In Praise of Primary School Teachers

A high school teacher in Grade 4

Five things I learned about ten year olds while substituting at a primary school:

Never mind An Englishman in New York. Sting (a fellow high school English teacher made good) had it easy. Try being a high school teacher in Grade 4 for a fish out of water experience. Those who teach fourth graders have my unadulterated respect. After spending one day substituting in a class of ten year olds, I not only bow in admiration of primary school educators, but confess to having discovered things about these little people during my educational experiment that not even raising five of my own children could have prepared me for:

They move. Constantly. They flit from desk to desk like young flies, never still for more than a second before spinning on to another location. Once settled, they continue to squirm and wriggle, a seething mass of delightful cherubs with endless, random questions.

I stood there in growing dismay as my earlier piece-of-cake-this-Grade-4-thing swagger faded and I worried how I could call them all to order. Unafraid of the stranger in their midst, they pelted me with questions of whether they could get a tissue, pick up an errant pencil, find a lost hat; enquiring about why I was named after a car and my personal favourite: ‘May I go to the bathroom?’ (although, if the truth be told, the latter profundity is frequently heard in high school classrooms too.) By the time they were vaguely settled, I was sweating.

First up was Mathematics. Easy, I thought: two worksheets on money: They would industriously dedicate themselves to numerical fun and I would benevolently supervise their diligence and burgeoning capitalism.

‘Is this for our busy books, or our Maths books?’ Siya* politely enquired.

Panic. There’s a difference? I pushed aside the errant thought of ‘Do I care?’ as mean-high-school-teacher sarcasm and answered with what I hoped was seasoned Grade 4 teacher aplomb.

After debating what the lumpy Rorschach blot in the supermarket trolley to be costed was, we settled on ‘a sack of potatoes’ although personally I would have gone with ‘head of dodgy man with big nose, wearing a hat’, but I suppose such a delicacy would be a trifle dark for a child’s shopping cart. And they went back to their calculations.

That was when I discovered the second interesting fact about my young charges:

They like to operate dangerous machinery.

The well-equipped classroom I had been assigned featured a guillotine for cutting paper. Why cut out your worksheet neatly using your scissors when you can risk losing a digit or two?! I held my breath for several minutes as they navigated the super-sharp equipment, imagining how I would explain myself to their parents at the emergency room of the Blouberg Hospital.

Then it was story time.  In my naïveté I had had a vision (delusion) of myself ensconced in a comfy chair with eager listeners held in thrall at my feet on the mat, as I wove a web of magic for them. But I’d forgotten about the worm factor.

The carpet seemed to encourage more wiggling, shifting and fidgeting and I couldn’t help but be glad that their parents yet again couldn’t hear my thoughts as once more I pictured their offspring as tiny maggots.

The boys next to me snuggled in, which was cute until one began to massage my shoulders, giving me a huge fright since in high school one tends to avoid all contact with students lest it be misinterpreted. Feeling a little uncomfortable with such open affection, I inched away, not wanting to upset the young masseur, or the flaxen-haired lass playing with my hair and being careful to avoid kicking the elfin-faced girl who was stroking the fur at the top of my boots. The insect image had reminded me of my own son who had lice several times in Grade 4 and my head began to itch. I was saved from my growing entomophobia by Emily* proclaiming loudly that Dylan* had thrown Ryan’s* eraser out the window.

‘OMG! The window – they’ll fall through the glass behind the cosy window seat they are reclining on!’ I thought with alarm. Outwardly calm, I sent the delighted Dylan to fetch the disputed stationery item and attempted to return to the story of Goosie, the unfortunate hen (Huh? I know – that confused me too) who was a victim of battery farming. That was when I discovered fact number three about Grade 4s:

The can squabble over anything.

They debate with the vehemence of lawyers in Suits, and the moral outrage and proclamations of innocence of the South African government’s denials of wrongdoing in procuring the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Dylan* was lucky we don’t have a jury system because some of his classmates would have imposed life without parole for his offence.

Just when I had finished administering my Nobel-laureate peacemaking skills, honed from years of teaching adolescent wannabe gangsters, Dominic* produced a rubber egg (I kid you not) which bounced erratically around the classroom amid squeals of delight from all in its path.

I was saved by snack time during which Thandi* produced  a verboten chocolate egg, causing much discussion about how unhealthy foods were not allowed in lunch boxes. Taking charge, I declared this was acceptable today, only because we were learning about all things oval.

I spent break time staring fixedly into space, trying hard to look as if I were at ease in this alien land of small people, but I am sure that the kind glances of my fellow teachers  hid their certainty that the Zombie Apocalypse  had come to their lounge in the shape of the dazed substitute teacher.

And so the day continued, during which I learnt another undeniable truth about my young charges.

They cry.

Unlike teenage dramatic incidents which tend to occur in bathrooms as communal angst fests, juniors cry quietly and the teacher (well me) has to be prodded to notice that ‘Marta* is crying, Ma’am.’ But they are easy to soothe, even though the reasons for the upset can be bizarre: ‘Cassandra* took her paper snake.’

Seriously?!

At least Connie’s* distress at the end of the day was fitting. Her chair fell on her as she was putting it up on her desk to make way for the classroom to be cleaned. That was when I discovered again that a child’s hurt is rapidy dissipated by a hug and kind words and I realised the fifth thing about these precious creatures placed in my inadequate care for the day:

They are easy to love.

Fortunately my fears of juvenile anarchy overtaking my tenuous hold on classroom control and images of Lord of the Flies-like chaos (there’s that insect theme again) came to nought. The quiet announcement from Mandla* that he would miss me, as he sidled up for a shy farewell hug, carried me off with a light heart.

And then I went home and slept for two hours.

The esteem in which I hold elementary school educators is now even more profound. Respect.  I really did enjoy the Grade 4s, especially the one who thinks we should eat free range chickens because they are happier, but I should probably stick to teaching seniors.

Come back, Grade 9s; all is forgiven. Never again shall I call you a wimp, Hamlet.

*Names withheld to protect the author from embarrassment.

Colleen Bentley

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