Thursday, July 23, 2009

Teaching in Jamaica is Hard Work

For two weeks this summer, I will help to facilitate a summer camp for grade five students in Jamaica. I have always been convinced that with an approach appropriate to student’s competencies and cultural context, they can learn. After just three days, however, I am left scratching my head. I am at my wits end as to how I can help these students understand the material they need for the GSAT exam, and more importantly, their future. I have realized that I am not cut out to be an educator, for I do not possess the requisite patience to govern children who seem to have missed the memo about why they come to school. Let me detail some of my experiences here, so you too can understand my frustrations.

My primary teaching role at the camp is instructing three classes of pupils in Language Arts/ Communication Skills and Drama. These children have no reservations when it comes to expressing themselves in the nation’s language, until they are called upon to share an opinion. And let me tell you, when a child tells you they won’t participate, they are serious. No amount of coddling, beseeching, or guilt tripping, will make a difference. I always felt children learn better in an environment where they are made to feel as though their opinions matter. Collaboration is key, and so long as you establish that modus operandi, people would not be shy about sharing a view. WRONG!

The most expressive child goes quiet when called upon- if even for a few seconds. Their faces relax; their eyes fixate on some point in my direction, but never at my own; their limbs go limp. They look almost mournful. Their peers start to giggle. Stinging epithets are exchanged between the individual in the spotlight, and their heckling classmates, before their stoic expressions return. It’s almost as if they forget the questions they were asked in their bid to avoid contributing to the discussion at hand- to avoid giving an incorrect response. I am waiting Shatika, the class would like to hear your thoughts. Shatika is adamant; she will not speak. In the interest of the time, I must move on.

I was troubled, so I took the time to ask them why they think, personally, that they freeze when called upon to contribute to the learning experience in the class. They seemed to be listening intently, and their expressions suggested that they understood what I was asking, but when I prodded them for responses, again, they froze. The classrooms are located in one building. Each of five classrooms is partitioned by two blackboards, beneath which the feet of students in the other class can easily be observed- the students make ample use of this design feature. The walls of the classroom are decorated with stylish see-through blocks and windows, through which every sudden flash of colour or the source of outbursts of sound is identified by the curious students. Chatter, shouts and laughter from every other class is heard in my own, and it is often impossible for me to hear myself speak. The children seem more concerned about all the exciting things going on around them more than my voice, droning on about the importance of committing that day’s lesson to memory.

Today I taught pronouns and parts of speech in class. Elementary? Certainly, yet, these are concepts that they have not mastered.
"Verbs are action or doing words," their voices ring out in a chorus.
Okay, so give me a verb and use it appropriately in a sentence.
"RUNNING, EATING, TALKING, DANCING.’ Their voices are a most annoying cacophony. That’s a remarkable vocabulary you have there! Okay, what is an adverb?
"A word that modifies an adjective, verb or adverb."

Good, so name one and use it in a sentence. Then their eyes roll towards some point away from me. Silence permeates the still, hot air, and I sigh in desperation. They’re listening, or at least I think they are, yet they do not understand the material. I repeat the same material from yesterday, but still it is foreign to them. When I ask for the part of speech of the word "slowly", rest assured that all five parts of speech mentioned the day prior would be offered as an answer.

I read five sentences written by one girl today. She completely misplaced subject pronouns for object pronouns in the first, and it was my job to highlight where she had gone wrong. When I asked her if she remembers yesterday's lesson about pronouns, she said in a sombre voice, "no." She is in grade 5. "Him must put down some money an pay the man him rent, because him not to live on the man land." Again, I sighed heavily, this time in exasperation. I’m not giving up just yet. I still have another week to figure out how to, even to a small degree, rectify the structural and cultural realities, which affect these children’s ability to learn.

And, to think that teachers are poorly paid!


  1. I find that there are different ways of motivating children into learning. It may be obvious that these kids do not understand the value of an education. Although their parents may have establish its meaning to them, they may not have fully realize its value.
    Try telling them a story of someone who did very poorly in primary school and how they turn their lives around in High School so that they can have a better future for not only themselves but their families. Do this without belittling their intelligence.
    One method of doing this is asking them what they want to be in life and work from their with an analogy, maybe a story of Dr. Ben Carson or Maya Angelou or some Jamaican hero (Nanny of the Maroons).
    I think they don't know the value of an education why they are not motivated to work harder. Tell them a story.

