Thursday, 30 August 2012

Hope, aspirations, attitudes, perceptions and long-gone memories

The yellow piece of paper with its big fat black letters printed in bold is neatly laminated. Stuck on the side of the classroom cupboard it is meant to be seen as students walk into the class. But they barely do, since they are too busy with their own lives. The yellow poster proclaims our current president's words:

"Children should be in class, on time, learning, being respectful of their teachers and each other, and DO THEIR HOMEWORK" - President Jacob Zuma (7 August 2009)

Hmmm... sounds like presidential support for what teachers are trying to achieve day in and day out, lesson after lesson... Alas, with little success it seems. My Grade 11s wrote a cycle test three days ago. Yesterday I started marking. The first paper I opened screamed at me! The student wrote "useless dupless" all over the question paper. I could not help but take it personally.  The president's words brought some relief. Or did it really? Indeed, can it? The president is far-removed from reality, and so are his ministers and the officials further down the food chain. In the end it is me and the direct, face-to-face interaction with each and every individual learner, including the scores of students who do not want to learn. Its actually laughable to what lengths they will go to find ways of avoiding being taught.

This is starkly juxtaposed by the remarkable story of Martin Pistorius (distant family of Oscar Pistorius who himself is world-wide inspiration). Martin's story, told in 'Ghost Boy', is one of an intelligent mind trapped in an unresponsive body. Ive ordered a few copies (I like paper -- epubs have their place) and can't wait to start reading the story of his remarkable journey. I also can't wait to give a few away as worthwhile reading to those whom I know need to read a story like this.

So, here we sit with two extremes. On the one hand we use money, energy, effort, resources, talent, time, knowledge, insight, experience, etc in an effort to raise the next generation that must stand tall among nations... Sadly, the sea of ignorance that meets me is overwhelming. What I see on a daily basis is that the majority of the current student corps at the institution where I currently (try to) teach shows a complete lack of work ethic, morals, (self)-discipline and above all respect. Wires have become crossed somewhere and things are going haywire. Instead, what have become prevalent at my educational institution where no child is challenged in a physical or mental way are random drug tests, suspensions (week long, few days), disciplinary hearings, books left at home, and so forth. This ought to have been a place where minds come together, where engagement leads to learning. I cannot help but think of the complete and utter waste... and that we are doing something wrong somewhere.

And the other extreme? To me people like Martin represent that which I thought ought to be a universal characteristic of the human spirit: People who must overcome the most incredible odds in order to live a meaningful life (in their terms) -- and in fact excel in what they aim to achieve.

Thank you Martin Pistorius... Thank you for being!

Tomorrow, like all other mornings, I will take to the highway at sunrise, and drive halfway around Johannesburg to go and teach, inspire, and help develop young minds. I will look beyond the lost souls, the wondering minds, the frustration, and the archaic school system that is out of pace with the real world... I will take care of every child in front of me, for they are not mine. I promise to leave none of them behind.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Yes I can... we can, you can too!

With the amount of work to be completed by the end of term heaping up like a mountain it seems impossible to accomplish. 'A bridge too far', 'A mountain too high'... Given the fact that I am a student too, it means that my term as teacher more or less coincides with my term as student. Assessment, marking, writing exams, marking others' cycle tests, and so forth... Im sure you get the picture.

... and then there is the prospect of new plans... new challenges for the year ahead -- all in the name of reviving school-based education. It was particularly apt then that I started to look for inspiration. It takes a lot of energy and will power to mark a stack of papers... all while I am thinking of my own examination that is looming. It takes even more guts and raw courage to put a bold plan on the table in the hope that management will accept it as a way to move forward. See, I have a deep-seated belief that education -- throughout the whole spectrum in South Africa -- is in deep trouble. At least at secondary school level we need a revival and renewal. We cannot carry on teaching the way that we have been taught. Neither can I merely add more expensive toys and still carry on in the same way... Education needs to be reloaded / refreshed / rebooted ... hence the journey to introduce Moodle as a framework to deliver content and assessment, and above-all to create a community of learners and teachers that will hopefully stretch beyond the borders of our school.

So, just when I thought that too much is going on at once and that I have little chance of getting things done on time I turned to YouTube; by chance I came across Oscar Pistorius' Nike Advertisement... Ive forgotten about it...

If Oscar can do this -- with no legs -- can I also, in my own way get to those learners in my class who refuse to learn? Is it possible to connect with them in a way that will speak of trust and not distrust? Can I help facilitate and rekindle curiosity and an eagerness to learn amongst all my students, especially those who are 'switched off' and bent on causing as much disruption as possible? I don't know. To you Oscar... I sure am going to try... You see, I also know all about trying!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

What happened to the will to learn? ... And the right to teach?

During the past week or so I have become acutely aware of the lack of a culture of learning amongst some of the pupils I teach. Still continuing with my journey of discovery into the state of Government-school education in an urban school in Johannesburg (South Africa), I am completely taken aback by the range of excuses I must listen to:

  • My textbook is too heavy and I don't want to carry it around the whole day
  • I don't have my books here today
  • Why must I take my bag off my table or open any books?
  • Sir, the exercise you have given us to complete for marks is unfair. Why must I now learn MovieMaker? I thought we will only write a cycle test and a class test. This is really unfair. (This is so strange, considering Sir Ken Robinson's views that schools are killing creativity.)

and so the list goes on... (I feel compelled to have video cameras installed in my classroom since this is the kind of footage that parents need to see). I think, once I have collected enough evidence, I can show it to our President. President Zuma said emphatically at the beginning of this academic year that learners must be in class, on time, learning. (My next letter will be to the President...)

