I am a teacher.
This is a scary identity to claim. Teaching terrifies me for many reasons, not least because it’s a task in which I might fail in front of a large group of people and then have to face them everyday and in which my failure might significantly affect their success.
I feel underqualified and overwhelmed at every step of the process.
I’m about to start my second week of model school. Model school consists of several hundred students willing to show up each morning for classes at a local public school. It’s theoretically mutually beneficial—we get to practice teacing and they get a little between-terms education plus a pen and notebook each.
The first day felt like drowning.
There was a time, once, when I was swimming and the waves were too high and my legs were top tired and it took every ounce of effort I had to catch one more lungful of air each time I bobbed above the water and to hold it as I sank under. That is how teaching felt on my first day.
I stood in front of about ninety primary 6 students and tried to teach them something—anything—and my hands shook and my heart tried to escape my ribcage, and I thought, This was a mistake. I can’t do this.
But the next morning I walked back into that classroom. The students didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them, and I felt ineffective and miserable, and it was hard. But it no longer felt like drowning.
And by the third morning, when the kids rushed in and took their seats in a mob of pushing hands and kicking feet and shouting voices, I recognised a handful of faces. And when I stood in front of them and they chorused, ‘Good morning, teacher!’ I was able to muster an actual smile.
Over the course of the week, I learned more than I could’ve imagined.
I learned that the little girl in the yellow shirt knows the scientific definition for every word but may not actually understand the question.
I learned that the older boy in the back has some sort of learning disorder and that asking him to come up and answer questions is both ineffective and unkind.
I learned that the girl in the burgundy sweater has a vision problem but can do any assignment I give if I make sure she can see it and understand the directions.
I learned that teaching children entirely in a language they barely speak requires patience on my part and tenacity on theirs and that learning happens when we all bend a little to accommodate each other.
I learned that this was not a mistake, and that I can do this.
By Friday, when I said goodbye to them, I had fallen in love with that mob of bright eyes and loud laughter.
I love their high-fives as they troop out the door, and I love the kids who circle back for a second one.
I love the little girl who passed in the door to wink at me and the one who caught me after class to ask if I would be at the same school next week so she could still see me.
I love their enthusiastic shouts when they know the right answer.
I love the courage in their stammering when they know the right answer but have to frame it in a language their tongues struggle to form.
I love that they try anyway.
I am a teacher—not because of a qualification or a job title, but because of those children.
Because by the end of the week, the desk of boys at the back, who didn’t seem to understand a word for five straight days, were able to create a group project with correct ideas articulated in understandable English.
Because I saw shy girls answering by the end of the week.
Because they left singing the songs we had taught them.
I am a teacher. There’s a lot to this identity. There are fears and aspirations, beliefs and doubts. There are students in my past and students to come in my future, and there’s a world of new experience waiting.
But whatever is still to come, this identity is mine right now, thanks to a roomful of Rwandan children.