Teaching at a “difficult” school

1. The Girls

On the first day as teacher in a new school, my class of grade nine girls sauntered into the classroom one by one or in small chattering groups. After what seemed like a considerable length of time, they were all in and standing next to their desks. They were supposed to wait for me to tell them to sit down. Instead I stood still, waiting for them to stop talking. Mockingly they started singing the school song and the national anthem, obviously wanting to test my reaction.

I stood and watched. They finished singing. I still stood and watched, silently. They became increasingly uncomfortable.

“Can we sit down?” one of them asked.

“Yes, you may,” I replied.

Then I started speaking. “I have been appointed to teach you science. If you co-operate, I will do so. If you don’t, I won’t.”

There was some laughter, and many of them started talking again. I sat down at my table. They talked for the rest of the period, and I did no teaching that day.

I had been warned that this was a difficult school. It was a technical school, and the classes were either all boys or all girls. Walking down the corridors, when I had come to fetch my books, I noticed a deep restlessness among the learners. This was amplified by the sounds of teachers shouting in the classrooms.

Seeing the utter futility of teachers screaming at children in order to discipline them, I decided that I was not going to do that. It was not going to be easy, but I made a decision. It would be a challenge.

The next period I had with this class was a close repetition. Although they did not start singing again, they were very noisy. I made no attempt to keep them quiet, and did not teach. The third time it happened, I went to the staff room and had tea. After that I stayed in the classroom, chatting to some of the children, but making no moves whatsoever to discipline them.

Eventually, one or two of the girls asked me some questions, which I answered. Soon, while the rest of the class was having a ball, I was teaching a few girls sitting in the front row. Occasionally I would chat to the class as a whole, and they began asking questions unrelated to science, and told me all kinds of stories. Soon I knew all the underground details of the town.

The girls started drawing on my black board. The board became an expression of the kind of things that generally occupy the minds of 14 and 15 year old girls, and the creativity that emerged was astounding. I regret not having taken photographs.

I also became a kind of cupid. The girls asked me to tell the boys they were in love with of their feelings and vice versa. Several romances started in this class.

It went on like this for about four months. By now the head of the science department was seriously concerned, as the learners’ test results were not very encouraging, to say the least. But I refused to shout and scream as many of the other teachers were doing, and so we continued. I was lonely, because I could not discuss what was happening with the other teachers. I was challenging the norm. Anyway, they were probably too caught up in their own fears to understand what I was doing.

Test dates were always written on the board, so that learners knew exactly when they had to be written. One such date arrived, and I started handing out the question papers. Suddenly there was an outburst. Mary shouted at me hysterically.

“You should have kept discipline! You are a useless teacher! I wanted to become a pilot, and now I won’t be able to anymore!”

When she quieted down, I said, “Have you finished, Mary?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Then here is your test.”

The class average for that test was somewhere in the region of 10%.

The next day a few of the girls, led by Mary, came to see me.

“Sir,” they said, “something is very wrong. Won’t you please give us extra lessons?”

“Sure,” I responded joyfully.

We arranged a time and about half the class pitched. As we were about to start, I heard a number of girls whispering. Something about smoking. Smoking was an issue at the school and, of course, the more teachers suppressed it, the more the learners smoked.

“Do you want to smoke?” I asked.

“Yes!” they replied.

“Then go ahead!”

Out came the cigarettes, and most of them started smoking. But now they felt uncomfortable.

“Please, sir, won’t you lock the door?” they asked.

I did. Only later did it strike me what the consequences would have been if another teacher had tried to come into the classroom at the time, only to find me locked up with a class of smoking grade nine girls!

I started the lesson.

Some minutes into the lesson, I suddenly remembered about the smoking and looked – not a single learner was smoking anymore. Instead they were all listening with utmost concentration. The lesson was about pressure, and I was explaining how pressure was distributed evenly in a liquid. Sally, whose reputation was not of an academic nature, jumped up, opened the tap on my desk and pushed her thumb on one of the many drops of water.
“Is this what you mean, sir?” she asked.

“Exactly!” I said, remarking on how aptly she demonstrated the principle.

“But this stuff is easy!” was her reply.

It turned into a great lesson. We were joking, but they were concentrating. We had fun.

I covered the whole term’s work, and then gave them a test. They scored between 50% and 80%, higher than some of them had ever scored for a test before. What was even more important was that their answers revealed insight into the principles being tested, rather than the usual meaningless duplication of parrot-fashion learning.

I had no discipline problem anymore. Our relationship had been redefined, and formal teaching after this was impossible. They had clearly seen that it was not necessary to have class after class of laborious and boring worksheets, and hours and hours of lecturing in order to learn. Moreover, the efficiency of teaching had increased dramatically.

Teaching became teaching, instead of a major effort to overcome resistance.

In chaos theory terminology, a chaotic system had been self-organized into a new order.


I was fascinated. Why this remarkable change? How had teaching come to be the hell it increasingly has become in schools all over the world, when it can actually be fun? I am not the first educator to ask these questions. Many educationalists, psychologists and others have asked them. Some have been ignored; some have had their ideas changed into new ideologies.

For me, two significant issues seemed to have emerged:

Firstly, from the moment the girls walked into my class, the relationship between us was automatically defined as a power struggle, based on the existing norm in the school. In this power struggle, it was up to the teachers to get the learners to learn. In practice, however, the power struggle prevented both effective teaching and effective learning. These grade nine girls were an extreme example of the power struggles that are inherent in any compulsory education system. It cannot be otherwise when it is up to the teacher to make learners learn. When the power struggle was relinquished, in other words when the learners decided of their own accord to learn, learning not only happened, but the effectiveness of it increased dramatically to a level generally considered impossible. I was able to teach in one hour the amount of work that would normally take three or four months. (Of course, “power struggle” is never mentioned during teacher training. Hence the common observation by new teachers that teaching in practice is entirely different to what they had been taught.)

