Thursday, December 6, 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 instead of the words on the page.

I have been silenced by the tears of anger that have been shed in my classroom because young girls want to fully experience their right to live in a world free from sexual violence and harassment.
I have been bewildered by angry young boys every time I clawed them apart during a fight.
Only to be told “boys will be boys.”

I have withstood the interrogations and jeering because I have been asked to explain “Why are you a teacher?”
I have had to be my mother’s daughter fighting for ways to establish boundaries with my students and reverting “back to basics” with no negotiation.
I have erased two names from my class list because two girls did not come back to school
One because of pregnancy and the other, I still don’t know.
The second name has been highlighted in red as a reminder of the uncertainty and precarious position of being sixteen in a female body.

Eleven months later and I still wonder how I survived the endless hours of correcting the same spelling mistakes ova and ova and ova and ova again.
Azeez,a boy in Grade 8, told me a book finally cast a spell on him because he was captivated by a story about another boy in another world.
For a moment he kept me from asking myself, “why am I a teacher?”
A perpetual question that plagues me and is yet to plague me as I live out my experience of being a teacher.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

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 with colleagues that I realised that something is amiss. In replaying the question in my mind, I realised that her question was directed at the black skin I wear everyday  without thinking. She simply saw “the good native”, “the special black” who is so well-spoken. One of the learners I teach was part of the conversation and I asked her what she thought about the encounter with our visitor. In her innocence she tried to reassure me that “Maybe she’s not used to meeting black people who speak like you and teach English”.

I never seriously considered the perceptions of what it would mean being a black woman teaching English in a school that’s going through an identity crises—our school is not a former model c school, it is not a white school but it is partnered with a former white school in a privileged area—it is a new school. In my naivety I didn’t realise I  would have to explain myself on two accounts: why I chose teaching and why I ended up an English teacher.

Through teaching, I now know experientially that teachers are at the bottom of the food chain. People don’t expect much from me and are often shocked that I have three degrees as opposed to a bachelor degree and a PGCE or an equivalent  teacher qualification. I also know that there’s a clear bias towards Maths and Science teaching with the typically humanities subjects at the bottom of the pyramid. We encourage our children to read but there is little recognition of the importance that teaching children about the value of an imagination and how it shapes ideas about everything around us, which is what effective language teaching can be about.

My position as an English teacher has given me a new lens of understanding the world and how I navigate it as an educated, financially independent woman who happens to be black. In my efforts of trying to understand non-racialism and moving away from the dangers of racial profiling I have had to embrace the fact that I can’t ignore race if I am to move beyond it. When people see me, they are inclined to see my black skin and because I am a black woman, I am cast aside as one of the many black women in this country who are not educated nor earning enough to support their families (I’ve been mistaken as a domestic helper more than once). It is only when I start speaking that people start paying attention to what I have to say. However, that doesn’t help much because I’m then cast into the category of “coconut with a rich mommy and daddy who support her privileged lifestyle”. Another misunderstanding. Those who did go to former white schools have formed a collective that adds to the bewildering new South Africa. Much to my chagrin I often admit that I am a coconut[1] in order to make others comfortable about how they classify me. But this is a misrepresentation of who I am (and possibly a conversation for another day). The complexity of being young in the new South Africa is simplified by the obsession with further classification of people as a coconut or “ghetto/kasi”[2].

This complexity became clearer when I read Nomalanga Mkhize’s paper “Am I a white-washed black woman”. It gave me a language of what I have been experiencing since moving to Cape Town and have been experiencing my whole life since I realised the dangers of assimilation, transformation and the politics of speaking English without an accent (as one of my colleagues once pointed out).

[1] This refers to a black person who has assimilated into white norms and speaks English as a primary language—acting “white”. The jury is still out on whether this is a derogatory word or not. I initially came across the word from a friend who said that’s the word other black people who hadn’t been to former Model C schools called black people who did.
[2] This refers to people who live in homogenous Black townships in South Africa. It come from the word “elokishini” which stems from “location” another word for township.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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 the book to my kids encouraging them to start reading it when they had a dull moment (because I’m ambitious about my children willingly reading a book they did not choose). 

Much to my surprise, my learners were excited about it and many haven’t been able to put it down. One even confessed how the book has almost cast a spell on him and he hasn’t been able to put it down. He read beyond the expletives and the blasphemy and told me he is enthralled by the story. Others were very giddy and excited when they read the expletives and that was an impetus for them to keep reading in order to discover any more expletives in the book.

However, the excitement of finally finding a book that has captivated most of the boys in my class was short-lived. The English teachers were summoned into the principal’s office after a parent took umbrage with the book. The overt blasphemy was offensive and the parent threatened to withhold the book from his daughter. When I was initially told about this reaction I didn’t think about it too much as it was just one parent, but when we were called in for a brief meeting my heart jumped to my throat.

I was somewhat ill-prepared for the religious argument that was used to suggest that the book should be withdrawn all together. We (the English teachers and the School Management team-SMT) were at loggerheads about when is it appropriate to talk to children about blasphemy and expletives and how language teachers should approach this? A classist argument was also put on the table suggesting that children from homes where they are not engaged in intellectual conversation (as is the case with children at our school) will not be able to engage in an intellectual discussion about blasphemy and the appropriateness of language because many come from very conservative homes where expletives are a sin (this argument was based on the assumption that all our children come from religious homes, mostly Christian and Muslim). The question of whose right it is to talk to children about this and how this can be a teachable moment was debated and it was the English department versus SMT.

The real issue of censorship was finally put on the table. How do we, as teachers, choose content that is appropriate for children who are entrusted to us given their values at home and what we as teachers deem they should be exposed to in a critical manner?

