Care to care?

Sunday July 1, 2012

http://thestar.com.my/education/story.asp?file=/2012/7/1/education/11535292&sec=education

Teacher Talk by NITHYA SIDHHU

Kindness, compassion and patience are positive attributes that make some teachers stand out from the rest and endear them to their students.

IT WAS Leornardo da Vinci who said that people of accomplishment rarely sit back and let things happen to them. In fact,he said that “they went out and happened to things”.

Learning to care is a lot like that. You have to go out and happen to things. To learn the mechanics of doing so is a deeply personal journey. That is why every teacher’s sojourn along this path is an individual story.

In my years of teaching, I learnt that my job would have been made so much easier if I hadn’t cared as much as I did — about myself, my self-development, my career, the people I worked with, the projects I was assigned to do, or even the way I conducted myself, taught and felt about my students.

To care is an emotional investment and it takes a huge amount of patience, professional pride, perseverance and presence to do so.

The down-side of caring is that you can get hurt or be subject to misperception. I’ve hit my fair share of rough spots in my professional life because some people misunderstood my good intentions, my refusal to take sides, or my openness to all manner of opinions and people.

“How can you talk to her!” and “I don’t know if I can trust you …” I get remarks like these thrown to me because I don’t limit my world.

I never belonged to any cliques at school simply because I didn’t believe in them. I found them too restrictive for the likes of me.

But I often found myself riddled with the niggling thought that perhaps I shouldn’t care so much — that I should leave things be, or let sleeping dogs lie.

Hitting a bump, I would ask myself, “Why care?”

Of course, the rational mind would advise, “Don’t let this matter bother you. Let it go. Don’t allow this to affect you.”

It helped that I could at times take a deep breath and say, “This too shall pass.”

However, I must say that no matter how I feel about an event, a colleague, a student or a situation — I have discovered that while giving and forgiving makes one vulnerable, and opens the door to potential hurt, conflict, disparaging remarks, negative perception, ridicule and even misunderstanding, among other things, — it also leads to productive reflection, self-discovery, learning, personal growth and improvement. It is for this reason that I allow my instincts to guide me where my relationships with my superiors, colleagues and students are concerned.

In particular, despite all contrary advice, I have made sure that I cared enough about my work and students.

A senior teacher in the first school I taught told me: “Do what you can for your students but there is no need to go all out as it may not be worth your effort.”

Being strict

I was only a 26-year-old then, and as a result of what she had said, I was somewhat firm and unbending in that first year. Afraid that my authority would be questioned, I was resolute, determined and intent on letting my students know who the boss was — Me!

Years later, I met a woman at an airport who walked up to me and said, “I think you were my Biology teacher in 1986! My, were you strict!”

She was obviously married and had two children with her.

With a laugh, she said to my questioning look, “You threw me out of your class one day for talking too much during your lesson!”

I was aghast. Had I really?

But that was back then. I know I had changed very soon after. I had come to realise in the early years of my teaching career, that I was not born to be a dragon breathing fire but to be a kind and engaging person. Over the years, as I became more confident of myself in the job, I realised that unlike some teachers who could maintain a strict or even harsh demeanour, a “you-stay-where-you-are” and “I-am-your teacher” stance, I was not able to draw a clear line of demarcation between me and my students.

For me, the lines often blurred. I usually crossed over to their side. When I didn’t, my conscience would bug me until I did the right thing.

As Brazilian writer Paul Coelho had mentioned in his novel Zahir, I too needed to be zahir which is to be present and available.

This also brings me back to one of my students who was an introvert. At 15 years, while his friends pranced and prattled around him, the teenager would often sit alone with his head bent, never looking up or talking to anyone.

Most teachers ignored him but I couldn’t.

I remember coming into his class and over time, becoming acutely aware of his isolation and his desire to curl into himself and become almost non-existent.

Every morning, after greeting my students, I would stop by at his table and wish him. He never looked up but he could obviously hear me.

When I told a colleague about him, she said to me, “Oh, he’s a hopeless case. That boy doesn’t talk, doesn’t communicate … I don’t know why you even bother.”

But I did not give up, I wished him every day. I taught him and whenever I passed his table, I would still say a few words to him. When he made mistakes in his written work, I corrected them with my red pen. I am not sure if it was the best way or approach in dealing with the teen, but it is something that came instinctively to me.

An unforgettable moment

One day, as usual I walked up to him and said, “Good morning. How are you today? Good, I hope.”

I was about to walk away when suddenly he looked up and greeted me. It was an unforgett-tabale moment and brought tears of joy to me.

It is moments like these that have made my years of teaching so memorable.

For me, caring for my charges can come in the form of hours of coaching and some in the moment you offer that word of encouragement during their time of need.

Caring also comes in the form of couching your words appropriately, in not always saying what is uppermost in your mind, in not retaliating, in listening, in not being judgmental or prejudiced but keeping an open mind and being mindful of the effect that words and actions have.

I learnt not to turn my back on my students. Even with arrogant and rude students, I chose not to see manifestations of their behaviour, but the underlying problems they had and the blossoming that happens when the effect of caring takes root.

It is a fact that only by caring can you convert or truly educate.

By saying “I couldn’t care less” or “Why should I care?”, you are only adding to the problem.

By being careless with your words or ruthless in your actions, you are only propagating a vicious cycle.

The two most positive traits for a teacher is not only to care for her charges but to show that she cares for them. Both actions have a tremendous impact on students.