Monday, February 4, 2013

Teaching in Primary School

After my two-month vacation I had mixed feelings about returning to Saudi Arabia. Obviously I was sad to be leaving family and friends again and saying goodbye to my lovely botanical gardens, but on the other hand I was ready to start working again. Twelve hours after tearful farewells at OR Tambo, I was back in KSA.
On my first day back at work I was told that I was to be teaching at an elementary school that Al Jazeera had acquired. I know that I’m not very good with small kids but I figured that the experience would be good and besides that it would look good on my CV. And just maybe I could learn how to work with small kids.

My first couple of days at the school were pretty easy. I simply accompanied one of the existing English teachers to his classes and observed. I was given to understand that this would be the pattern for the rest of the week until the roster had been drawn up and some sort of curriculum had been devised.

On the third day I was sent to my first solo class. Walking into a classroom of 30 six-year olds who don’t understand a word of English (and who aren't particularly interested in getting to understand it) is pretty daunting. I’m here to tell you that I was not feeling safely ensconced in my comfort zone at that point!

I thought to play some games to establish rapport with the kids. In a way it worked and in a way it didn’t. I didn’t realise how quickly things can get out of hand with a bunch of six-year-olds. Getting them to shout out answers to simple questions seemed like a great idea, except it’s much easier getting them to start shouting than getting them to stop. I looked in horror at my creation; the kids were having a wonderful time yelling "A-B-C..." at the tops of their lungs, jumping up and down and totally ignoring me. Mind you, since they certainly couldn’t hear me over the racket they were making it was hardly surprising. I limped through the rest of the week in similar fashion and seldom have I been so happy to see the weekend.

This week started with the instruction that they were to be taught how to introduce themselves in English. It was decided that their existing English text books were worse that useless and that we would be working without text books (Angie Motshekga would have nodded in approval had she been consulted).

The first class I walked into was total bedlam. Kids were all over, screaming,
throwing things, hitting each other, fiddling with the computer, running in and out of the door and one or two were crying. Each time I got one half of the classroom more or less settled the other half would again erupt into a fair facsimile of Dante's Inferno. I went back and forth several times before I realised that I was on a hiding to nothing.

After about twenty minutes I felt that I should probably try and teach them something before the end of the period. So despite the rather negative portents I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and started by introducing myself. “My... (pointing at my chest) name... (drawing a label on my forehead) is Gregory”. This produced fits of giggles and whispers as they looked at me inquisitively. Nonetheless, I persevered. After several repetitions they seemed to grasp what I was driving at. I then pointed to one of my students and asked “What... is... your... name?” He responded with “What is your name?” “No-no”, I said tapping him on the chest, “what is YOUR name”. He responded by tentatively tapping me on the chest and asking “What is YOUR name”. So I slowed down and coached him word for word: "My-name-is... What?" "My name is what", he replied confidently. So I repeated the exercise without the "what?" "My-name-is......" "GREGORY" he yelled triumphantly. The thinking seems to be that repeating the teacher's words is a pretty safe bet.

Meanwhile, the rest of the class were taking advantage of the fact that I was distracted and were clicking every icon on the computer, drawing on the smart-board and beating each other up. Some were standing on their desks screaming and some were trying to climb out the window.  Others were throwing books and plastic water bottles at each other. One little guy kept pulling on my sleeve and asking me something in Arabic in a rather breathless voice (there’s one of these in every class). I had no idea what he wanted so I said “No! Sit down!” He seemed devastated by my response and kept nagging me every few seconds. Eventually I gave in and said "Yes, OK”. Sadly, that also didn’t work. (Eventually I got a bilingual teacher to translate for me: it turns out he’d had enough of school for the day and wanted to go home). Others ask for permission to go to the “WC” and giving permission to one seems to be blanket permission for three or four to rush off hooting and screaming loudly.

One little fellow thought that he would help me deal with the discipline issues and ran around the classroom screaming “shut up” and “sit down”. He probably made more noise than the rest of them put together and when the other kids ignored him he attacked them. He left off these self-imposed altruistic duties when one on his peers punched him on the nose. At that point he lost all interest in the proceedings and vacated the classroom howling and snuffling.

I then bravely moved onto their ages. “How... old... are... you?” I asked a student in the front row. I raised my fingers while suggesting “Six? Seven? Eight?” With sudden insight he grasped what I was driving at and screamed “1-2-3-4-5-6-7...” This incited the rest of the class and they all started counting rather haphazardly from one to ten loudly and compulsively.

Of course, not all of the classes are this rowdy and some barely reach the same level of noise as a jet taking off. I treasure these classes. And my afternoon classes at the academy have become so much more pleasurable than they ever were in the past; productive, peaceful and pleasant. I have applied for a license for a dart gun and a supply of Ritalin, but I have had no response as yet.


  1. It's good to know that 6-year-old antics are cross-cultural. I've had very similar experiences in the classroom... little ones are certainly not my forte. If you like using the Smartboard, this website has lots of pre-made templates that you might be able to use (my students are obsessed with writing on the Smartboard):

    Best of luck!

  2. Thanks Lynn. I have developed a huge respect for primary school teaches and I'm glad to know it's not just me. And thanks for the link.