Monday, July 21, 2008

Day 12

Interestingly, I take on a Biology class today. My teacher and I are covering for an absent Biology teacher. Not that we quite know what to do, but fortunately the real teacher has made adequate advance preparations. Our job is just to hand out learning materials to the students and supervise them as they work. In a way, I'm glad for the reprieve I'm getting from Maths classes and grateful for the chance to do something different. If only I knew.

As I step into the Biology lab, I know I must be in the wrong place. I double-check with the teacher, asking if he's sure this is where we're supposed to be. He assures me it is. Three boys are having a row in a corner, whilst the rest of the students talk animatedly amongst themselves. Our entrance makes absolutely no impact on the class. It takes all of ten minutes to break the fight and get the students to begin work.

"Work" consists of each student copying out a diagram of the respiratory system from a textbook - line for line, word for word. I think this is odd; I clearly remember having to learn all my Biology diagrams by heart and reproducing them from memory when answering exam questions. My worst was the complicated ear diagram - I never quite understood it.

I tell the teacher what I'm thinking, and he assures me this is the only way anyone can get the students to learn anything. They don't listen when the Biology teacher tries to teach them, so the poor man has resorted to the copy-and-paste method: perhaps, just perhaps, by copying down what is in the textbook, they might recognise and retain some of the information.

I see the point: half the class is not even bothering to copy the diagram. One of the three boys fighting earlier turns on his music player and we're all treated to a loud blast of hip hop lyrics. No one dares tell him to turn it down. Two girls flirt with some boys in the far corner, obviously having the time of their lives. Some students just sit and stare, waiting patiently for an hour to roll by without doing anything. Now this is a bunch of fourteen year-olds. The world has gone crazy, or is it me?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Day 11

There's nothing much to report today. Or maybe there is, but I've grown quite used to the things I used to find shocking when I first started here. Strange how quickly abnormal can become normal given enough time. This reminds me that I need to be careful about the things I expose myself to in life.

Back to today. The only memorable event is a conversation between me and the teacher about one of our students. This girl was caught shoplifting at a major supermarket a few days ago, and has been banned from stepping foot on the premises for God knows how long. Perhaps worse than the attempt she made to steal is the fact that she has shown absolutely no remorse over what she did. In fact, she seems delighted at the attention - never mind that it's negative - that her escapade has earned her.

For starters, she'd reported herself to the teacher of her own free will; if she hadn't told him what happened with her he'd have had no inkling about it. It was more of a brag than a report really, the way she went about it. She was all giggles and excitement, either too far gone in her deviance or too dumb to realise the implications of what she'd done. The teacher is obviously more worried for her than she is for herself. He tells me he's made up his mind to do what he can to mentor her; maybe, just maybe, he can yet make a difference in her life.

The situation is worrying, really, to say the least. This happens to be the same fourteen-year old girl who came to class the other day with a fake pregnancy ball tucked under her blouse, the same one who broke the monitor of a desktop computer in the computer lab yesterday... the same one who'll most likely be wreaking havoc over the next few years that I'll not be around to witness. God have mercy.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Day 10

I've missed two days of school because of a 2-day teacher training session which I'm not qualified to attend. Not that I mind though. At least I've got more time for my books.

The departmental secretary gives me and another colleague a few snippets of what transpired during the training. She expresses frustration at the fact that the school managers don't back up their words with actions. She thinks their inconsistency is largely responsible for the kids' complacent attitude. They set rules but don't give teachers power to enforce them.

The discussion rapidly snowballs in the manner that most discussions do, and soon we're talking about the role of parents in enforcing discipline. The secretary believes the parents are completely out of touch with what is going on with the kids, leaving people like her in schools to take care of the mess. In her own words, "The parents haven't got a finger on the pulse. If they did, half my job won't be necessary".

Someone whizzes in with the latest news: some twenty teachers are leaving the school at the end of term; some to better jobs, some to nothing. The secretary says she doesn't blame the teachers for running away. Someone reminds her she's supposed to be projecting the school in a positive light, to which she replies, "It's got so bad now I can't".

