Esther Tyson: Are my students learning?
When teachers hear the saying, "If the student hasn't learnt, the teacher hasn't taught," there tends to be an instant pushback and a defensive response to the implications of that statement. This implies, for some, that "I have not prepared my lesson well," that "my delivery was not good", or "I am not competent in the subject matter." Yet there is wider importance in that statement: that the most important outcome of the teaching-learning process is for teachers to be able to ensure that the student acquires the knowledge that is needed.
In Jamaica, there are many problems facing students who are entering the classroom, even from the early childhood stage. Many come with cognitive developmental problems, nutritional deficiencies, psychosocial issues, among other concerns. Many of these problems developed because of children's home background.
Rampant poverty sometimes makes it difficult for parents to feed children nutritious meals. Others who are themselves psychologically scarred inflict physical and emotional abuse on the children. Then there are the parents who spend no time talking or playing with their children. Some children are not taught to be attentive at home and this lack of discipline is played out in the classroom.
Yet again, there are too many of our children who are brought up in a context of physical violence and crime. They have spent their most vulnerable years of one to six being scarred physically, psychologically and cognitively. The impact of this exposure on our children is long-lasting and deleterious on their ability to learn.
As educators we must accept that this is the context in which we are teaching. As Linda Cliatt-Wayman, turnaround principal for inner-city schools in Chicago, asked her staff, "So what, now what?"
First of all, we need to find a way to make a safe place - physically and emotionally - for our students. How? By getting our students to trust us. Therefore, the physical and verbal abuse that some teachers use in an attempt to control the students have to go. We need to accept that many of our students have not been taught how to behave at home and then teach them appropriate behaviours.
Currently, the Positive Behaviour Intervention Strategy Programme (PBIS) being rolled out in some schools assists with this. Many teachers have to be surrogate parents for our students. There are teachers who resent being asked to assume this role. My question to them is, "Then what?"
Second, we need to be able to diagnose each student's learning readiness. The Ministry of Education requires that this be done at grade one, yet this needs to be done through every level of school. Furthermore, the results of these tests need to be used to plan a learning path for each child.
Third, the school's leadership needs to work with all stakeholders to establish the learning environment that is necessary for value to be added to each student in the school. Where psycho-cognitive assessments need to be done, the board of management and administrators need to interface with the Ministry of Education and the parents to get this done. Then there needs to be follow-through on the findings of the assessment.
These are just a few suggestions. I, however, want to focus on Iris Gelly Primary, a school in the inner-city community of Arnett Gardens. I had the privilege of being part of a National Education Inspectorate team that assessed that school a few years ago. Iris Gelly students come from poor homes, yet they have defied the odds. How? Because of teachers who are determined that every child given to them will learn.
Teachers ensure that the students are orderly. There is no boisterous behaviour during breaks, and students happily play with each other. I observed that the grade one class had a huge black water tank placed inside. The teacher told me that because of the water shortage at the school, she arranged for parents to bring water to fill the tank and she attached a pipe to it so that her students would have the water they need. That is a teacher caring about her students, ensuring that their learning was not impeded.
Teachers use their personal time after school and on the weekends to prepare the students for their external examinations. There is a minimum fee charged, but parents are told to send their children even when they cannot pay.
The principal and the guidance counsellor are known in the community because they take time to go to the homes of the students and to meet their families. They, therefore, are respected and protected.
These and other tales of triumph confirm the truth that the effects of poverty on learning can be overcome.