"I don't want to be here" says the Grade 1 learner

The last two weeks of school I spent in a classroom observing and building rapport with the teachers I have been doing my research with. The few days that I sat in the classroom I quickly learned that I was not going to be a distant observer but a participant in the life of the classroom. So I learned all the names (which was easy because they are pasted onto their desks) and interacted with the learners when the teacher stepped out the classroom as a pseudo-teaching assistant.

I won't lament how this school is an epitomy of what education is like in South Africa. For a township school however, it is generally functional.The amount of time spent on learning dwindles to about 4 hours because school only starts after 8, meal time and play time is an hour when combined and learning is often disturbed by administration for the teacher or out of the blue visits from parents.

So last week I was left with the class of 31 learners while the teacher had to sort out schedules (also known as reports). I quickly got creative trying to keep them busy with a numeracy workbook that the learners are familiar with. I haven't quite mastered the booming teacher voice that utters a word and the learners stand to attention so keeping the learners attention and focus on the activity was a problem. Eventually I resorted to my mother's tactic of trying to engage the young minds about their devilish behaviour: first they had to put their fingers on their mouth and look at me... "why couldn't they just keep quiet and listen and participate in the lesson?...Why were they at school?" I asked. They looked at me dumbstruck for a few mintues. I got impatient and decided that engaging learners who are mostly spoken to by adults was not the best tactic.So I decided to be passive-agressive saying anyone who didn't want to be in the classroom was welcome to leave. All the learners except one understood that I didn't mean this but it was just a matter of saying(as I had observed their teacher do with them often).

"Asanda" stood up and walked towards the door. I asked her where she was going and she said outside. I asked her why and she said she didn't want to learn. It was my turn to be dumbstruck. Not only did she answer my question, she also gave a reason(very rare for these learners, they only engage with each other and not the teacher about their reason for doing anything). She looked quite certain about what she was doing and I had to realise that my tactic wasn't going to work for this little girl.I eventually told her to sit down and we continued with the random lesson of "which picture is the odd one out...and why?" from the workbook.

This incident left an impression on my mind. What does this say about the kind of education learners are exposed to if learners in Grade 1 can identify that they are not interested in school? What stops a teenager from dropping out when someone who is 6 years old does not want to be at school? My guess is that Asanda will be one of the learners who might not make it to Grade 7 if the kind of education she has doesn't engage with her mind and whatever it is she conceives as the world.

The obvious challenge is that in big class sizes, teachers cannot engage every learner, instead they spend most of their time doing classroom management(Though 31 is relatively okay considering this teacher had 40 learners last year). And any sort of deviance in the classroom is often rewarded with a hiding. One of my favourite learners in this classroom is "Ntosh", she has a song in her head the whole day and isn't shy of walking around the classroom humming while looking for a pencil to steal so she can write. If she needs to go to the dustbin to throw away anything, she will take the scenic route around the classroom rather than take a short cut less than a few steps away from her desk, and she will dance the whole time. If she is caught by the teacher, there's trouble.Ntosh is also the learner who misses out on school, her mother looks too young to be her mother and has another toddler to look after and Ntosh is one of the struggling learners in the class. Where does a teacher begin to meet her and peers like her(about 6 in this classroom) at their pace while she has administration and the rest of the class to consider?

As much as I pine for the classroom, I can't help but wonder where I would begin with convincing learners that school is a good idea, whether they are in Grade 1 or Grade 11. There are many learners like Ntosh and Asanda in our classrooms and one wonders what they will become. Ntosh is clearly an artist/dancer/singer and Asanda a maverick who will tell it as it is!But the current system is clearly not designed for them.


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