Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reinventing myself on the first day of school

Today was the day of reinvention. Today was the first day of school. While trying to keep up with the admin of printing worksheets and giving out the timetable, I had to convince my kids that it's a new year. Last year I made the grave error of not setting the basic expectations when I walked into my class and that had a huge impact on how the rest of the year unfolded (I don't know how I missed the memo, but alas, I did).

I only taught a few classes and interacted with the Grade 8's briefly. I'm one of the Grade 10 class teachers as well as a mentor group with learners from every grade. Our mentor group is an innovation we are trying to establish in my school. Apart from having a grade class (mostly for administrative purposes), we have mentor groups which will be a space where learners interact informally and address any grievance or suggestions about their experience at school. The mentor group was facilitated by two prefects (we have a class of 25 Grade 12 matrics and all of them are prefects) and they seemed to handle the process very well. Seemingly, there wasn't much reinvention when there's just admin to do.

My subject classes was where the reinvention took place. I had a Grade 9, 10 and 11 English lessons. I taught most of the kids last year so there were no major introductions. The lessons started badly: learners were late for class. No surprise because last year I was so exhausted at the end of the year, I didn't really care about lateness. But today I had to tell them that it was the first and last day they would be late. Once each class was settled, I launched into a powerpoint presentation telling them that with the new year came new expectations. And these expectations were nothing new, just the basics which fell by the wayside at the end of last year.

I told them that each expectation was not a suggestion nor a request, it was an imperative. There was no negotiation or tweaking of the expectation. As the teacher I decided on the expectations alone. Last year the thought of taking this kind of control seemed to be akin to being a dictator in the classroom, but when I saw the sober  look on every child's face, I was comforted by the fact that for the first time ever, I was able to stand in front of a class with no disruptions. They listened, they were engaged. They put up their hands when they wanted to make a contribution. There was the obvious disgruntled murmur when I mentioned that we would be studying Shakespeare's Macbeth. They hate Shakespeare and I love Macbeth and told them they would be crazy about the play too by the end of the year!

I told the Grade 11s that this year is the first half of Grade 12. If they wanted to go to university, this year was the year that would determine that. If I had to deal with their misdemeanors as I had to last year, we would never get through anything that would prepare them for the hereafter. They were the "bad-ass" Grade 10 class (with 2 girls failing at the end of the year and 2 others dropping out before the end of last year) whom I challenged to read a book and hand in a book review on the first day this year. Much to my surprise, I had five students give me work because the work came with the bait of 10% if they handed something in (I'm yet to mark the work and assess whether they will earn the 10% or not). They also seemed to be attentive when I told them that the mistakes we had all made last year would not continue this year.

It's the first day and this time last year I was eager and mostly naive about what it takes to teach. This year I'm sober with my feet on the ground. I am a teacher and I have a renewed sense of what I would like to achieve this year. The challenge is being consistent with my expectations. The challenge is to maintain my new persona. Tomorrow is a longer day, my patience will be tested and I will have to remind them of the deal that we settled on today.

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