The gift of giving a damn

7th October 2011 at 01:00

There is nothing that quite warms the heart of the overworked English teacher like hearing: "We're reading a book. Again" from a less-than-enthusiastic pupil. Ah, another one I've inspired beyond all possibilities.

Teenagers still amaze me on a fairly regular basis, most of the time for less-than-good reasons. But sometimes I'm so pleasantly surprised it's almost magical. For every hundred or so pupils who shy away from reading, there will be one at my door showing me their journal of creative writing, asking my opinion about their poetry or short stories. All you need is that one pupil - keen, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed - to make it all worthwhile. You can go home thinking, "I've made a difference today, what I do matters, it means something", before you pour an oversized glass of red and crawl into bed at 6pm.

But the truth is, it really does matter, doesn't it? And not just to the ones who let you know what it means to them. Think of the pupil who sits in your class with that look on their face. You know, the one that rests somewhere between apathy and anger. Sometimes they speak. Sometimes they grunt. Sometimes they're just plain rude. That pupil. Well, you make a difference to them. They may never know it - they're pretty much guaranteed never to thank you for it - but you're a huge part of their world and you're changing it for the better.

I was lucky enough to spend a portion of the summer holidays in Bali, where I visited a small, charity-run school. Balinese parents are very keen for their children to learn English, which is key to getting a job in the tourist industry - a career that can mean real money. In fact, parents are so intent on making sure their children get to school, often miles away from their home, that they fork out to rent a scooter for them to travel on. So, the parents work in the rice-fields, the family scrapes together the equivalent of #163;50 a month to rent the scooter (the average wage of a manual labourer is around #163;3.50 a day), and the children go to school hoping to one day gain work in the tourist industry and support their family.

It is no surprise, then, after this incredible dedication just to get to school, that I am welcomed by beautifully behaved, smiling pupils who greet me in unison with "Good afternoon. How are you?"

We talk about England and their families and work out how old they are. They begin to size me up, asking questions and repeating what I say in order to practise their accents. For a while at least, there are going to be little Balinese children running around with a Black Country twang. Poor things.

I was struck with the sense of how different it is to teach somewhere where education feels like a gift, where pupils have to make sacrifices even to get to school, where, as a teacher, you bestow a gift and are an essential part of that child's, and their family's, future.

And then it hit me. We do this every day we go to work. The paperwork, meetings, planning, marking and reports might stop you from remembering it, but we bestow a gift. Even to the pupil who sits and grunts. In this time of cutbacks, pension turmoil and the constant drive for results, it's important to remind ourselves that, no matter how enthusiastic or despondent the pupil, we make a huge difference to their lives. And, because of that, we should keep doing what we're doing.

Amy Winston is an English teacher at a comprehensive in the West Midlands.

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