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Showing posts from 2012

on surviving the first year of teaching

I wrote the piece below near the end of fourth term for Bokamoso Leadership Forum as a reflection on the year that has been...

I have become a self-righteous adult who has survived the army of teenagers that I have been in battle with for almost eleven months.
I have almost survived my first year of teaching teenagers.
I don’t envy those who have to be teenagers in 2012.

As a survivor I have also become a pseudo parent who beams with pride at my students’ growth.
I have been inspired by students who chose to rise to the occasion by living up to their true potential as human beings in the world.
I am in awe of those who manage to remain innocent in spite of the complex and harsh world they navigate beyond the safety of the classroom.

My heart sinks to the bottom of my shoe when I watch some students cave into peer pressure because they are uncertain about who they are.
I have had many laughs with boys who have been betrayed by their voices while reading aloud in class
Where a squeak escapes i…

Where did you learn your English?

We had visitors from USA strolling through our passages last week. Like a good host, I indulged them with conversation when they came into my classroom as part of their tour of the school. Many didn’t say much except greet and admire the bright classroom with Linton Kwesi Johnson playing in the background, keeping me company while I was marking. One of the visitors noticed that I’m one of the English teachers and asked, “Where did you learn your English?”. Perplexed, I answered “Pardon?”. My response was deliberate because I was hoping she would re-phrase her question and say something less offensive. However, her response was bewildering: “Where-did-you-learn-your-English?”. The second time it seemed as though time was moving slowly because she enunciated each word carefully, for my benefit of course. Keeping my confusion and anger at bay I simply answered “I went to university, Rhodes, and I’ve been speaking English since I was a child.”
It wasn’t until I was sharing the incident w…

A curious incident of censorship

At the end of last term the English department (which consists of one other teacher and I) decided to introduce a new setwork to the Grade 8s. We deliberated for a while and settled on The Outsiders; a book about youth gangs in a working class American suburb. We thought this would be perfect for our kids given the horrendous stories they write about relating to gangs and violence in their communities (this is not to be alarmist as a few kids write about this, but a few is enough to be alarmed). Alas! The book of our choice was not available and with the guidance of the book supplier and a list from the Western Cape Department of Education, we stumbled into choosing A curious incident of a dog in the night.
When we selected the book, I hadn’t read it but fortunately my colleague had. I spent a few hours over the weekend reading the booking and I was amused by the few expletives wondering what the reaction would be from my learners. I didn’t flinch at the blatant blasphemy. I handed out…

Appreciating clichés: don’t judge a book by its cover

I recently watched the movie “Dangerous minds”  where Michelle Pfeiffer is a teacher to a group of high school learners who are bussed from poor communities into a privileged affluent school far from their own communities. As a teacher in a similar context, the movie left me thinking about my teaching experience thus far.  One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in my teaching experience thus far has been the danger of assumptions. When I met my learners in January I made assumptions about them based on the behaviour I observed, how they expressed themselves in the classroom and how they applied themselves to the work I gave them. Observing my learners (especially when they are not looking or when they think there are no beady adult eyes around them) means that I make meaning of their behaviour based on what I know about being a teenager in 2012 and the kind of relationship I should have with my learners when they walk into my classroom everyday. If my children were book covers, man…

Musings...Waiting for the barbarians

I recently watched the play  “Waiting for the Barbarians”  based on J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Babarians. Coetzee’s writing has often left me unsettled and disturbed therefore I didn’t watch the play as a fan of his work, but rather as a critic to see if the play would have the same effect on me as his books. The story is about “the empire”— that does not have a definite geographical location in the novel—  waiting for barbarians who are on the verge of attacking the last outpost. The relationship between the barbarians and the empire can be extended to current day South Africa where the question of safety, security and the need to identify who the real enemy is when we live in violent society such as ours. The story requires readers (and the audience who watch the play) to contemplate and question their idea of who are the real barbarians when we are in a context where the president is associated with the words “mshini wami” (give me my machine gun) or words “shoot to kil…

racial profiling and being 14 years old

Emerging from a past of racial discrimination and prejudice, one of the hopes for a new South Africa is that young people will be born and grow up in a society where they are simply human beings rather than being racialised human beings. There is a hope that our children will escape the scourge of racial profiling and live in a non-racial society.

This assumption is ill-informed and dangerous because we fail to see that our children are being raised in communities and homes where racism is still part of their experience. As a high school teacher, I interact with young people everyday and I have been aghast and appalled at the level of prejudice amongst them. I have been confronted with sexism and racism from children that have been dubbed as the “born-free generation” in South Africa. Most of the time these comments are said in jest and the humour is meant to shroud the racial undertones. These are the children who know nothing of apartheid except what is written in history books. H…

This...