I think it’s important to highlight that the English teachers were confronted by an SMT that is openly Christian in a school that is neither private nor religious. And both the English teachers are very removed from religion (an atheist and a wondering agnostic). Therefore the question of discontinuing the book on religious grounds alone was inconceivable to us. Added to this, the English teachers are both first year teachers at the school. Being recent students from (so-called) former white liberal institutions, many alarm bells started ringing in my head when the word censorship was bandied about as a possibility. Coming from an intellectuall community at Rhodes where I had been taught about critical thinking and was allowed to teach two undergrad courses, the thought of having other people use their authority to remove content from my classroom gave me heart palpitations. Our argument was for keeping the book and letting the Grade 8s explore the ideas in the story, beyond the expletives and blasphemy. The rest of the arguments in the discussion were very fuzzy because I think I stopped talking when the conversation became heated.

There were two meetings held about this issue and after much deliberation and the effort of convincing the principal that there was educational value in the book (and fortunately the principal read the book himself to assess the level of appropriateness), we have been allowed to keep the book. As my colleague put it “We won!”. English teachers are strange creatures in schools across the world. When it comes to literature, we have the opportunity of exposing our learners to a myriad of ideas about the existential situation of humanity as well as encouraging imagination, the possibility of seeing the world in a different way especially when learners encounter ideas that might make them uncomfortable. However, this is within a system of education that is made of hierarchy and people who may not have the same values about what content should be in classrooms. This threatens the position of teachers who want to challenge the status quo, especially when they are new to the system. This threat can be ameliorated through trust. We have to trust that teachers care about their learners’ intellectual development in spite of the homes they come from and the religious beliefs they hold.

However, as my colleaugue pointed out in one of the meetings “This does not mean that I will introduce Fifty Shades of Grey to the matric class next year!”

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

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, many of them have been true to the hackneyed expression “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. As much as I can read their behaviour and make assumptions about who they are, I still don’t have a way to fully understand them as people. Teenagers are humans and they are as inscrutable as the sea.

A simple example: I gave a class of Grade 10s a dictionary skills activity to be done in class. But because my learners are often uninterested in their work, they wasted time in class by talking to their friends. At the end of the lesson I announced that whatever work they had not completed they had to do for homework. I was dumbstruck when one of my learners said “I don’t have a dictionary at home”. I could have simply ignored this statement and expected that everyone in the class will fulfil my orders demanding that homework is an imperative. I didn’t accept that the learner was simply trying to get out of doing homework (which is very probable) so I decided to believe the student who told me he didn’t have a dictionary at home. I encouraged him to make plan about this without indulging the idea that a lack of resources for some learners is a reality. As my mother’s daughter I insisted on the Afrikaans adage “a boer maak a plan”[1]. I was also left wondering about the expectations I place on my learners without fully understanding their limitations therefore as a teacher, I can make glib statements without thinking what my learners make of them.

Another example: at the beginning of third term one of my learners dropped out of school. The school discovered this when we followed up with the family when we realised that she was missing school after a seemingly long illness. I didn’t see this coming and even though I only knew the student for two terms, I’m sad to have lost her. The experience has taught me that the short interactions I have with my kids are within a broader context of their lives where they may choose to bring into the school with them or not. The little I knew about the learner, I thought she would overcome the challenges of being in a new school and embrace the opportunities available to her. However, this was not the case. What’s even worse is that she may not have seen any of her teachers as people she could confide in. I have lost a student into the bitter black hole where high school drop outs seem to go when they become the bad statistic in our country. The little I do know about my learner is that she doesn’t have many options available to her. She’s now in a small town in the Eastern Cape; a province with a shambolic education system.

I can recount endless stories about the implications of making assumptions about the people who walk into my classroom. And the joy of teaching is that every time I realise my lack of judgement I learn something new about myself and about my learners. And if I know anything else is that clichés are often true: we must never judge a book by its cover.

[1] A loose translation of this would be: one ought to make a plan when faced with a challenge

Monday, September 10, 2012

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 kill”, “kill the boer” are bandied about so easily and our newspapers are filled with images of police brutality and the insecurity of poor people where their only hope for justice is vigilantism.
The story of the empire and the barbarian, is centred around a Magistrate who is sympathetic to the cause of the barbarians. There are two women that are embroiled into the Magistrate’s life. In the play, these women  are black. When I read the novel, I don’t remember racially classifying them (In fact, I don’t think Coetzee is overt about the racial profiling of any characters in the novel. We are left to assume that the Magistrate is white and the barbarians are black). In the play, these two women are highly sexualised and become part of the Magistrate’s quest for redemption in the saga that unfolds while the empire waits for the barbarians to attack.
While watching the play I became uneasy about how the only two women on the stage were merely sexualised and constantly gratifying the white man’s desires for sex. The one woman, Zoe, is a young prostitute and the other has no name and is described as ugly because she is one of the barbarians. I became unsettled that the only time these women seemed to have a voice or were on stage they were out for display, a spectacle of what tropes seem to exist for black women: the (ugly) victim or the sex slave (amongst others).
I found myself thinking about how easy it is to display women’s bodies simply as available for men’s sexual desire. I found myself thinking about Sara Baartman and how easily we forget about the history of black women’s bodies and what they mean for entertainment.
I realise that the role of theatre is to provoke the audience, but to what extent does the play’s portrayal of women perpetuate sexism and patriarchy? Chimamanda Adichie’s idea of the single story is relevant here. She raises the issue of how perceptions are formed by what we read and see about people around us. If we do not question these perceptions that are formed (consciously or unconsciously) we are in danger of forming a single story about people rather than considering other ways of being rather than the myopic view that is often left unchallenged. The representation of black women in whatever form (but particularly in this play) has implications for how we address the single story about black women and their place in their world.
A friend of mine (who happens to be black) often jests at how “black women are at the bottom of the food change, just above the animals”. One would say this isn’t entirely true given that there are many (black) women in powerful positions however, her experience as a successful black women in a male-dominated profession, she is still subject to the single story that people have of black women that this play also seems to perpetuate. This is not to suggest that the play isn’t worth seeing, however, something has to be said about the way in which art can have a role in making us think about the experience of women.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

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. However, they are not interested in history and what it means for their future. They do however experience the backlash of apartheid South Africa and this is prevalent in their conversations and how they relate to one another.

