Friday, January 22, 2010

All quiet on the Western front

And so, another year begins. I returned to school on the 4th day of Term 1. Shortly after the Monday morning assembly, students hastened to their classes. Within 10 minutes, everything was quiet and the staffroom was empty.

What’s this?

Teachers in class – teaching? Be still my heart. Today is the last day of the second week and so far things seem to be continuing in the same vein. Apparently in the opening meeting the principal issued a stern warning that teachers must fulfill their contractual teaching obligations under no uncertain circumstances. Apparently, they took his words to heart. This is very encouraging and I shall be optimistic that it will continue.

When I received my timetable I was pleased to find that I am teaching my grade 11 class from last year who are now in their grade 12 (Matric) year. I taught most of this group of students when they were in grade 10, which means that this is the third year I will be spending with them. Very exciting.

I was not however as excited when I got to class to find that there were only 23 students. 23. Last year’s class had 48. This means that over half the class failed Grade 11. While I was not surprised about some of those who did not pass, there were 3 in particular who I fully expected to see in Grade 12 and it was disappointing to find that they had not made it through. I was most concerned about one of these students in particular, a young man who I know for a fact is involved in gangsterism and has spent time in jail more than once during the time I have known him. Over the last couple of years he had become very keen on English, and my class was one of the few that he regularly attended. His marks improved and last year his final mark was in the high 60s, quite an accomplishment for someone who had failed English twice before grade 10. I was worried what the failure might mean for him and his commitment to school. I felt that perhaps it could be the straw that made school lose its last appeal to him, made him say fuck it, made him drop out and become involved in crime full time, like so many other former students have done.

The grade 11 class I was given was not the one I had anticipated; the one I had taught in grade 10 last year and had discussed teaching this year with my colleagues. When I spoke to my Head of Department about this mix up, he apologized and assured me the change would be made ASAP. The next day when I spoke with the person in charge of timetabling who said he had made the change, but from his understanding it was causing trouble within the department as the teacher who had originally been given my class was complaining. When I investigated, I was far from surprised when I found out who it was.

Regular readers of this blog will recall a certain teacher I have written about on more than one occasion, the one who refused to attend class or mark students’ written work. The one who repeatedly neglected her responsibilities as a teacher with nary a concern for her students, who took a term-long stress leave only to return and refuse to teach the classes she had been allocated, who felt no onus of responsibility when many of her students failed. This was the teacher who had been given my class.

Her complaint when the change was made was that she had not been consulted about the change. Granted, had this been a class she was familiar with, or perhaps a mid-semester event, I could understand her grievance. But this was the 5th day of school, the third day of classes. She had seen the class twice. She has never taught any of the students before.

Initially I thought perhaps her refusal to change classes was out of spite, as she knew this was my class that I had wished to teach, and we were not exactly the best of friends after the events that unfolded as a result of her behavior last year. I soon found out what was likely the impetus for her desire to stay with the class: it has 35 students. The class that I had been allocated? 56.

In any case, in the interest of avoiding a confrontation or further tension within the department, I agreed to take on the larger class. As it turns out, this class is comprised of a variety of students I have taught over the past couple of years who had failed, including a number of those from last year’s grade 11 class of 48. So alls well that ends well, I suppose. Well, aside from having a 56-strong classroom. But I digress.

Later that day I was working in Phumi’s office when one of the grade 12 students from last year knocked on the door. An incredibly sweet young man, he had done well on his matric and is currently attending the Cape Peninsula Institute of Technology in their Engineering department. He asked me how I was doing and how the chess club was coming along, if we were still meeting (he had been an avid member last year). We spoke briefly and then he got down to work writing something he had been working on. I did not ask him what he was writing.

Later after he had gone, I asked Phumi about him and what he had been doing at Fezeka. Phumi told me that while this young man had been accepted to pursue his post-secondary studies, none of the bursaries or scholarships he had applied for had come through. He is now faced with the very real possibility that despite being accepted, he may soon have to withdraw because of a lack of financial resources. One of his professors had told him that day that if he did not show up to class with the required reading materials by the following week, he would be taken off the class list. In Phumi’s office the young man was writing a letter to a local businessman who offers 2 scholarships to qualifying applicants from across the Gugulethu township. While this is admirable, I couldn’t help but be saddened as I considered the likelihood of this young man getting one of only 2 scholarships, from a pool of hopefuls that most probably runs into the hundreds.

What is further frustrating is how many of the bursary and scholarship applications are so limiting in that many require a student to be accepted at their desired place of study before they offer them the financial assistance they need. This is somewhat farcical, as generally students require financial assistance in order to apply. For the majority of families, paying the application fees (sometimes as high as R2000) is all but impossible. And so, students are often in the difficult position of often having the marks, the desire and the dedication to apply and continue with their studies, but for reasons mentioned above (and others), are unable to do so.

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