When I was a young teacher

Testing the teacher
Reaching out
Low achievers
Educating the teacher
Forgive as Christ forgave 


Testing the teacher

Of the memories I have from the classroom, there is one that has left a brighter mark in my life as a teacher. It happened during my first year as a teacher.

The school was located in a poor neighbourhood, where a large number of students were from broken families. There were difficult cases in this school. One time a teacher was beaten with iron chains by a student. On the other hand, some teachers didn’t have the sensitivity to understand the kind of school it was or to understand the students. They wore leather coats and created a great distance from the students and this provoked even more aggressive behaviour on their part.

As a Chemistry teacher, my classes were in an amphitheatre and my desk was a long large table. Suddenly, in one of the first lessons that I taught, a student named António, fourteen years old, who was sitting in the back row, stood up and, jumping from desk to desk, he reached my desk andstood very straight with his hands on his hips, like a bullfighter ready to face the bull. He was taller than I  and his look and posture were really threatening.

I stopped the lesson and asked him to go back to his seat, which he refused to do. Facing the class and in spite my short experience as a teacher, I said that I couldn´t go on and I sat down. A few minutes went by - to me they seemed an eternity. The other students asked him to go back to his seat which he did some minutes later. I told him that I needed to speak to him at the end of the lesson.

At the end of the lesson and with a submissive look, he came to speak to me. I asked him why he showed that attitude and he answered, “I enjoy putting my teachers to the test!” I deepened our dialogue and I learned that his mother was a prostitute and his father made her do that to exploit her. Many nights he would go to visit his mother in jail and then he had to attend school on the next day. He constantly tried to bring his family together.

From that day to the end of the school year, there was an open door to speak with him and António looked for me many times to receive counselling and also a comforting word.

On the last day of the school year, he gave me a letter (that I keep all my life) of gratitude, because I never gave up on him and he concluded with these words: “I seem to see in you the mother and the father I never had.”

To be a teacher is not only teaching lessons but much more about giving advice, counsel, comfort and our lives.



We may often ask ourselves, especially with difficult classes, “Am I right for this job?' But if we show a personal interest in 'difficult' students, we may find the answer to our question and be greatly rewarded.


Reaching out 

They say that most teachers remember their first class.  I certainly remember mine.   I was given a large class of nine-year-olds in a school with many children from poor social backgrounds, with broken homes and in single parent families. I had been warned not to give them any leeway, not to turn my back on them, not to stand for any nonsense. “Keep on top of them all the time; do not let up on your control over them.” warned the head teacher.   I found the tension unbearable at times.  They did not relax and neither could I.  I wondered if teaching was the calling I had thought it was.

One warm sunny September afternoon, when most of the kids would have rather been out playing, I had prepared what I thought was a great lesson. I was firmly in control as I related work on the blackboard.   Suddenly a wasp came in through one of the open windows.  The pupils ducked and dived as it approached them.  I feared that I would lose the plot!   Sternly, I kept bringing them to attention as I picked my newspaper from my briefcase, rolled it up and, without saying a word, killed the offending insect in mid-flight.  Reaching down to retrieve the body, the silence was broken with “I think that man deserves a clap!”   As the whole class clapped and cheered, I burst out laughing and they did too.  Suddenly they realised that I could smile!

From that day on I worked hard to reach out to that class.  As I chose Bible stories to relate in Religious Education, I tried to apply them to their situation – to let them know that God loved them – whatever their circumstances. 

Early on in the session, one boy in particular used to come into the class before the bell “to put in his bag” or at the end of the school day, “to help me tidy up.”  At first, I dismissed him – told him to come and go with the others.  But he persisted and I began to have patience with him.  He soon started to talk to me about his friends, his family, or lack of them and about his wishes in life – or perhaps about the football scores that weekend.   Andy was from an abusive background and had, I knew, rarely had a normal relationship with a father figure.  Watching out for all the pitfalls, I was a listening ear to Andy who opened up to me.  He had been a problem in the class, interrupting and joking, particularly when I taught Religious Education but that soon changed and it rubbed off on others in the room.  A complete stranger to the Bible, he loved to hear the stories I talked about and asked me lots of questions.   I often offered up a special prayer for him and others like him, who had never known the real love of parents, far less the love of God in their lives.

On my last day with that class, part of me was glad to see them go, as it had been a hard year; but a greater part of me was sad.   All (well almost all!) were sorry that I was not going to be their teacher next year.  Andy waited behind as the class left the room.   “I’ll miss you, sir,” he said, “You are the only teacher I have ever been able to talk to.  Thank you.”    

It was then that I realised that, as a Christian, teaching was indeed my calling – and that, despite the occasional angst, it was what I wanted to do.  Every time I was downhearted and wondered whether I was “making a difference”, I thought of Andy.



Quite often teachers remember stories from their very first class, and quite often we remember them because something unexpected happened.



I am a teacher of English and I started teaching when I was 19 years old (while I was taking my Bachelor’s degree). I remember the day I gave my first class. It was an adult class and many of the students were older than me, and when I started the class, they were very surprised because they thought I was a student too. They said, “What?? Are you the teacher? How old are you?”.  I felt a bit uneasy but I was sure that I had chosen the right profession and I was determined to do my best and to somehow be a good influence to my students.

