“And then you were there.”

A former student said to me: “…… And then you were there in the classroom.”

Vivi, a former student, was relating to me how she ended up in a teacher education programme a few years ago. She was an English major in university. During each summer in her undergraduate years, she did a stint in a bank. She found she didn’t like office work. In Year 3, she took English Pedagogy, an elective course, and found it fun, especially when conducting micro teaching. Vivi began to consider teaching as a career, applied to the PGDE, got accepted, started the course to see what it was like, “…and then you were there in the classroom.”

Vivi may not know it, but ‘then you were there’ is the biggest compliment I have received in months.

Vivi has now taught for a few years. She told me how the other day she re-affirmed her career choice to a friend who asked her why she had chosen teaching. She told her friend, “I was not suitable for office work and I chose to become a teacher, not a businesswoman. Isn’t that COOL?

***

Compared with Vivi, I did not choose to go into teaching. I went into teaching because my mother wanted me to become a teacher, so as to lift the whole family of four kids from poverty quickly. My father died when I was seven, and my mother had to raise four kids single-handedly by sewing clothes. In the seventies, teaching paid better than most other jobs in Hong Kong, and there were few vacancies in the government and in the business sector. I followed my mother’s suggestion because as the only boy among my siblings, I considered it my obligation to help the whole family.

In my first teaching school most of the students came from the working class (actually like me), and my goal was to help them obtain academic success so that they could, like me, leave poverty behind. It was through these efforts that I learnt that teaching was about connecting with other human beings, and that there was a lot of satisfaction I could get out of helping and supporting my students. I have never regretted going into teaching, although unlike Vivi, I didn’t actually choose it myself.

***

It is indeed very gratifying to learn from Vivi that she thinks she has made a wonderful career choice. But paradoxically, today, will I strongly recommend to young adults that they should go into teaching?

I am a teacher educator, I still find teaching a meaningful job, but I have long stopped urging my education students to take teaching as the only career option. This is because teaching can be a backbreaking, as well as heartbreaking, job today. Backbreaking because teachers’ workload has multiplied several times since the days I was a schoolteacher. And the workload is still increasing. And few people see the harm that this chronic stress is doing to teachers’ physical and emotional wellbeing. Heartbreaking because unlike those in my teaching days, not many students today appreciate their teachers’ hard work. Heartbreaking also because the materialistic and pragmatic priorities of society often distort the true purpose of education, so that teachers sometimes find themselves wasting their time on un-educational, if not downright anti-educational, trivialities. The more you care about the educational purpose of your work, the more disheartened you can become.

Teaching is so stressful these days, that I don’t know whether I should encourage people to go into teaching. If this is any consolation for teachers, perhaps the only thing I can say is that to my knowledge, not many people in our society today can say that their work is meaningful. In Vivi’s PGDE years, most candidates were fresh graduates from undergraduate programmes. Today, most of them have worked for a few years, changed job several times, and still feel hollow. Then they apply to the PGDE in the hope that can find meaning in their future work.

***

I still believe that despite the stress and endless frustrations, teachers can still find meaning in their work. But teacher candidates need to be physically and mentally prepared. They need super-strong willpower to deal with all the frustrations. They need a stamina of iron to handle the 24/7 work. There will be uncooperative and ungrateful students, and schools are not exempt from workplace politics. There will be times when they falter, when they wonder whether it is worth spending the rest of their working life in a school. Despite that, there will still be moments when they can inspire a student, and opportunities to make a difference in their students’ lives. Teachers may not know it, but for some of their former students, they are the upright people that they are today, because some years ago when they went into the classroom as students, these teachers were there.

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4 thoughts on ““And then you were there.”

  1. Icy Lee

    Paul, I like love this post and appreciate your honesty.

    Who wants a backbreaking and heartbreaking career?

    However, hehind our sweats and tears, we see hope. We help children get out of intergenerational poverty. We help make this world a better plaec to live.

    We need collaborative efforts though. Teaching is not an isolated activity.

    So I would still say to the younger teahers: do not be afraid. Join the teaching profession, and make a difference!

    Icy

  2. Low Poh Lyn

    Hi Mr Sze, I am from Singapore and agree with what you say about the multiplying workload and the increasingly unappreciative cohort of students. Nevertheless, it is good to hear someone speak honestly. In Singapore, many teachers are afraid to give such frank comments.

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