IT was George Eliot who said, “Any coward can fight a battle when he’s sure of winning, but give me the man who has pluck to fight when he’s sure of losing. He’s my kind of man... and there are many victories worse than defeat.”
Take a teacher and throw him into the lion’s den and you will be able to see how true Eliot’s words are. The den I am talking about is none other than the bottom classes of every form where the most intellectually-challenged of our students are housed. Here is the battleground for every teacher to test his true mettle. Here is where he can test how strong his armour really is. And here too is one place where a teacher, rather than con-cede defeat, must thrive on small victories.
For this battle at least, some teachers are ready. However, some actually shiver and beg: “Oh please, do not make me teach them!”
The “them” are the alleged under-achievers, the non-goal setters, the truancy culprits, the defeatists, the academically disinterested, the apathetic, the victims of impoverished backgrounds. Uneasy labels but they fit. Their class is like Siberia – everyone knows where it is but no one wants to go there!
But, someone has to take these bottom classes. As a teacher, you have no choice but to accept that assignment when the baton comes to you. How do you tackle them – this class that contains the good, the bad and the ugly? A merciless colleague minced no words when his turn came. He exclaimed: “Oh God, do you mean I have to teach that mixed bag of nuts!”
Every word you say seems to float and hover in the air when you enter those dreaded classes. Ten percent of the students may understand what you're saying but the rest will do any one of the following : (a) be absent, (b) stare at you blankly, (c) ignore you, (d) look outside, or (e) continue chatting, sleeping, or doing something else.
Any teacher who says, “Take out your books”, will soon realise that most of them (a) have no books or (b) didn’t bring their books to school.
If you care enough to write some notes and say “Copy these into your books”, then you will find out that (a) they have no books, (b) they didn’t bring their books to school, (c) they have no pen or pencil or paper, or (d) they are just not interested.
Of course, if you insist, they won’t really desist or resist but you will have to persist.
It's not that they cannot be taught – you just have to accept that learning occurs in sporadic bouts. But don't worry. Remember, it’s all about little victories. In their class, you win some and lose some - every day.
So, as you wise up to the intellectual battle you seem to be losing more than winning in these classes, you end up devising strategies to cope with the situation.
Here are some: (a) dredge up the sterner stuff you are made up of, dig in your heels and say, “I’m still going to do my job. If you know what’s good for you, listen or face up to the reality of being washed up on some dismal shore in the future”; (b) “do your best and hope that God will do the rest”; (c) lower your expectations drastically and teach what you think can sink in and leave the rest; (d) adopt a cavalier attitude – “if you don’t care, why should I!” and not talk about how much a breeze not teaching at all can be, (e) scold, punish and admonish regularly until the class fears you and will submit to your threats of unparalleled cruelty, (f) adopt a “divide and rule” policy – teaching those who pay attention and ignoring the rest, or (g) give up, give in and give only what you can – after all, who’s counting?
When teachers share friendly gossip about these students, they moan and worry but still do the best they can. They highlight the students who have hope of a future – students who are still teachable, approach-able, amiable or still listening.
Then, they commiserate about those whom they wish were out of school, doing things they are better suited for instead of hanging out in school and being left hanging to dry by most of the school populace.
At the end of the day, though, it’s the fighting spirit that matters.
As Malcolm Forbes puts it, “charging beats retreating”.
Given a battle to fight, a good teacher will fight it the best way he can. You simply have to have the courage to continue even though you realise that the inroads are few.
Sad, however, are those teachers who are merciless in their approach and not above cutting students to size, condemning, curtailing and criticising them. The battle is bloody and the spoils of war include killing the spirit of learning and the demolition of self-esteem and self-worth.
These teachers are either demotivated, tired and bedraggled or just can’t be bothered anymore.
As a solution, most teachers certainly wish that the present education system would screen out the academically disinclined after Form 3. Students who do not make the cut should be allowed to explore options outside school, get a job and learn on it, or be part of a vocational skill training programme.
Teachers also wish that in the pursuit of the all-important 60:40 ratio for the Sciences, some consideration is given to the fact that some of those filling up the Science classes in Form 4 and Form 6 lack the know-ledge, skills, foundation, interest, drive and commitment to cope with the rigours of studying the Sciences.
Wouldn’t it be nice if quality mattered more than quantity and teachers are allowed to deal only with 16 or 18 year olds who are at least willing to give their books a shot?
But today, teachers deal with many students who have little interest in books. They cut classes, sleep, roam about, create chaos, or simply mark time in them.
Take Amy for example. She is my student by day and a waitress in her mother’s restaurant by night. In the mornings, when I watch her sleeping the day off in class, I can only see the pretty waitress who smiled at me warmly as she served me my fish and chips the night before. She works until midnight most nights and is tired every morning. Who is to blame for her lack of interest in studies?
School is not a motivating factor for her. If she has goals, I doubt they include studying some 20 chapters of Science or History for an exam.
I wish our education system has more options for our 16-year-olds to pursue more “hands-on”, rooted-in-real-life skill courses. Amy will make a good restaurant owner one day. I think she knows enough about food, clientele and décor. She does show some interest in lab work but I do not think she is going to pass any major exams in the near future.
To get her even marginally interested in a sub-topic in her textbook is a victory in itself.
Meanwhile, the sad fact remains that she cuts classes regularly and sleeps in class.