We must be bold enough to embrace new ideas and tap our full potential instead of always remaining on safe, familiar grounds.
A STUDENT called me up recently and told me, “You were one of the best teachers I ever had.”
When someone tells me something like that, I was speechless. While I must admit that I had some “down” days, on most days I taught with feeling, passion and devotion. I can even recall some very memorable times when I truly connected with my students or gave them a lesson that we enjoyed.
This student, currently pursuing medicine, told me she will always remember how much she came to love Biology because of me. My analogies, my jokes, my personality, my stories. Reflecting on her words, I realised I had come a long way from the time I first began teaching. In the early years of my career, some two decades ago, I dreaded change, sometimes even afraid of it.
I cannot believe it now but I did stick religiously to the safe and the familiar in my first ten years of teaching.
It was only when I turned 35 that I began to look at my life as a teacher differently. Even then, it wasn’t an easy thing to do.
We are so accustomed to a set way of thinking and behaving that sometimes when we think of change, it’s like we have been asked to “moult”.
As Asians, we are also reminded kindly “not to rock the boat”.
But the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu was right when he said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
The key word in life is “letting go”. We can only develop and grow if we stop looking at the past, and are willing to let go some of our habits and ideas that are standing in the way of our progress.
I used the word ‘moult’ in an earlier sentence without even giving it a second thought. Yet, there is so much that we can learn from that word and its connection to the world of insects. They have a thick exoskeleton and while this protects them, it also does not allow any growth at all in terms of width and length.
In an insect, hormonal changes bring forth the process of ecdysis. The old exoskeleton cracks and a new soft one quickly settles in its place.
During this short, interim period, the insect quickly grows as much as it can before the new exoskeleton hardens and stops further growth.
It is during this time that the insect, with its soft exterior, is extremely vulnerable to predators and danger. But such is its life. I think teachers are afraid of change because it makes us feel vulnerable too.
We feel exposed when we try new things. We feel more secure with a certain way of life, a customary style of teaching and our old ingrained habits.
But, it was the Greek philosopher, Plato, who reminded Man years ago that “courage is knowing what not to fear.”
Therefore, does it not follow that we should fear only that which is capable of bringing us ruin or dishonour?
In other words, what is wrong in welcoming change if it is a good one?
Let me tell you a story about a pivotal point in my life. The year was 1995 and I was teaching in a small town called Paloh in Johor.
Desirous of excitement, I decided to take part in an elocution contest held for teachers in conjunction with Teachers’ Day. I must confess that it took a lot of guts for a Biology teacher like me to even consider taking part in a competition where English teachers held sway!
Truth is, life was becoming a little dull in the sleepy hollow I was teaching in. I seemed to be leading the life of the proverbial “frog under a coconut shell”.
So, when I saw the notice, I told myself to ‘go for it’.
In good time, I went to Kluang to represent my school in the competition. Meeting up with teachers who taught in other schools was a pleasant experience. There was a lot of good-natured joking and camaraderie.
I took part in the competition as a lark but, to my surprise, I won and was chosen to represent the district of Kluang at the Johor state-level competition! This entailed staying two nights in Muar. Once again, I was thrilled because I could go out-station and meet even more teachers.
Many of them turned out to have a great sense of adventure, fun and humour. We really had a good time.
As luck would have it, I won again. I must say I was taken aback by this win. Now, I found myself representing Johor in the final competition. This was when my nerves began to kick in.
I became aware that for the first time in my teaching life, I was in a national level contest. I was up against teachers from all over the country who were representing their own states.
Many of them were very competitive by nature and some even kept very much to themselves.
With the exception of a few who were friendly, the rest kept their distance.
Anyway, it was a big event with many other competitions being held at the same time for teachers. Everyone was also excited because Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who was then the Education Minister, was due to give away the prizes.
The big day came for the finals of the elocution contest. I was asked to pick a number, it was number 14 – the last person to speak!
My husband was the only familiar face in the audience and the hall was filled with teachers, their families and those from the education community.
I had my speech prepared. But, as I watched contestant after contestant perform, it began to dawn on me that nearly everyone was speaking in the same manner.
Introduction, body of content and an ending that summarised the main points.
Some of them were impeccable in their delivery, while some had an oratorical style that left my hands feeling clammy and cold.
“I must be different,” I thought. “I must give the judges something new, something that will wake them up or make them smile. A joke?A story?A poem?A different style?”
My mind was racing. Part of me was afraid. Dare I make a last minute change to my speech? Would people appreciate my unique approach? What if my gamble failed? Would they laugh at me?
I excused myself and went to the bathroom.
My face in the mirror looked pale and nervous. My turn was coming up and I needed to make a decision soon.
I thought hard. What kind of person was I as a teacher? What did I believe in? What if I were in the audience? What kind of speech would I like to hear?
That’s when something clicked in my mind. I strode out just in time to hear my name being called. I took a deep breath and embraced change at the last minute. My heart was in my mouth that day. I began my speech not with the usual opening, but with a snatch of a song!
I spoke, not in the manner of a rehearsed pattern but, in a conversational tone.
I decided to let my true self shine through. My words were simple but they came from my heart. The title of my speech had been “A Caring School” and if there was one thing I left the audience with, it was the fact that it is teachers who care, that make the difference in a child’s life.
“I care”, I told them in the end, “and I hope you do too”. And yes, I was the national champion that year!
The philosopher Lao Tzu was right when he said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
I am who I am today because every now and then, I take the risk of moulting.
TEACHER TALK By NITHYA SIDHHU
Source: The STAR Home Education Sunday March 18, 2012