Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Teacher's Task

A few blogs ago I wrote about my 1987 experience at Wellington East Girls’ College. I quickly recognised my fifth formers expected more than instruction, they wanted attention and affection. And on the whole they had little idea of consequences. On April Fool's Day, before school started, I saw a girl with an egg in her hand loom up behind another girl. Foolishly I assumed the old hard-boiled egg on the head trick. It was not. The egg was fresh - the resulting mess and mayhem indescribable with both girls in hysterics. When they had cleaned up and settled down, I talked to the culprit. "I had no idea it would do that, I've seen it on TV and it looked funny." Her distress was genuine. And my punishment was unfair -"It wasn't my fault."

The Patricia Grace novel finished, we did some creative writing and then a research project involving library skills. The picture I formed, along with the restlessness and talkativeness, was a better capacity for work than I had anticipated, albeit collective. Right from the start I had let the five Samoan girls work together. Two newcomers’ English was weak. The other girls mothered them. They beamed as I told them how much their work was improving.

But nearly every student shared their work as they did it. Teaching has always been the art of compromise. If I had to adjust to the noise level, they had to meet my standards of work. They wanted to do their project from magazines. I insisted on a non-fiction book which I vetted. Grumbling they settled in, but in every group the task eventually engaged them. Facts are interesting. I was struck how three groups chose the Second World War for their topic

The following piece slightly adapted has already appeared in my garden memoir This Piece of Earth:
Only twice was this group completely silent. New carpet was being laid in their form room, so we shifted to the video suite for the 10-minute roll check at the beginning of the morning and afternoon. One afternoon, as I unlocked the door to let them in, they asked, were there any form notices? When I replied No, they asked if they could watch television. “Why not?"

So we turned on the set, The Young and the Restless. They sat glued. Someone on the screen, pregnant, sought courage to tell the father. The bell went for class with five more minutes of television time to go. They all looked at me. "What have you next?" "Science." "OK you can stay, but just this once." Vaguely I could see the headlines, "Relief teacher court-martialled."

The science teacher confirmed they arrived late but cheerful, had worked well. I mean, having a baby, what else could compete? Next English period, I asked about the programme. Almost all watched in the holidays. "Why do you like it?"
"It's real."
"Is school real?"
As we talked around the issue I realised their idea of reality was relationships, gossip, and status. My world of books and ideas was foreign to most of them.

They also fell silent when my temper finally broke. At the beginning I'd made a pact with myself to remain calm and rational. Back in the form room, two European girls quarreled. Assisting a Chinese girl with her grammar, I snapped, "Stop that!" and continued. Behind my back fisticuffs erupted.
"Stop that, I said!"
One stopped, the other delivered a final blow. I'd forgotten how much a nose can bleed. I shoved the victim (whom I suspected had started it) out the door and into the staff women's toilet across the corridor. "You can't go in there," said one girl. I continued shouting. "Shut up and get me some toilet paper. I'm fed up with the whole bloody lot of you." She got the paper quickly.

The blood flow staunched, I left the sniffling casualty and marched back into the classroom. Everyone was working. I moved centrestage. Silence. They kept their heads down.
"I want to talk to you." They turned their mostly brown eyes up to me.
My mood to blast them began to evaporate. Who was manipulating who?
"Boy you were mad," one ventured with a half-grin.
"I'm furious." My tone betrayed me.
"We know." The grin was fuller. The rest relaxed. "Just like Dad. We're only good when he yells."
The nosebleeder appeared at the door. "It was my fault."

For a few days they were good, they knew they had pushed me too far. But it did not last. To be honest, it was too good to be true. When they started playing up again I found myself defending them. Teachers do this. The whole world focuses down. I found the staff remarkably understanding and compassionate for their charges. But they felt the pressure of the work. The resultant hostility is focused up and out, the school authorities, society, the parents, the system, and the minister. What struck me then and I believe is even stronger now is that in the day-to-day hassle, there is too little time to pull back and be objective and to be reflective as all the teacher education theory states. They felt devalued then, and that was before the Tomorrow’s Schools reform which was supposed to empower them and hasn’t.

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