It’s 8:30 am, Monday morning. I walk towards my class, eight kids sitting on benches, their pens and notebooks in front of them on a wooden table – well, it should be eight, but Shawn is missing: He takes every opportunity to climb up into the Mango trees and plug the green, small fruits (although they are not ripe yet, the kids love to suck the fruity flesh out of them). It doesn’t matter how often you tell him off, he’ll be up there again three minutes afterwards.
“Good morning”, I greet my class. “Good morning Madame”, my students answer politely in chorus. “How are you?” “We’re fine, thank you. And you?” This works usually very well, but the impression it gives is deceiving – usually the kid’s attention fades quickly afterwards.
As soon as I turn towards the blackboard, trying to explain how to subtract three-digit-numbers, the chaos starts behind my back: Annie gives Shawn a good kick underneath the table because he has tried to copy from her (what kind of secrets he has copied remains a mystery as everyone just notes down what I’ve put on the blackboard).
“I didn’t copy, I didn’t copy”, Shawn yells, outraged, and – not surprisingly – hits her back. These incidents usually start a fight the whole class enthusiastically joins in.
When I finally manage to stop the kids from hitting each other, Faith gets up from her seat and jumps up and down in front of me. “Madame, Madame, let me write it, let me write it” (she means writing on the blackboard). “No Faith, I’m the teacher, you sit down.” “Oh Madame”, she cries disappointed.
“Madame, Madame” – I turn around. “What is it Patricia?” “I don’t have a pen.” I sigh – we deal with pen problems every day here. “Where is it?” “Shawn took it”.
Meanwhile, Alicia has used the general tumult to get up and have a look at what class 2 is doing next to us – the noise coming from the other kids around us is another source of great distraction – and Andrew decided to have a little sleep on the bench – sometimes it’s difficult not to lose your temper.
At times the task seems too big to handle. However, after a month of teaching I am more aware of what these children are struggling with in their lives – and I do understand much better why some of them find it so hard to follow.
For lack of money some of the kids started schooling very late. They grew up in an environment without books, often with illiterate parents, and communicate in their local languages at home. As a result, they have a poor command of English, can hardly read and write and struggle to follow my instructions. As their parents can’t financially support the family, some of my students have to help selling food in the afternoon, so they have less time to rest, to play and to do their homework.
What complicates the issue further is that the abilities of my students vary to a great degree: Some kids can barely read while others memorize new words immediately and without effort. Some add four-digit-numbers in no time, while with others I have to sit down and explain it again and again and again. This takes time, so the quicker students get bored and start fooling around.
The kids who are that much behind would urgently need individual tutoring – but there’s no money left for that. My colleague and I practice reading with some of these kids after school which is surely helpful, but it can’t do miracles either.
However, despite the tough conditions, most kids are eager to learn and do their best according to their capabilities. In fact, I am often surprised to see some of the kids doing so well even though they had such a difficult start. Some are highly intelligent, talented and hardworking, and I really hope they will have the chance to continue going to school after grade 4. And also the kids who struggle make great progress if you just take the time to sit down with them and explain it patiently: After a few weeks of hard work, almost all of my students can add and subtract 4-digit-numbers and are able to distinguish between simple past and simple present.
These positive moments convince me that every single day of teaching is worthwhile. I won’t be able to teach all of them to read and write in just four months, but I can encourage each one of them to believe in themselves and to develop their talent and potential according to their capabilities – which is, in my opinion, the most important lesson to learn.