I recently had a conversation with Grade 8 girls who openly and crudely racially classified themselves as black and because of their blackness, they choose to be rebellious. They misbehave and show a lack of interest in their work and have a bad attitude towards others who aren’t part of their group. They openly give in to the pressure of being cliquely and only hang out with other black girls in their grade. They have a mob mentality and they attribute this to the fact that they are black in a school that is not racially diverse—where racial diversity means having more white people in our school. Their identity is complex and revolves around their idea of what it means to be black in relation to being white and coloured[1]. They define their role in the school in relation to an abstract idea of what it would mean if there were more white learners at the school. These teenagers are hardly 14 years old; younger than South Africa’s democracy but their attitudes show me that the “born free” generation is not free but part of a racist society where they are willing participants in negative racial stereotyping where white is seen as better and black is seen as negative.

My learners’ attitudes about race speak to the need to challenge the way we perceive blackness and whether it’s possible to address non-racialism without acknowledging the current racism. The idea that children will become colour blind because we do not talk about race or simply eschew the need to talk about people being black or white assumes that race will go away over time. The challenge with the ideas I’m presenting here is that the complexities about race are always centred around the question of being black or white without the nuances of other identity markers that people choose to take on. In South Africa, we have a limited discourse about race where it’s about being black or white that we can’t move onto other possibilities about what it means to be in the world. We treat race markers as though people wake up in the morning and the first thing they think of is “I’m black”.

This always leaves me wondering about what non-racialism means. Do we ignore and obliterate racial markers or engaging them so we can find new meanings about our way of being in the world? Or do we question race in its crude form as was the case with the Black Consciousness Movement?  

[1] In South Africa, Coloured refers to a racial group of people from Cape Malay descent (As a result of Race Classification during apartheid)

Thursday, July 19, 2012


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 behind the quizzical look is revealed.

“Ma’am, why are we doing this?”

I pause before I answer him and scan the numbers on my spreadsheet because human potential has been limited to numbers, a pass and a fail.

“I don’t know ” is the answer that I give him

I imagine him as he sat, biting his nails trying to remember all that was stuffed into his brain in order to be reproduced on the blank paper in front of him with the tyranny of time as the clock ticked for two hours, no talking, only the sound of pen on paper.

Has my answer let him down?

Was he expecting an answer because that’s what teachers do, they have all the answers right?

I can see he is disappointed by my lack of knowledge

Maybe I should have told him that “This” is a game and the rules are unfair because they were written by people who are no longer alive or even part of this game.

This is where it’s supposed to begin

The mixed messages about being an individual while wearing a uniform that makes you look like the person standing next to you

This is about the expectation that you must be the best you can be amidst the peer pressure of being as average as you can be

Or is it below average? Because on paper only 30% is expected from you...So you only have to contribute 30% of your energy and brain cells because it’s only just for marks.

This is where people like me, teachers, think they should tell you how to be in the world.

This is about preparing you to be the leaders of tomorrow, forgetting that you ought to be leaders everyday...

This is about rules, structure, order, working longer and harder, preparing you for the real world

This is about redressing a legacy of Bantu education in the new South Africa where young people still leave the classroom without being able to read and write...and thinking? That’s just asking for too much!

This is a playground where the swings, the skipping ropes, the slides and see-saw have been replaced by the many rooms with four walls, passages desks, chairs, books, and if you are really lucky you might have textbooks, science labs, computer labs, smartboards, lockers, tuckshop, library, homework, noticeboards,

And playground politics are about dodging detention, bullies, neat hair, tucked in shirts, wanna-be rebels who are too cool for school, boys feigning manhood, girls pining to be women.

This is about limitations and endless possibilities if the beauty hidden in the young mind could be set free

This is about asking the right questions and making an effort to work out the answers for yourself and not relying on the textbook or the memo or even the person sitting next to you

This is education, teaching, the classroom, the school, my passion and my nightmare...

[context: after exams we give back the marks to the learners before they get their reports. The point is to give kids the chance to hackle over their marks and verify if teachers have calculated term marks properly. So the scene above happened on the day we had to do this with the kids and one of the Grade 9s asked me the question and I extended the question to being about school in general.]

Friday, July 6, 2012

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 that they could not make a stand when books were not delivered as promised? Why are teachers in South Africa silent?

The silence suggests a level of disregard for education by teachers and the major teacher union in this country. Contrary to popular belief, teaching is a challenge and it becomes even more challenging when resources are few or non-existent as is the case with many schools in South Africa. However, teachers who are mostly affected by a lack of delivery are also the teachers who are part of a union that only makes a noise when the question of salaries is on the table. But when the real issues of ensuring teaching and learning in our schools are at stake, there is a deafening silence.

This suggests that most teachers seem to be okay the lack of infrastructure in their schools; that teachers are okay without the basics in the classrooms (though we know that toilet infrastructure and enough classroom space are no longer considered as the basics). I would love to see a scientist who is relaxed when the chemicals do not arrive for the experiments they need to do in their lab or a doctor who is happy to perform an operation with insufficient anaesthetic or a builder who doesn’t have enough material to build a bridge and attempts to build it anyway.

The silence of teachers in the face of a shambolic education system perpetuates the idea that teaching is not a profession, but rather, the majority of the teachers in our schools are people who are happy to get away with doing as little as possible and receive a payslip they complain about at the end of the month. However, this assessment would be disingenuous to many teachers who work hard under very challenging conditions, they rise to the occasion and teach so that their learners achieve great results despite the lack and failures of government.

