, whatever. And about the disrespectful attitude from kids- my friend's hubby was told - "the kids are your customers". If they don't want to come to your class, you must not be doing something right." It's a vicious cycle.

monlim said...

I know, one of my friends quit the teaching profession, he was so frustrated. One student actually had the gall to say, "Teacher, my fees pay for your salary so you should treat me like your customer." I would have just slapped him.

Actually Lilian, this treating schools like enterprises is not the idea of civil servants. It's idiots like Jack Welsh who see the whole world as profit-making, and because of their status, pple hang on to their every word.

Lilian said...

Ya, I meant implemented by our civil servants who return from their executive MBA courses in Harvard/Stanford brimming with the latest management ideas on best practices. Every other year, some new management mumbo-jumbo is stuffed down our throats.

bACk in GERMANY said...

Wow... am relieved to know that there are parents out there who still very much like the old school way of running things!

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