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


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