Article written by Jesse Short
I stand before the class, with the Geography Assessment task in hand. All eyes are on the pile of papers in my hand. They stare at them like it’s part of my personal mission to end weekends. They knew this moment was coming. We’d been learning about Australia and map features for weeks now, for Flinder’s sake. I reminded them last week when the assessment would begin. I told them again yesterday. So why are they slumping all over their desks like a couple of beached seals, imploring me with their barking moans?
“Do we have to?” one of the girl’s in my class asks.
“Yes of course,” I reply.
“But we’ve been doing tests for weeks. Can’t we have a bit of fun?”
The teacher at this point is overcome by a pre-programmed computer voice as they respond with:
“You’re at school to learn. What did you think was going to happen at the end of the term?
A few kids just force a grin and bear it. Others remedy their malady by placing something cool on their foreheads: in this case their desk tops. One boy slid out of his desk and hid behind his chair. I think he was desperately trying to use those lessons on measurement I’d taught him to calculate how quickly he could reach the classroom door. It’s at that moment I am caught by their tiredness, by the onslaught of the curriculum. I’ve never believed that all education must be fun. At the same time, their learning could have been no different this term if I had just modified an automated tennis ball launcher to quick-deliver the necessary content. And then there’s the word ‘necessary.’ What a tired, drawn out word. It conjures up pictures of a slack-legged mule as it shuffles its hooves along from point A to point B, just because his master told him so. Because it was necessary.
I glance at my watch, wondering if I have time to deviate from the plan. Then it struck me. Insight rarely choose a time other than when you are right in the middle of something important to herald you a life lesson. I always complained of not having time. Teacher’s greatest prep tool is time. It’s a valuable resource. One wonders if teachers of the future will battle over it, Mad Max Rockatansky-style, the same way others do oil or water.
I peer at my students, who return my looks with snack-sized hope.
“I guess we have a bit of time,” I declare, setting aside the assessment.
The transformation of the room is ecstatically chaotic, as if someone had just scored a field goal, or it was the end of the war, or school was to be abolished. Three kids bolted to the front of the room and danced. Another converted their pencil shavings into confetti. There were hugs and tears to be hastily wiped away.
So away we put away the books, our pencils were zipped back in their cases, and we gathered our chairs around in a circle. Every teacher has their speciality. Mine is humour. A rare time-honoured event was when I would tell them one of my funny stories. Like this one.
It was Summer of 2008 or 2009. I went with my family on a trip up north where we hiked and explored. One place we stopped off was at Cook Town Botanic gardens. Here was the place where I encountered my nearest re-enactment of Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park. Only replace imaginary dinosaurs with one very agro, male red kangaroo. But just recounting the adventure doesn’t do it justice. For my students, I had to stand, I had to act it out. Become the method performer, sans all the Shakespearian trimmings.
“How did the story start?” one of my boys wondered.
“Well, it was a normal day, like any other day. We had just parked the car next to a wide open park and got out to stretch our legs. My parents went off one way around a track that took them behind some trees, and my sister and I stayed where we were.”
“Then what happened?”
“There was a big mob of kangaroo lying around, tryin’ to escape the heat in the shade. When suddenly, a big Red Kangaroo, hopped up like he’d just forgot to do his homework, and began making its way toward us, fast like.”
“Did it chase you?”
“It disappeared up the path, the way my parents had gone.”
“Oh no!” they cried.
“Oh yes!” I recounted. I probably would have leapt on the teacher’s desk if it would have supported my weight.
“And then there was this big scream and then I heard my mother yell for help.”
“What did you dooo, Mr Short?” a wide eyed girl ‘oooed’ in amazement.
I recalled, to a cacophony of titters of child laughter, that we all fled in terror. To one boy’s casual observation that it was ‘just a kangaroo,’ I replied with the assurance that any danger can be whittled down to be made illogical, in the same way a cyclone can be demoted in crisis status to ‘just a bit of wind,’ or a swimming spot near a flooded river is ‘just a wee current.’ But perhaps the most startling moment came, when we had all leapt inside our little Kia Rio and locked the doors. The kangaroo, which had seconds before been ‘following’ us, had vanished. But then, like a scene from Jurassic Park, where all the heroes take a breath and thank the lord for their safety, the red head of a kangaroo shot up from behind the car bonnet with all the lightning reflexes of a raptor, and fixed us with a penetrating glare.
It might not seem like a great deal, my retelling of this adventure-episode. But it made me realise that with children, we have to let them know that we care. Often it can be just in little ways, like hearing them share their stories or listening to their side of the story when there’s been a fight among friends. The children looked forward to moments like these, when I would regale them with a story or a puppet show, so much so that they requested them. ‘Tell that one about the kangaroo again,’ they’d say. It is all part of a teacher’s job to engage students academically, but investing a bit of sit down time, or sharing our lives with students amidst all the learning is a way of giving something of yourself to them. By doing this, I think, I teach them indirectly that I don’t just care about their progress or their scores (Your score is not who you are, I would often say), but I want to listen and learn about their story. It really brought the class together. It was not just the students and the teacher. It was ‘our’ class. We owned it. We owned the good times and the difficult ones. Setting some time aside for some things, things that the students look forward to and you deliver upon your promise, created an unforgettable experience for them. It becomes less of ‘grade 4’ and an important memory on the child’s journey at school. And that right there is the greatest educational lesson of all: that above all the lessons, and the worrying if they or I ‘got it right’ and the tests and school functions, the student’s lives, their well being, and their self belief matter most. I end with the most important rule I taught the kids: one of the most important things you will learn is how you treat others. For if you don’t learn or don’t want to learn that, you might just miss out on hearing of a new funny story, and with that, a new friend.
Author: Jesse Short
Jesse Klaus Alexander Short, or J.K.A Short, is a writer of English-German background who has a flair for pieces with rich detail, easy-to-read style and a humours appeal. He has spent the last 5 years teaching, 3 of those internationally in Africa and Indonesia, and writes part time. He always searching for ways to define his writing through his travel experiences, fictional short stories and novellettes, and quality article pieces. When he is not teaching or writing, you would probably find him learning the Salsa, listening to movie soundtracks, meditating, creating character sketches or meeting up with friends through social groups on Meetup.com.