Count your blessings

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that teaching wasn’t always my calling. In fact, upon graduation I had no idea what I wanted to do career-wise, although it was obvious to me that I needed to earn a living somehow or other. I fell into a number of different jobs in my twenties which paid the bills and subsidised my social life. It wasn’t until I felt a pressing need to uproot myself from the security and familiarity of my hometown that I considered teaching as a career. It became evident that if I wished to travel while working, teaching English as a foreign language would be an interesting way to do it. Within three months of making that decision, I was winging my way back to Sydney to combine another Antipodean adventure with taking my CELTA qualification, which is where the seeds of this idea had begun to germinate as I celebrated Christmas on Bondi Beach that winter.

Later that year I’d secured a teaching position in Lisbon, but the early days posed many new challenges. I realised very soon that despite being a native speaker, there were gaping holes in my knowledge of English grammar which my teaching course had done little to plug. In some respects this was the least of my worries, as I soon realised that learning to pace my lessons, hold my audience and, especially in the case of the younger students, being able to retain control of my classroom were equally, if not more, important. By the end of my thirteen year stint at the language school, I’d developed a useful repertoire of set-piece lessons which I felt I could teach in my sleep if required; indeed, this may have been the case during some of my early morning classes which required me to wake up at 6am. Equally, I’d developed my teaching persona, which veered wildly between desperate housewife, embarrassing auntie and various elements gleaned from Victoria Wood characters.

In my second year, I was required to teach primary-aged children as part of my timetable, as the language school’s services had been contracted by a large convent school close by. Presumably the nuns were beyond reproach, but the pupils were less than angelic. The children – girls and boys – were reasonably participative and very vocal in general, although rarely in the target language. At this stage my Portuguese was well below par, but even with my limited skills I was able to deduce the gist of the hilarity induced in one class by the cartoon grandma depicted in their text book, who was generously endowed with grandes mamas.

By the end of the school year, the classes had somehow acquired a passable grasp of the basics, this despite flying rubbers and general unruliness. By early summer, the temperature in the school rooms was stifling. To make matters worse, the children had to wear batas (smocks, which are worn over the child’s actual clothes). At the time I thought they were ridiculous, but now having had school-age children of my own, I appreciate their merits, particularly as a protective barrier against food, paint, glue and other substances that seem to be magnetically drawn to children’s clothing. Towards the very end of term, outside temperatures were now hovering somewhere above 30 degrees and an impish child named Hugo in one group decided to make a stand vis-à-vis the extra layer of clothing he was required to wear in the heat. Unfortunately I realised too late that he’d chopped off one of his bata‘s sleeves with his scissors; I was able to spare the other sleeve from a similar fate, although by this point my intervention was pretty futile as plainly the damage had already been done.

It was in this context that I attended the school’s end of year spectacular. I was happy to cheerily wave goodbye to the little darlings and, most of all, grateful to have survived the academic year without having been driven completely to the edge of reason. In a last, desperate bid to engage the students, I’d taught all three groups The Beatles’ song ‘Hello Goodbye’ with the idea that if successful, it could be performed at the show. The language was simple enough and offered the opportunity for accompanying actions should anyone decline to sing. This move was off-piste, not in their text books and felt slightly risky, but my damp brow and withering soul couldn’t tolerate any more inane workbook activities. Dutifully sitting through their performance, I simply wasn’t prepared for the impact of ninety seemingly cherubic-looking children singing enthusiastically in English to impressed and delighted parents. Nine months of teaching through gritted teeth melted away and tears of pride streamed down my face.

This episode unexpectedly sparked a feeling of satisfaction that came to be replicated on and off throughout the intervening years, in various contexts. The buzz I got from a group gelling and working well together began to make me glow from within. When talented students did well I clucked with delight like a mother hen. I observed, fascinated, unlikely or inter-generational friendships blossom in my classrooms. I became genuinely very fond of many of the people I taught.

I unwittingly found an occupation that plays to my strengths: an interest, bordering on nosiness, in other people and an endless capacity to chat, combined with a total inability to take myself very seriously and the emergence of my inner show-off, which had lain dormant in early adulthood. This line of work will never make me my first million, but most days I conclude that there could be far worse ways to earn a living – and for that I’m very grateful.

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