Monday through Friday I work 730 to 430 at a private elementary school. Right away when I arrive at school I have a class to teach- Grade 5 Maths. This is probably one of the highlights of most days as the class and I have become fairly comfortable with each other. That did not happen overnight. At first it was a great struggle for most to understand my American accent which would really be better described as an East-coast-born-Nashville-raised-Japanese-schooled-West-coast-grown amalgamation of inaudible slurs. Or as my fellow teachers like to demonstrate for me, some sort of high-pitched, nasally, European dialect.
Now that we are more familiar with each other’s misplaced stressed syllables, communication is somewhat easier. At the very least I rely on the chalk board to convey the necessary information visually. I have begun to put a problem on the board, have them work it out in groups, and then together as a class we go through it after I have had a chance to go around the class room and evaluate progress individually. I didn’t realize it consciously at first, but I began to recreate my own experience in my most recent math class from the teacher’s point of view. I have a new found appreciation for my math teachers, and a better understanding of exactly what makes a good teacher. It requires immense amounts of energy, an ability to know how to check for and recognize real understanding, and the ability to remember how you learned the things you now consider to be obvious truths – all in front of a room ranging from gaping mouths and blank stares to attentive ears and concentrated eyes.
I wait while the pupils work through the problem I have given on the board, perusing their work from behind their healthily chore-toned postures. The pupils in their navy-blue collared, violet-bodied uniforms huddle around their wooden desks – not unlike the benches you would kneel in front of for communion in a Catholic church. In the mornings they are still wearing their sweaters and sweatshirts. Or sometimes heavy winter coats, knit pull overs, or a Hot Chocolate 15K Race day sweatshirt from California. Meanwhile I in my rural Kenyan teacher attire of ankle length skirts and blouses am always warm yet unendingly cajoled by fellow teachers to just put on a jacket. To just have a seat. To just eat more. To just be free with them. They have the best of intentions.
Outside the shuttered windows the damp morning field awaits the games of football and jump rope and singing and variations of hopscotch that take place during the 1 o’clock lunch hour. To either side of the fifth grade classroom stretch the other classrooms divided by thin vertical wooden sheets. You can hear every word of the lessons taking place next door. Like a portable in its frugal use of space and a storehouse in its simple use of materials, the stretch of classrooms lines one side of the long end of the field. As pupils graduate to the higher level each year, their home base classroom moves easterly up the field, away from the main road entrance, and towards the Indian Ocean. (Which I’m sure this is exactly what they’re thinking as they move from one classroom to the next.)
Once enough students have completed the given problem, I begin to work through the process for the problem on the board. The students obediently pay attention and respond to my prompts of 7×9 is…the first step to adding a fraction is…- sometimes even in a collective monotone for the very well-memorized terms such as GCF, LCM, etc. After I have finally etched the correct answer on the wobbly chalkboard, there is a cheer from those that have gotten it correct like that of spectators who have just confirmed after a breathless moment of anticipation that the ball just barely made it in the net. Likely these periodic little uproars disturb the 4th graders and the 7th graders on either side of the wooden separators, but at least we are enthusiastic about math. So I erase that problem with a crumpled up piece of notebook paper and move on to the next.