This is a piece I read recently at a youth conference hosted by Re-think Leadership, Unconventional. I was part of Sacred Slam

I watch them when they think no one is watching



I eavesdrop into their conversations when they think no one is listening


Mostly I hear questions, wrapped, hidden, neatly tied with jokes and frivolous talk like ribbons and bows on Christmas presents


So when he walks into my classroom


Shuffling his feet


Bag slung over his shoulder


Shoulders slumped and lost in his over-sized blazer


He has a quizzical look on his face.


I greet him with a smile even though I’ve been warned not to smile as a new teacher, it gives too much away.


I smile to hide my own anxiety about being in this space.


He ambles to the back of the classroom, dramatically drops his bag on the floor with a bang


Slumps into his chair, stares at nothing in particular while waiting for the class to fill up


He doesn’t return my smile and slowly I avert my eyes back to the paperwork on my desk.


Finally the question behi…

where are the teachers?

I’ve been following the Limpopo textbook (and now workbook) saga with half an ear. The furore unfolded while my learners and I were undergoing the arduous and exhausting process of mid year exams. The debacle has been yet another crude reminder of the compromise of a constitutional right as well as the incompetence of the Department of Basic Education which has placed the education of many children in jeopardy. Without the simple resource of textbooks, I think it’s safe to assume that little (if any) teaching and learning took place in schools in Limpopo.


Most of the commentary on the furore has focused on the Department’s failures, the corruption and the tragedy of burning books (I shudder at the thought of books being burnt as it highlights the dismal education in our country where books have no value) and lately, the conspiracy theories about what really led to this demise. As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder where are the teachers? Are the teachers in Limpopo so disempowered…
end of term musings...

After a difficult term with one of my classes (Grade 10s), we had a leadership camp in Greyton. The camp ended with a hike to Genadendal where the kids visited a museum where the first German missionary settled. While reflecting about the complexities about the idea of a “leadership camp”, a friend pointed out that leadership camps are like rites of passages in all middle class schools; “don’t question it too much, that’s just what we have to go through”.


What often appears as a series of “lame” activities to teenagers (like building a tower from recycled material) some of the learners realised the importance of planning and listening to one another when under pressure and learning to let other voices join a discussion even when there are time limitations in an activity. There were many questions and conversations amongst the kids about who they are, their personal development and what hiking to a small impoverished dorpie has to do with leadership. While hiking…

a is for apple,b is for banana...e is for EXAMS

For the past two weeks my learners and I have been subjected to the examination process. This is a form of assessment that is firmly established in our schools. It wasn’t until my honours year that I started questioning the foreboding period of exams. My annoyance set in when I realised that exams were useless for the courses I was doing at the time as I had been handing in papers and essays throughout the year. What does a controlled setting and controlled time tell us about the knowledge students (in my case high school learners) have acquired over time?

Because exams are a given in our schools, learners only engage with exams because they have to. Before exams I asked my learners what they do when they study. Many told me they rewrite their notes, others use a highlighter and pen to make note of the important facts on the class notes they have been given, while others are just not interested.

During exams everyone takes on a different rhythm. School starts later than usual and end…

The teenage question...

I have been scrolling through my mind trying to remember whether there could be a manual available about “Teaching difficult teenagers”. Five days a week I interact with about 250 teenagers. They are a colourful mixture of boys who strike towering figures (where I strain my neck to make eye contact with them), girls who strut with sassiness I can’t keep up with and well-adjusted kids whose parents I wish I could ask “Is it something you fed them when they were babies?”. Many of my learners are committed to being difficult in the classroom. Recently, I decided to make myself invisible and I observed the grade 10s enter my classroom. They were engrossed in their own conversation and they didn’t notice my presence. My classroom turned into a scene out of a movie where the teens run amok without any regard for the teacher. The few good students went to their desks and seemed to observe the mayhem with me. I can’t fully describe the scene but there were loud jests, jostling and con…

justice and education...

Headlines about the state of public education suggest a system on a consistent downward trajectory. For those who are neatly tucked away in the pockets of privilege it is easy to shrug off the extent of the calamity in many schools across South Africa. This is dangerous considering that the future of thousands of children is in jeopardy as they emerge from the education system either by dropping out or with a meaningless matric certificate.

There’s a pattern for the alarming reports on education: things are in disarray; the government was notified but there was no response; where legal action has been taken, the government has ignored any court decisions. A case in point is the mud school case with the Legal Resource Centre where government is yet to build the schools and the backlog of infrastructure that is yet to be implemented for many schools. When President Zuma visited the Eastern Cape in order to address the crises last year, those involved were at loggerheads with each other,…

Education refugess and freedom...

Last month Premier Zille’s tweets caused yet another outrage across the social networking world. Many took umbrage with her reference to education refugees from the Eastern Cape who have flooded schools in the Western Cape running away from the dismal quality of education.

I did not follow the furore as closely as I should have as I was recovering from my first term of teaching, in the Western Cape. I decided to spend some of my school holiday (at home) in East London and Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape. Conversations inevitably led to the Premier’s tweet and her defence and justification for using the word refugee. I was moved by the extent of outrage amongst friends and I found myself taking umbrage with all the talk about education and refugees in a democratic country such as South Africa.

