Saturday, February 12, 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day? Teacher-centered education

I wish you could see this kid dance!

I have no nice new pictures of beautiful things to show you, so I’m posting some older pictures of the beautiful children from my primary school’s school concert from last year. However, hopefully none of these have been posted before, so they'll be new tot you!  Other than the child posted above, the remaining photos are all of my Grade Six learners from last year.  They are in Grade Seven now, and I refer to them as "my kids" in the captions.  My heart bursts with pride fro them!

Hopefully, after Monday, Valentine’s Day, I’ll have current fun stuff to show you.

One of the goals of education reform in South Africa is to move from a teacher-centered to a student-centered classroom. What is the difference between teacher-centered instruction versus student-centered instruction? Simply, the student is the most important person in the classroom, instead of the teacher being the most important person in the classroom.

I’ve never understood how extraordinarily difficult this shift will be for the South African school system--from teacher-centered to student-centered—until now.

In the USA, we do a nice job of having student-centered instruction in our K-12 classrooms. Teachers in the USA want their kids to succeed and good teachers will do everything in their power to support their kids in learning and succeeding. For many teachers, again, the good ones, who have unsuccessful lessons or a struggling student, we will analyze what we, as the teachers, are doing wrong and make changes in our lessons to improve instruction or find ways to better help a struggling student.

In the USA educational system, we do tend to shift to teacher-centered classroom at the university level; after all, the word “professor” conveys the message “I know and profess and you (who know nothing) must listen.” In the college classroom, this is best illustrated in the “lecture” style of teaching: the professor stands before many students, sometimes as many as 300, and the students furiously attempt to note everything this wise one is saying. However, even at the university level, there is a shift to a more collaborative teaching and learning style, as is one example in with peer-review of student writing in freshman writing classes. With our current teaching/learning trend, we have decided that learning best takes place in smaller classrooms with more collaborative methods.

In all our schools and universities, the teach is there to serve the students; the whole learning environment is centered around supporting the students; the school works together and is proud of their students, and sporting activities and anything extracurricular highlights the talents of the students. We work very hard to keep our students happy and succeeding. And as a rule, the whole school has a loyalty and pride in itself, evidenced in “school spirit.”

Now I’m going to shift into my observations of the South African school system, with its current “teacher-centered” form of instruction. I will provide my disclaimer here: I am writing of what I observe in my schools in South Africa, not all of them. And too, my observations are prejudiced by my personal biases that I bring from my own cultural background and experiences. And as ever, who is to say that “our way--my way--is the right way.”

My grade six class -- they are in grade seven now!

I spent most of my time at the primary school last year, instead of the college (I will tell you why in my next blog posting), and my initial observations of the South African school system were at the primary school level. I was, of course, horrified by the corporal punishment administered, hated seeing the 600 students—young children--crammed in great numbers into too-small classrooms with unbearable learning conditions: blistering hot or freezing cold, no water to drink, no clean toilet facilities, and their teachers seemingly sitting in the staffroom pulling their hair out because of the paperwork required of them demonstrate to their supervisors that they are complying with policy. (In fact, I believe the educator’s primary purpose, in the current state of affairs, is to make sure they are complying with school and departmental policies, and are spending the majority of their school days preparing their reports and compiling their evidence instead of teaching their students.) Of the school’s miserable pass-rate, the educators would reply, “our learners are slow-learners (stupid) and cannot be taught.” However, what outraged me the most, other than the corporal punishment, was watching how the teachers interacted with the students: it’s as though the students existed only for the educator’s beck-and-call, they existed as their personal slaves, if you will. The children couldn’t wait to be summoned to fetch their teacher’s cold drinks, or carry heavy boxes of books, or even chop a tree trunk to build a fire. (When the school is short of funds, they cannot purchase propane, and the school cooks will prepare the children’s meals over an open flame; this is, of course, no small task when feeding +500 people.)

I could not imagine how students could love and respect their teachers, when their teachers were, in my view, so cruel to them, but they certainly did love and respect their teachers. In fact, I did not hold the respect of my students, because I would not beat them, until they saw how well they could learn without being beaten—and how fun it could be. (Then, gratefully, they came to love and respect me, and would miss me and ask for me if I could not come.) In my primary school, I did sense an attitude of pride toward their school—a sense of reciprocated love and loyalty between the teachers and students. And I did sense that (some of) the teachers genuinely loved their students. All of this was evidenced in school functions: Heritage Day, Parent’s Day, World AIDS Day, and the end-of-the-school-year celebrations. During these celebrations, everyone was happy, having fun, and very proud of their school community.

Two of my guys... I'm very proud of them.

On the other hand, in my return to the college this year, and especially with coordinating our Valentine’s Day Event to be held on Monday, I’ve observed the prejudices of the teachers toward the students on yet another level. The lecturers --here again, not all of them, but most, I think) feel contempt for their students and are more than a bit put-off at having to teach them. At having to teach them?

Again, coming from my background, I have worked for universities that plan and host events all for the benefit of their students. At many college campuses, a regular feature is a “welcome back” event hosted at the start of each new school year. Often, the event is held out-of-doors, and the school has vendors to come and provide free soft drinks, snacks, and small promotional gifts; often there is music or other kinds of entertainment; often school groups will set up booths to welcome and introduce themselves to incoming students. There is a general sense of fun and celebration created by the school, by the educators (adults) for the students. I was hoping to coordinate and help organize a similar event, put on by the school (the educators, the adults) for the students. My goal was to have a fun event catered for the students, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, while at the same time promoting HIV/AIDS awareness.

