Friday, February 12, 2010

Patience (The Lack Thereof)

Something that I ate recently caused me to wake suddenly at 5:00 AM and made me decide that, rather than going to school this morning, I should probably stay in the vicinity of a bathroom until the party in my intestines has died down a bit. Oh, the joys of life in Africa.

So instead of teaching, I'm sitting at home grading. I just finished a pile of chemistry makeup exams, which I administered on Tuesday, to the great displeasure of both myself and all of the students who elected to take the exam. All except for one of the 15 or 20 students who took the exam failed, many getting no more than 6 points out of 50.

I'm particularly frustrated in this instance because this was a makeup exam, which I not only administered to those who were absent during the administration of the first exam, but to anyone who was unhappy with their exam score and wished to try their luck again. The frustration comes from the fact that the makeup exam was almost identical to the original exam; I merely whited out the numbers in the questions requiring calculation and entered new numbers, and made some other small changes. The fact that the students did so poorly on this repeat exam leads me to believe that most of them failed to actually study the material, or try to understand the mistakes they had made the first time around. (Although, to be fair, it is gratifying to know that quite a few students did at least care enough to re-take the exam).

What's even worse – I had repeatedly told the students that I would give the makeup exam at 1:00 on Tuesday, 1:00 on Tuesday, 1:00 on Tuesday. The majority of the students tumbled in to the classroom laughing at 2:15. When I told them that I had a class at 2:00 that I was already late to, and why in God's name would they show up more than an hour after I said I was giving the exam?, they begged and pleaded and eventually got me to agree to give the exam at the end of the day. Thus already irritated, I was not pleased when they then spent most of the test period trying to peek at each others' papers and discuss answers. So in that way, we all spent a miserable hour together – all of us frustrated, unhappy, and eager to go home after a long day.

Do you know what the saddest part of this whole situation is, the part that is most disturbing to me? It's that, right now, I honestly do not give a flying fuck whether they fail or pass. I don't know what to do with kids like this – students who make little to no effort to study, then beg, plead, and whine when they fail, and genuinely expect me to change their grades to passing. I don't know how to get it through their heads that I am not failing them because I feel like it, or I enjoy making them unhappy, or because I'm lazy. Somehow the idea that a grade is intended to reflect the material that one has actually learned, with students that truly understand getting passing grades and those that don't have a clue what's going on getting failing grades, is not getting across. And I guess it's no wonder – in this system, there probably isn't that much correlation between mastery of material and grades; the students who make it worthwhile (monetarily, sexually, or in some other way) for the teachers to give them passing grades are the ones who do the best on paper.

Anyway, in general, I'm having a really tough time not being extremely short-tempered with the students these days. The strange part is – it actually seems to be helping in terms of classroom management. I find myself yelling almost all the time, in a tone of voice that I had previously reserved for instances in which I've found my dog with one of my more expensive belongings crushed between his teeth. I lecture the kids regularly, calling them rude, disrespectful, thoughtless, and immature, and call out talkers individually in the classroom in attempts to humiliate them into silence. I remind them frequently that a lot of them are failing, and that if they have any desire to reverse that trend, that they should probably shut the fuck up (OK, I don't use those words exactly) and make some sort of effort to listen to what I am saying, even if they have a hard time getting over the ridiculousness of my speaking voice and accent.

And I guess maybe this approach isn't really a bad thing. Part of me does feel bad about it – Liberia is, to vastly oversimplify and generalize, still a pretty angry place, and these students aren't exactly lacking in situations in which they are yelled at, berated, and humiliated. So in that sense, I don't feel like I should add to this by piling on my own abuses. Furthermore, as I've pointed out before, a lot of the students are failing simply because they have a lot of other more important things on their mind, like how they are going to feed themselves or take care of their children. On the other hand, I'm not making the classroom situation any better for anybody by allowing the students who talk and joke and generally distract all the others get away with what they're doing, or by giving everyone passing grades out of pity. In any case, I almost feel like the whole thing is somewhat out of my control – that the patient part of me has somehow been broken, and the irritable, cynical, don't-give-me-that-shit part has come bitching and nagging to the surface.

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