I’m driving to work in my ’93 Toyota Corolla. As usual, I’m mentally preparing myself for the challenges of the day. The familiar enigmas keep cropping up in my mind. They pay me a monthly salary for services rendered but which services? What am I actually qualified to do? Fix plumbing? Build houses? Service cars perhaps? Naahh…not for me, I’m afraid. What I do for a living is this: I basically talk to people in English about the English language. Throw in an occasional comment on cultural issues and we’re more or less there. Now what was that old adage again? Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Am I missing something here by doing what I do? Ladies and Gentlemen, not by a long shot!
Never in the fifteen years I have been in the teaching game have I been more certain of the fact that I’m in the right profession for me. After all, in addition to music, English has always been my passion (not that I consider myself a guru compared with some of the talent I’m privileged to call my friends). Therefore if I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound. No, make that two pounds while you’re at it. I’ve been deemed fit to stand in front of closer to forty (count them, folks) developing minds and speak mine. That’s about as much power as the common man needs. Alas, along with power comes responsibility and I suppose my job is a balancing act between the two. Small wonder then I’m beat after finishing my last show on most days.
Speaking about wonders never ceasing, I’m still awe-struck in front of the very notions of teaching and learning: forty little darlings gathered in one room supposedly ready and willing to open their minds for whichever issue I have decided is worth their while. Ideally the prospects of the situation are staggering. Will I be able to mold the human clay in front of me into unique works of art before it sets? Should I choose a big chisel or a more subtle instrument? Am I to emulate past masters or to break new ground? Maybe all my interventions in the process are in vain: the clay sets at its own pace and in its own unique form.
”You’re a showman.” That’s what my teacher trainer told me after I had given her the first ten-minute sample of my work. At the time I was a bit miffed at her for saying that but it turned out to be a most perceptive observation capturing my very essence as a teacher. A showman I am but what do you expect? I have to rekindle the spirit for learning in my heterogeneous little darlings every day, which is no mean feat. All my antics in class are geared to that end. Get a genuine interest going and you will have an irresistible force unlikely ever to meet an immovable obstacle. Besides, I want to make a difference! Each and every one of us has experience of dozens of teachers when we were little underlings ourselves. How many of them left an indelible memory of themselves? Too few, says I. I suppose most of them were able to go through the motions of the instruction process but where was their very own unique contribution? All you actually need is a healthy dose of that indescribable something (so elusive and defying definition that a year of teacher training didn’t provide me with an answer) and you are home free. I’m going to give it another shot today hoping I will someday nail the craft.
Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man are mirrored in the Four Ages of A Teacher’s Professional Career. At first the idealist, believing in her own omnipotence, planning lessons, sure of success, always the optimist. And then the realist, wise to the students’ antics, still benign, knowing what she can expect from the little darlings. The third age shifts into cynicism, seeing one’s erstwhile dreams and ambitions go unfulfilled, the sins of former generations being revenged on the current one. And the last stage? Mere oblivion? Noooo! We owe it to the world not to let this strange eventful history end thus. Far from it! The modern teacher wants to avoid even the third stage at all costs. A fellow language teacher of mine retired a while ago with all her vitality still intact after decades of impeccable service. She is gone from school but not forgotten.
All this ranting and raving about making a difference in the classroom has a flipside, though. If my working day ended when I wave the last audience of the day goodbye, I would be in heaven. Unfortunately, I spend my evenings marking papers wading through so much mediocrity that my own judgment sometimes gets clouded. Where’s that one decent effort that would make my day? The students keep reinventing the wheel in their compositions time after time. If they have to reinvent something, let it be the combustion engine, which would pose more of a challenge. Oh well, I’m fighting windmills here. Twenty-five research papers down, another forty to go.
I’m approaching school now. I congratulate myself on the career progress I’ve made: about three meters. That is from the first desk to the front of the classroom. A small step for mankind, I’m sure, but a giant leap for me. Ladies and Gentlemen, we are all providing an extremely important service to society and should justly be proud of it. Let us never suppress the idealist in us. Instead, let us regenerate ourselves after setbacks like a lizard regenerates a lost tail. I will soon have to tackle another school day. The most important thing is I’m looking forward to it. I really mean every word of it when I end many a lesson like this: ”I love you all and now get out of my sight!” 😀
Markku Perälä MA
Teacher of English
Kiiminki Senior High School
This article originally appeared in
Yours Truly, the annual bulletin for English teachers in Finland