That was my hope.

I’ve really gotten a good dose of “teacher-centered attitudes versus student-centered attitudes.” Time and time again, I’ve come up against the attitude of, “What? Are you CRAZY? Why would I participate in such an event (that honors or celebrates the students)?” Time and time again, when I ask community organizations to come support our event (the students), I’m countered with “What is in it for me?” “How much is in your budget for me?”

I’m more than a bit put off by this attitude, as I was told South Africans honor a tradition of “Ubuntu,” or a common belief of helping others; a common attitude that all are responsible for helping others. However, I do not see my community practicing Ubuntu—at least for my college students; it seems more like my community members have been corrupted by the lure of money and that money is the only incentive to them for “helping others.” (And seeing these same people, business owners and organization leaders, who already have money and power, and use it in corrupt ways, is a whole other blog post.) So, it’s been a disheartening few weeks.

In the USA, a soft-drink vendor, like Coke or Pepsi, will often provide free refreshment for these kinds of events because a) they are recognized as a supporter of the school and the students and therefore earn a reputation for supporting their communities, and b) they know it is cheap advertisement for their product, and they have a good opportunity to “brand” themselves onto potential life-long customers. (I know; this in and of itself is inherently creepy.) I was hoping this opportunity, to raise their reputations and advertise their wares, would be a good enough sell on our community businesses to please come and participate in our school event and to please help make it fun for our students. No dice.

At the campus level, I would run into these kinds of brick walls: for our refreshment budget, I was hoping we could have a special treats for the students; it would always go back to: we’re feeding the guests and educators very nicely, will provide an elegant, catered, sit-down meal to the VIPS and the students will receive 4 slices of bread. (I’m not kidding.) I would plead: Please make this a special day for the student; Please help me think of ways to make it fun for the students. No dice.

We held a planning meeting for our event this week and I asked all interested in the event to come. We had about 20 to show, a feat that, in and of itself, I’m told, is a success story in itself. We had Hospitality educators come (who are preparing the food), Life Orientation educators to come (who are developing lesson plants so that our event is a learning opportunity for the students and one they’ll be given credit for), and the Student Support Officer. We had asked members of the SRC to come, the Student Representative Council, but they didn’t. It was very important to me that students could come, as how could we plan an event for our students without their input. In the end, we had two students there, one of my former students who had learned of the event and wanted to assist. We even had members from our police department come help plan our event: they have peer mentors in their HIV/AIDS outreach division.

My kids

Because I’m an American, and because I’m coming from a society that practices democracy on many levels, I was hoping that we, as a collective group of people with a common interest, (Valentine’s Day), could come together for a lively conversation with everyone feeling equally represented and feeling comfortable to share their own opinions. Not only did this not happen, I flubbed the protocol as the facilitator (in my culture, if you’re late, you are the loser; in this culture, if you’re late, everything has to stop so the late-comer can be honored) in that I ignored the late-comers and we continued on with our conversation. (I would later be publically upbraided for not properly introducing all of the participants, but how can participants be properly introduced if they all arrive late and at a trickle in half hour segments??) The men of the group dominated (and seemed to be challenging each other), women of the group demurred, (even though a very powerful female Head of Department was present), and the students were ignored and silent. As a facilitator, I would come back, again and again, to the students: What do you guys think? Do you have any suggestions of how we can make this event fun for you? The students were visibly shaken at my directing attention to them, and said something along the lines of “Sorry, Mam. We are only students here. Our opinions do not matter.”

In the end, on Monday, we hope to have an event, for students, that provides helpful information to promote HIV/AIDS awareness; we have invited special guests to make presentations and address the students; we have a team from the Health Department to provide HIV/AIDS counseling and testing; we have asked the choir to sing; we have asked for the Mayor of Taung to come and open our day for us; we have plans for refreshments to be served.

In all of this planning and preparation, which seems little and rushed to me (in the USA, I would have never taken on such an event without 4-6 months of planning—this has happened in 3.5 weeks), I have NO IDEA how this will come off. All of the phoning is completed, all of the faxing finished, all of the emails sent. I have made personal appearances, visited and pleaded, begged for money or donations. I have cajoled and schmoozed. There is nothing to be done now but show up on Monday and wait for the event to unfold.

As a unifying gesture, so everyone in the school can participate and support our event—in a gesture of school spirit--we have asked all of our campus community, lecturers and students, to wear red on Monday.

Yesterday, an educator pulled me aside to express her dismay: “Ms. Kaye, do the lecturers really need to wear red on Valentines’ Day?" (As if she couldn't believe she was being asked to lower herself to the students' standards.  She added, "Can't only the students wear red?” Eish!

Teacher-centered, indeed.


This shot is a bit blurry, but I love the mood of it.  Again, my kids.

1 comment:

  1. You have performed greatly as a coordinator. Now stop sweating, take a deep breath and enjoy your hard work pay off. You can't control what happens and shouldn't even if you could. Relax and don't forget to take pictures!