Teachers can be life-savers, too

Opening the floodgates to unlicensed teachers also means facilitating access by potential predators to young, vulnerable children

Before beginning what will no doubt be a difficult article to write…. let us clarify some of the misconceptions surrounding the Erin Tanti case.

Erin Tanti was not a teacher. Nor was he a qualified LSE. As far as can be determined, he had no form of official warrant or licence to teach of any kind – not even a temporary one.

The St Michael Foundation School later issued a statement insisting that he had been recruited as a supply teacher ‘in terms of the law and normal procedure’.

As far as I know, this is true. It has separately been confirmed that several other unlicensed teachers – in various subjects – had been employed in a number of other schools, equally within the parameters of the law.

At the time, there was a severe shortage of qualified teachers in a number of areas: drama being one of them. Shortly after Lisa Maria Zahra’s death in 2014, the Education Ministry (or another relevant department; the precise details escape me now) started offering a temporary teacher’s warrant to graduates in pedagogy and drama.

I may stand to be corrected on some of the details, but that is my understanding of the situation. Sadly, this also means that it had to take the murder of a 15-year-old girl to finally address a problem that should, by rights, have been foreseen earlier.

Opening the floodgates to unlicensed teachers also means facilitating access by potential predators to young, vulnerable children. I know it’s very easy for me to say this now, with the benefit of hindsight. All the same, however – and I stress that this is a very personal reaction, which I don’t expect to be widely shared, right now – our collective failure to take such a basic precaution, might also mean that we just do not value the power and responsibility of teachers and educators enough.

This brings me to the difficult part. I have some very limited experience in the classroom… and it was unlicensed and unwarranted, too. In an equally legal way: the only formal qualification needed to teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL), back in the early 1990s, was an A-level in English. [Note: It has since changed. A lot.]

Now, I’m going to break with tradition, and share two personal experiences of mine: both occurring within the space of a week or two, around the mid-1990s.

The first was something that could have happened anywhere, at any epoch in human history. We had a case where a 17-year-old boy was threatening to commit suicide. I was one of his teachers; and a lot closer in age than any of the others (I couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23). So I was asked to have a ‘talk’ with him.

From the outset, it was clear – both to myself, as to the school administration – that the boy was not at any real risk of actually killing himself. It’s an important detail, because otherwise they would certainly not have asked me.

Then again, within five minutes flat it was plain that there was no real need for professional help. And I don’t take any credit whatsoever for that; I hardly even had to do any talking at all.

He just burst into tears, and out it all came tumbling, by itself, in between sobs.

It’s a story we’ve all heard a million times before: boy meets girl at a wine-and-pizza party at Aquacentre; boy almost pukes up on a combination of San Paolo (28c a carton, back then) and pure adrenaline, before finally plucking up the courage to approach girl with a pick-up line he probably got from a Duran Duran song (hopefully, not ‘I’m hungry like the wolf’…);

And you all know the rest: girl rejects boy’s clumsy advances; boy feels confused, mortified, hurt, humiliated in front of his friends, etc., etc.

[Important note: I must emphasise that this is boy’s side of the story.  I’m pretty sure girl’s version would be slightly different. Only fair to point that out.]

In any case, by the end of it anyone would have seen he already felt slightly liberated just by talking about it. We ended up just chatting, and that was it. I walked away with more than reasonable certainty that he would survive.

But while that may come across as just a sugary-sweet bit of summer puppy-love story… ‘happened so fast’, and all that… I now look back on it as a preparation for what was to come a couple of weeks later.

Case number 2 was, in a sense, the total reverse of 1. Girl wasn’t overtly suicidal. Nor was she outwardly depressed (it turned out she was both, and nobody could see it). The way I remember it: girl was… difficult.

She was one of my afternoon students, and a morning teacher came to warn me about her before the first class. ‘Watch out for that one. She’s disruptive.’

Never a truer word spoken. Her first words to me, after I introduced myself, were: ‘You sound nervous.’  

Immediately, just like that, she had me on the defensive. Because she was right. It was a new class, I was still shy at the time… and she saw right through it in less than 10 seconds.

Looking back, she was probably one of the most perceptive and hyper-intelligent people I have ever met. There was something of a child prodigy in her. And – much as I hate to say it, now – to me, it initially appeared to be a form of evil genius.

I soon discovered that she was exactly the same with every teacher – cutting, spiteful, mocking, and deadly accurate in her every insinuation. I distinctly remember that she made at least one teacher dash out of the classroom in tears.