What further complicates this issue is the disparate nature of teachers as a community. The two systems of education—where one is for the rich with former model c schools and private schools and the other for poor people in townships and rural areas—means that there are two distinct groups of teachers who fight different battles. Teachers in middle class contexts ward off interfering parents while juggling busy extra-mural timetables; while teachers in poorer contexts have to deal with absent parents (for often complex reasons), crowd control and chaotic schools with poor management. The structure of teacher unions further exacerbates this challenge as they further entrench the differences amongst teachers. I am not suggesting teachers unite as one homogenous voice, but where there seems to be no communication amongst teachers about the real changes that need to happen in order to protect the profession from the slippery slope into nowhere, there are very few gains that can be made in education.

This also raises the question of the parents; where teachers fail, why are parents silent? Teachers are supposed to be in loco parentis therefore they need to become more vocal about the state of education as the future of the teaching profession in South Africa is in trouble. We do not produce enough teachers in South Africa and instead, there’s a steady exodus of young teachers seeking greener pastures abroad.

The perceptions about teaching in this country further hinders many young people from entering the profession. Those of us who are in the profession are seen as failures (because there’s nothing easier than working with hundreds of teenagers everyday or leaving school at 2pm right?) or as I have personally experienced, I’m simply going through a phase and one day I’ll move onto a better profession. There isn’t any expectation that we need to recreate the teaching profession if young people are to consider it as a serious option and become part of changing the face of education in this country.

Citizens and parents need to start expecting teachers to be better. We have an education system propped up by civil society that simply shrugs its shoulders and accepts the status quo and expects teachers to abdicate from their responsibilities and do nothing about the state of their classrooms. For as long as we don’t expect more from our teachers and are quiet about their role in the failure of our system, we are all complicit in the failure of our education system.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

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 I asked one of the learners in my group what he thinks about the camp and the hike. He reflected that apart from the physical exhaustion, there might be value in starting a journey to nowhere, following the paths as they open up and learning to trust the people on the journey to encourage you along the way.

One of the joys of teaching is that my learners teach me without realising it. In spite of the challenges I have with them, they remind me of simple principles that we take for granted as adults. They’ve taught me to teach with a sense of humour and not to take myself too seriously. There’s nothing more humbling than standing in front of a group of teenagers who have the ability to turn a well-planned lesson upside down! They’ve taught me the importance of holding back my own answers and trusting them to find the answers themselves, rather than telling them what they ought to say to me. They’ve taught me that they too have knowledge and the right answer isn’t always the best answer. I’ve also learned to listen. I don’t listen as much as I talk as a teacher but fortunately there’s time to rectify this.

While teaching in my classroom by day, after hours I have been involved in more public debates about education. I was involved in the Conversations for Change series organised by the CMRS. A panel with Dr Mamphele Ramphele, Minister Trevor Manuel, Dr Rhoda Khadalie, Dr O’Connell and I gathered at UWC with the aim of addressing the education question. I didn’t blog about the event at the time because I had to mull over what the event meant and the outcomes of the event. I still don’t think this post will do any justice to my cerebrations, however, I was led to consider whose voices count when we talk about education reform in South Africa.

I also had the opportunity to share my views on eTV’s Sunrise morning show with Dr Mamphele Ramphele and Prof Mary Metcalfe. In spite of my misgivings about how the discussion on the show was framed, I realised the challenge of articulating my views as a young teacher. And on Youth Day I was at Ratanga Junction (not for the exciting rides) but for the TEDxCape Town Education event. I won’t do this event any justice as it was a mixture of inspiration, questions and reflections all in one day. All speakers reflected on their groundbreaking initiatives in education. The speakers included people who are leaders in their schools, communities and organisations. I also had the wonderful opportunity of being part of the TEDxYouth here in Cape Town where one of the Grade 11 learners from my school was the youngest speaker. I was humbled by his profound insights, his enthusiasm and maturity at the event.

After each event mentioned above I left wondering “What now?”. I learned to engage with other people’s ideas about education and even share my own, but in the bigger scheme of things, government remains unchallenged in the Eastern Cape, textbooks are still not delivered, we still face an exodus of teachers in South Africa and some children still go to mud schools or learn under trees.

While I may be sceptical about the level of conversation and action (or lack of) about education in this country, the past term’s events (within and beyond the classroom) have led to growth I would never have had as a student in university. Being in the midst of the real world and learning from weird teenagers means that I am yet again confronted with my own way of seeing the world. I’m content with not having any answers this time and simply learning from others.

Monday, June 4, 2012

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 ends earlier. After school learners have the choice of going home or staying at school to study (the assumption is that some learners come from homes where there isn’t a conducive environment to support learning). In spite of the different rhythm, learners feign stress. Kids have to study for hours and it is expected that those who put in the necessary hours will be rewarded with the expected results. Since this was my first exam period as a teacher, I noticed that many learners were not good at sitting in silence for more than 30 minutes, studying before an exam. Girls were better at this than boys as most read novels instead of revising from their notes. I also noticed many learners bunking the after school study sessions as much as possible (to play soccer or loiter in town).

By the end of the second week of exams, fatigue settled in the small of my back and I kept telling friends, ndidinwe ngaphakathi (I’m tired inside my body-an expression I use to depict inexplicable exhaustion ). Even though I wasn’t actively teaching, I became exhausted without realising it. I was tired from sitting and marking and sorting through the paperwork in order to make sure that all my marking is done timeously for the end of term madness of reports and final marks. I also had more time to wonder about my teaching in relation to the results that started emerging while I was marking.

I ended up with a few questions: why is this form of assessment privileged? What do exams tell me about my learners’ abilities? What do exams tell me about my teaching? I haven’t got answers to these questions yet as I may be asking them in vain. Exams are firmly established and unquestioned practices as they prepare learners for Grade 12 where the main form of assessment requires learners to study for hours and write for many hours all the knowledge they have acquired in their 12 years at school. They are granted a piece of paper which will hopefully allow them further study where a similar process of exams is repeated if they choose to go to a university.

