George Davis | Tough lessons to learn
I recently accepted an invitation to talk about careers with a group of students at a primary school in Manchester. The trip to that school left me in no doubt about the scale of the task facing many of our teachers in similar settings, striving to educate our children.
When I arrived at the school, I couldn't help but contrast it with the salubrious settings of a few preparatory schools in Kingston and St Andrew. The school shared a sprawling property with a Victorian-styled church that had seen better days about 20 years ago and a cemetery. It had a concrete patch for a playing field and had no perimeter fence.
Of course, rural folk are nothing if not neat and tidy. The surroundings were clean and I was asked to wait in the principal's small office, the only place on the compound where a visitor could reasonably be accommodated. I was told that my audience would comprise students from grades three through six.
So in a hot classroom at about 2 p.m., I began to speak to about 60 children crammed inside the space, along with a few members of faculty and students from The Mico University College, who were there on teaching practice.
After about five minutes, the students began to get restless, and as the sweat formed on my forehead, I drew for the nuclear option I had devised in the event of wavering attention. In truth, I was forced to activate this option about 15 minutes early.
So I promised to pay $200 in cash to the student who could spell the word 'guerrilla'. I chose that word because when I was in primary school in the early 1990s, that was one of the words given to grade-two students in the end-of-year reading test, a crucial part of the assessment to move on to grade three. Recall that I was speaking to students in grade three to six, meaning they ranged from eight to 11 years old. There was at least one 12-year-old in the group, a student who had repeated the sixth grade.
The offer of the cash reward had the desired effect. Dozing students perked up, and those who were discussing their own business were suddenly focused on me. In the room of 60 students, only about eight tried to spell the word. Disappointingly, I had to put the word to a second round of answers before one girl gave the correct spelling. I demanded she be given a round of applause as she made her way to the front to collect her cash prize.
I continued talking about careers for a few minutes before putting another word to the students: 'renaissance', this one for $500. I must have spent 15 minutes taking all sorts of spellings of the word, including from those who clearly had no clue but were simply trying their luck. Sad to say, that prize went uncollected. The mood in the classroom changed, and I started to feel as if those teachers and trainee teachers present were exuding a combination of embarrassment on behalf of the children along with anger towards me for going out of my way to show up the severe limitations of the group.
I sought to win the audience back by offering US$5 to anyone who could spell 'inveigle'. Again, I went around the room for almost 10 minutes before a boy of about 10 gave me the correct spelling.
My reason for telling the story is simple. In many schools in this country, especially in the Corporate Area where resources are abundant and students benefit from the best facilities and have a strong support system, attentive parents, excellence happens.
But in many others where resources are meagre and some brave teachers have to be providing uniforms and even toothpaste to the children parents send to school, mediocrity is the order of the day. One teacher at the school I visited confided that 85 per cent of her grade three class can't read. I am in no doubt that her reality mirrors that of many other teachers in several other schools across this land. It bothers me. And it should bother you, too.