Yesterday I had the most humbling experience of my life. The grade one teacher was absent and I was asked to stand in for her. Sure, says I with arrogant confidence.
There are 36 boys and girls, ages 6-7 with skills levels from non readers to grade 3 level. When I arrived in the classroom they had been without a teacher for half an hour and were pumped. I walked into one of Dante's rings of hell. They were yelling, leaping from desk to desk, punching, throwing, hitting and bullying each other. I actually expected that they would return to their sets and quieten down when I appeared, but that didn't happen. There was no way I could be heard above the din. I stood there gob-smacked. What to do? I randomly chose several children and asked them to come to the board to read a paragraph the teacher had written. They came, but they immediately attacked each other with the pointer and their rulers and other lethal objects. These I quickly confiscated amid howls of protest.
While this was happening, little fingers had been poking at me to get my attention. The poking fingers were accompanied by whining voices saying, "Mees, Mees, she take my penceel," "Mees, Mees, he poonch me" "Mees, Mees, she break de chalk," "Mees, Mees, I tursty". Not only was I literally backed into a corner by their pushing and shoving, but I found that I was with master tattlers. These champions of - it's not my fault - are constantly vigilant of their commrades in arms and ready at any moment to inform on each other.
I decided I had to give up reasoning with them and assert myself. I tried, I did try, but the children didn't give a rat's ass what I did, or that I was even there. I could not believe what I was seeing. The violence was astounding.
Suddenly brooms, mops, buckets of water and cleaning clothes appeared to add to the circus. It was Friday, clean up day. It gave 6 little girls something to do, and they did it with a vengence.
To be sure there were several quiet children disbursed among the wild animals who were working away on whatever. How could I use them to my advantage? I took some of them out on to the porch and closed the door on the rest of them hoping no one would get seriously hurt. These children did not know how to sit in a circle or how to cross their legs. These are basic Kindergarten skills. All of them had been to Kindergarten. They also did not know how to line up and taking turns was a totally foreign concept. They could not sit and listen to a story.
Finally it was break time and several teachers came and took some of the children away and absorbed them into their own overcrowded classrooms. This was a great relief, but really only helped the decible level, but it became manageable. I discovered 2 children who were way above the rest in reading and math level, the rest were virtual non readers! When I asked them how many children were in their family they all answered, "Just me," although I knew that many of them had brothers and sisters at the school. The idea of 'backwards' stumped them. They couldn't count backwards from 10, repeat a simple list of 2 items in reverse order, or walk backward. I tried the words, beside, next, over, under. This was better. They learned these concepts very quickly.
In my defence I would like to say that I am sure the accent (theirs and mine) were a major barrier, as well as not being able to raise my voice like the other teachers.
Finally someone sent a terrific young man, a grade 6 student down to rescue me. Devon Brewster will remain in my heart forever. Not only is he a born teacher, but he took command, after asking my permission, and the children responded to him immediately. He spoke with authority, and in their language. He continued to defer to me, although he was clearly in charge.
I am grateful for this experience. I am so glad that I was asked to do this job. I will never again critisize Dominican teachers for their stern voice, wagging finger, and occaisional tugged arm. I learned a lot.