Can’t remember how it came about exactly, but once again I ended up being the one ‘having the chat’ with her. But it was a very different experience this time. It was almost like I started out trying to mediate between her and the school administration; and ended up trying (and failing) to mediate between her, and the Universe she had declared war on.

Very bluntly – cynically, almost – she gave me her reasons for all this anger.

Unfortunately, there is no PC way of saying this: she hated herself for being fat. Those were her own words: spoken almost as if to dare me to deny it. And I didn’t. I wouldn’t dare: she’d see through the lie in an instant, and it would make matters worse. I’d become part of the entire machinery that was just lying to her …

She also hated herself – in her mind – for being unattractive (which she wasn’t, at all). And, it later turned out, for a host of other reasons, too. She felt unwanted and abandoned by her parents. She hated all the other students. She hated the world and everything in it, etc.
It was, at that moment, my responsibility to address all of that. I was 23, and all I had to do it with was an A-level in English.

It remains a deep professional regret, to this day, that I made a complete and utter mess of it. Everything I said seemed to backfire instantaneously. I tried telling her she was much more attractive than she knew, in other ways – and though it wasn’t a lie – honest, it wasn’t – she just waved it aside with a mock-yawn.

I told her she was intelligent… and I truly meant it. She said something like: “I know. That’s the problem, right there”. It was like that all the way. She checkmated me at every turn.

At one point, out of the blue, she told me she sometimes felt serious suicidal impulses. That she had harmed herself in the past. She said it quite matter-of-factly: like she might have been testing me, or taunting me. Looking back, she might even have been ‘threatening’ me. But I took her at her word.

I told her directly I thought she needed professional help. Urgently. She shrugged and said, ‘Want to know how many shrinks I’ve been to since the age of eight?’

And there was nothing – absolutely nothing – I could possibly reply to that.

The only thing I could think of was to later take the principal aside and tell her that this was, in my view, a very serious case that warranted medical intervention. I never found out if she got it in the end, because she left shortly afterwards. There was no noticeable difference in her behaviour after that… though she did at least cut me a little slack, from time to time.

Then again, I still don’t know, to this day, if she survived in the long run.

OK, there are many reasons why I brought all that up. Most are personal. There are things in life you sometimes feel the need to exorcise.

But another reason is that both incidents reminded me that being a ‘teacher’ is a very serious matter indeed. I may have (modestly speaking) ‘helped’ in the first instance… but I ran a serious risk of dramatically worsening the situation in the second. That girl really was in mortal danger. Of that, there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever.

And while I may perhaps have given the wrong impression by using my own experience as a ‘teacher’ back in the 1990s – presenting myself as the ‘antithesis’ of Erin Tanti – well, this is the truly hard part: my own case could easily have turned out only marginally different from his.

I will, of course, defend my intentions. I really did want to help that girl, at that moment. But the outcome of my clumsy, unprofessional attempt to deal with a potentially life-threatening situation could have been just as catastrophic.

What if she really had committed suicide, back then on that Malta ‘summer holiday’… shortly after we had that ‘chat’? What would my own culpability have been then, as an unlicensed (albeit legal) ‘teacher’, who tried to play ‘shrink’ to a seriously disturbed individual?

That was the first thought that came to my head when I read about Lisa Marie Zahra’s fate five years ago. I found myself earnestly wishing – for my own sake, as much as for hers – that the other troubled teenager I once briefly knew really did make it in the end.

Another reason I bring it up now is because… if that’s the extent of my own limited experience, I shudder to even imagine what real, qualified and experienced teachers come face to face with, in and out of the classroom, all the time.

Given the sheer extent of our collective exposure to teachers, between the age of three or four, all the way to at least 18, and beyond… I find it strange that people don’t seem to fully appreciate the enormity of the influence of this profession has on pretty much everyone and everything.

People will always remember the teacher who encouraged them, who made them think highly of themselves… just as they will never forget those teachers who mocked them, humiliated them, and made them feel worthless.

And yes, sometimes teachers do murder their students. Sometimes literally; but more often metaphorically. There is, and can be, no such a thing as an education system that banishes even the possibility of that ever happening. But there can be no doubt that teachers often save lives, too. Probably much more often than any of us can imagine. And not even in very dramatic ways, either.

There are things teenagers might find more comfortable to talk to a trusted teacher about, than their parents… possibly even their siblings or close friends. And sometimes, talking is all it takes.

So while it is right to be horrified by, and vigilant against, abuse of that trust by rogue ‘teachers’… surely we must also learn to trust the entire teaching profession a little more, too.

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