Three years ago, on a chilly autumn morning, J. is crying as he arrives at school. Despite the low temperatures he has not had time to wear a coat: his father has seven children to walk to school, J. simply had to hurry up. J. is only seven, and his hands are so cold they have turned blue. As he enters my classroom I notice his tears, and as soon as I’ve understood why they’re streaming down his cheeks, I wrap my hands around his to warm them up. The school routine begins around us, I have to take the register, but I only let go of J.’s hands when they’re warm enough.
This is what teaching is about: every day, in schools all around the world, teachers share warmth, passion, knowledge, and future. I have been lucky enough to be part of this amazing profession thanks to the British charity TeachFirst. Their project is revolutionary for a country where education of the highest standard can literally be bought at private schools like Eton: instead, TeachFirst recruit young (but also less young), enthusiastic graduates, train them, and place them to teach in the most disadvantaged and/or marginalised communities, whose schools struggle to recruit staff. After four years spent in an English university town, TeachFirst struck me as the perfect chance to see the other face of the UK—and to ‘give back’ to British society, which had so generously welcomed me and invested in my university education.
I found myself in Corby, a small East Midlands town, formerly at the heart of European steel-making. A village till the 1930s, the town had grown together with ‘the works’, drawing Scottish and Irish families with the promise of a good job and a modern house. Like so many other British industrial plants, the steelworks closed in the 1980s, and Corby was left behind for decades. I first visited on a summer afternoon, and I could hardly believe my eyes: walking around the town centre was like travelling back in time twenty or thirty years. I thought that I could never possibly feel at home in a place that was so different from my own reality. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
It was the children who changed my mind. Teaching is a huge privilege: though we are the ones who are expected to share the warmth, the passion, the knowledge, the future which I mentioned, it is the children who repay us with laughter, drawings, smiles, joy. It could be raining outside, I could have forgotten my lunch at home, I could have woken up in a bad mood: every time, my pupils would make me forget whatever worry I may have had. As any apprentice who starts on a new job, I made mistakes: there are lessons which I’d like to erase from my own memory as well as that of my pupils, sentences that I should never have said, actions which I wouldn’t repeat. But they are dwarfed by all of the unforgettable moments, by the memories I never want to let go of, by the games, the jokes, the moments in which B. finally understood what I’d been explaining for two weeks…
That Teach for Italy is putting together a project similar to TeachFirst, giving others the same fantastic opportunity I was able to seize, is great news. If you are reading these lines and wondering whether teaching is for you, whether you have what it takes to inspire young people, well, I can’t answer those questions for you. My advice, though, would be to give it a go: it’s one of the best decisions I ever took.