Month seven: I struggle, you struggle, we struggle [present tense]
I already did something I was trying not to do. I yelled, very harshly, at my students. My “everyone’s hands are in the air so it must be quiet” method wasn’t working — too much chitter-chatter. Another group was stealing each other’s rulers and hitting each other. One girl even started to cry during reading time. I couldn’t take it anymore – it had been a week of childish games. They’re just children, damnit, just children. I closed the book I was reading, told them we would try again tomorrow, and walked out of the classroom holding back tears of frustration.
I told the other grade 5 educators that the grade 5s were being “naughty” (a favourite South African term) and that they were disrespectful. Two teachers went and yelled at them, and likely threatened to beat them, or did. I know it’s hard to fathom that a child may have been beaten or threatened in my name, but this early in the game, I have no choice. I either get the other educators to help me control the kids and speak to them in a language they understand, or wade my way through a neck deep river until the student’s finally trust me, which could possibly be never.
To effectively teach, one needs to build relationships with the students to gain trust. I can’t just pop into their classroom and expect them to respect me just because I am different from them. My PCV friend George couldn’t have summed it up better — right now all the students see is, “OMG OMG LOL LOL UMLUNGU (white person)” instead of someone who cares and is here to really try to give them an adequate education. They don’t know much about me, and I don’t know much about them (although I am learning a lot through their journals!) Also, they know I won’t hit them, so they aren’t scared, which opens a whole ‘nother can of worms.
The day after the grade 5 educators addressed the class, they kids were angels. They earned a lot of rocks in their “rock jar” (if they’re good, they get rocks. If they’re bad, rocks are taken out. If they fill it, I will give them a class prize like an English movie).
After class, all of my girls came to the library and gave me a card. They tried their best in English — it was a “Happy Birthday” card (too cute) from Mr. Verb to Ms. Noun. Inside it reads, “Mr. Verb loves Ms. Noun. They agree all the time.” If you’re wondering what the hell that means, I made these stupid-childish-looking cardboard puppets named Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun. I introduced them to the class as our classroom friends and as the year goes on I will ask them, “Do Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun agree in your work? Remember they really love each other so they agree a lot!” I told the kids Mr. Verb paid a heavy lobola to marry Ms. Noun. Cheesy, but that’s the kind of stuff you’ll get in my classroom. Any oddly creative thing that can stick in their heads I will try.
The girls are mostly well-behaved in my class. The boys are usually the ones who are acting up. However, a couple of the boys also came by to apologize to and then spent the day in the library reading grade one books while I worked on classroom posters.
I know they were probably told to apologize to me, but I am human and I need love sometimes too, especially in my Peace Corps lows.
After school that day, another girl, Nqobile, came by to just say hello and one of my boys, Siyabonga, came by with a friend and hung out. I talked in Zulu to him, and he basically said he wants to try to learn English and he is trying. Ngiyazama (I am trying).
I felt pretty helpless after that. I realized that their behaviour isn’t just the problem; I am the problem too. I am trying to get used to a new classroom culture, teaching for my first time, and not really knowing if my students understand me or not. They rarely will tell me if they don’t because it’s cultural that the educator is a divine being. I even have a group of students who can’t even read in Zulu — let alone understand a sentence of English.
It occurred to me that we are in this battle together. It’s like a symbiotic relationship — we both want something out of this, but we’re going to have opposite struggles. They are going to have a hard time understanding me and the work and adjusting to me, and I will have a hard time communicating with them, explaining concepts and adjusting to them. If we can get through this year together as a unit, we will all only be better in the end. But it won’t be easy and we will need to help each other.
Seeing my students read grade one books and my student Siyabonga trying his hardest to say simple things in English at my hut door, slapped me upside the head to be easier on than them and lower my expectations. During reading time, instead of reading longer grade 4/5 passages, I will read picture books. My Peace Corps leader even made the awesome suggestion of having them draw and describe their favourite scene from the book afterwards. Likewise, I will start translating some things into Zulu when necessary. I need people to translate Zulu to English for me many times, so it’s only fair.
Once I start doing sports activities with the kids, I think I’ll start bonding with them more because that is something that a language barrier can overcome. As we always say in the Peace Corps, only time will tell.
In honour of our grammar review: I will struggle. You will struggle. We will struggle. [future tense]
Eleven months from now I hope we can all write on the chalkboard: I struggled. You struggled. We struggled. [past tense]
In honour of spelling: I am now using British English.
Keep on zamaing (like my Zunglish?)
Yours in service,