My ontological quandary with exams has left me wondering about what knowledge means for both the teacher and the learner and without having too much of an existential crises: what is the point of all of this? Am I a teacher so that I can prepare my learners for exams?
While leading up to exams I began telling my learners that some of the activities they will do in school are not important because they do not relate to the real world. Such activities are important because they are simply a means to an end; the end being a piece of paper proving that they can do the necessary work we set out for them at school—simply an academic exercise. And exams are the perfect example of this.

Schools are about school knowledge so there are no mechanisms in place measuring if learners have become better people in the term or whether their self-esteem has improved or whether their racial prejudice has changed. The output is quantified in relation to subjects and learners are compartmentalised into people who have school knowledge and life knowledge and school knowledge seems to get all of the attention.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

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 conversation I couldn’t fully grasp. Eventually I decided to step into my teacher role and take control of the situation. I started off with a chuckle commenting on how oblivious they are to the fact that they are in my classroom and I have expectations for how they should behave (they ought to stand at their desks, I greet them, they sit down and take out their books etc). This didn’t seem to move them as he lesson unravelled and I discovered many hadn’t done their homework. Most of the learners in this class have convinced each other they are bad-asses and they prove this to me when they do not hand in their essays and proceed to come to my class without the homework that I have warned them about for almost a week. This is also the class that is under surveillance with an intervention referred to as “daily report” (This is a form teachers have to fill in for students who are misbehaving. The idea is that for a week there is close observation by the teacher and I guess there’s an expectation that they will change their behaviour based on the comments teachers make on this form). In another class I ended up reading the following section from Chapter 2 of the Constitution: “Everyone has the right to use language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice, but no one excersing these rights may do so in a manner inconsistent with any provision in the Bill of Rights” (this was preceded by reading the section on the official languages in South Africa). A minor conflict erupted when some learners started speaking isiXhosa amongst each other. Learners who do not speak isiXhosa often take umbrage with learners who speak isiXhosa in the classroom under the pretext that “THEY are talking about US!”(especially in the English lesson). As a multilingual teacher, I have no qualms with learners expressing themselves in any language in my lessons because I can still communicate with them. And when this happens I am often lambasted too for encouraging the use of isiXhosa in my classroom, in an English school nogal! By reading the Constitution I was trying to emphasise the importance of embracing difference even when the offences seem minor. I don’t know if I won this battle. I guess I am naive when it comes to teaching and the attitudes young people have towards their own education and each other. Most seem to have no vested interest in doing what they are asked to do. The main criticism has always been against teachers where we are accused of teaching content that is unrelated to the learners’ real lives. There’s some truth in this because I am equally critical of the curriculum I have to teach, but I teach it anyway. I wonder everyday if I’m overthinking my classroom drama and perhaps I should ignore some of the comments my learners make towards their peers because teenagers are expected to be mean-spirited, ignorant, narrow-minded and simply rude. But somehow I’m not convinced because these young people are becoming adults every single day and they are human beings who are establishing ways of being in the world. This affects me because I am the teacher who is supposed to teach them about being in the world; beyond grammar and spelling.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

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, resulting in a power struggle that had little to do with education reform in the province. The recent article about a school in Grahamstown, Good Shepard Primary School, is another example where the government is being accused of ignoring a court order and lawyers are threatening to go back to court. Talk of strikes by some teachers in the Eastern Cape forms the background noise and the largest teacher union, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) is always responsible for the disruption for learners in already impoverished schools. When we do hear about the more privileged sector of education, government is seen as interfering with parent’s pockets and threatening teachers’ performance perks, rather than dealing with the structural issues that affect dysfunctional schools. The questionable and controversial regulation on bonuses for teachers in former Model C schools highlights a recognition at how education entrenches the socio-economic divide where those with money pay for the perks of quality education and those who cannot, are ignored by the government.

Some stories are lucky enough to be publicised. But many are not. Some schools have the resources to take the Department of Education to court but many are not and teachers and principles’ hands are tied when it comes to taking action against the government at a local or provincial level. While I was doing research in Grahamstown I interacted with teachers and principals who accepted it as a norm that district officials would not deliver equipment and textbooks on time in order to support learning. The official learner-teacher ratio was also compromised because district offices could do nothing about the lack of funding for employing new teachers. But business goes on as usual. It seems that many teachers have become accustomed to working within the limitations and this is seen as admirable. That some teachers continue teaching even when they are not being paid for months is another feature of education in the Eastern Cape (while chatting to my mother about this, she alluded to her short-lived experience of teaching during apartheid when the same practice of not being paid for months was the norm).

Beneath these limitations and the government’s consistent failure at improving education, I have wondered what recourse is available to teachers and parents who are affected by the vagaries of the chaos in our schools. When the Department of Education does not respond to court decisions, what should the next step be? Where there is no link between the justice system and getting things right in our education system, how can things change? It seems the justice system is failing if it cannot guarantee that government responds to the rulings made in court. As a teacher, I may not be au fait with the complexities of the legal system but logic suggests that if the justice system cannot enforce government to act upon court rulings, something is amiss. If the custodians of our education system are a law unto themselves, what are the possibilities for meaningful education reform?

I cannot help but wonder whether as citizens in a democratic country, are we really invested in education reform? Those who have political clout, social and economic capital send their children to schools that are not affected by the vagaries of the appalling public education system. And this is completely justifiable. However, as citizens, we need to organise more around the question of education if the basic right to education in a constitutional democracy is supposed to meaningful for all. Why do we not have more volunteers in schools or people opening their garages for extra lessons for learners whose teachers do not come to schools? The principle of “each one teach one” ought to be revisited by those who may not necessarily be directly affected by education. Who is going to teach the next generation if educated graduates do not join the teaching profession and change classrooms from within the system?

