Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Teaching is not for the faint-hearted

From time to time my job as a teacher reminds me how naive I was in becoming a teacher. Today was one of those days. What started off as a normal day began to spiral out of control at 10am. My first lesson was with the Grade 8s-my favourite class. The lesson unfolded as I had hoped with no suprises.

It was a small whisper that jolted me into reality. One of the girls came to me whispering that she needed to tell me something. She isn't the shy type so I was confused by her approach. I listened carefully as she told me "Ma'am, X has dagga in his blazer."

I didn't know whether I should believe her or not so I carried on with the lesson by walking around the classroom checking work and making comments until I walked up to X's table. I asked him if I could chat to him outside. While he stood up looking confused I leaned over and took his blazer before he could. While walking to the door I felt him try to tug the blazer from my hand. As we stood outside I started searching the blazer casually but X tried to grab the blazer from me. We started playing tug of war with his blazer and X's voice took on a pitch I had never heard him use, considering I hardly heard him speak up in class throughout most of last year when I taught him English.

A bit of context about X before the rest of the story unfolds: X walked into my class last year and moved my heart. He looked sad most of the time. He had a face that belonged to a baby, a gait that belonged to a toddler and dark skin. He was an easy target for bullying. He was quiet. The kind of quiet that is unnerving in a classroom. After a few weeks into the first term I asked him to sit in the front of the classroom rather than with the rest of the boys in the class. He wasn't as smart nor as sharp as the other boys who formed a pack I referred to as "The fearsome five". I had all the naughty Grade 8 boys in my class and on the periphery was X yearning to be accepted by the crew. As the year unfolded I watched how he changed from being a quiet boy whose presence unnerved me and he became a ball of anger. He created a wall around himself and his only weapon was his foul mouth. He became rude and belligerent. I heard him use words that made me blush. He tried to defend himself from the barrage of insults from "the fearsome five" by retorting with harsh insults while I tried to teach.

My only solution was to call him aside. I tried talking to him about his behaviour. I did most of the talking because in a teacher's presence he became a scared mouse. I didn't get through to him. I knew he was going to fail the grade and end up in my class again. I tried to intervene with " the fearsome five" as well but they became a hopeless cause and the reason for most of my angst last year.

I was partly relieved when X walked into my Grade 8 English class again this year. I tried to encourage him so that he would see this year as a second chance. I implored him not to make the same mistakes as last year but rather to speak to me when there was a problem. I sent an email to the Grade Head expressing my concern about him and I think he started visiting the school councillor. Sadly I had to watch him being taunted by the boys who had progressed into Grade 9 and I watched how he tried to befriend the new boys in his Grade 8 class. I tried to ignore the snickering his new friends made whenever I asked him to answer a question.

So when he raised his voice this morning, telling me to leave his blazer alone, I knew he had dagga in his blazer. I was stumped. I didn't have the script to deal with this kind of problem. I racked my brain for words and eventually decided to take on my mother's persona when she's angry. I spoke softly asking him questions I already knew the answers to. He begged me to make the problem go away by throwing the dagga away. I was crestfallen. I stammered trying to find other words to convince him that making the problem go away wasn't an option. I found myself repeating over and over again that there are consequences to his kind of foolishness. I also heard myself repeating that I cared about him and that he had to trust me. I don't know why I said that to him but eventually he calmed down and we decided that he had only two options: go to the police station at that moment or go and speak to the Grade Head. He opted for the latter. And thus he was no longer my responsibility.

The rest of my day was fuzzy. I felt like a sucker. I was sad. Given the broader context of education where dagga and bullying are the norm I realised I would never be able to cope in "the real world" of education. My strangely sheltered childhood and confusing youth have rendered my hopeless when it comes to the reality of a teenage life. Drugs, bullying, experimenting and trying to fit in are what make the teenage experience. But when it happens to a child like X I have to wonder, is he simply being a teenager or is this a cry for help? Am I simply navel-gazing or is there something that could have been done to help him make better choices?

