Saturday, April 16, 2011

Of Being a Teacher

jdomawa © 2011* All Rights Reserved

I never thought that I’d be a teacher. Honestly, it was the furthest thing in my mind when I was contemplating a career. I wanted to be an accountant and then probably a lawyer. That was my first career choice. Passing the requirements in UP Diliman even had me wondering if I could become an architect. But being a teacher, it never crossed my mind.

By some strange machination of fate, I ended up enrolling in Engineering, a victim of a girl’s charms I guess (when I was filling up my entrance exam forms, I asked a classmate what course is best and she mentioned Industrial Engineering. I mistakenly placed it on the first option and Accountancy as my second option. Imagine my surprise when I actually enrolled.) So began my improbable career path. As a shy kid, I didn’t have the guts to go to the Dean to shift course so I ended up enrolling in Engineering. After changing my mind on what engineering course to take, another woman, this time in the guise of the Chemical Engineering Department Head lead my mind to my final course which was Chemical Engineering.

Even then, I thought that I’d end up in an industrial plant and probably end my days as an industrial junkie on a 48 hour workweek. I passed the board (a month after graduation) on a rather thin margin which barely took me over the hump. I thought then to take the next step but before that, my buddy and I decided to return back to SLU and thank our instructors.

Well, to make the story short, we ended up getting offered a job (which by the way was probably offered more to my buddy than me). He got cold feet and out of a sense of bravado, I applied instead hoping to use the interview section as an experience platform to help better my chances of applying for other jobs. As expected, the HR officer rejected me outright upon knowing that I was a mere student a month before. I never expected a callback and settled in for a short respite before diving into the process of job applications.

Well, a week later, I received a call. The HR Department wanted me to submit other requirements. I learned later that I was supported by my former instructors and they convinced the HR to hire me. Well, armed with an ever growing smile and growing nervousness at the prospect, I submitted the requirements, went through a hellish practice teaching session (where I thought I’d surely fail), and held my breath.

By some miracle, I passed. I think it has more to do with my former instructors, now colleagues votes of confidence. I suddenly found myself with a yellow backed ID (marking casual employees) a month later entering a classroom filled with students who were my classmates two months before.

I don’t recall much about that time. There was nervousness definitely but my first students were quite nice and eased my transition into my new role. I realized then, that perhaps it was the right career choice for me.

A year passed swiftly. After trying my hand teaching at another University (which was rather filled with politics) and a short stint at TI (Texas Instruments), I found myself returning to my alma mater. I ended up staying for the last six long years.

The years have been generally good. Especially the first three. I had my best years then. I was happy; my students loved my exuberance and smile and I thought that it would be my profession for life. Not everything however, was meant to be that smooth. Three years ago, a rather nasty rumor began to circulate. It took a life of its own and I found myself in the middle of a madness. I prayed and hoped that it would pass, but it would seem that it had stuck with me. It drained me and made me question my resolve. After suffering a mild stroke in the middle of January 2009, I realized that if I stayed, sooner or later, a greater consequence would engulf me.

Being a teacher for life became a path that was becoming less and less clear. Reaching professorship status, even if it was the lowest level in 2009 didn’t help much. I was constantly besieged by the rumor. It was a quicksand.

To be honest, I suffer from a condition that makes my nails burrow into my toes, resulting in them being easily wounded just from small pressures. Wounds fester and reek. They heal, they bite, the cycle continues. I dealt with it yet it stuck. I was, to some of the student population, the instructor who reeked and nothing can ever change that. Even if I was constantly praised as a great teacher, that rumor came to define me. It has reached a point where people by virtue of word of mouth revile me (and yet its funny how they themselves refute it when they wish to verify it). My greatest tormentors are those who put it in their mind that what they believe is true. Perhaps the fact that I never once became angry at the matter or attempted to refute things, aggravated the situation. Or the fact that I ignore their heckles and hatred (for nothing ever comes from answering hatred, it merely propagates more hatred) when they attempt to goad me into reacting. (Once, I even had students visit my boarding house at night just to gossip about me: the result, even my neighbors have bought into it, I’m now a pariah as far as they are concerned). I became too afraid of anyone coughing; every time I heard one, my heart went into overdrive and I feared for my health. This continues to go on.

Perhaps, I am indeed the person they say. Perhaps I indeed stink. After all, all humans have a smell that is unique to them which others may find repulsive. Or maybe I’m just a victim of a nasty piece of human gossip that refuses to die down (its funny sometimes how die hard hecklers attribute certain environmental aromas to me and no, I don’t know 99% of my haters, they are all strangers to me, like for example the scent of organic acids which waft through the laboratory rooms when I teach chemistry or the ammonia smell of engineering bathrooms located near my classrooms; or the smell of 50 bodies who’ve just finished their PE class; or the collection of kitchen waste waiting for the old woman to get them to feed the pigs. They wonder why other people can’t smell what they smell and when they approach me with disdain and find no whiff of offending malodor, they attribute it to a freak occurrence. They rejoice if I finish a long day sweating in class since they can say afterwards that I now smell of sweat or wait for me after laboratory classes when the smell of chemicals are strong. They comment on my open shoes/sandals (It’s to prevent my nails from digging into my toes; I need wide shoes, I can’t afford the surgical procedure to remove my nails entirely). Sometimes I think that there are some people who purposefully spy on my daily activities for a scoop. The pinnacle of this intensity was probably one semester when an entire class above mine started singing their taunts in unison. My students, they just smiled (some of my students do get affected. Peer pressure combined with the stress of scholarly pursuits tends to warp minds).

