Friday, 29 March 2013

Revelations in layers of humanity

Over end-of-term drinks, our principal quite rightly related an anecdote all teachers can relate to. It's the response one gets from people when you answer their "so what do you do?" question. They always say:

"oh, that must be SO rewarding!"

We can tell you now, categorically, that many, many, many days it is not. When you are constantly fighting with rude obnoxious teenagers who don't care how much they ignore or upset you... "rewarding" is not the word that comes to mind. This ain't gardening you know, despite what all those cheesy motivational posters might say.

There are many reasons to dislike my job. I would, however, like to describe one big reason why I LOVE my job.

I ADORE my job because of the extra layers of humanity it has revealed to me in people so very different to me. Whether these revelations are indicative of an unhealthy mindset I have/had or what not, I have yet to figure out. But this much I know: I don't see car guards or wire-flower sellers any more. I don't see domestic workers or taxi drivers. I don't see security guards or Checkers bag packers or trolley pushers or garbage men.

I now can't help but see the fathers and mothers of my children. These are the parents of my students: the ones who I call to help me when their teen is being a brat. The ones who come to talk with me about their child and we smile and greet and share tea. The ones like Bongi who, on seeing a class being rude to me, stormed in as the angry matriarch she is and put the students in their place pronto quick. Like Clive, who always asks how I am before we start talking about how to make sure his son comes to school. Like Angel, who always supports my corrective measures towards either of her sons and calls me 'her child' and invites me into her home.

Thank you, my heart-breaking-exhausting-soul-dessicating job for these friends and these insights. My life is richer for the connection and the personhood I can now see and feel in these strangers I encounter every day.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The trick is to keep breathing

Today was our last day at school for the first term. I have here a list of things to blog about which has been growing and growing for the last 3 weeks and never managed to get around to writing about any of it. It's a pity really: they are all good topics and, I think, quite interesting. Some included issues such as our contact and working with social workers and support NGOs to support our students with their issues at home, my first meeting with curriculum advisors, an incident with a student which got a bit physical, the interview process of finding new teachers to fill the vacancies left by those who have left us (and along with this, the loss of our second teacher), my first discussion about religion with my students, amongst others. I'll do my best to briefly touch on these and others in a summative blog post, otherwise I'll run the risk of putting you to sleep with a blog post longer than my arm.

But first, the end of term. The sense of profound relief is indescribable. I've lost count of the number of times this term I've thought I just can't go on. Honestly, I'm not sure how we all have. I'd be lying if I sort of nodded, smiled and said 'yeah, but that's how I roll: I'm tough like that'. Bulls@£t. I have wanted to run to my mummy and cry like a baby... and I have (except it was my husband). I have lost my cool with the kids, more than once (and paid the price for it). I have sworn and cursed and driven too fast and drunk too much in response to the stress. So no heroes here. I'm pleased to say I have not lashed out at my students--this is just not something I think I have in me. But boy oh boy, there are a few who I would secretly smile at if they tripped and fell. And I don't like this in myself. It doesn't last too long, I'm pleased to say: for the most part, I'm really starting to like my kids, even the naughty ones. But in the heat of the moment...

How have we done? On reflection, kind of ok I think. We have done some fun activities in the last few days to keep the kids engaged and in school: our attendance hasn't been great towards the end of term (maybe 70-75%?) but I suspect this is better than average at this time of year. We had the fight of maintaining the learning after the end-of-term assessments, an event that was another window into what our students considered 'normal'--the idea that we would teach after these assessments was met with much anger and confusion. Our students are truly used to their teachers marking in lessons while the students run amok. Some responded to the rational argument about lost lessons accumulating, others just had to be told straight. And of course, the other side of this struggle has been as teachers to not succumb to the temptation to utilize this expectation from the students to make our lives easier. Sure, we could've marked during lessons. I'd probably have gotten more than 6 hours of sleep a night if I had. Tempting? of course it is. Some of us held out better than others, but we were all tempted to do this. In this week we have had a day of 'sporty stuff', including obstacle courses, sack races, soccer, netball, tug-of-war (we broke a 2 inch thick rope! I truly wish I'd seen all the grade 8s fall to the floor simultaneously >:) ) and a treasure hunt. The kids loved it. They went bos!! (SA slang for crazy). Loud, fast, furious, and crazy! Their sense of being able to lose is non-existent: the rule of the day was if you won, it wasn't cheating, but if the other team won, it was. If you didn't help your class cheat, you were 'fixing it'. We all shook our heads in disbelief at the approach to competition that the children took. If you asked the teachers, we'd say the day was nuts. But if you asked the kids, they would say it was awesome. At the end of the day, they didn't want to leave. 'nuff said.

There's never a dull moment you know. If we're not liaising with social services about situations of potential abuse, we're reeling from the loss of another teacher, or watching our kids start a car wash business in the car park,  or wondering what to do about our students who eat the eugenia berries around the playground and sit in class farting intolerably as a result. Only just today, at our end-of-term awards ceremony, this small girl in my grade 8 class, a combination of shy and slightly chatty/cheeky, dressed up in her uxhentso traditional wear and transformed before our eyes into the most unbelievable 4 foot high umbongi (praise singer)!! She let forth in a huge voice--other-worldly in nature--a torrent of praise in isiXhosa to our headteacher, with her fly-switch of grass and her painted face, singing his praises for believing in them, for seeing a future for them, for coming to the community and building a school and how grateful the children were. The response from the staff and students alike was explosive: I have never jabbed my fist in the air as I did then. She was truly something else.

In the process she clapped him on the forehead with her fly switch. He only noticed as the trickle of blood dripped down his nose!! :D

Just when I think I know a student, I realise I don't. Just when I think I've got a class where I want them, they show me who is boss. Just when I think I'm getting enough sleep, something else crops up that needs doing: interviews, timetable, preparing for the curriculum advisors (this requires a separate blog entirely!) report entries and inter-colleague tensions that arise from this process. I won't lie: my alcohol intake has increased, in capacity and speed (as was evidenced by my boss's surprise at the rate I downed a 500ml cider at our post-school drink after school. Daily I'm horrified at a good student's capacity for lying and rudeness, at a troubled student's inability to empathize with his fellow students, only in the next hour to be over-awed at how happy 5 children are who got their reward of a KFC bucket and a coke each to share for lunch because they didn't miss a single day of their cleaning crew all term. In one day my class can raise me up from wanting to quit, and then another student puts me in an arm lock. Most of my students' marks are still terrible, and yet there are enough of them who have said in all honesty that they never knew they could like mathematics.

The next week brings loads of planning, a new school timetable as we welcome two new staff and a 5 day conference (MES7: where I will get to present my Master's research to an audience who represent an international body of experts on school's like mine. I'm really looking forward to taking what I have seen in the last 3 months and getting some alternative views on it. I could do with some ideas and inspiration for some of these issues. More posts about curriculum advisors and pedagogical stuff for those interested will follow shortly. In the mean time...


P.S. Props to any one who can post a comment naming the artist who sang the title song.