My afternoon Maths class holds another English classroom, different from the usual venue. All over the walls are posters bearing snippets of information about various literature texts. I'm surprised to learn that the title of the book "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding is a literal translation of the Hebrew word Beelzebub. Nor did I know that the book is essentially a metaphor representing the spiritual battle between good and evil in the world. So what did I learn in the one term it took to study the book in my secondary school English Literature class?

The icing on today's cake of irreverent behaviour is served towards the end of the afternoon class. The students are working independently, only calling out for help when they need it. That leaves me and the teacher some free time to chat. At one point, engrossed in our discussion, the teacher leans over to explain something to me while gesticulating animatedly . A girl who hasn't done any work since the beginning of the lesson points at us from her perch and shouts, "Sir, you're married, remember?". The teacher, bewildered, turns to her and asks, "Why do you say that?" "Because you're flirting", she answers. Now, that's a new one on me, even by the standards of this school!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Day 9

As has become usual these past few days, today starts with a staff room discussion. One of the teachers starts off complaining about the students' attitude to learning. What irritates him most is the waste of resources - the big school library stocked with £80,000 worth of books is hardly ever used by the students. Even he uses the library far more than the students do. He knows that because more often than not the books he borrows have never been previously used by anyone else.

I tell them we had a tiny library the size of a single room when I was in primary school. Most afternoons while waiting for my grandmum to pick me up from school, I'd lock myself up in the rather stuffy room (I can picture it even now) and read my heart out. My secondary school library was much bigger in size but didn't have that many books. I guess I'm even lucky to have attended a primary school in Africa that had any size of collection of books. I doubt that most other people of my generation can say the same thing.

As the unofficial staff room chatter draws to an end, another teacher (not the one I'm officially attached to) asks me to consider helping out in his afternoon class. I concede mainly because I like the idea of observing a different teacher at work. Quite surprisingly, I realise I'm actually going to miss the kids in my regular class.

I find my 'new' class to be quite interesting. There are three teachers for twenty four students. Including me takes the number up to four. That's one teacher to six students. I'm impressed; England must be the only place where you can get this kind of teacher-student ratio.

We spend the first fifteen minutes of the lesson watching projected musical videos on YouTube. It takes a while for me to realise that it's a tactic employed by the lead teacher to get the students interested in the topic of the day: addition and subtraction of money. The video session features a selection of popular hip hop artistes singing about money (of course, these artistes never intended for their music to be connected to mathematics in any way!). Sure enough, there isn't anyone in the class - myself included - who is not watching intently. I can't help but admire the creativity and resourcefulness of these teachers who literally pull out all the stops trying to get the children to learn, that they might by all means save some.

The gimmick seems to work, as the students easily settle down to work and are quite quick to grasp the basic concept of addition and subtraction. I would never have believed it if someone had told me this was on a secondary school maths curriculum. My bewilderment is compounded when I realise that all the students have to do is add and subtract little sums of money - all under £10 - with calculators! My, there's no mental activity taking place here. I think there is really no point to this until I happen upon a student who's coming up with completely wrong answers - even with a calculator! Well.

Day 8

There's no class to teach in the first two periods, so I sit in the staff room again with the teachers. The topic of discussion this time is the handful of students in the school who are actually eager to learn, do extremely well and get excellent results. I've come across quite a few of them myself. I can tell you, they're like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise choked environment.

Mid-morning, I go with my teacher to the first class of the day. There are no more than five students in attendance, most of whom are girls. One of them starts talking animatedly to the teacher about a boy she just met who happens to be the very epitome of glamour: young, clever, handsome, rich, all that. In short, she thinks she's found her future. Meanwhile she has problems solving fractions and ratios because she does not know her times tables. Oh, never mind that!

This girl's excitement is contagious, and soon another girl is telling the class about her life-long dream to marry Amir Khan (British lightweight boxing champion). Fifteen minutes into the lesson, she's done nothing but primp herself in front of a small mirror she carries about in her bag.

After about thirty minutes, the class finally settles down to work. Amir Khan's crushee sits at her desk in a corner with her knees drawn up to her chest and her back against the wall. I notice she's been watching me with obvious interest for the past five minutes or so. I carry on as if I haven't noticed. Finally, she blurts out to me: "Miss, how long have you been in university?". (Well, that's a question I've not even asked myself because the answer is quite scary!).