As an ‘ice breaker’, I decided to write down a sentence on the board every class in the beginning of the class. Some of these sentences were funny, some were famous quotations, and some had a Christian message. One of them was ‘Prayer is a stop that keeps us going’. We always started by talking about the sentence, that way they could learn some vocabulary and we could have a short discussion about different themes. We had a great semester together, we became very good friends and they seemed to enjoy the classes. After a while we lost contact but some time later some of us found each other through Orkut, a social network website similar to Facebook.
Then on my 27th birthday last year, I got a message from one of the students in that class. He said he had a present for me and then he wrote on my ‘wall’ every one of those sentences I had written on the board that semester! At the end he thanked me for inspiring him and being the best teacher he had ever had. He said that those sentences were very special for him and that’s why he kept them for all these years. I had tears in my eyes when I read that message; it was one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever received.


So much can be done through one simple sentence. Why is it funny? Do I think it is true? They have many aspects – not only an ‘ice breaker’, but also part of a ritual and they make use of our natural curiosity.



Low achievers

My first teaching post was in a secondary school in Salford, Manchester. I was appointed as a Mathematics teacher and given a range of different classes, one for each year group. My class of 16-year-olds were ranked set nine out of nine. There were 18 in the class, two thirds of them boys. I asked for the text book I would be using and the Head of Department, who was a Christian himself, told me that there wasn’t one for their ability range. They were all non examinable as they were at such a low level of ability. He told me to start with finding out their level and suggested some simple arithmetic but nothing larger than the use of two digit numbers.

I was extremely shocked and surprised that these young adults found subtracting 17 from 23 a very difficult task. They knew how to multiply by two and by ten and a few of them could also multiply by five. I spent many hours trying to figure out new methods for teaching them the more difficult multiplications.

It was truly humbling experience and a major challenge for someone like me who had surpassed the mathematical knowledge of these young people when I was around the age of 5 or 6 and who had been always near the top of the year throughout his own educational experience! Getting down to their level was very rewarding and I learnt to empathise with these very low ability students. I became quite attached to the group and for half the time acted as social worker. As I hailed from Manchester myself and was brought up in a deprived area I had an advantage over other teachers in the school. It also helped that I was a fan of the Manchester United football team! The boys were very violent and the girls could also explode at any moment but the Lord protected me from physical and verbal attacks.

At the end of the year, we had made a small amount of progress but the group couldn’t understand why they were not being entered for any public examinations. I decided that we would do our own and so, when the rest of the school sat down in the main hall to do theirs, we also participated in an examination, but in the classroom.

What had I achieved with this low ability class in my first year? My eyes had been indeed opened to a whole new world of real people. Real people, who coming from my closeted academic world, I never imagined existed!




This happened in 1971, my first year in teaching. I was a teacher of mathematics and technical drawing in a class of about 25 students of the age of 14 to 16 years. This was in a special school for problem children. It’s important to mention that during that time I was not yet a Christian.

Even if it was my first experience as a teacher, things were going well. I had a good contact with the students. They were polite and did their homework well. Nobody caused any trouble during the lessons … except one young man of the age of 15.

He was always in opposition, he was always disturbing the lessons, he never did his homework, and he even refused to work in class. All the time he gave the impression that he was angry, but he refused to speak about the reason.

The situation with him grew worse and worse, so that I started to have problems to keep all the other students on the right way. One day I was really at the end of my wits. What I had learned in theory and methodology of education no longer gave me an answer to my problem. So I called this boy outside to the hall. There I slapped his ears several times (today it is my opinion that this is not the way to educate children but at that moment I saw no other way out). Then I told him that he had to admit that in this class  I was in charge and not he, and that he had no choice but to accept that. Then we returned to the classroom.

As soon as we entered the room he became a different boy. He started to take an active part in lessons, he showed more and more of a social behaviour, and he was polite and diligent. For lunch and dinner he always asked to be allowed to sit next to me. He taught me how to play table tennis and then wanted me as his doubles partner (I should say that he was a really talented player and that I had problems to keep the simplest ball on the table!). He also wanted me as a player in his football team. All the teachers were amazed to see the changes in him.

After that year I had to move to another school and I lost contact with him.

I saw him again about five years later while walking through the shopping area of the city where I live. He approached me – he didn’t notice that my wife Viviane was at my side – shook my hand and said: “I want to thank you for what you did for me. Unfortunately it was too late!” Then he disappeared in the crowd and left me speechless.

I never saw him again – but the whole city heard of him only a few weeks later. He was arrested as a leader of a criminal gang and later he was sentenced to three life imprisonments as a triple murderer.

What did I give him as a student that nobody gave him before? Our relationship didn’t start with love, but with an act of violence. This act of violence showed him boundaries, showed him that relations between people only can be built on what is called authority.



At the end of our wits, "unprofessional" but authentic means may be the way to meaningful relationships.



I was a relatively new teacher, teaching relatively basic English to a group of secondary pupils. It was near the end of the school year and the time of their exam. I had just given them back the tests from the previous week. Most of them had not done well on the test, so I had prepared a thorough review, hoping that some of the weaker ones might at least pass the exam.

