Why do I teach? Teachers make a difference

Last updated 05:00 11/02/2013

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During my 27 years of secondary teaching in New Zealand, South Africa and the Cook Islands it's become clear that had I relied on day-to-day positive feedback for encouragement, I'd have become disillusioned very quickly.

In many instances, expressions of appreciation only surfaced when I left a school. Was this mere politeness towards a departing teacher? I think not, for kids frequently referred to things I'd said or fun classroom incidents that I'd long since forgotten.

Sometimes positive feedback can arrive even later in unexpected ways.

During 1986 in apartheid South Africa I was one of three white teachers in a large secondary school for black children in Swellendam in the Western Cape. These schools were short of science teachers in those days and it was not uncommon for teachers from the white community to help fill positions.

I had three biology classes but no lab facilities. For mammalian anatomy the local vet supplied me with a large euthanised dog which I dissected and displayed with labels pinned to the organs to identify them.

My students stared and stared at the display, but there were almost no questions. It occurred to me that the only dead dogs these kids saw would have been squashed ones on the roads, a very different spectacle to one with organs laid out to look like a text book image.

Long after I'd left that school I met some folk walking on a Cape beach. After patting their dog and exchanging trivial comments about the animal they told me how they had nearly lost him to sickness, but that he'd been pulled through by a highly competent black vet in Cape Town.

Because of the very limited educational - especially tertiary - opportunities for blacks in apartheid South Africa this was highly unusual, so they'd asked him how he came to be a vet.

He said that school had meant very little to him and that his text books seemed to bear no relation at all to life or the real world. Then one day his biology teacher had brought a dissected dog to his school in Swellendam. Connection with the real world was made at that instant and the incentive to become a vet took hold.

Any given day or week at school can be pretty lean on encouragement; but string together feedback over the years and most of us in the profession will confirm - it's worth it!

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