By Robert Lalah
Being a teacher can't be easy. Having responsibility for so many young minds is one thing, but add to that all the other tasks that fall on the shoulders of modern-day teachers and you have to wonder how they do it day after day. It's the same at every level too. From kindergarten straight up to tertiary level, most of a teacher's duties aren't listed on their contracts, I'm sure.
If you've ever seen basic-school teachers out on a field trip with their little students, you'd agree that they're more like part-time parents than hired instructors. And good university lecturers have the power to inspire young minds to greatness. You often hear successful people mention at least one lecturer who stood out in their lives and who motivated them not only to become better students, but to be better people.
As an outsider looking in though, it seems to me that teachers at the secondary level might have things the hardest. Especially these days, when gang members and mothers are so often younger than 18 years old, and a random search of bags is likely to turn up as many knives as calculators.
A now retired guidance counsellor, who worked at a Kingston high school, once told me that whenever there was tension between rival gangs in the community, most of the older boys wouldn't turn up for classes. And it wasn't because they were scared of leaving their homes. It was because they had other gang-related duties that required their attention.
How do you deal with students like that? Say things cool down and the following week the boys show up for school again, and one of them is wearing pants that are too tight. Do you accost the rule-breaker and land the full force of the law on him? Or do you stop to think that the tight pants-wearer might not take too kindly to the reprimand and could very well come back later with some goons to retaliate? One school's dean of discipline was hospitalised after being attacked by a group of boys after a similar situation not long ago.
It's a tough call and one I'm sure the teachers didn't think they would be forced to make when they first started out in the profession. Perhaps they thought it would have been all about books and learning, eager students and grateful parents. But parent-led protests outside schools, when unpopular decisions are made, suggest a more combative relationship than is ideal.
There are police officers in some schools now, and I'm sure this helps a lot. But the burden of handling matters related to discipline still belongs to teachers in most cases. And this is in addition to that whole business of actually delivering lessons.
So as a teacher, what do you do? Do you simply extend the minimum required effort, focusing only on those students who really want to learn, or do you keep fighting to save those who show no signs of wanting to be saved? Should you challenge lazy parents and try to force them to see the light, or do you accept that there are some people who are just too set in their ways to be helped?
In the movies, the heroic teachers always take on the school's most difficult students and their parents. By the end of the story, all the ruffians are reformed, gang leaders stop looking for young recruits, parents start doing their job, teachers are glorified and everyone lives happily ever after.
Of course, this is no Hollywood production and a desirable ending is not so easily crafted. It will take more than clever writing and good direction to make it happen.
But there's reason to be optimistic. Life often imitates art and since the happiest endings usually come after the hardest struggles, I'd say we're on the cusp of something spectacular.
Robert Lalah is assistant editor - features and author of the popular 'Roving with Lalah'. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.