Back to skool

From July to December 2009, I will be a volunteer teacher in rural South Africa. As preparation, I re-entered the gates of Box Hill High and Blackburn Lake Primary in an attempt to learn how to teach.

The calendar read the 11th of November. The clock read 4.13pm. The sun was glaring, the hall was stuffy and the people sitting beside me were sweating with tension. Out the front, the supervisor stared down at the busy students, looking out for any traces of suspicious behaviour.

But I just sat there. In silence. For the next 47 minutes. And all I could do was smile.

***

When I returned to Box Hill High three months later, that smile was long gone. In its place was an unusual sensation that something was not quite right. Here I was, returning to the location of so many of my fondest memories, yet for the first time in seven years I felt like an intruder.

Imagine coming home one day to find that it’s no longer yours. The furniture is re-arranged, an extension is being built outside where your apple tree once grew and the historic family portraits on the walls feature unrecognisable faces.

That is exactly what I felt when I took my first steps back into Box Hill, and initially I couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was the new library. Maybe it was the fact that my peer support kids of ’07 were now wearing white VCE shirts. Maybe it was because the ‘fake year 12s’ who I had so proudly bagged last year were now the new kings and queens of the school community.

Whatever it was, the message was clear; school was a chapter of my life that had concluded. Nevertheless, it was a chapter I needed to re-read.

During my three day Box Hill High relapse, I was given the opportunity of observing the school from a fresh perspective. I returned to undertake a form of work experience which involved me sitting at the back of classes, watching teachers and taking notes. (Sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it?) However, for once I wasn’t learning about the ethics of large scale organisations or the different lobes of the cerebral cortex; I was learning how to teach.

After twelve periods of observing how the professionals did it, I was then put in the hot seat. Despite having no formal teacher qualifications and being the same age as the current year 12s, I was given the opportunity to teach Ms G’s Year 7 Geography class. Upon hearing this offer I was immediately shocked but nonetheless willing to take on the challenge. It was when she told me that I would be teaching a double period that I started having second thoughts.

On the night of the 26th of February, I sat at my computer for hours trying to work out how I was going to fill up a 90 minute lesson about latitude and longitude. Hours earlier I didn’t know which one was horizontal and which one was vertical. By the end of the night I was an expert.

Fortunately, my class of Year 7s believed likewise. From the moment I wrote ‘Mr. Hawkins’ on the whiteboard til when the lunchtime bell rang I was in complete control. To my surprise I managed to fill up two periods with a lesson I thought would finish in half an hour. The kids responded enthusiastically when I asked them for their answers, they hushed in silence when I authoritatively yelled out “7E” and they unsurprisingly cheered in excitement when I brought out a bag of lollies as incentive for winning latitude/longitude battleship.

As a consequence of photocopying the wrong number of hand-outs a few students were left in the classroom after the bell had rung. I curiously asked them whether they thought I was a real teacher, to which they told me that my visitor badge was the only thing that prevented them from that assumption. With that, I felt a wave of confidence; I was only three days in but already my masquerade as a teacher was a success. It was time to face the real challenge: primary school.

Returning to Blackburn Lake was much less awkward than Box Hill. Firstly, no students at the school recognised me. Secondly, my graduation from Blacky Lake was way back in 2002 – ancient history by my standards. And thirdly, I had a vague idea of what I was doing.

That’s not to say that BLPS was any easier. Things began shaky when it took the principal at least four attempts to correctly remember my name; David, Gavin, Ben and Darrell were his unsuccessful guesses, in spite of my constant corrections. Then, minutes later in class, I felt incredibly pretentious after I couldn’t recall my 7 times tables. Fortunately VCAA wasn’t assessing me as surely my ENTER score would have sunk by 40 in an instance.

The entire day was spent in Mr. S’s classroom due to the heavy winds causing havoc in the playground. Such circumstances enabled me to gain a genuine insight into the chaotic world that lies within primary school walls. After just six hours I could already identify the dynamics of the students. The cool kids were easily distinguishable from the try-hards, as were the suck-ups from the genuinely smart ones. Meanwhile, I managed to see the heart in the rebels, the insecurity in the attention seekers and the anarchy lurking in the quiet ones.

In particular, there was one kid who started the day on a bad note. By recess, at least half a dozen teachers had had a quiet word with him for his misbehaviour. During recess I was invited into a small ‘intervention-esque’ gathering, involving the boy in question and two teachers. It was evident by the end of the meeting that the boy had an intention to be a good student. Being the sympathetic underdog supporter I am (I do go for the Demons after all) I quietly adopted this boy as my favourite of the class.

To everyone’s delight, the change in his behaviour was clearly evident for the rest of the day; he worked hard, desperately sought the teacher’s approval and offered the glimmer of hope of changing his ways. However, when I returned to the same classroom a week later, the boy had resumed his old bad habits.

My best guess for why this occurred was the absence of Mr S, who was away sick. Subsequently, a substitute teacher was in charge for the day and she struggled with the pressure in comparison to the calm and experienced professional I had observed just seven days earlier.

Although observing the teacher was the initial reason for returning to BLPS, I found greater enjoyment out of interacting with the students. Their overwhelming reaction to my presence was both humorous and generous. For example, immediately upon entering the classroom on my sophomore visit, the class erupted with excitement – “Look, it’s Kevin!” Later, during the kids’ CRE class the teacher asked the kids to nominate someone who had influenced them in their lives. Again, “Kevin” was being yelled across the room with one girl crossing out ‘Mum’ from her list to write my name. However, easily the funniest moment was when a gang of children came up to me at the end of the day informing me of how I was the best teacher they had ever had. This was particularly surprising considering the only thing I had taught them was how to win in four-square (a pastime I happily re-lived during lunch time).

The funniest kid I came across was the younger brother of a former BLPS friend. He found a sadistic delight in me having the same first name as the prime minister, being squeamish about his double-jointedness and not having a girlfriend (he himself had one being just 12). However, nothing he did or said came close to the comedy I witnessed at Box Hill a fortnight earlier, during a game of hang-man:

Mr AP: “Okay, who has a letter for me? (points to boy) Yes?”

Year 7 boy: “Seven”

***

It’s hard to believe that the total amount of days where I returned to school was only five. In that time I thoroughly enjoyed being at the other end of the classroom and was surprised by how many new experiences I had in such a short time. Which has made me ponder: if I can find such excitement over five days, how bloody amazing is five months going to be…

I suddenly feel reason to smile again.

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