Friday, September 9, 2011

A Teacher's Dilemma

I've met horrifyingly weak students in my whole one year teaching experience.

16 year old kids who can barely do a Year 1 level worksheet.

I thought I have long accepted this shocking, sad fact.

Till recently during my oral assessment with them.

I decided to do an interview with them.

Knowing that their proficiency is beyond basic, I've prepared the interview questions.  All they have to do is answer the questions, give it back to me to edit their grammatically wrong answer, and just memorise the whole damn thing.

Questions like, "What is your name?", "How old are you?", "When were you born?", yada yada.  

The dedicated kids managed to do what was required.

 And as for the rest, they just didn't give a damn.

I don't mind if they are able to answer these simple questions.

But they couldn't.

First, they didn't understand the questions.  "What is your name?" was as far as they could answer.

Second, even if they do, they do not how to construct the answer.

There's this one kid who simply just didn't give a fuck who didn't even bother to answer the questionnaire.  And when he couldn't answer the question, who just sat there saying he doesn't know.  He didn't even bother asking for the meaning of the questions, nor how to answer it, unlike his other classmates.

My class with him was from 7.40 a.m. till 8.15 a.m.  I wasn't just going to let him go with his I-don't-know answers.  I dragged him to my next class and made him sit with me as I conducted the same oral assessment with another class, while occassionaly asking him if he has any questions pertaining the questions that he couldn't understand.  Only 'bout after an hour then he realised what he should do to avoid being dragged to the staffroom, to my next class, and basically, till school period ends.  'Coz I was adamant to make him speak.  4 hours and 3 classes later, his oral test with me was finally over.

On a different but still disgruntled note, I can accept that they don't understand the question.  In which getting pissed off with them for not making the effort to understand it weeks prior the test even after we have discussed it together is a futile show of emotion.  I can't lose my youth this young.

But what I couldn't accept is that at 16, they don't know numbers.  Say if their birthday is on the 16th, I have to make them count from 1.  Like a million times till they can remember.  Don't make me start on making them say their year of birth.  And another shocking revelation was that a couple of them DO NOT KNOW THE NAME OF THE MONTHS.


My biggest bet is NOTHING.

And so my oral assessment turned into a one on one lesson on counting and name of the months.

Then there's this kid who sleeps whole day in class, and dreams to be a mechanic.  And by gawd, he's going to make RM1500 every month and that's going to sustain his life and his family till he grows old and frail.  When you wave at him the possibilities of making double the amount by just studying hard, meh.  Sleeping through his school years and yet still making RM1.5K is the dream.

I'm never gonna get used to this ignorance.  As long as the system sucks, we're bound to produce more blue collar citizens and poverty will always be part of our nation.  But who knows, that might be the exact agenda.  We all can't be millionaires, can we?  Who's going to serve our food and fix our car if not the school drop outs?

Which begs the question. WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?

Do we ignore those who choose not to learn, and focus on those who still wants to; OR, do we try our best and never give up on those who have already given up on themselves  -as part of our responsibility as a teacher to motivate students to better their lives?

In the movie Lean On Me (based on a true strory), the new, hard ass principal expelled all the drug addicts and thugs - no question asked, in order to save the school.  Did he do the right thing?  Is he denying these students chance to change to be a better person?  In the movie Freedom Writer (also based on a true story), this teacher, Erin Gruwell, was given the most unteacheable class, but she managed to build these students broken lives and see them graduate.

In my opinion (or rather, absolutely inspired by Erin Gruwell and her crusade), abandoning them is not an option.  Especially when you are a young teacher, full of energy, ideas and inspiration.  But for how long till I break, ignore them, and just save those who want to be saved?

I might be doing those who really want to learn a favour by not wasting time on those who don't, but that doesn't mean my hands are clean.  And that doesn't make me happy.  Even though I can make a difference in half of my students, I'd still have blood on my hands of the other half.  To be a little more melodramatic.

Which again, boosts my motivation in furthering my studies and get the hell out of the school system, even to the extend asking friends and lecturers for opinions on the whatnots.  Even if I still have another 4 years to go, according to my bond.  But there has to be a loophole.  There has to be.

So peeps, I now repeat the question for you, regardless whether you're a teacher or not.

Do you amputate the infected foot before it infects the whole leg, or do you try to treat and save it?

(I've always wanted to say that actually.  Medical TV drama is just so cool.)

Should a teacher ignore those who don't want to study and focus on those who want, or should he or she try his/her best to motivate them and never give up on them?

Unlike toilet paper - we now know the answer.


Phoebe said...

This reminds me of a girl in UiTM. In her 1st semester she was asked in an English Oral Test.

Teacher: Abigail (not real name), what is your name?

Abigail: *shrugs her shoulders* I dun know.

Obviously, she didn't make it past the 1st semester.

J. Izenhertz said...

A conundrum.

Parents are the most influential people in the early of any children. Being proactive in their children life is a benefit and is often a good way to cement positive behaviors.

Educators are the people who teaches the children. There a lot of way to teaches but the main point is to have an interesting presentation and fun in the mix; be creative and innovative. Although admittedly to inject fun into some subject is difficult. You can make History more presentable but can it be fun?

