A day in the life of ... Lara van Lelyveld

1st November 2013 at 00:00
In South Africa, this life orientation teacher encourages her students to explore the country's complex racial tensions. She gives each day her all - but how long can she keep up the pace?

I am awake before my alarm goes off at 5am. After showering and dressing in my approximation of "smart teacher", I head for the kitchen, where my father has made fruit salad for breakfast. My mother packed my lunchbox the night before. Living with my parents is a necessity based on my current income, but when I come home to such love and support, how could I want things to be different?

I arrive at my school - St Nicholas Diocesan School in Pietermaritzburg - just before 7am. I open the blinds, water my flowers, get all my papers in order and brace myself. From the moment the bell rings at 7.30am until the last bell at 2.45pm, there is not a moment to pause, so I need my ducks lined up and ready for deployment.

I teach life orientation and I use my classes as a chance to raise consciousness. We speak a great deal about race, gender and class. Given South Africa's history, our school is an interesting combination: white teachers, black learners, all in a (relatively) low-fee private school. Some of my best conversations with students have been about skin colour. Race is a reality each person lives every day in South Africa, but chances for honest and open discussion are few and far between. As we begin all our conversations from a place of mutual respect, more or less, we avoid the reactionary responses that so often bog down debates around race.

There are so many small moments of shame during a teaching day: when I realise that I've lost a child's assignment; when I lose my temper with a child and am unkind; when I don't meet admin deadlines. Some of these don't matter (the admin deadlines) and I brush them off, but when I have done something wrong I apologise.

After school, there is invariably a group of learners who stay behind. Sometimes they just want someone to say "well done" for the test they aced; sometimes there are serious problems. These can vary from parents' suicide attempts to the death of a grandparent or a divorce. I sit with them for as long as they need. They open the cages around their hearts and let it all out.

Initially, I was scared to say the wrong thing, but then I realised that all they really want is to have someone sit with them in their pain, acknowledge it, offer practical advice if possible and give them a hug. Usually, they bounce off lighter, their burden shared.

The supper bell for boarders rings at 5.20pm. I finish off some marking, pack up my bags, climb into the car, play the latest episode of The Archers and drive home, totally drained. I give each day everything I have. Should I wish to survive my first year as a teacher, that probably needs to change.

Your day

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