Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mid-morning mid-week musings

I feel sad for my students.

And not just my students but many students at my school. And since I'm pretty sure the situation that presents itself here is far from unique, by extension I feel sad for much of South Africa's black youth.

I am not even sure where to begin quantifying how deep this sadness runs.

Time and time again I am reminded of how disadvantaged these young people are, even aside from the obvious difficulties many of them face due to their socio-economic locations - hunger, neglect and the constant threat of violence leading the charge.

No, this particular sadness is more directly correlated to the realm in which I work - the education sphere - where every day I am shocked and disheartened at the utter disregard many of my colleagues have for the scholastic advancement of their students.

Teacher absenteeism is rife, with teachers missing days...weeks...even sometimes months at a time on a regular basis. And while in the contexts to which I am accustomed an absent teacher is expected to leave work for their students, in this environment - while technically a requirement - very seldom is this the case.

In addition to this problem however, there are many teachers who will be present at school but for whatever reason do not attend classes. The frequency of this occurrence is such that students are often left without a teacher for a number of their lessons in a given day. I have lost count of how many times my students have told me that I am the only teacher who has attended one of their lessons that day.

Further still there is the issue of teachers who will come to school, attend classes, but because they have not completed a certain task (i.e. tabulating end-of-term marks for the term that has just ended or marking tests), they spend the in-class time working on the task at hand and give their students worksheets (without having taught the background necessary to complete said worksheets), or sometimes nothing at all to do.

Yesterday I was in my classroom during a spare period and two Grade 10 students I had never met before came to my door to ask if they could sit and do some work in my classroom. As always I asked where they were supposed to be. I was answered with the expected reply of ‘in a class where the teacher was not attending’ and allowed them in. After a while I wandered over to see what they were working on. I asked what it was and they told me a project on Development. Development of what? I asked. Of anything, they said. They had been told that they had to interview people to ask them about development (Social? Political? Historical? Environmental?), but that they had not had enough time to complete the task and so they were taking notes from material research they had found on the Internet. I asked them if it was that they had not had enough time or if they had left it to the last minute. No, they told me, they really had not had enough time. When was it assigned? I asked. Friday, they told me. When was it due? Today, came their reply. Yesterday was Wednesday. This was a term research assignment worth a significant percent of their mark that clearly the teacher had forgotten to give them and so they are left to try and get it done in far less time then they should have been allocated. The most disturbing part is that the teacher would most likely mark the test in keeping to the prescribed evaluation standards (which assume they have been given adequate time and had access to the relevant resources necessary to complete the task), which will mean that most of them will fail.

I have seen teachers administer and mark tests that are far above the level of comprehension possessed by their students, with no regard for the fact that the language used is inaccessible. These are the same teachers who in no way see their students’ subsequent failures as a reflection of their teaching or who don’t recognize evaluation standards that are set unfairly high. Today a student who I don't teach asked me for help with an assignment. He is in Grade 12 and this was the final project for the year. It had been assigned 3 months ago and has 6 different phases. I sat down with him and read through the instructions. Although my knowledge of the assignment's subject area is basic, I was able to understand what was being asked of the students as the language used was regular English versus discipline-related jargon. This is not to say that the level of English was easy, far from it in fact. I asked him if he understood what was being asked of him, if it had been explained to him properly. 'No Miss', came his shy reply. I then noticed that the page for the 5th phase was separate from the stapled package of sheets explaining each of the other 6. When I asked him why that page wasn't attached he told me that the teacher had forgotten to give it to them. He then went on to explain how the teacher had come into class the day before and angrily demanded to know why none of them had completed the 5th phase. When they told him that they had not received the instructions on that part of the assigment the teacher went and photocopied the missing sheet, gave it to them, and set a due date of tomorrow. 2 days. They should have had 2 weeks.

Perhaps the most disheartening fact about all of this is that the vast majority of the kids aren’t even aware of the far-reaching consequences of the injustices that are being committed against them. Whereas in a privileged Western context where we are raised to know our rights as youth and as students and even as young men and women are fully aware of what we deserve, as previously mentioned, a similar culture of entitlement is glaringly absent here. When teachers don’t come to class, students kick back, chat to their friends, sleep. A stream of students milling about the schoolyard during class time is constant, a result of all the above-mentioned reasons. I see these kids sitting around…chatting…chasing each other…holding hands…flirting…laughing…and can’t help but feel saddened at how oblivious they are to what they are being denied. At how they will suffer because of this disregard.

Their learned acceptance of injustice enrages me. I encourage students to complain. To get their families to take up issue with the administration and to report those teachers who don’t come to class to the Principal. While this could be construed as a lack of loyalty to my colleagues, my primary concern is for the impact of their neglect on the kids who are here to learn and whom they are being paid to educate.

...and now the sadness has been replaced by anger.

I feel infuriated for my students.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to write about your experiences (and this specific one) Alex. I really can sense your sadness and I feel it too. Nic

Anonymous said...

Hey Alex , came across your blog by chance...very interesting experience..quite saddening as well.Funny cos my grandfather was the founder of Fezeka and my father taught there in the 70's , and my mom was a student there. basically , thats where they met .Am Capetonian based in London , will be studying teaching from September.I was in the corporate sector for over 10years and though the financial rewards were quite good...I hated my job. I have always wanted to be a teacher , but could not study teaching cos my parents expected more from me.
I really admire what you doing there..I will be joining you soon.

You know what saddens me more here in the UK with most black kids , especially those of African descent...these children get free education with well-resourced schools YET they dont appreciate most become thugs and just live on government grants....