Children at a very young are easily shaped and influenced. Between a proactive parents and creative educators there should be no negative issue; or at least there will be less than what we have now.

Our rigid education system is not much of a help either. There a lot we can learn from our western *gasp* counterpart.

My apology for babbling. It's just that - it's somewhat sad. Perhaps if the past teachers, might they be the primary teachers or even the secondary teachers, put more efforts and perhaps if parents decided play a bigger role in their development then those students of your might just turn out alright.

Amputation or treatment? I guess that means give up the lost cause or patch 'em up and hope for the best. It's better to keep trying to reach them all. Keep the door open, those who walk out will do it by their own choice and not because of you.

Such is life, you want do so much and yet... I wanted to say good luck teaching them but that doesn't seem fitting somehow. :-/

kei-1 said...

I say amputation.

Though it is the greatest ideal that we're forgiving and keep on giving chances, but making students at the age of 16-18 realize that the life that they are living is wrong is bloody harder that anything one could imagine.

The real problem is that there is no real lesson of consequences in our system today. You fail, you go up 1 year, you pass you go up 1 year also. What are the consequences learned?

Though many disregard skinner's behaviorist theory, I believe that it is the core and the very basic of human education. Because before they could even digest knowledge, they must be able to accept the fact that they want to accept knowledge first.

This stuff however is too late to be implemented if a student is already form 4-5. There is no basic, therefore they could never be any structure. I'd gladly tear the rabble down.

At the very least by stripping them off something that they are taking for granted, they have to scramble for something new to feel safe. Not only it is efficient for the student, but also the parents. Well of course there are students who, if dropped out, would fall lower than human level, but that's the parent's role. Humanity and Religion is shaped at home afterall. What people fail to see is that school is just a place for you to learn social behaviour only. Building up the human inside is the bloody parent's job. If you're sending a child that is less than human to school, we're not trained to teach anything that is not human, since teachers are by far, just human themselves too.

There is nothing wrong with dropping out from school, there is no shame in not being able to go to university. People need to realize that. A huge influx of graduates isn't going to do our country any better if our basic needs in a country is dependent on foreign labors. I doubt we can build any building right now if we send away all the foreign labors in our country today.

Not all of us are born doctors, lawyers, teachers or even scientist. Why do we discriminate low paying job? Why the stigma? In the states, manual labor have pride in their job. The Japanese was able to fix an absolutely ruined highway in 4 days to a working condition! Why the hell is that? Simple, it is fixed by their own citizen. Foreign Labor would have no empathy to our country, for as long as we're dependent on them, it'll do us no good.

And we will continue to depend on them because we look down on low paying job and expect everyone to be a graduate. In the end, what you get is mass unemployment.

In short, amputate them. There is always a function for everything, even for an amputated limb. It can fertilize the ground and help trees grow. Aren't tree just as important as human?

Amputate them.

Zen said...

holy crap. i am totally feelin' you maannnnnnnn.

the problem with the kids at my place is many (80%) fail to see the value of education. Immediate and in the long run.

that i don't mind. its their life. but having a shitty attitude, arrogant, smug and having no respect for the school and everything it stands for......

......I.WANT.BLOOOOD.lajfldjfapownwonaldkajdaowmdapodam opmdpaomdpadmaldmadw *administering sedatives*

Amanda Christine Wong said...

Phy: Wow. That's incredibly sad.

J. Izenhert: Thanks for your insight. I like your sentence bout keeping the door open. I guess as long as we don't close the door completely then.

Kei: That was deep man. And so inspiring. You kinda solve my problem you know, when you open my mind like that. You need to go out there and tell this stuff to everyone!

Zen: Lolz. So just refer to the comment above yours. FUCKING AMPUTATE!

jasmit said...


I used the exact method for my students oral assessment last year when they were in form 4..
Q: How old are you?
A: I am fine thank you.

I ended up laughing and they were all staring at me with a blank face...hehe...but in the end I corrected him and no one did that same mistake again...luckily

This year in form 5, now they are at least able to memorise 1-2 paragraphs for their oral assessment...thank god!!!

kei-1 said...

Deep inside everyone knows about this, they just choose to ignore it. That's all.

Birthmark said...

Amanda, what you're doing now is right. Do, and try your best.

At the end of the day, you still can face the mirror and say to yourself, you've tried.

Melancholic Fool said...

i dont know what anyone could do... maybe something unbelievable or drastic like a teacher take the kid to someplace for one month live with him 24/7 until he knows all the basics of how to be human...

btw... about freedom writers... i dont really like the movie... yeah she made a difference and all, but later she got no life... its like the movie is making it like this - if u want to be a good teacher... burn ur life up in smoke... but this is my opinion on JUST the movie...

Amanda Christine Wong said...

Jasmit: haha!u're so bad! ergh. at least urs still want to try.

Kei: So true.

Birthmark: Thanks. I'VE TRIIIED!

Azhar: Like a language/humanity rehab centre? Well, yeah. Agee on that part where she puts her life behind 'for the greater good'. so that's why i think we can't have it all. you wanna be a great teacher, but u have to lose some part of ur life. you wanna be an ass of a teacher, u get to keep ur life, sanity and money. it's just how passionate u are.