After reading the article about Good Shepard Primary School, I had a chat with a friend who teaches at the school. Her response to their predicament was profound and showed that a sense of justice needs to be restored in the education system. She succinctly pointed out that “with all said and done there is no justice for the children and why? Arrogance from the top. There is an enormous deficit in basic literacy and numeracy skills that won't be addressed if we continue on this path.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

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 voting with their feet and leaving the Eastern Cape for greener pastures in other provinces. As a teacher and someone from the Eastern Cape, I empathise with those who have had to relocate because their basic right to education in the Eastern Cape is being flagrantly disregarded. I have been asked numerous times why I did not stay in the Eastern Cape and teach in schools where there is the most need.

My reasoning has always been about the practicalities of teaching: the Western Cape Department of Education issued several vacancy lists for teaching posts whereas in the Eastern Cape there were none. Friends who decided to stay in the Eastern Cape and teach have still not been paid their first salary. These conditions amongst many others made it easy for me to consider a teaching post in the Western Cape where I have been paid regularly since January. But above all, I made the choice to move to the Western Cape. As a citizen of this country, the right of movement is one that I value as an individual.

The discourse of displacement and education refugees makes me uncomfortable considering that all citizens have the freedom of movement in this country. I doubt that yuppies would be dubbed as employment refugees when they move to the Western Cape for better employment opportunities (as is the case with many friends who decide to become lawyers and accountants and remain in the Western Cape after they have graduated from local universities). I doubt middle-class learners who move to the Western Cape (and attend private schools and expensive public schools) form part of the group of education refugees. It seems that education refugees refers to learners from poor, working class and marginalised communities. This implies that the freedom of movement is taken for granted for people who have the social capital to move, but those who are poor and in most need, it is problematised.

As a woman whose legacy is about forced removals and carrying the dompas as my grandmother did during apartheid, the freedom of movement and the choice to be able to move where I want to move is one I do not take for granted. It seems bizarre that the freedom to basic education can affect the freedom of movement as we have seen happen in the Eastern Cape. As a teacher who is well aware of the travesty that is taking place in the education system, I wish more people would be enraged by the state of education in the Eastern Cape (and all poor people in this country) rather than deconstructing Premier Zille’s misuse or disuse of the word refugee.

(also appears on

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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 learners as possible. And to run the risk of generalising, it seems to take a lot more effort keeping children riveted and spellbound in the classroom in 2012. The content I teach is often very uninteresting to my learners and they have no qualms nodding off by putting their heads on their desks, or staring into space or simply being disruptive as code for “this is boring!”.

When I observe the split second when I lose their interest, my heart breaks and I wonder if I am guilty of killing creativity in my classroom as Sir Ken Robinson accuses schools of doing in his famous TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?”. He argues that the current education system worldwide is designed to remove creativity from education. Classrooms have become spaces where children grow out of their creativity. The focus on Mathematics and Science in many schools means that the arts and humanities are relegated to after-school programmes rather than being an integral part of teaching and learning.

As a language teacher, this argument struck a nerve when I first watched the TED talk. As a teacher in a public school, I have become indignant at the thought that I have entered a profession that could potentially be destroying the creativity of the children entrusted to me. And the reality is, Sir Ken Robinson’s argument is very compelling even though I suspect that many teachers (if they had the time to listen to his 20 minute speech) would be baying for his blood because of some of the assertions he makes about what happens in the classroom. He suggests that teachers do not care about their learners’ emotional lives and different learning styles. He seems to suggest we simply think of outcomes, assessment standards, crowd control, administration and marking.

There is no perfect classroom and perfect teachers do not exist. Many teachers are people who are trying to work a miracle in difficult circumstances with limited resources. I have friends who left the teaching profession after two years, others are persevering in spite of teaching in classrooms where their learners do not even have enough seats. And I am in a privileged context with motivated learners who are equally difficult teenagers, and who would rather be outside basking in the Cape Town sun or playing cricket in the summer rain.

In my attempts to ignite creativity I have had poetry lessons in the park, I have been part of field trip to a rugby stadium during the Technology lesson, I have been a stage director trying to make Shakespeare come alive in the minds of Grade 10s. Being a high school teacher also means I have children who enter my classroom with seven years of school behind them. These are seven years I cannot erase. Because of the primary schools some learners come from, sometimes teaching is like sucking blood out of a stone because the only question learners want to ask is, “Ma’am, is this for marks?” Other days I am inspired and excited when learning happens in my classroom without too much of an effort. These are the days when the conversations clicks and learners extend their own minds and they make parallels between the social structure in France before the French Revolution in 1789 and modern day South Africa in 2012.

The place for creativity in classrooms (particularly in high school) relates to the question “why is education important?”. I am in a school that is committed to making sure that all our learners get the opportunity to attend university when they matriculate. But should this be our primary goal? Do we simply want our children to grow up and become citizens who will become cogs in wheels, get sucked up in corporations and further feed the industrial machine? Or do we want creative citizens who can use their imagination to solve the complexities we face in this country and the world? Sir Ken Robinson seems to think he has the answers, but since antiquity, these questions have remained unanswered because, like many other philosophical questions in our lives, there are no easy answers. However, this does not mean we should shy away from this conversation. When I consider the state of education in South Africa, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve ever had this conversation, especially with the people that we teach?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

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 generalisations. Some are as simplistic as which subjects boys and girls show different performance levels in. The assumption is that girls are better at languages and boys are better at maths and science. As a language teacher I was fascinated when I discovered literature about the “feminisation of language instruction”. Educationists suggest that the way language is taught in schools is targeted towards a particular kind of learner: typically one who can sit in the class and listen quietly while the teacher speaks. Because girls are seen as compliant when it comes to classroom behaviour, they often do better in language education. Language classes require learners to be reflexive and this thinking is couched within the assumption that girls are better at this than boys.

