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Parable of the long-suffering teacher

Teacher writing on blackboardIt is after lunchtime, fifth period. The Pharisee wants to know why quotation marks are used to denote artistic or literary titles in essays, when they are not, technically, quotes.

Long-suffering sigh from the teacher.

Only the other day, the same student asked why apostrophes are used to mark possessive case in proper nouns (Dave's dog) as well as contractions of two words (it's). It can only be one or the other, he demands. 'Otherwise, people will think: Dave is dog' (last word pronounced as in, 'Wassup, dawg?'). The Pharisee and his friends titter.

The machinations to undermine are barely subtle. The discussion is waylaid. The teacher remembers that the Messiah himself had to put up with people like these — hardliners who can only cope with single uses for things, trying to show the teacher for a fool. She wonders how he managed to keep from throwing scrolls at them.

The tax collector at the back raises his hand. Good timing. As usual, little Zach has thought long and hard. 'It's all about being clear, isn't it?' he says hesitantly. 'Like, so the reader doesn't mix up your words and get it all wrong. I mean, you know, so they know exactly what you mean.'

He ducks his head to avoid paper balls, which is a reasonable expectation. As in Jesus' time, tax collectors are much maligned in the classroom. They are very diligent and nobody likes them for it (because they 'ruin the curve'). They sometimes do unorthodox things to find out more, much like the diminutive tax collector in the Bible who indecorously climbs a tree to get a better view.

No wonder, the teacher thought, that Jesus seemed rather fond of them. She hoped that Zach would not get a wedgie in the yard later.

A hand suddenly waves excitedly from front row, centre. 'What about commas, Miss? They look like prepostophes, don't they?'

Oh dear. Need to work more on Pete. Participates well in class discussions, but has not submitted a single piece of writing despite promises to do so. Each time he is absent on a due date, she could almost hear a rooster crowing three times in the distance.

She knows he will come back genuinely remorseful, much like his namesake. It is exasperating, but, she reassures herself, if Jesus could believe that his mercurial apostle would be the rock for his church, maybe she can hold some hope for her Pete as well. Unfortunately, she doesn't have the advantage of being omniscient.

She notices that the writer-in-residence is looking out the window and decides to handball the question. 'What do you think, Pauline? How are commas useful?'

Pauline looks startled, appears to think for a moment, then replies, 'They're used in listing, Miss. To separate the items. Or, like, to break up long sentences.' She gathers strength from familiar territory and adds, 'Also when you want people to pause at a word, because it's important.'

The teacher nods, smiling. It's a relief to have somebody do half your work for you, but this first means getting to know what each student can offer. For some reason, when it comes from one of their own, it is a lot more palatable. She should encourage Pauline to speak up more.

'That's right. Commas, apostrophes, all these punctuation marks are about having control over what you're saying.'

The teacher notices that Tom is frowning. 'But, Miss,' he says, ever sceptical, 'show me something where the punctuation matters. If the order of words is right, won't we still get it?'

Fortunately, she quickly remembers the anecdote about a panda that walks into a bar and fires a gun into the air. She writes on the board, 'Eats, shoots and leaves.' A bit lame, but they laugh. Even Tom.

'Oh,' he nods, 'it's like in maths, if you don't put a decimal point.'

The bell rings. The horde spills out the doorway.

At the end of the day, the teacher knows that punctuation is not going to determine whether these students will be successful. But she is interested in valuing the process that they use to figure out things.

This is why she endures the questions, tolerates the smart alecks, and asks opinions just as much from the wannabes and doubters as the experts. It is how she keeps herself from becoming obsolete. After all, textbook drills do not readily demonstrate relevance; it emerges from enquiry and discussion. And for many young people, it's all about relevance.

It's a classroom struggle that has intensified this century — having to justify to young people why they have to learn what they are being taught. They are already more proficient in technology than many teachers. They are independently accessing and sharing information that their elders would not have known at their age. Some of them are even already earning money from part-time jobs.

Such experiences tend to become the lens through which young people view their education: if they are able to function as if they have already finished school, then what's the point of school? It's a fair question and one that the developers of the national curriculum would do well to consider. Simply reorganising content may not be enough to hold the questions about relevance at bay.

The teacher packs up, knowing that although she must suffer and die a little each day, there is always hope of resurrection.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a state school teacher in Victoria.


Topic tags: fatima measham, education, bible, jesus, teacher, peter, messiah, zacheus



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Existing comments

Nice piece, Fatima. These are the lessons you remember when you can't recall what you did yesterday.

Frank | 26 August 2009  

How lovely to read an article about a teacher interacting with students - without the usual angst and violence. This was an uplifting piece and a great way to start the day. It gave me hope. Thank you, Fatima. Write more!

Janet Marsh | 26 August 2009  

This is a gem - thanks!

James | 26 August 2009  

An enriching and heartening article Fatima. Thank you. I echo the sentiments of Janet Marsh.

Marlo Drake-Bemelmans | 28 August 2009  

This was an excellent article and very enjoyable to read.

Sergio Castenada | 09 March 2010  

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