When I had my interview for my current job I remember having a fairly relaxing conversation with a couple of guys in an office. The large bloke behind the desk in the dark suit ran the interview, and the guy sitting on the seats in the corner seemed quiet and affable. I had been spectacularly unsuccessful getting even an interview for a teaching job at that point and was pretty surprised to find myself in a principal’s office. I was even more surprised that this principal seemed content to have a chat with me rather than grill me. I had spent about a year in my last job in Japan grilling people who wanted to work for our company, and I had been prepared for battle. Instead I found myself going for a wander around the school with the affable chap who had been sitting in the corner.
It was a very nice day, and I remember wandering across the courts towards F-Block and seeing the heavy, bush-clad hills rising up in the distance across the playing fields and saying how beautiful it was. The guy showing me around, let’s call him Chris, agreed. We had a look at classrooms, and a resource room. In one of the classrooms a group of kids were watching Spongebob Squarepants on the TV. Chris smiled, “end of the year teaching strategy,” he said.
Honestly, I probably would’ve taken any teaching job anywhere, but I had such a good feeling about the place and the people from that interview that I really couldn’t wait to start. That feeling didn’ t last long. After my first day I couldn’t think of anything worse than having my job.
I had been given a Year 13 English class for students who hate English. On my first day there were 48 students in my class. 35 of them looked like they were on day release from prison. I decided to do something easy like take the roll. I told everyone that’s what I was going to do and the class fell silent. Packs of students always fall silent the very first time they have a new teacher because they want to hear exactly how you are going to screw up so they can all pounce together. I looked down at the roll and saw the first name. The first name on the roll was Cretina. So similar to cretin does this name look that I actually began to sweat. Everyone in the room was aware of whose name was first on the roll, and everyone in the room was waiting to see how I would say it. A very large “girl” smiled at me across the room. Actually it was more like a she-wolf drawing her lips back across her teeth. She said, “what’s my name… mister?”
I went with the emphasis on Tina. She nodded. “Well done,” she said. I smiled and then the class went crazy.
Most days in my first term I would come home, lie down on the living room floor, close my eyes and try not to cry. My god it was hard. I will never forget how hard. The hardest thing was maintaining my sense of self worth against mobs of people who seemed to totally disregard me, and a handful of students who actually disrespected and mocked me. It reminded me of something the principal had said in my interview. He brought up the fact that one of my placements during my training had been at P College. “To be honest,” he said, “if you hadn’t trained at a place like that and survived I probably wouldn’t have hired you.”
I will always remember going to the noticeboard at training college to find out where my first major placement was. When I saw that I was going to P College I felt a sense of dread. You might think you are a liberal, open-minded pakeha, but I would challenge you to accept this placement with complete equanimity. Well, inevitably I suppose, that placement at P College was far and away the best experience of my whole teacher training. It was the hardest and the most bruising, but I saw the best (and worst) teaching there, and – most importantly – I saw what it was I wanted to do: I wanted to do the hard work, with the hard kids who really REALLY needed a decent teacher to help. Before I went there I thought that I wanted to teach at an academic school, after I went there my mind was opened up a little.
Well, the affable chap who showed me around school five years ago is off now to go and work at P College. He told me once that he wanted to work at schools like ours because you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. I think he will do a fantastic job at that school. I also find it reassuring that there are still lots of people in the world who believe in this kind of thing. I think it used to be called civil service – serving society. I feel that I serve society, I certainly serve the community that I work in, and the students I work with.
One of the reasons I survived my first term at school was because Chris was just through the door in the other classroom. When I was losing the plot and screaming at kids, and throwing people out of class, and breaking up fights, he didn’t burst in and tell me I was an idiot, or to harden up, or that I was failing, he would just stand in the door and quieten things down a bit, and take one or two kids away with him. Afterwards he would tell me I was doing ok.
“You’re doing ok.” Amazing how much those words can mean to you when you’re going home every night to lie on the living room floor and question your existence. I hope someone higher up told him that too. That he was doing ok.
I’ll see you round.