I have tried to relate this to my lessons and I have noticed that beyond the behavioural problems I often have in my classes, the boys I teach simply want to play outside, where learning is about sport (life is a party and “boys will be boys”). Their writing is often not as verbose as the girls’. This is not to say they do not perform as well as the girls, but they are also more inclined to drift and lose concentration when I teach.

Apart from the academic aspect of teaching, I have tried to create space for conversation in my classroom. Where there are any sexist incidences, I try using these for further conversation and teaching. I recently witnessed a boy “tap” one of the girls in my class (on her butt). The girl’s response was that of any woman whose body has been made a toy: she retaliated by slapping the boy.

Anyone else may have suggested that this is the nature of teenagers who have raging hormones so I shouldn’t worry myself too much. When I intervened, the boy seemed confused. This is a common joke amongst boys and girls at school, but the girl was firm that she felt disrespected. I tried to ask why he thought it was an acceptable joke that he can “tap” girls and he simply saw this as a game.

My focus on boys in my classroom (and the school as a whole) is that there are enough positive images directed at girls for how they can be in the world. But I find there aren’t nearly as many positive messages indicating a different way of being for boys. It is accepted that teenage boys are violent, permanently horny, and disinterested in anything that might provoke any thinking. There are also underlying messages for what it means being a boy in a poor community and the norms that are expected in that social setting.

I have no doubt the challenges young boys are facing and the pressures to become “manly men”, but being a young feminist teacher I do not want to be the teacher that harangues boys about the gender question. When the gender debate emerges in class, boys are inclined to get defensive which isn’t a surprise because they are young boys growing up in a sexist society.

I don’t want to be the person who tells the boys who or what they should be, but I do wish I could engage them about the invisible sexism they perform daily without even realising it. And I would like them to seriously consider what it means being a man without dominating space or women.

This is a conversation for both girls and boys, it’s about being human. But between teaching grammar and “characteristics of a short story” it’s not that

[this first appeared on Feminist SA earlier today]

Monday, February 13, 2012


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 of work that has been handed in).My efforts of warding off the angst that comes with the marking have not been successful.In between trying to have a life, making time for sleep and editing my thesis so I can hand in the final final draft at the end of this month,the marking seems to be at the bottom of my priority list.And that means I'm shooting myself in the foot.

This morning I woke up in a panic.I literally woke up from a dream where it seems I had failed dismally at keeping up with my marking to the extent that I stayed home during a week day to finish the marking that was due.It seems that in the dream I was trying to be super teacher and I promised my learners that I was going to be ready with their comments and scripts in record time.Upon realising that I had failed them,I lay comatose in bed licking my wounds because in the dream I had failed myself and my learners.

However, in reality,I'm trying to be optimistic about this process.Granted,some of the work should have been handed back to the kids sooner so they can check mistakes before they hand in on Wednesday and Friday.But instead I spent some time in most lessons making comments about some of the issues emerging from the marking thus far,things they ought to be aware of before they hand in again.That's the best I can do because in relaity I know I cannot be super teacher who can take in piles of scripts from 4 classes and return all the work marked with comments within one week.And that's okay.

So hopefully by the end of this term I will have some kind of strategy for keeping up with the marking process.So far I have decided to spend less time in the staff room unless I absolutely have to be there.Instead I stay in my classroom during breaktimes and I multitask with an apple in one hand and a green pen in the other!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

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 is established. One of the challenges I have in all the classes I teach is the expectation from the learners that good and strict teachers shout (raise their voice at a particular pitch) in order to get the attention of the learners. When the learners realised I’m not a shouter (and I don’t have a booming voice either), one of my Grade 8’s told me “Ma’am, you’re too nice, we’ll never listen to you.” And he was right. If the learners were making a noise and I needed to get their attention, they didn’t listen. My response was the teacher stare directed at the noisiest bunch in the class until they fell silent. In some classes this took 5 minutes away from teaching time.

Eventually I decided to explain my reasons for not shouting in class: it’s not that I can’t shout, but I do not see the value in communicating with them at this level. I prefer speaking to them “normally”, with respect. I also emphasised that their insistence that I shout at them implies that they are incapable of self-control and they need to be bullied into listening to me.

One learner and I had an altercation in the boys’ bathroom about establishing expectations for his behaviour.. He (amongst others) was being disruptive in class and I made the grave error of singling him out and asking him to leave the classroom, BIG MISTAKE, HUGE! He stormed out and as he did I realised that I was potentially losing the battle of winning him back. I decided to let my guard down, ran after him in spite of him charging into the boys’ bathroom enraged and feeling humiliated. We had an honest conversation (in the bathroom) and I apologised for humiliating him and he apologised for his behaviour. He hasn’t been as “good as gold” but I can see a change in his behaviour. At least he looks at me with less malice when I teach and he participates in the discussions quite regularly.

I have also started investing time into speaking to learners individually about their behaviour. Initially I always stood in front of the class and made sweeping statements about “Grade 9s, you are not listening” even though a small group of individuals were guilty of this. This means that at the end of each lesson, I have a “chat” with one or two learners whom I notice are struggling with paying attention or displaying attention-seeking behaviour during class and being disruptive. This is exhausting for me but rewarding for the learners as we are able to have a mature conversation about their attitudes and whether they think they can change their behaviour so that learning can happen in the classroom (especially the learners who are disruptive). The response has been amazing. Many make the effort of changing their behaviour and lately I am always asked, “Ma’am, how was my behaviour today?”. And I always respond, “Much better, keep it up”. I thought I would have to use grand gestures of encouragement, but a simple acknowledgement of a learner’s presence in the classroom makes them change their behaviour. Yesterday, I had a Grade 8 girl saunter away from me while I was talking to her. I was dumbfounded. After I regained composure I asked to stay behind after class. While speaking to her I realised that she and I are in a battle because her attitude requires more patience. It’s almost as though she’s never been asked to be respectful, she says what she wants to people, generally rude. The conversation with her will be ongoing.

