It’s too hot to think of a creative title

It’s my 8th week as a South African schoolteacher and sure enough, just as advertised, Africa is HOT.  I just put this shirt on 30 minutes ago and already it’s drenched.  Heat also has the effect of making everybody really slowwwwwwww.   Almost everyone I pass is asleep or relaxing in the shade, and by the end of school today half of the teachers were just sort of dozing under a tree.  People even talk slowly, which is a blessing because my Tshivenda is still really minimal.  But I can’t for the life of me understand how the kids have so much energy.  Insane amounts of energy really; sometimes it’s all I can do just not to get trampled.  They’re also very loud.  Somehow I’d forgotten that an unattended group of middle school students sounds like a full stadium.  Even when there’s an authority figure present, that person will have to keep suppressing the growing murmur before it turns into a storm.  As a so-called authority figure, I have failed to do just that on several occasions.  I keep feeling embarrassed because another teacher will come into my classroom, and it’s loud as hell, and we have to shout to each other just to be heard.  They still seem to have every confidence in me though, maybe because I’m helping with other things (usually petty computer-related chores) or maybe they know I’m a rookie.  Although as per Peace Corps training, I’ve avoided telling them that I’m not a professional educator.  Of course I haven’t explicitly lied and said “yeah, I was totally a teacher in America” either, but I think most of the staff just assumes that’s what I was doing.  Or maybe they’re just too nice to just say “this guy’s completely incompetent!  I thought we were getting a SKILLED American, what happened?”  In all seriousness though, I am helping a lot with the computers and administrative stuff even though I’m struggling with classroom management.  I think I’m also hindered by the fact that I really like the kids and I’m still kind of kid myself.  I keep having flashbacks to Salem Central and I can’t believe some of the things I’d forgotten.  All the ridicule students give each other, the mind numbing boredom and oh yeah, that thing called detention.  I had to hold some ne’er-do-wells for detention the other day and it hurt my soul a little bit.   I’m trying to convince the teachers that detention is more effective than corporal punishment, but it’s not easy.  For one thing, it requires a teacher to stay after as well, which very few of them want to do.  Another thing is, and I hate to say this, but it’s really not as effective in some cases.  Some kids are really badly behaved; they’ll just skip the detention and waltz on home to where there is no parental figure present.  So they obviously don’t fear a teachers’ authority or a notification to their parents, but they do fear a beating.  OK, now I’m going to disclose some really controversial stuff which I’m very nervous to do because I’ve been told that, somehow, everyone will see what I post online.  If my fellow teachers read this stuff there might be some misunderstandings, but some of these anecdotes are just too interesting to keep to myself.  If you’re one of my co workers, remember that I love you and you can always talk to me!

I’m working at two different schools and one of them (Kokwane) needs a lot more help than the other (Rabali).  The teachers at Kokwane use the rod much more frequently than those at Rabali, and in fact the students at Kokwane are much more badly behaved.  The problem is I can’t tell if this is a cause or effect, and in truth it’s probably more of a feedback loop.  Flogging a kid will prevent him or her from repeating a specific offense, but instilling that kind of fear gives the students a bad attitude.  The instrument of choice may be a stick, a length of hose or a ruler; I made the mistake of handing a teacher a ruler when he asked for it, because I thought he actually wanted to measure something.  Silly mukhuwa.  Now this might seem bad from an outside perspective, but keep in mind that most of the beatings I’ve seen are not really that heavy handed.  It wasn’t so long ago that a kid would receive serious injury at school after misbehaving.  I give one teacher a lot of credit actually; I had an awkward “let’s talk about it” conversation after school with him about corporal punishment and he explained very nicely that he wanted some alternatives, just didn’t want to see the school plummet into chaos for lack of discipline (which is definitely a legitimate concern).  Some of the teachers I’m still nervous to approach, particularly those who have this kind of sadistic glee for the whuppin’, and whose sole instrument as a schoolteacher is the rod.  These teachers scare me.  They’re usually the oldest of the bunch and are clearly burnt-out, disgruntled and deeply scarred from the apartheid years.  As a white foreigner, telling them how to do their job is not something I’m ready to do.

Kokwane is also on the verge of a transitional state right now.  The principal, a 30 year veteran of the school is planning to retire after this term, and the remainder of the staff seems to be squabbling for her position.  My host brother thinks they’re probably acting extra strange because of this.  Sometimes I can’t decide if it’s louder in the unattended classrooms or the overcrowded staffroom.  It’s not total chaos, but there are certainly a lot of different attitudes.  I really respect the teachers who are able to rise above this scene of petty power struggle and keep doing their jobs.  The deputy principal (vice principal) is a great guy, but it’s clear to me that he’s seriously overwhelmed by work right now.

One thing I’m still confused by is when people ask me “James, are you busy?” because I can’t tell if they want help with something or if they’re simply inquiring to make sure I’m not bored.  Most requests are made very indirectly, and it’s still confusing to me.  But I can confuse anyone I want by saying anything more complicated than a greeting!  Apparently I have an accent, and the extensive vocabulary which served me so well in the states is now a stumbling block of epic proportions.  I’m in Africa now, eloquence be damned!  I was very amused the other day when I started talking with some high schoolers who wanted to practice English, and then this guy chimed in saying “do not use the deep English with them, they can not understand”.  Never really thought of my English as “deep”, but there you go.  I’m trying to adapt a more South African accent but it’s not so simple.  I have so many phonetic habits which I’m not even aware of.  Elements of style, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition (like I just did) are definitely a lower priority than basic literacy.


One Response to “It’s too hot to think of a creative title”

  1. Why not institute physical exercise as punishment or prophylaxis BEFORE school to tire these kids out? Nonviolent and effective!

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