Writer and poet Helena Harper, was a teacher in several girls’ private schools for twenty years and has written an insightful, often witty and sarcastic collection of poems about her experiences. Sure to be an enjoyable read for other teachers who are in the know (despite being plagued by inconsistent metre which makes her verses awkward to read aloud) It’s a Teacher’s Life…! traverses every school related subject one could think of from “The School Ethos” – a critical observation on the consequences of no discipline in the private school setting – to “The End-of-Year Bash” and all points in between.
Harper’s twenty poems take us through the actual physical places of the private school setting in “The Workplace”, “The Staffroom” and “The Workroom”, to the components of every teacher’s daily and yearly life in “The New School Year”, “The Lessons”, “The Duties”, “The Inspection” and “The Reports.” She also introduces us to some interesting staff members, most of whom she was obviously fond of, including “The German Teacher”, “Matron”, “The Cook” and “The Caretaker.”
My favourite poem is “The Staffroom.” In it, Helena shares her insider’s first-hand look at the “bureaucracy run riot” of the cacophonous, caffeinated sanctuary of the staffroom and points out that there are never enough hours in the day for marking. She deftly transmutes the staffroom into a living, breathing, noisy entity and we feel as if we are right there with her. In “The Lessons”, we discover what drives the teacher and makes the lessons all worthwhile: “The desire to inspire/ to light the fire/ that burns within, / the ‘aha’ in the expression/ when something clicks-”; while in “The Duties,” she presents a facetious look at the every day, non-teaching duties of her profession.
In “The Prize Giving,” Helena sounds a bit tired and bitter about the annual ceremony in which prizes are awarded to ungrateful students and the very occasional thank you keeps the teacher from dying of gratitude starvation: “The meager morsels of gratitude/ becoming rarer each year,/ yet somehow teachers survive/ on this diet of starvation,/ for year after year”. “The Trips” describes the trauma a teacher faces on a museum field trip and “The Open Afternoon” is the dreaded day when parents can come to class to witness how good their children’s teachers really are at acting. Although Helena was trying to write with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, there are often times when to these ears, she just sounded more than ready to retire.
“The Carol Service” tries to metaphorically sum up how Harper feels about her profession: “The angelic voices, / merging in heavenly harmony/ with the celestial strings of the harp -/ a contrast so immense to the/ infernal noise of school. / Two sides of the one coin -/ serene peace and deafening clamour,/ light and dark,/ good and bad -/ all stemming from one and the same./ So of what use the dualistic/ divisions we live by?/ How often do black and white hold true?/ The separations of reality so arbitrary,/ whereas in truth there’s only one continuity.” This passage is clumsy and muddled and I found, particularly, with the last few poems in It’s A Teacher’s Life…!, including “The Exams” (I’ve never heard the word “invigilator” before because we don’t use it in Canada) that the use of too much flowery language and stanzas spent waxing philosophical about simple concepts like the passage of time made the poems sound pretentious and they, sadly, lost their simple charm.
It’s a Teacher’s Life…! is not a book for young children although teenagers would be able to appreciate this glimpse into the secret world of teachers and might find it somewhat amusing, but they also might notice, like I did, that this particular teacher didn’t seem to be having a whole lot of fun being “the dragon in front of the whiteboard” and after spending twenty years doing it, that’s just a shame.