EVERY once in a while the thought “How did I get this old?” flashes across the minds of teachers who have been in the service for 20 years or more.
It may happen when you need to fill in some form that requires your original appointment date, when you bump into a former student at the supermarket and discover that the hunky teenager next to him is his son, or when the school canteen staff begins to address you as “Auntie”.
It seems like only yesterday when you were this fresh, young teacher ready to begin your career in teaching with mixed feelings of anticipation and trepidation.
You can still remember the butterflies in your tummy the first day you had to report to school, and how you felt more like a student than a teacher when you had to meet your “senior” colleagues.
In fact, some of the students in the higher forms loomed over you and you suspected they knew exactly what you were feeling, which was a range of mixed emotions – proud that you had finally qualified as a “real” teacher, excited about putting to use all you had learnt during teacher-training, a little unsure about how you would fit in with the staff-room crowd, and nervous about the whole thing.
Then there were the little things that you were uncertain about, like where to get desk copies, or how to fill in those claim forms after attending a course.
At times you felt somewhat patronised when your colleagues went into elaborate detail each time you made an enquiry about such “trivial” stuff.
At other times you were infinitely thankful that despite the long-suffering look on their faces, they sometimes took the time to help you out knowing you were new and fumbling.
You think of your many faux pas, tickled at the memory of how clueless you may have come across during your first year of teaching.
But now the tables have turned. You look at the new teachers and smile knowingly at their obvious discomfiture. You’ve been there, you know what it’s all about.
In fact there are so many things you could tell these fresh, young teachers; the main thing being that there will be situations where nothing they had ever learnt in pedagogy class would be relevant.
You could tell them that there will be instances when their entire faith in the profession is either reinforced a hundredfold or shattered to smithereens.
But you could also tell them that they will learn to get wise, know their way around and make great strides in their people skills.
Over the years they will accumulate knowledge, skills and the experience of dealing with all types of students, ranging from the nerdy rocket-scientists-in-the making to those whose ambition in life is to sell pirated CDs at the night market.
They will learn how to respond to a student who is bent on making them look for another job and they will learn how to be on cordial terms with even the most difficult of their colleagues. Some of these things will be learnt no other way but the hard way.
Along the way they will make mistakes and mess up. They will learn that they will not always be popular and that human resentment can be triggered by the most trivial things, like the principal complimenting their dress sense in front of the other teachers. They will make some real friends and lose a few.
They will garner support and encouragement from their peers and discover the meaning of team work, that no man is an island.
They will grow older of course, just as you have, and may not remain the lithe, young things they used to be. Perhaps their hair will grey a little and those laughter lines grow a little deeper.
Some of them will get married, have children of their own and learn how to juggle family and career.
They may lose some of their popularity with the students to the young, newly-posted teachers, but in its place will be a deep, growing respect which is real and not based on superficialities.
They will acquire wisdom in their dealings with school matters and learn when it is alright to speak their mind and when to hold back.
There will be a quiet dignity in their step, and even if they walk a little slower they will be more certain of their destination.
No longer will they get up in the morning with a sense of panic, having prepared the wrong lesson for the wrong class, because they have dealt with such emergencies before and know exactly what to do.
On a different note, they will also be earning more money now and probably be zipping into the school carpark instead of having to take two buses to get to school.
Not only that, the non-teaching staff of the school will give them due respect in accordance with their status as senior teacher.
Some of them will get promoted and some won’t. While this may not have mattered very much, even when you first began teaching, now that you are much older, questions like: “So, what position are you holding now in school?” from those outside the teaching service, may rankle.
Of course there are teachers who have passed up promotions, preferring not to be part of the administrative circle. But there are those who have been unfairly by-passed and this can dampen their enthusiasm towards their job.
Unless they come to terms with it, they lose the joy of teaching and find themselves simply plodding along from day to day.
Still, deep inside, I think the fire never really dies.
Through all the ups and downs of your career, and despite the times you felt like quitting, you know deep within you why you have stayed the course all these years.
The truth is, you have actually grown into teaching. And the unique fulfilment that comes with being able to invest something of value into the lives of your students makes it all worthwhile.