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!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Hello Cape Town

I did it. I finally left Grahamstown after 6 years that appear to have been a lifetime. It’s almost been a week. The infatuation I had with Cape Town a few months ago has turned into a marriage. Since my arrival I’ve been convincing myself that there is no date of departure unlike previous encounters with this city. I have to make peace with the fact that I am here, indefinitely. My experience thus far can be summarised as follows: entertainment, mobility and a room of one’s own.

Entertainment: It’s still holiday season for most people and tourists are everywhere. The holiday rush never seems to subside. The weather has been mostly amazing and I have been lucky to enjoy a sunny walk every single day since I’ve been here. While trying to be studious, working on my thesis, my background noise was drumming and singing from a performance near the Slave Lodge and the Company Gardens. While having a lunch date with a friend at Cafe Mozart, the background entertainment were various performances from aspiring dancers and artists. And of course, shopping at the Waterfront with friends; nothing major, just shoes and girl stuff that cost more than we anticipated! Lunch at Dopio Zero (a treat from a yuppy friend) at St George’s Mall was amidst the colourful wares in Longmarket Street, a firm part of the Cape Town’s city life during the day.

I watched people barter prices for jewellery, exquisite cloths and artwork laid out daily by hardworking sellers, but I can’t help and wonder how authentic these crafts and fabrics are seeing as there are so many stalls selling the same African art...made in China? I went to the Labia Theatre for the first time, and watched my first Woody Allen movie. And of course, one can’t talk about the city centre and make the reality of the poverty invisible because at every turn there have been beggars in the street and people sleeping openly at the Grand Parade, ingathi balahliwe (as though they have been thrown away). This is nothing new but the reality of the world we live in, and it’s not alright.

Mobility : Getting around has been an adventure. Moving from Grahamstown where I never had to use public transport, I now rely on the bus and train. By bus, I have been using the Main Road route which is tedious when you have to use it more than once a week (but it beats being on a taxi on Voortrekker road from Parow into town). Taking the bus was almost by accident because they always seem to appear when I least expect them. Perhaps I should find a bus timetable so I don’t have to run after a bus again. And much to my suprise, I haven’t used taxis yet.

A room of one’s own: like any newcomer to a city, I’ve been in between places on a friend’s couch or borrowing another friend’s room. This has probably been the hardest part about Cape Town, finding an abode with affordable rent for someone earning a teacher’s salary (and I don’t know how I feel about spending a third of that salary on rent alone). Friends have been lamenting that it took them months to find their apartments which isn’t a very comforting thought for me. Others were lucky with using Gumtree. I on the other hand, have spent countless hours on Gumtree and a friend finally sent me a link with possible accommodation within walking distance to my school and so I await their response in anticipation.

Writing about my experiences in Cape Town thus far, I run the risk of appearing like a “Jim comes to Joburg” (in this case Cape Town), agog at all the tall buildings, traffic, busy streets and the bright Christmas lights in Adderley. But I’m soaking it in. Part of me wants to retreat from all the madness that is Cape Town but part of me yearns to make peace with it’s complexity and my minor role in it. However small I may be in the larger scheme of the events unfolding in this strange place everyday, there’s something about being in Cape Town that unsettles me.