One of the great ironies of the teaching profession is that while we teachers inspire generations of students to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, computer wizards and what-have-you, we very rarely inspire any of them to become teachers. This is a conundrum that has for long puzzled me, and for which I can very hesitantly offer some tentative explanations.
Of course one of the grim realities that stares us in the face is the low esteem accorded to teachers, particularly to schoolteachers, by society in general. Two instances of my personal experience in this regard will probably highlight the point. Some years ago, when I was working in one of the country’s premier public schools, I remember an irate teacher complaining to me about a parent who had come to collect his son for the vacations. While exhorting his son to study hard, the father delivered what he considered the ultimate closing argument with the grim warning, “If you don’t study, you will end up being like him [the teacher].”
On another occasion, when I was addressing an assembly of parents, I candidly asked them, “How many of you would willingly consent to your daughter marrying a schoolteacher, or encourage your son to become one'” No marks for the correct answer!
To a great extent, the low esteem society accords to teachers is connected with the money teachers make, or rather, don’t make. It is hardly a national secret that salaries in almost every other sector have left teachers’ pay packet way behind. This is probably because teaching was always considered a “calling”, much like priesthood. One taught because some divine voice urged you to — and therefore, material considerations should not matter. While contemporary teachers look upon themselves as rendering a professional service, society still hangs on to the divine voice theory.
Teachers also have to contend with another perception problem. If there is one profession all educated adults feel they know everything about, it is teaching. After all, we have all been to school, haven’t we ' And what more is there to learn about the profession' So teachers and headteachers are constantly told how to do their jobs by all and sundry. The profession is taken for granted.
To compound teachers’ problems, pupils are constantly scrutinizing them and making their teachers’ foibles the butt of their jokes. Students will always mimic their teachers’ eccentricities — that’s quite normal. But when parents encourage the practice, there is something seriously wrong with our value system. I have had occasion to sit through some very embarrassing evenings when parents have called upon their children to perform for their guests by mimicking their teachers. An attitude of contempt is transferred to children soon enough.
Societal reasons such as this contribute to denigrate the profession. But what do we teachers do to enhance our own status in society' Not much. When we resort to teaching the same notes year after year without bothering to upgrade our knowledge; when we resort to deliberately slacking in the classroom so as to attract private tuition; when we are remiss about checking homework with any degree of rigour; when we discourage questioning minds; when we are not honest enough to admit that we don’t know an answer; when we run down fellow teachers in front of students; when we heap insult and humiliation upon a child. In short, when we are thoroughly unprofessional and fail to become role-models, can we blame students for not wanting to tread in our footsteps' The adage, “Physician heal thyself”, applies more to teachers who have a one-to-one relationship with impressionable students than to others.
The societal interest demands that they reassess and re-evaluate their roles within the nation’s faltering education system. Let us stop endlessly and meaninglessly mouthing the truism that the country’s future lies with its children if we are not prepared to do anything about their teachers.