It is last period on Friday afternoon. Four boys waltz in twenty minutes late. I am halfway through modelling to the rest of the class how to write engaging dialogue, and the looks on their faces suggest I am doing it in the most disengaging way. I’ve been struggling with my Year 9 English class. The feeling of slight panic and frustration I have begun to associate with them creeps in. Am I teaching them anything at all?
“Take your seats, boys, and I’ll come explain what we’re doing,” I tell the latecomers. The boys sit on the ground. Then they lie on the ground. Then they start rolling around on the ground.
It feels like we never get anything done on Friday afternoons. Even my engaged kids are allergic to work and stare longingly out the window.
“Miss, come roll around on the floor with us!” David* taunts, begging me to explode.
David is borderline illiterate. You see, my school is disadvantaged. It has an Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) value of 917, far below the national average of 1000. Many students come from backgrounds of crime, drugs and other issues that my brain can only begin to comprehend, let alone empathise with. These issues have disrupted some students’ educations, resulting in low literacy levels. The boys rolling around on the ground? They are the epitome of this issue.
“It’s soooooo nice down here, Miss,” Nathan* tells me while kicking my desk so that pens fly off. “You really should come try it!”
Part of me thinks, what’s the point? Nathan doesn’t know the difference between verbs and adjectives; can I really expect him to understand how to write engaging dialogue?
Then something that a fellow Associate and friend told me when I started teaching jumps into my head: “With some of these kids, it’s less about teaching content, but rather teaching them how to be a decent person.”
No matter how many times I tell these kids to work today, they won’t do it. It will only build resentment.
So with my friend’s words ringing, I put my computer down and lie on the floor next to Nathan. “You’re right,” I say. “It is nice down here.” At first they are too shocked for words, and the rest of the class looks on in disbelief. Then a couple of others come over, too.
And then we chat.
We chat about life and travel and futures and gun laws and sports and our first fist fights (okay, fine, their first fist fights) and everything in between.
“I want to be a diesel mechanic,” Nathan tells me.
“I’m going to be an engineer. Dunno what type, but definitely an engineer,” quips another.
And my heart bursts.
Then we get off the floor and have a competition throwing scrunched up paper into the bin. When I win I throw my hands in the air and yell.
I leave the class feeling like they have learned more in that session than any other lesson this year. My heart feels unexpectedly full.
Teach For Australia’s mission is that all kids receive an excellent education regardless of their background. I have learned how far education goes beyond knowledge, beyond content, even beyond saying you care.
Sometimes, education is tossing a lesson plan out the window to throw paper with a bunch of teenagers and yell, “Kobe!”
This lesson won’t suddenly transform these kids into model students. They came into the next class and didn’t roll on the floor, but they did throw books at the wall. Yet when I told them off, it felt different. They stopped and smiled at me. We almost understood each other. So when they started chucking pens five minutes later, I didn’t mind so much. I knew we were going to be alright.
The whole thing has been a beautiful reminder. If you’re struggling to remember why you’re doing something, wondering what the point is, just stop for a second. Don’t rush the knowledge part. Build relationships first and return to them when they’re derailing.
Now I know why we always sat on the ground in primary school. It’s a different world down there on the classroom floor.
*Names have been changed to protect student privacy