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.

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