I grappled with this circus daily, peaking during exams when student frustrations run highest. My worst weeks are the last weeks of each term.

Granted that in certain instances, when the right mix of heat and moisture combine, I will definitely smell. A man sweats and bacteria acts on sweat and the by products smell, but I am not the monster perceived thus. I reserve judgment on this matter (after all, everything is in the mind of the beholder)

Beyond this thing though, I think I did good. I continually got a thumbs up from students evaluations. They were responsible for me jumping instructor ranks. I got professorship in under eight years and this has been consistent. I must have done something right.
My students continually thank me for teaching them: ‘Sir, ngayon ko lang naintindihan, ganito pala yun (Sir, its only now that I understand this, so this is how it is)’; Sir, ang galling niyong magturo, puwedeng malaman yung schedule niyo next sem? (Sir, you’re a good teacher, can I get your schedule next sem?); and my personal favorite ‘Sir, maraming salamat, di ko makakalimutan to (Sir, thank you, I’ll never forget this.)’. I must have done something right. The purpose of teachers is to teach and when the student says that he has learned something, it is the greatest compliment one can give.

And every once in a while, a face in a crowd smiles and hollers Sir! Sir! Sir Domawa! I turn around and a bubbly young one beams at me. ‘Naaalala niyo pa ba ako? Student niyo po ako dati….(Do you still remember me? I was your student once…)’ It warms the heart. To answer, yes, I still remember most of my students faces, maybe not the names but the faces I remember. You’ll just have to forgive me if I can’t place the date or the class, but I remember.

Not a semester goes by that I don’t receive a gift that is quite unexpected. (Teachers are not allowed to accept gifts but these gifts are probably exempt and never did I give preferential treatment to anyone for gifts or expected my students to give me gifts.) Mostly they are letters, crafted lovingly in felt paper. Inside are short messages of thanks signed by students. Other times they are flowers during Valentines. In another a class surprised me by getting up and singing a song at the last day of class. Others are short letters written at the end of their exams narrating their experiences during the term. Individually, I receive notes and elaborate handcrafted pieces which I find piled up on my table. They warm the heart (on a side note, there are gifts that are considered extravagant, such as an artsy TShirt from a group of students in 2009; two formal polos way back 2004; food packs; paper weights; class photos and lately a self portrait done in ink and paper. There are no strings attached with them. They were all given out of appreciation.)

I loved my students and I always will. I will always see them as my little kids. I respect them and although I regret not being there for them in full (particularly to my students of last three years of teaching), I can say that I never once hated a student or wished them to fail. I hurt for every failure and pined for every dropped name and empty seat. Even if I lost my voice in the later part of my work, I hope they felt and appreciated that (and not the passing grade I gave them).

I cannot say that I am a great teacher. I can name more people who deserve to be called great. As teachers come, I am a rather lenient one. When I see students cheat for example, I don’t accost them directly instead I issue a general warning to the greater class. I believe in the innate purity of the human soul and conscience. They know when they are wrong and it is in their power to see and change for the better. In extreme cases, I’ll mark their papers in comment. I am never confrontational. Some get it (and I laud them for it) while others exploit it (but I still believe that they are capable of finally realizing it) and I apologize to the honest ones who felt cheated. The human soul is varied and the process of learning infinite. Passivity for me is a much better mindset which earns its benefits over the long haul.

I am also proud of never having been angry at anyone or at any class. Save for my brother, I never get angry with anyone (passivity won’t work with him anymore). Anger breeds more anger which in turn leads to hatred which leads to suffering and madness. A smile is much, much better than a scowl. To my students who ask me to get angry sometimes, I can’t do it. I hope someday you’ll realize that most of the problems of man are easily solvable by a smile and a restraint for anger. But, I do get angry, I just face it in my mind and rationalize where it will lead if acted upon and always the outcome is not good. End result: you don’t get give in to anger. That’s the mark of a rational mind.

I also give easy questions. It’s the comment of other students and teachers who wonder about the grades I give my students. They say that I am too easy. I beg to differ. If they find it easy, then it must mean that they understood it. That’s how I see it. Teachers often believe that the harder the questions are and the lower the grades of students become, the more effective a teacher they become. I think it is just a mindset borne out of the past where professors took pride in challenging their students. Nowadays, I believe, an exam is a test to gauge if a student has understood a lesson. If they did, they get high scores, if they don’t, they fail (If I give line of 9 grades, I also give line of 6 grades). It does not mean that when a student is failing in one subject, he should be failing in all other parallel subjects. That is just faulty reasoning devoid of logic. So my students get good grades. It must mean that they performed well enough. I stand by those grades (even if in some cases, I agree that some have arrived at them using dubious means because of my lenient nature; but not all, definitely not all.)

The judgment as to my grade as a teacher, I’ll leave to my students. I take pride in the fact that at one point in their lives I was there. Whether I made a difference or not will be left to the workings of life. Inevitably, I will be forgotten by some and remembered by others. The time I spent with them is enough for me to treasure.

And yet, I must bid adieu to that time.

In a month, I’ll have to leave the hallowed halls of SLU to traverse a new path that is offered.

Thank you for everything. To all the people who have colored my life till now, I offer my heartfelt thanks.


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