I’m still struggling with making them realise that their education is their responsibility. Another mismatch in expectations are consequences with handing in work and doing homework. Learners seem to think I should put them in detention or punish them with writing lines if they don’t do the necessary work. I’m indifferent to this: firstly I think detention is too easy ( a blog post for another day) because it doesn’t really force them to reckon with the consequences of not taking their education seriously. Secondly, detention becomes my problem because I have to remember the punishment and why I am giving it. So I keep asking them: why do they need the threat of punishment in order to hand in their work? My wish is that they understand that their work is their responsibility and sending them to detention doesn’t necessarily mean that they will understand this fully. So I have told them: if they do not do the homework I set for them, they will suffer and not me because they will lag behind in class; if they do not hand in work on time, I will not mark it when they do eventually hand it in because they have dishonoured an agreement(I always try to negotiate when they should hand in their work to me in relation to their other homework).

I’m not sure if this form of setting expectations is the best route for me to go, but I’m happy for the trial and error process that is unfolding. I will however have to be consistent in my approach and challenge individual behaviour above seeing the learners as a collective. It seems simple enough, right: treating kids like individual means they have to be more responsible for their own behaviour?

Friday, January 20, 2012

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 decided to point out, “you’re black, you’re beautiful and you’re a woman”, which left me wondering why that profile doesn’t match up with what a teacher should be.

Among these interesting questions, which I simply choose to laugh at, there have also been the obvious: ma’am can we please have a free period? What is a transitive and intransitive verb? Must we write this in our books? Why do we have to do this? Why was it called a dompas? (this is related to the identity document used during apartheid for Black people) Ma’am, is this going to be for homework? What happens if I don’t do this for homework? And my favourite: Ma’am, is this for marks? These questions are not very riveting. Some I choose to answer, sometimes I use my teacher stare and the learners try figure out the answers for themselves. When I was in high school, one of my Grade 8 teachers had a poster on his wall: This is big school now. He pointed to this every time we were in class and asked a seemingly obvious question. I am tempted to do this for my learners, but I wonder if they would appreciate the sarcasm because I am also the same person who always says to them “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”.

I want to create a classroom atmosphere where questions are encouraged as this is central to learning. I also want a classroom where it looks like learning is taking place by putting up classroom graphics that encourage an interest in reading and language learning. So far I have articles from the City Press newspaper as well as questions from a Grade 8 Social Science class. I have asked my learners to help me create a visually stimulating classroom. However, learners have not made use of this opportunity (I keep a box with paper and a koki that they can use to write their questions to stick on the boards surrounding the classroom). Perhaps this is the single lesson for learning that I need to belabour: learning happens through asking questions. If you are not asking questions, learning is not happening.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much given that the learners are still trying to understand who I am as much as I am trying to understand them. This is the crux of teaching and learning: beyond the adverbs and Shakespeare, I really need to win their hearts and maybe they will open up and share their questions, big or small.

Friday, January 13, 2012

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 learners who come from working class homes, where university entrance can be an option once they reach matric. There are high expectations for each learner. We have long days: school ended at 3 pm on my first day (but my mind was ready to go home by lunchtime) with planning after school(an after school program me begins in two weeks).

Our learners have been hand-picked. They come from not-so-great schools around Cape Town. They are eager to work hard and they realise there are high expectations on them because they are setting the standard for the school as well as being guinea pigs in a new school. The best part about the school is that there are no bells indicating a change in lessons, but everyone seems to be where they need to be throughout the day.

I am one of two English teachers. I also teach Social Science and Life Orientation. I have a maximum of 35 learners in each class which means 240 names to learn in the next few weeks. The excitement of being in a new school has been the adrenalin I’ve needed to survive the past week. Like any new teacher, I am eager, perhaps over-eager because I want to be a good teacher this year, and hopefully allow myself to make mistakes along the way.

“Work is love made visible.” This is a quote from Kahlil Gibran’s musing on work and I have it stuck on my classroom door. I only have 3 rules for the learners I teach: respect for one another (which means only one person talks at a time); seeing as I’m working hard trying to prepare their lessons, they also work hard. I already have marking to do because I gave them homework that was handed in on the second day of school. I’ve also had children fall asleep in class during silent reading and English reading of Artemis Fowl. I’ve made the error of benchmarking too high and I gave the Grade 9’s a short story they found difficult to understand. This was frustrating for all of us, but a good lesson for me to learn in the first week. This left me with a question about my abilities as well as the expectations I have of my learners.

I have a group of Grade 10s who are eager to learn about Shakespeare and do one of his plays. Most of the learners have never been exposed to Shakespeare nor the idea of the Renaissance and the importance (if any) of Shakespeare in modern day South Africa. They will be reading Romeo and Juliet next week.

I’ve already had a boy challenge a judgment call I made when I asked him to sit somewhere else because he was being disruptive sitting with his friends; I was told I am being unfair and this was on the first day of school (but he decided to remain where I placed him in spite of the protests).

Other interesting encounters: I have learned to use a magnificent machine that produces copious amounts of paper in minutes. My colleague in the two-person English department and I have planned learning for the whole of next week after a frantic week of trying to understand the overview and content we were given by our partner school. I have had a meeting with the library monitors as the library will be my extra responsibility apart from my teaching.

I’m still soaking in the experience of having a new responsibility such as teaching and disciplining children in my care. Thankfully I have committed to less angst this year so I hope I will learn to keep the anxieties at bay while I find my feet as a new teacher. I am happy to get things hopelessly wrong, make mistakes and fail and hopefully learn about teaching as the year progresses. But for the past few days I’ve been waking up in the morning excited. Next week will be a longer week and hopefully I’ll survive that too!