I cannot help but be very very worried about the future of our country if the attitude of these students at secondary school level (ages 12-18) is anything to go by. (I feel even more sorry for the future employers) As I have stated in my previous posts, there is surely something seriously wrong with South African's educational system. Systems are, however, driven by people. We can have the most perfect educational system on paper, yet fail dismally since the attitudes of those we wish to serve are all screwed up. I fail to understand what the reasons are for a complete lack of interest in new knowledge or the absence of an eagerness to learn. I truly do.

In the meantime this camel's back is starting to bend in the wake of events such as:

  • The cable of my PC's mouse got cut (despite being an old computer, at least I have one...)
  •  A female student starts to abuse me verbally after I request her to pay attention to the lesson. I am covering work that will be in the up-coming test, after all.
  • Two female students, after I have spoken to them about their lack of attention in class and not doing any work, have now embarked upon a complete 'ignore the teacher' attitude

I cannot help but wonder what is going on at these students' homes and whether there is any form of discipline or respect. I wonder what morals and ethics are taught and whether the parents (or guardians) are actively instilling a work ethic. I cannot, however, take the place of parents and teach their children manners and respect. My thoughts go further... are these students' attitudes a reflection of South Africa's new growing culture that is characterised by widespread corruption, fraud and a general disrespect for the law?

Despite all these negative experiences, I refuse to become a typical disciplinarian that shouts, screams etc... I will remain the dedicated teacher that I think I am... and focus on teaching. After all, my country's constitution protects me and my right to dignified work. Perhaps its time to test our country's constitution and see if it lives up to its promise. All I truly want to do is teach my subject matter with dedication and in ways that are inspiring and creative. I get my inspiration from others like Sir Ken Robinson. Like him, I truly believe its time for a paradigm shift in education.

Thursday, 02 August 2012

On throwing back sea stars and finding lost pupils

We all know the story of the guy who, in an effort to save them, was walking on the beach and kept on throwing back sea stars that washed ashore. On seeing how many there were, a passer-by commented on the 'lost effort', upon which the guy answered that 'even saving one' would made a difference, even then if only to that 'one that was saved'...

And so my quest to experience secondary education 'first-hand' carries on at an urban school in Johannesburg, South Africa. The profile of learners vary, with a predominant number of them being black -- other races are well represented too. What this means is that in a decade's time a predominant 'white' school has become a 'predominant black school'. This in itself merely reflects the changes currently taking place within South Africa itself -- a school being a mirror of what's happening in the communities it serves. The racial shift is accompanied by a class-shift as well, as economic power in the country is starting to change hands too. A wealthier class of black families is now in a position to escape life in the townships, which includes sending their children to suburban schools located in Johannesburg's various suburbs. The tipping point has therefore been reached.

However, these changes require an ability to adapt, but above all for an 'understanding of what change means'. From a school management perspective, including what's happening inside each classroom, the culture shift is more complex than mere 'numbers according to race and gender'. Far from being an expert on cultural agents shaping schools and/or change management in schools, the observations I have come to make by my third week of teaching can be summarised as follows:

  • Teachers have very little power left in terms of managing ill-disciplined learners
  • The parent-teacher-learner triangle is broken in a number of cases where 'difficult' learners (mostly from neighboring townships) live their lives according to sets of rules that differ from those that are considered to be the norm by teachers
  • Teachers are inadequately equipped to deal with, make sense of or know how to manage large-scale cultural shifts at school level in a complex society that is still trying to heal itself from its racial past
  • From a purely personal experience: Some black and coloured pupils seem to play the race card very well, especially when they fail or struggle to cope with the work
  • Support from district officials and the Provincial Department of Education seems lacking
  • The long-term damaging effects of failed experiments with a new educational dispensation after 1994 have resulted in learners being inadequately equipped to participate in a globalised world characterised by fierce competition for work
And the star fishes -- the lost ones? Going through every pupils' books, looking for evidence of 'work' have left me with that 'sinking' feeling, especially in those cases where pupils who are troublemakers in class also can't really produce anything substantial. The questions that I have are, amongst others: What forces are at play that currently shape these pupils' worlds and lives? What kind of relationships need to be formed in order for trust to be (re-)established in teachers, 'the school' and 'education' itself. Can the Parent-Teacher-Pupil triangle in this particular community be healed if there is a lack of trust and understanding among all parties involved due to our troubled past? Can 'education' itself once again become a worthwhile endevour? There are enough examples in South African society which 'prove' to pupils that 'crime pays' or that 'wealth can be attained without academic qualifications'. Tender fraud, theft, and corrupt politicians throughout the whole system unfortunately don't bode well for teachers who are trying to teach morals, ethics and instill a sound academic basis from which pupils can develop their potential.

So, does the star fish want to be saved? State schools surely don't have the resources or political will behind them to achieve any measure of success similar to that which we witness at private schools. Nevertheless, every learner in my class -- the lazy ones, the hard-working ones, the confused ones, the hopeful ones, even the hopeless ones -- all will get my undivided attention. So, in every 45 minute lesson I have the privilege to engage with pupils, something that I cherish since I am working with our future... at the very least then, 'a possible future'. Perhaps, just maybe perhaps, the one saved star fish will positively impact the universe somewhere. After all, as explained by Christakis & Fowler in 'Connected' everything is interconnected through complex sets of relationships. For me it means that my efforts are not in vain.