Secondly, I did not change anybody’s behaviour. Something happened in this class that made the girls change their own behaviour. How was this possible, especially since I had apparently done nothing?

When the grade nines entered my class, they expected me to maintain discipline, but were ready to counteract any efforts I would make to that effect. When I refused to discipline them, they became unruly – in an (unconscious) effort to force me to do so. They were trying to push me into a complementary relationship defined by my attempts to keep them quiet and their resistance to those attempts – the norm at the school.

I already had a deep basic trust in the nature of group process, practiced as a Rogerian group facilitator (based on the principles expounded by Carl Rogers) in the telephone counseling service Life Line. What happened in this class confirmed to me what I had already learnt there. In fact, I would not have embarked on the venture if this faith was not in place.

2. The Boys

The boys in a particular grade ten class (labeled the ‘dumb’ class) at the same school were extremely restless and almost violent when I arrived. They would continually stand up, walk around, hit each other, and throw each other over the desks, never settling down. Some of them were about to be expelled for vandalism, having broken water pipes out of the walls. I was expected to teach them science, which wasn’t exactly their highest priority in life.

Soon after I started, various items of science equipment started disappearing. I kept trying to get through to them, without success. More and more items disappeared. I tried a different tactic. Each time I noticed something missing, I wrote the name of the item on the black board. From time to time, I asked the boys to please return the items. Other classes asked me what the list meant. They thought I was bonkers. I didn’t care. I was busy with an experiment that I believed was going to work.

Then the boys had to go to “veld school” and I volunteered to go with them. (“Veld school” was a compulsory outing of a few days for all white school children in grade seven and grade ten in the days of the pre-1994 South African government. The content of these outings included learning about nature, obstacle courses, etc., but also what cannot be described as other than government indoctrination.) At the veld school, each teacher was allocated as a mentor to a number of boys. From the start, my group complained.

“Sir, the food is bad.”

“Sir, the teachers treat us like shit.”

“Sir, …”

Each time my response was, “If you have a problem, why don’t you tell the teachers about it?”

“Oh no, we can’t, sir. They will shout at us and we’ll get into even more trouble!”

“Well, then you can’t really expect things to improve, can you?”

“No, but you must talk to them.”

“So you want me to take responsibility for you?”

“Yes, they’ll listen to you, they won’t listen to us!”

“Well, I’m not going to. If you have a problem, you must sort it out.”

It went on like that for a few days.

At each mealtime, a boy was obliged to say the grace. One of my boys made a joking suggestion of what to say.

“I dare you to,” I said.

Lunchtime came, and he had to pray. He chickened out, but another, bolder one took over:

“Rub-a-dub-dub,” he started off, “thanks for the grub!”

I froze, pretending to know nothing. The teachers were furious. The boy was immediately called aside and severely reprimanded. He had been proposed as a leader before (guess by who?), but now they wanted to remove him from the list.

“This boy is a troublemaker! He is a bad influence!”

“But surely that means he is a leader?” I respectfully intervened.


“Well, he may be doing ‘negative’ things, but he has guts, and his peers regard him as a leader.”

“Well, we don’t need those kinds of leaders here!”

He remained on the list. He was a leader. But my popularity stake with the teachers took quite a dive.

My popularity stake with the boys, however, had risen dramatically.

Back in class, the boys settled down.

“Sir,” they said, “we have made a fuck-up. Now we want to work. Teach us.”

The relationship had changed, and they were ready to start learning. I started teaching, spending the first period explaining the periodic table and its eight groups.

“Wait, sir! You are going too fast! We must write a test on this first!” They wrote a test on one period’s work, and they got good marks! These boys had not known what it was to get good marks before.

Now they determined their own pace, and really worked.

They didn’t get distinctions, but we got through all the work, and as far as I know all of them passed (I left shortly afterwards).

More amazingly, one by one the items that had disappeared mysteriously re-appeared on my desk. A flask here, a meter there: everything came back (about twenty or so items). Only my electricity meter never re-appeared. Nobody said a word. I never knew who had taken what, but the experiment had worked.

I had experienced the power of forgiveness in practice.


I had changed a complementary contest relationship to a symmetrical one, where we could work together as human beings, with a significant increase in learning efficiency as the result. I had effectively demonstrated that another way is possible.

But I had simultaneously shown up the system. With that, I directly experienced the reason why it is so difficult to change a culture. I had stumbled upon the dilemma expressed in the film Dead Poets’ Society: difference, even if this entails success, incurs resistance.

Soon after all these experiences, I resigned, gave 24 hours’ notice and left. Why?

The decision to leave has probably been the one decision I have regretted most in my life, and I have frequently chastised myself severely for it. I left at a stage where I really had the kind of relationship with the learners portrayed in the movie. When I told the students that I was going, many came to beg me to stay. I didn’t even teach all of them! Yet, it was as if I had just closed off. Nothing would convince me. My underlying anxiety and insecurity overrode all the rational evidence that I had actually achieved tremendous success. Although I had wanted nothing more than (exactly that) success, at a deep underlying level I did not believe that it was possible, or that I was worthy of it.

Only much later did I realize what had happened. I had managed to change the norm in my classes by establishing a climate of trust in which teaching became much more efficient. In terms of my own criteria, I had been highly successful. In terms of traditional criteria, however, I had failed. The words of John Steinbeck come to mind: “‘It has always seemed strange to me,’ said Doc. ‘The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second’” (Cannery Row).

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