  2. Yea, we tried all this to no avail. Or perhaps, we had some good effect that we couldn't perceive. I'll try to keep in touch with the students.
    Interestingly, we gave three of the students copies of Ben Carson's Think Big, and one of them was very upset about and displeased with her gift. She preferred to have the coloured markers and other fancy stationery. These kinds do not like to read, and I don't think mainstream stories are helpful unless that are told in Patwa, because children aren't told stories in English typically, and I doubt they would get too excited about characters they cannot relate to--- at least, that's what I feel based on my experience with them.
    This is obviously problematic, but the situation is what it is, and we need to use resources in a way that suits their learning and cultural styles.

  3. You need to be a teacher in order to make certain comments. You specifically asked for the slowest set of children, those who were in need of remedial work...did you expect that they were going to master all the concepts after you have done only four days of interactions? I think not. The children you dealt with were just a small percentage of the whole Grade five going into six population...Your comment is insulting to all the children of Duckenfield Primary School, as well as the teachers and parents. Next time, think before you write! You also failed to mention that this was in partial fulfillment of your studies. As a teacher of the noble institution that you are blemishing, I am deeply offended and you need to understand that your colleagues with whom you came were students at the institution...there are many, many outstanding students in the group, not just those who you describe as being unfocused.

  4. Anonymous, thanks for your comment.

    I don't think I need to be a teacher to make an observation and write about it. Because I am not a teacher my perspective will be different from yours, possibly misinformed, but definitely not invalid.

    My surprise that the students didn't understand some rudimentary principles has nothing to do with the fact that I had taught them only a few days earlier- I spoke with a grade two teacher in St. Mary who told me she makes an effort to cover these topics at that stage. I knew it was not the first time that these students had studied the material.

    I made no attempt to generalize that all the students at the school had the same proficiency in all subjects. Note well, I said that I was a teacher of English, and I made no comment about the quality of the education received by students at the institution- because i have no basis on which to make such comments. Some of the students were brilliant. I never denied that.

    Your anger is misplaced and needs to be refocused. Perhaps you feel that the competency of the students reflects directly on the extent of your efforts, so you feel compelled to retaliate against my stinging commentary- but that is not my view. This piece is a commentary on the state of education in Jamaica. The lack of infrastructure. The challenges teachers face in the classroom. The lack of sufficient support services for children who need remedial help. The work that needs to be done to ensure that those students who struggle will be ready for high school, and for the working world. This has nothing to do with you. I would never suggest that teachers at the school do not work hard enough. Note how I ended the piece!

    Teaching at the school was not done in "partial fulfillment of my studies." I'm not sure where you got that idea from. I offered my time to these students because I cared.

    I don't understand. We are so quick to claim how successful our institutions of learning are based on the accomplishments of the few that excel. Well Anonymous, many of the students at the school are struggling. This is a fact. This is not something we should try to sugar-coat. Recognizing the problems which persist is the first step we must take to find viable solutions to the under-education of our children. This is something that is happening island wide, not just at your school.

    I went to a school very similar to the one about which I write. I know very well that people can learn, but everyone doesn't have the same motivations, parental guidance, supportive community environment etc. that are needed to succeed.

  5. who feels it knows it. children in jamaica seem to show little value for education. this is as a result of thier family, peer groups. if your able to reach children coming from those viotile areas and those coming from a low socio-economic background then you would have completed a mile stone.
    do not expect that results will always be the result that u expect but instead there are other areas that the child may have shown some improvement.
    when a child learns a new word, or adapta positive behaviour learning took place

  6. Anonymous: Thanks for writing.

    You know, I feel like the children do value education, albeit in a very superficial way. When you ask them why they are in school they all respond in chorus saying, "to learn". They know. It's what it takes to learn they do not always know, or perhaps, they don't have available to them all the resources and circumstances that are necessary for one to benefit most greatly from formal education.

    I have definitely learnt a lot from my experience. If nothing else, I have affirmed my desire to work more actively to improve the conditions in which our children learn. The lack of adequate infrastructure seems to be a big problem, and one that requires capital investment to fix. Duly noted. That's something more tangible I hope I can help with in the future, if even on a small scale.

    Never a wasted moment. I have faith in the human spirit. People often excel against the most challenging of odds, and I have no doubt that some of these students will too.

    Drop by again soon.

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