Educators: Watch your words – they can inspire or deflate

In matric my friends and I got into trouble and were called into the principal’s office to be reprimanded. I do not remember most of what the principal said during the tongue-lashing. But I do remember her saying: “You will not amount to anything in life.” A group of teenagers got into some silly mischief — as teenagers often do — and the conclusion of the adult in the situation was that our lives were over. Right there in her office our fate was sealed.

In my second year at university, during a consultation with one of my lecturers about an assignment, he told me that I would never make it as a journalist. After one poor assignment, the lecturer decided on my career and my life.

I recently came across this lecturer, who now works for a regional newspaper, and seeing his face brought back all those memories of many years ago. At the moment when he told me I’d never make it, the 19-year-old me felt like a loser, a failure — and that all that was left was for me to pack my bags and go home. After all, a respected, veteran journalist had just told me that I was doomed and should quit.

When I reflected on these two incidents I thought about the many learners who have dropped out of school because their teachers told them that they are not good enough; they are domkops (stupid). Or learners who have been discouraged to take certain subjects; who were told they are not smart enough for mathematics and they should just quit.

There are also the many enthusiastic youngsters who have had their dreams crushed by lecturers who told them they were not university material. Some have been told to opt for an “easier course” or told that they would not make it as a doctor or engineer, all because they messed up one assignment or received a low mark in an assessment.

This is not fiction. These are things that happen in lecture rooms and classrooms.

Equally though, there have been many people who today credit their teachers or lecturers for having made it in life. These are people who, at some point in their lives, did not see any reason for continuing at school — but it was their teachers who pushed them and motivated them to stick it through.

There are learners who come from poor households, who go to school without shoes, the right uniform or whose parents do not have money to pay for school fees. Some of these learners find teachers who believe in their potential, who take them under their wing and provide them with whatever they require for them to stay in school. There are people today who say: “I am who I am because my teacher believed in me.”

At university or college there are students who have not dropped out because a lecturer gave them the right nudge. There are students who got jobs because their lecturer recommended them to industry colleagues.

Teachers and lecturers already have a lot to deal with, and no one expects them to babysit their learners and students. But they also need to be mindful of their influence on those that they teach — it extends beyond them standing in front of a class. Students and learners look up to them in more ways than one: they consider them as role models and, to some degree, even take what they say as the gospel truth. And, therefore, teachers and lecturers need to always be conscious of the words they speak and how they can potentially affect their students — for better or worse.

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Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia is a member of the Mail & Guardian's online team.

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