Dan Sperber, 2014 Cohort (English)

Voices - 30 May 2014

Dan takes us on the journey of his first few months teaching English at his school.

The manned guard post and the spiked fence is what shocked me first. Apparently, it’s to keep unwanted visitors out – not students in. Otherwise this is a fairly typical high school – one-storey and two storey-blocks surrounded by clusters of pre-fabs, telling tales of sudden expansion, uncertain growth.

I spend my first few lessons worrying about the whereabouts of keys, laptop, pens and pencils. My first day is a hollow victory. I get nothing from them, they get nothing from me.

“Work on relationships first”, my mentor tells me. So I do: name-games, conversation circles, whakawhanaungatanga. The students are probably wondering “Who is this guy? Why does he keep asking us where we want to put our desks?” I’m beginning to flounder. I’ve taught before -- years of ESOL to adults -- but the behaviours here are unfamiliar to me. Half a dozen students with no pens. Five more trying to flee the classroom. Tough nuts at the back, rearranging furniture as they please. Mobile phones appearing and disappearing like stars behind clouds. Able but tricky students guzzling purple soda. Students struggling with terms like “feelers”, “pearl” and “oyster”. And incessant interruptions;

“Got a ruler Mister?”

“What’s the date today?”

“Sir, what am I supposed to do again?”

“Do we get credits for this?”

“I hate reading, Sir”

“I hate reading, Sir”

“I hate reading, Sir”

There are some good lessons. “Don’t be too hard on yourself” my mentor tells me. But I’m still overwhelmed with the need I see.

Poetry. I remember back to the South Auckland Poets Collective evening I attended before I started. Those courageous young voices, with their painful, beautiful stories. So I start writing poems, and reading them to my large, unruly senior class. This creates moments of silence, where there had been none. It’s the one way I can get their attention. Maybe I can encourage them to find their own voices this way. It will be hard. It’s all too easy to kill poems dead in the classroom. To quote American poet laureate Billy Collins:
“all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.”

We read poems by the fistful. I try to keep out of the way. The students are waiting for me to tell them what it all means;

“Class, what do you think the key ideas are?”

“Sir what does key idea mean?”

It’s a long journey.

Meanwhile my poor juniors are labouring through ‘young adult fiction’; Afterwards is a novel dealing with losing a parent, crime and poverty. These themes are already too painful to talk about in this community. Next time I’ll choose something more fun.

Back in my senior class, there’s a student who’s doing the work -- the only student doing so on a voluntary and regular basis. She sits alone, wearing earphones to block out the noise I can’t control. She writes long answers to questions, and even longer poems. I give her all the feedback I can. Her work is constantly improving She doesn’t always make it to school. In the last week of term I finally convince her to read her poem to the class. She speaks quietly but they listen. Her poem is frank, honest, culturally aware, well-crafted and funny. Humour’s important here.

My favourite part of the job is walking around the school. Students are happy to stop and chat. It’s a chance to slip in some praise and encouragement and find out what makes them tick.

What a term it’s been. I leave sobered, humbled and angry. The students in this community have so much potential. They are massively impoverished, smart, funny and infinitely resilient. But they need more than the current system gives them, and they need it now.