Fairly soon I realized that Per, in the corner at the back, was not paying attention. He was reading a book. I walked towards him, and the book disappeared. This happened a couple of times, but then I stood by his desk and looked at the book – a chemistry book – and at his determined face. He was among the weakest in the class and normally a quiet, accommodating person, but now he'd made up his mind. No, he wouldn't put the book away. They should have a chemistry test the following lesson, and if he read more he might be able to answer some of the questions. The English exam he wouldn't pass anyway, so why bother?

I tried to explain the importance of learning more English, the whole class listening by now. I was sure he would put the book away and do as he was told, but he wouldn't. I was a bit taken aback. I told him in the end that this was an English lesson, and that if he wouldn't do English with us he'd better leave the classroom and go to the deputy head's office. No, he wouldn't move. In the end I felt I'd got myself into a corner and thought the only way out was to fetch the deputy, explain to him and get him to take Per with him.

After the lesson Per came back and did as he had been told. He said sorry and that he would try to work on his English.



It was good that Signe showed consistency and authority. The question is whether Per was more motivated afterwards. She could have been more flexible, could have listened to God to hear whether she should perhaps not follow the rules. Sometimes it is good to do what the youngsters feel is more important just now – e.g. give them all 15 min at the end of the lesson to review for chemistry test.


Educating the teacher

It was in November 2002 when I began work as a secondary school teacher - directly after my practical training. I entered the classroom as the new teacher of the 19 pupils in class 8 E. The atmosphere was good, the pupils were curious about their new teacher. I did my best to prepare my lessons well, with challenging and varied activities which the pupils generally enjoyed.

However, after about a week, unwanted conversations would start, initiated by a few and then others would follow. How would the new teacher deal with this? What would happen if we did that? It became a small power play in which the pupils would see how far they could go, but funny enough, they never went too far. They seemed to notice when my patience was nearing exhaustion and then they would stop creating disturbance, but looking a little disappointed as they did. “Funny!” I thought.

It was towards the end of the day on a Friday that the class spokesman came to me and asked me whether I had noticed anything. What should I notice except that the pupils disrupted the lesson regularly? I looked at him a little helplessly. He went on to say, “What we would like to tell you is this: We like you very much but we actually want to challenge you a little.” I was quite stunned by what he said. Surely it was my responsibility to impart knowledge to the pupils and surely it was theirs to keep to the rules and to learn. Then it dawned on me - these teenagers wanted to be taken seriously as individual human beings! I had to laugh. I noticed at the same time how the tension of the situation evaporated.

The outcome was that we went for a “working lunch” over a Chinese meal together. It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship with that class. Of course I still had to be strict. And three of them had to leave the school because of serious offences. But, from that time, mutual trust and recognition played a big role in our work together as a class. Four years later, when my wife and I moved to a different city, ten of them helped us with the move and held a farewell party for us. This is what can happen when pupils educate their teacher!



Forgive as Christ forgave

As a very young and inexperienced teacher I gained a position in a Catholic secondary boys’ school.  This was not a matter of choice, but rather of the place I was able to find a job.  I went with entrenched assumptions from my Protestant background about what this place could offer me, and much on my guard from friends about not being “affected” by what I may see and hear.  However, as I discovered the people and place had very much to teach me in many ways. This is just one small anecdote.

One very old Marist Brother would constantly remind the younger staff that all students deserved our respect, understanding and forgiveness as Christ had given it to us, totally and repeatedly.

In a Year 9 (14/15 year olds) English class there was one boy with whom I had great and constant difficulty. I attempted to apply the many theories and practices learnt from teacher training, but he was a match for them all! My attempts to make progress with him within the group and as an individual failed continually. Each lesson he would aim to de-rail the process and unsettle the group leading them in some kind of resistance. This continued for the year and at the end I described my time with him as a total failure. He had certainly learned nothing new about English reading and writing; creatively or analytically.

For the remainder of his time at the school, three years, we would avoid contact, both verbal and even a smile and I carried a real sadness that he would leave the school with a relationship left unresolved.

Four years later he returned to the school for a reunion. He approached me tentatively and bashfully and engaged me in conversation. We talked politely for a few minutes and it was time to move on. I was glad to talk to him and as he moved away he said words to this effect: “I am so relieved and glad to have this opportunity to see you as I want to say sorry for how badly I treated you during Year 9. You may not realise the reason I spurred myself on to more and more misbehaviour is that I wanted to make you lose your temper and give up on me. But you kept on being patient, respectful and always said please and thank you when giving an instruction. You never carried a grudge and gave me a fresh opportunity each day to be involved and learn.”



This, of course, is not my recollection of the events as often I felt extremely frustrated and angry. Our reunion was very moving and from this story I am reminded of two key and critical truths about teaching. Firstly, Ii we join a community we will receive guidance and inspiration from the least expected sources. Secondly, despite our weakness, if we rely upon God’s strength and aim to behave following Jesus’ example, we can be used, though we may never know this. It is grace that I was given the opportunity to find this out on that day.