Lizeewong said...

Like Kei, I'd say amputation. I had the same dilemma years ago, teaching Form 1 students who couldn't read and write, not only in English but also in Malay. Eja nama sendiri pun nda tau. Some were dyslectic and some had serious learning disabilities but there was neither a special ed teacher nor a special programme for these kids in my school. Teaching English to these bunch of students was really a losing battle.

Personally, I think they are better off doing something else. Cos let's face it, 14 year old kids who can't read or write can never pass SPM. For these kinds of students, vocational education is probably best.

Joan said...

Amputate the bad leg.

or even better if you cant teach them just confuse them. haha.. nda bah, that part joke2 onli. :P

Amanda Christine Wong said...

Lizee: No matter how often they say that 'it's the teacher's job' to teach them to read, but they forgot about the other aspects of their development. why nobody ever blame the parents? :/ . plus, now teknik school pun ada standard sdh ba kunu. mana dorang mau terima yg gagal semua subject. so i still meet my hopeless form 3 kids in form 4. i was really hoping they'd go to vocational school. so yeah, all vote for amputation!

Joan: wicked! i actually like that confusing part. hm...

Lizeewong said...

Yeah, vocational schools pun wouldn't take illiterate students kan. As you said, the parents should take the initiative to support and help their illiterate kids. If there is really no hope of passing the public exams, hantar saja la pi kursus teknikal atau suru dorang belajar something yg dorang minat. One of my students who could barely read in Form 1 is now a tatoo artist in KK. That's just one example la.

Amanda Christine Wong said...

Lizee: Ya kan. at least he has the skills to bring the bacon home. unfortunately, teda org berani buat a talk about "Leave school now n learn some skills instead".

Asrih Arif said...

what everyone should realise is that amputation has TONNES of negative COMPLICATIONs! Amputation is always the LAST resort. We always try to salvage the limbs medically with antibiotic before opting for a surgical intervention (hihihihi)

I strongly believe that a teacher should definitely save those who are willing to help themselves but at the same time motivate those who are not...

I know it's a pain in the ass to do both at the same time but... 'No pain no gain'... even though u know that quite a lot of times in life 'pain comes with no gain'...

i seriously feel sorry for u and ur students... u are stuck.. they on the other hand have got no clue of what's ahead of them.. i know that no one knows what's ahead of them but at least for some of us, we did prepare for the unexpected... And school is the best place to prepare oneself for the unexpected future..

good luck manda...

kei-1 said...


IMO, the real problem in education in, how do you determine "the last resort"?

I assume it would be much easier in a school of form 1-5. I'm teaching a technical school, I only have form 4 and 5. What is the gauge that I have, to determine my time limit to decide that "ok, I need to amputate as a last resort". We're racing against the clock that we cannot see and that is crazy. "Preparing for the unexpected" is a funny paradox. You're basically preparing for the possibilities that you're expecting should, would or could happen. In other words, it is not unexpected.

Again, this is a personal opinion. I do not think that a teacher should really motivates, they should inspire. Because motivating requires a set of time spend on a certain student. Time and energy are 2 resources that are always stripped of from teachers on a daily basis and adding more things like that is not healthy. But yes, its easier said than done.

I still stand strong with the idea of there is no problem with dropping out. Not everyone is an academician. This might totally sound like me trying to run away from my responsibility as a teacher however I believe my stand is pretty well based. It is only seen as a bad choice today because we stigmatized low paying job and have too high expectation out of everyone and every kid.

I mean like... if a lorry driver with 14 children can support his whole family till his children can go to the university, I think he did a damn better job than a phd father who couldn't even turn his only child into a human.

karulann said...

I seriously respect you as a teacher. It's simply mind-boggling that a kid that went through primary school and through high school are still illiterate. And to try and teach these kids, if it was me I would be vomiting blood already.

Amanda Christine Wong said...

Asrih: Probably using this metaphor with a real doctor isn't that appropriate :p. yup, we're definitely stuck. only few teachers out there are real gifted, who can turn things 360 degree around. unfortunately im not one of them :(. thanks asrih. really need that luck.

Kei: once again, a nice retort. think i will give a lecture on my kids to 'drop out now' if they dont plan to study anyway. i just need to be on the watch out of other teachers.

karulann: yup, that's the exact word. mind-boggling. haih. if only society thinks more like u, nda jg kami kena hentam balik2 'failing' their kids...

kei-1 said...

Telling them to drop out is purely dangerous I think Amanda. The more appropriate approach I think would be to teach them to respect every possible occupation there is out there. That there is no such thing as a low class job or if having low paying job would mean you're the pariah of the society or something like that.

Preaching acceptance would be the way to go I think.

But alas, I'm just a thinker with 1 year of working experience only. Thread carefully.

Santafire said...

I want to make your movie when you're done building them :D

Amanda Christine Wong said...

Kei: hm, u're right. it's like telling them, "you'll never succeed". okay, will thread slowly.

Santafire: uh...that's gonna take a looong time :/