Today I was faint-hearted. And the faint-heartedness will remain as there are many children like X, trying to make sense of the world and making stupid mistakes along the way.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Life is

In a poetry lesson with the Grade 10s, we discussed the images Langston Hughes uses in the poem Life is fine. I encouraged the class to write their own poem starting with the words Life is... After many grumbles and blank faces I went around the classroom trying to create a poem where each person had to think of an imagine of what life is on their way to school: "life is a creased suit...life is a cup of coffee...life is butterflies in your tummy as your crush walks by...life is a bus, a train ticket...life is traffic...life is rice crispies...life is black and white...life is hugs...Life is a snail"

Eventually some got into the rhythm of the conversation and wrote a few lines. While the kids wrote their poems quietly, penning down their musings about their teenage life, I decided to make use of the rare occasion.

life is...
ink in my skin
kink in my hair
watching flowers bursting, giving birth to flames
life is laughter dancing through my body, wiggling my toes,
hugs squeezing my neck softly, a little hand curled around my fingers
a peck on the cheek
life is healing food with a soft breeze brushing my back
life is a brand new book
life is full of wonder, wonderful

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The honeymoon phase...is over!

It's now the fourth week of the term. Everytime people have asked me how the teaching is going, I've been telling them I'm going through the honeymoon period. These past few weeks have been too good to be true (pardon the cliche). I have somewhat managed to keep my feet on the ground and the reinvention I attempted in the first week of term seems to have been successful and exhausting. My Grade 8s are absolute nerds which means they are always eager to learn (and write beautiful notes in their books and answer questions in class by putting their hands up). The Grade 10s are somewhat mature (which is expected since I taught most of them last year and they think they know me well enough to get away with certain behaviour). Unfortunately, the Grade 9s are officially responsible for the end of my honeymoon phase. The problem began yesterday.

Every Tuesday I teach until 4:15pm. Granted I have 2 hours to spare during the morning because the kids are at sport for an hour hence the longer teaching day: the "graveyard shift". The first graveyard shift was a successful lesson (at the height of the honeymoon phase) and the kids were eager in spite of the long teaching day. Yesterday however, they were disruptive, sleepy and disorderly; the closest I've been to crowd control. I ended the lesson with an admonishment: that I expected better, that we all need to make peace with the graveyard shift, embrace it and make the most of the lesson. My speech fell on deaf ears.

Today, I saw the Grade 9s after first break. Their sugar levels were high so I decided to turn the lesson into a quiz. Their energy would be put to good use (nothing like elusive competition and trying to make kids work) and we would at least get through some work. There was genearal mirth and disruptiveness that comes with having a quiz in the classroom. I made bad judgements and I was accused of being unfair so I asked one of the kids to become an assisstant and help me make up the rules as we go along. Throughout the lesson I had been trying to ignore the lack of participation from some kids (I didn't have the energy to respond to the negative body language) and the consistent comments from others who were having unrelated conversations, mostly teasing each other.

At the end of the lesson I tried to make a speech about the general lack of order and participation in the lesson. While the kids were packing up I was easvesdropping on another conversation, banter amongst the kids. They were teasing each other. I decided not to butt in. I lost my cover when when S- insulted R- in isiXhosa (the politics of language in my classroom requires a post of its own) and I burst out laughing. Raees demanded to know what was said about him and S- told him without even hesitating. The class was in uproar-S- said R-s face looked like a Lunchbar-and I couldn't salvage R-'s humiliation because I was complicit in his demise.

His response was inappropriate. My response as a teacher was wholly inappropriate. I should have gained control of the class somehow rather than let the childish banter escalate to a point of humiliation. R- responded with violence. He started kicking chairs and threatening to hit the closest person who was laughing at him(not me). I had turned around to muffle my laughter from the whole incident but when I turned around J- and R- were at fisticuffs. I struggled tearing them apart. Shouted at one of the kids to call Mr Wilson next door. Eventually R- calmed down and J- went outside in a fit of rage. Mr Wilson calmed the class down and they were dismissed.

The whole incident is laughable. I have contributed to ending the honeymoon phase. The incident with R- didn't have to end as it did. If I was a teacher who could control her laughter and reactions, I would have put an end to what seemed to be innocent jests amongst the kids and dismissed the class with less drama. But I'm not good at that yet. I openly laugh at the foolish things my kids say to each other. This is mostly from shock. Sometimes they say the most ridiculous things when they think an adult isn't listening.

But as Ms Kira pointed out, the honeymoon phase isn't over...I just had a bad day!