Premier Zille’s defence was in the attempt of reclaiming the word refugee for herself and how she understands it in the context of the chaotic education system in South Africa where people are vot…

do schools kill creativity

Seeing as it is the end of the term I thought I would double blog with something I wrote recently for the Mandela-Rhodes Thought Leader blog:

As a new teacher, I have a vested interest in education and I’m always wondering about how to be innovative. I recently had a SMART Board and a data projector installed in my classroom. I was astonished as my learners entered the classroom agog, declaring, “Ma’am your classroom’s been pimped … upgraded!”

Their excitement suggests that they have made a link between technology in the classroom and exciting, creative lessons for them in my English, Social Science and Life Orientation lessons. They assume that because I have new gadgets available to me, the teaching and learning experience is going to be different. In order not to get their hopes up, I tried to hide my own glee at the prospect of having the opportunity to try different methods of teaching, thanks to new technology.

The first term has been an effort in trying to understand as many of my…

teaching boys...

Part of the joy of teaching is interacting with my learners. I teach in a co-ed high school. I spent 12 years in an all-girls’ school and I come from a matriarchal family so my experience of boys has largely been through interactions in public spaces, friendships and university. However, as a teacher, I now have to interact with teenage boys daily.

The boys I teach are mostly pimple-faced, scrawny-looking and some are shy. Those who aren’t shy are usually the ones with the loudest voices, often get attention from girls easily and don’t mind telling me how charming they are and how girls fall for it. There are also the burly characters who communicate an aggressive demeanour simply by sitting in my classroom. They all wear their insecurities as teenagers in different ways, beneath the “too cool for school” swagger. I’ve already witnessed a fist fight between two boys; however, within two weeks of the fight they were friends.

Gender in education is a minefield filled with many generalisat…

MARKING!

This is the monster that all teachers make peace with in spite of the joys of being in the classroom!I have been having a great two weeks and planning my next blog post because of the wonderful and sometimes not so wonderful experiences in my classroom.But as I have watched the files pile up on my desk and my school bag become heavier every afernoon, marking is the only thing I can think of.

Assessment marks are due in March.My colleague and I have to make sure that a set number of assessments are done this term in order for the term mark to be created and also meeting curriculum requirements showing that learning is happening in the classroom.So while the kids complain that we are expecting too much and giving them too much homework,I'm trying to make them realise that while they have too much work,I have to mark their writing.

And sadly,this has not been a rivetting process(a post for another day,maybe once I've finished my marking for this term and I can reflect on the kind o…

Communicating the expectations

Another long week and I am learning from my teaching experience everyday! Last week was challenging. My learners have been testing my patience, mostly a process of negotiating expectations, verbally and implicitly.

In absolute frustration, I spoke to my sister who always helps me see things clearly. This time she spoke to me as though she’s been sitting in my classroom silently, observing the crazy antics that have been unfolding between my learners and I. We decided I need a strategy for communicating effectively with my learners, and being consistent in what I expect from them; giving reasons for these expectations. So for the past week, much of my teaching has been infused with comments about “is this behaviour acceptable for Grade 9s? Why do you need me to shout before you pay attention?...I think you can do better than that!”...the list is endless.

This is going to be an ongoing battle because it requires clear communication and understanding as the teacher-learner relationship i…

Questions in the classroom

One of the joys of teaching is of course, the children. Everyday for the past week, I have had many children come in and out of my classroom. I have made attempts at remembering their names, but what remains in my memory the most are my children’s questions and the quirky behaviour that irritates me more than it should because I am teaching teenagers with raging hormones.

There seems to be a cloud of inscrutability following me around at school. My learners have been desperate to find out more about me beyond the teacher persona that I have been trying to create. I was asked about my accent: why do I speak like a white person? Another question had to do with whether I went to a private school or not. Before I could answer this question, one of the children volunteered the information, “no man, she mos went to a model c school”. I’ve also been asked several times to translate the meaning of the tattoo on my arm. And of course, why did I choose to become a teacher? One of the learners de…

Surviving my first week as a new teacher

I am finally a teacher. It’s been a surreal experience and I can’t seem to find the right words to describe everything. I’m exhausted and excited all at the same time. My mind hasn’t stopped ticking since Monday when I met the team of staff members. I won’t be able to capture everything about the school in this post, so I’ll just introduce the school for now and all the stories will unfold in the next few weeks!

I’ll start from the very beginning. I am a new teacher in a high school in Cape Town. This is the school’s second year of operation. There are 12 teachers and 260 learners and we don’t have learners in Grade12. We have a partnership with one of the best schools in the Western Cape (about 5 times bigger than our school) which means interesting conversations about planning and developing a curriculum for a new school.

Some of the values underpinning the school are hard-work, respect and responsibility. The purpose of the school is to create a culture of teaching and learning for …