A series of choices called teachingBy Joan Rocafort Valenzuela
Philippine Daily Inquirer
(Editor’s Note: This essay introduces a feature we are adding to observe National Teachers Month and World Teachers Day on Oct. 5. We invite teachers to write on what they cherish most about their chosen profession in 700 words or less. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
A decade ago, I made one big choice in life: I decided to be a classroom teacher.
The choice changed me dramatically. Within this life-altering choice, I made a series of smaller critical choices in teaching and, sometimes, not teaching. These very little choices shredded my being into pieces but, over time, made me whole again.
My initiation into teaching was a brief stint in a college in Manila. Like everyone else new to a teaching-learning landscape, I stumbled along the way and felt unsettled.
To my dismay, my bag stuffed with pedagogical theories and principles did not come handy. I ended up having more questions than answers about teaching. It wasn’t too bad a start though.
Six months later, I found myself back home teaching in a college run by a community of men whose founding brothers originated in Reims, France.
The new landscape was not much different from the previous one I inhabited. Only, I had to pray with my students at the beginning and end of each class. I never really got used to this ritual. I packed my bags, looking forward to a more exciting stop in my journey.
I moved back to Manila after four years of “praying” and teaching. I was young. I figured I could teach during the day and hit the pubs at night. I assumed a new name, Joan McCourt, having been possessed by the spirit of Frank McCourt, the late Irish memoirist famed for his book “Angela’s Ashes” and “Tis.”
Now, the classroom was a battlefield, a boxing ring. Kids in Manila spoke and acted differently. I had to move through the unfamiliar teaching-learning traffic with calculated speed and care to survive, like I did in the labyrinthine streets and roads of the capital city.
Though the paved terrain bored me, I came out of the city equipped with more sophisticated tools to redesign my teaching career.
Suddenly, Malaysia knocked on my door and in this country came the turning point of my life as a teacher. I walked varying terrains, like the country’s geography, classrooms flattened, rose, dipped and rolled.
All of a sudden, in the university, I heard a cacophony of world Englishes, saw various skin colors and had the privilege to be socialized into a whole new array of learning, being and living.
No longer was I the naïve Joan. I lost my religion. I spoke a new language. I was reborn. I paddled my boat on a sea of discourses, the tides splitting me into fluctuating and floating selves.
I began to counter the normal order of things. In one of my published essays, I boldly wrote that I had jettisoned my university-earned certificates and license to teach.
My readings and ruminations pushed me to deschool myself and my classrooms. Seeing radical ways of teaching or, better yet, not teaching, I was lured to the dazzling idea that learning would take place without teaching.
I began to believe that purposeful chaos in the classroom was natural and would in time breed order.
After nearly three years, I quit Malaysia. In a taxi bound for Kuala Lumpur to catch a plane back to my dear country, I cast one last look at the valleys, ravines, hills and mountains. I heaved a good sigh: The whole experience felt surreal.
I reached into my bag for the huge blue farewell card my students made; more than 30 student signatures and well-wishes were handwritten inside. I beamed.
Months passed and the Middle East beckoned. At this phase of my life, I was sure I was destined to be a nomadic teacher. I have foreseen this unusual trajectory in my career: I’d be wandering a lot.
In Oman in 2012, I got a job in a government-funded college. The teaching landscape changed once again, paralleling the sandy and mountainous terrain of a region called A-Sharqiyah.
In this desert country, I did the toughest teaching of my life. Like a Bedouin, I had to be a fierce warrior in and out of the classroom. There was no room for weakness.
Students who spoke no word of English resisted every maneuvering I did in class. I resisted them, too. Higher-ups, from their big offices, fed me platefuls of teaching stuff. I opened my mouth wide and swallowed as much as I could. But I choked and my stomach revolted.
For eight months I was a teacher, then a babysitter, nurse, policeman, security guard, gatekeeper, acrobat, judge, punisher. Painfully, I learned the ropes.
But gradually, I sought spaces for myself. With some success, I did a few things my way and, finally, after hundreds of attempts, my students and I were on the same page.
To this page the higher-ups did not want to go. They turned me down when I asked for a bit of time. To the best of my ability, I defended this tiny sacred space. But I could not suppress my territorial instincts. I quit, leaving a precious part of me intact.
Now, after seven months, I’m back here in the Middle East. A new and unique landscape, obviously. Am I wiser now? I cannot tell for sure.
Wise folks say that when you walk away, you do not look back. For a good reason, I do otherwise. Who I am today as an evolving nomadic teacher cannot be divorced from the varying terrains, with their changing atmospheres, that gave birth to me.
Looking back on those big and small choices, I have no regrets. Choosing to leave my hometown and not to get tenured in a college was my first bold leap. Had I stayed put, life would have been a lot simpler and more secure.
Certainly, I will be going home for good to the village where I used to pound, with my mother, roasted coffee beans in a huge wooden mortar.
But for now, teaching is about constant navigating of unknown waters, exploring foreign terrains, seeking new ways to permeate the multilayered and deeply cultural dimensions of teaching.
I am learning. I am changing. I am becoming.
A passionate English teacher, the writer is also a long-distance walker, a random backpacker and a pasta lover. He hails from Lipa City.