I’d like to share some of the teaching experiences that I’ve had so far. I’ll preface this by saying that the last time I was in a primary school class was during a week of community care way back during transition year.
The first time we were put in charge of a class was a day last week when one of the teachers called in sick on short notice. That day, the headmaster put Helen and myself in charge of Grade 3, a class of about 35 kids aged between 10 – 12, and for that grade, class runs from 08.00 to 14.00 with two 20 minute intervals.
I will never complain about teachers again. It was one of the most tiring experiences of my life. The teacher had left some maths to do with the kids, so we picked up on that. I stood at the top of the class, explained the exercise and tried to keep general order. Helen helped those kids who were having some trouble. Things went well for the first 15 minutes or so, and descended with increasing rapidity into chaos after that. Some of the kids finished the assigned work quickly, and got bored – when we asked these kids why they didn’t want to go on and do some more work, they said they didn’t want to end up more bored later on. Some of the kids couldn’t do the exercise and got bored – these kids got up and danced around the room, or started picking fights or just generally messing. Some of the kids genuinely wanted to figure stuff out, but couldn’t concentrate on it because of the messing that was going on around them. Some of the kids didn’t have sufficient English to understand the exercise, and just stared blankly at us.
We called a halt and managed to get a grip on the classroom temporarily, as I worked out an example on the board. This seemed to bolster some of the kids, and they worked some more. However, when these kids came up to have their work marked, they had just copied down what I had written on the board over and over again. This one exercise dragged on for most of the morning period – that’s 08:00 – 10:30 – because we weren’t sure what else to do, and the kids took advantage of our cluelessness to run a bit wild.
After break, we decided that we’d bring out the big guns – I went home and got my guitar, and we promised them that we’d have some music if they were good. This worked, but not nearly as well as we had hoped. We tried to do some language lessons with the kids, trying to engage them so that if they did insist on talking, at least they would be talking to us. We went around the room and asked what languages people spoke. There was English, Afrikaans, IsiXhosa, Chichewa, Suthu, Bangladeshi and Irish. We then went around the room trying to learn to say “Hello” in each of these languages. This worked surprisingly well! Then we tried to learn to say “My name is X” in each of these languages. To stop people shouting, I asked for volunteers to write on the board. I hadn’t counted on the fact that many of the kids have only learned to read and write in English and/or Afrikaans, if at all. Once again, frustration of those who couldn’t read or write led to messing, and we took the guitar away to try and reign the kids in.
When they settled down, it was show-time. There are very few songs that I know that are appropriate for kids, and they weren’t about to be impressed by me throwing down some heavy metal on an acoustic guitar. I managed to get through a mangled rendition of Molly Malone before I sensed that I was losing them. I was trying to pick songs with good sing-along bits, but most of the ones that were coming to mind were dull and dreary. Eventually, I fell to my busking back-pocket number: Twist and Shout. I got Helen to lead the class in the response part of the call and response, and for the first time all day, we had proper control of the class. It lasted for all of the three minutes that the song did. The kids begged me, and so I played the song again. Two weeks later, they’re still asking me to play it.
After that, the boys went out to play football, and the girls stayed in the classroom. We gave each of them a piece of chalk and they took turns being teachers. This was fantastic fun, and they took turns testing Helen and I on our maths and spelling. Even the kids who had been previously disruptive, got into it as they had a chance to be heard. Most of the kids expressed affection for their teacher and some even said that they would like to be teachers themselves.
This day gave us a tiny window into some of the problems that teachers face here. I think that some of these problems are not unique to South Africa – the mayhem certainly felt familiar – but the teachers lack the resources to deal with any of the problems, and their options are limited.
There are more classroom stories to come, but this post is far too long as it is. More later in the week.