We start a conversation in which she tells me she wants to be a lawyer but she doesn't think she can can do it because she can't understand mathematics. I tell her there's nothing to be feared in Mathematics, and that she can be a lawyer with or without Mathematics, if she would just put her mind to it. I proceed to help her with her equations, and pretty soon she picks it up and even starts enjoying it.

By the time the lesson ends an hour later, she's definitely not the same girl who walked into the class that morning. True, she's not yet where she needs to be, but she's a step closer to there, all because I took sixty minutes of my time to deposit some knowledge and confidence into her. That makes my heart glad. If I have not achieved anything else on this placement, this singular experience would've made it worth it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Day 7

Final year exams are holding this morning. That leaves us teachers with nothing much to do - except sit in the staffroom and chat.

Today is the funeral of the 14-year old boy who killed himself two weeks ago. School carries on as normal, but a handful of students wearing R.I.P. shirts leave mid-morning to attend the funeral service. It's truly heartbreaking.

I start off this blog post (on paper) so I can free up time to study when I get home. Have you ever tried combining full-time work and full-time study? Don't!

I've been hearing some talk of something called PODs around here since last week, so I ask my teacher what it's all about. Unknown to me, it's a hot topic and in a matter of minutes there's a fierce debate going on about it in the staff room.

It turns out it's all about a revolutionary learning system 'imported' from Australia, in which secondary school students are not taught by subject (English, Mathematics, Biology, etc.) but by theme. So, for instance, a class will have a theme of 'The Environment' for a term. The idea is for the students to find various ways in which the environment can be explained in terms of every possible subject, from English to Biology to Maths to Geography. The argument in the staff room is about whether or not the method is effective in imparting knowledge to students. Quite naturally, people's opinions are varied. I personally think the system is quite murky, and results are not guaranteed. Well, time will tell.

It's soon time for the mid-morning break. I relax in the staff room eating jam doughnuts and sipping coffee. Hmmn, maybe a teacher's life is not so bad afterall...

The topic for my afternoon lesson is fractions. Many of the students struggle to understand it, so I walk around to give assistance. A few of the kids are genuinely making an effort to understand, but the rest of them just loaf around. A boy pratts about the class, swearing by the dozen and showing off his six-pack for the girls to see.

I do a couple of sums with a lad who thankfully finally understands. Seeing this, I prompt him to finish up the sums, but he can't be bothered to. He prefers to just sit there and idle the time away. I realise kids like him are simply not interested in learning, and there is nothing anyone can do about that. How can you possibly help someone who doesn't want to be helped?

Day 6

It's the last lesson for this class before exams. The results of the mock test they wrote last week are not very encouraging, so the teacher decides to review the questions with the class again.

I watch as the teacher works through the question paper on his laptop. As he writes on the screen with a laptop pen, it's boldly projected onto the white board - in his handwriting. My, my. The wonders of technology!

The students still don't get the hang of equations and algebra. The teacher can't understand why or how; he's spent the better part of the last few months trying to hammer it into their heads. Short of actually opening their brains and stuffing them with books, there's nothing else he can do to help them.

After class, I chat with the teacher about the dismal performance of the students. I ask if there are Open Days when parents can come in and see what their kids are doing. He says yes, but the trend is that it's parents of well-behaved kids who usually show up. Those the teachers actually want to see - parents of not-so-well-behaved kids - do not show up. These are kids whose parents are typically lower class, live on benefits, use dope and are addicted to alcohol. They're so ignorant they don't know enough to encourage their children to study. Those who do encourage their kids don't make much of an impact because children are more influenced by what they see than what they hear. The result is a vicious cycle, the very cycle that government is trying hard to break by keeping the children in school by all means possible.

I think it's odd though; at home I know loads of poor illiterate parents who would sell everything just to make sure their children don't end up like them. It seems to be the case that education in most parts of the world is most valued by those who do not have it. Benefits or no, illiteracy/ignorance robs people of their independence and compels them to live from hand to mouth. This may sound morbid, but I'm beginning to think that lack of access to government benefits does have its advantages. We in Africa know we don't have too many options, so we strive to make the most out of life for ourselves. Much of the time we succeed. Now that's not such a bad thing, is it?