‘Never give up on children’

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AS a student, I got an opportunity to have a holiday job that was so close to my degree programme, ‘Teaching, Curriculum and Learning Environments.’
I was then a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The placement was at Massachusettes University.
They had holiday school for predominantly black teenagers who needed extra assistance.
The class was approximately the equivalent of our ‘O’-Levels.
It was co-ed.
I looked forward to these few weeks of teaching and learning, for it was an opportunity to reflect on my studies and arrive at new understandings.
I was to teach English Literature and I chose the book Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
The book is centred on a heart-breaking romance.
Teenagers are very romantic and I felt they would learn some critical life lessons about what happens when one is too harsh and inconsiderate.
The class was nothing I expected and nothing near anything I had experienced in all my schooling here at home, or in Botswana where I had studied and also taught.
The students were totally uncontrollable.
They did not wait to be called upon to speak and did not necessarily speak one person at a time.
They ate incessantly during class and they constantly changed their sitting positions.
They would leave class as and when they chose without reference to the teacher.
It was chaotic and impossible to control the class, such that it was not possible to have meaningful teaching and learning activities.
What I did therefore was to set some ground rules.
First, I needed silence if I was going to teach.
I needed order and they had to take turns to speak, with me in charge.
There was to be no eating in class, no movement during class and no going in and out of class without my permission.
They did not do anything differently.
I observed them for a while then I told them I would not teach if they were not going to comply.
It was like they had never heard anything so preposterous, they continued with their lifestyle.
I would sit at my desk while they did everything they wanted. They never got me to teach.
When it was time up, they would leave and I would go back to my campus.
After a few days, they reported to the administrator of the programme that I was not teaching.
I was duly called upon to respond and told them the situation as it was.
They told me they would talk to the students, but nothing changed.
The administration decided they would give me another teacher to assist.
On her first day in my class, I was late because it was raining heavily.
When I got to class, the class was in a state I had never seen even at its worst.
One of the students was standing on top of a desk and writing on the blackboard from the desktop.
Half the class was outside, while others were busy chatting in groups.
Some were coming in with snacks, while others were going out to procure the same.
There was constant traffic in and out of class.
It was totally out of control.
The new teacher was straining to teach under those conditions and the students completely ignored her.
In the end, she abandoned the effort and left before the end of class.
I said nothing to them.
At the end of class, I left but that was the turning point.
From the next class onwards, I had their co-operation.
There was order in class and they became engrossed in the books. Assignments were done very seriously.
They vied to read out loud in class, paid attention to my comments and were eager to engage in analysis.
I could not believe it but what that experience underlined in me was that children know what is correct deep inside them and if adults insist on what is correct, they will come around.
When we give in to children’s weaknesses, something deep in them gets hurt; they know we have let them down.
As adults, we have to insist on what is correct no matter what. Children trust that adults should lead the way not that they should, they know we are the custodians.
The truth is deeply embedded in each person.
Correct values are not strange to the soul.
By the end of their semester, we were great friends.
The students were not only eager to have me guide them, but they also were very eager to express their opinions and feelings.
When, for their final assignment, I asked them to write what they understood of the book, what they had learned from the story, I was touched and gratified by the result.
Their analyses were profound.
They had learned about the importance of protecting what is very precious, not to revenge because of a misunderstanding with a loved one and not to be involved in love unless you mean it with your whole heart.
In the novel: “Catherine Earnshaw loved Heathcliff but spurned him because of his lowly social class origins, a gypsy who had been rescued and brought home by her kindly father.
When after a childhood of loving and playing together with Catherine Heathcliff overheard her saying that while he was her ‘soul’, she could never marry him because of his lowly social status, he ran away and she in turn married Edgar Linton who was well-placed socially and guaranteed her a comfortable upper class life, and for whom she had no feelings at all.”
The students picked up that the subsequent tragic events which unfolded, Catherine’s ghost haunting Heathcliff, Heathcliff’s tortured life following Catherine’s death was a result of the two denying what they truly felt.
The students were not at peace with Heathcliff’s cruelty to Catherine, to Edgar the man she married, to Edgar’s sister whom he married just to spite Catherine and hurt Edgar and his utter cruelty to Catherine’s daughter whom he coerced to marry his dying son (with Edgar’s sister) in order to gain control of Edgar’s wealth. Indeed they were also appalled at Catherine’s cruelty to Heathcliff and Edgar Linton.
Thus when the term ended, I was happy and satisfied that the class had been worthwhile.
The literature class had assisted the students to reflect on life and arrive at wholesome conclusions which would contribute meaningfully to their character formation.
The greatest lesson for me was that it is never correct to give up on children because they will always learn.
There is a homing comet in them which always searches for what is correct and what is right.
Adults must protect that, always!

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