St Trinian's comes to Swaziland

9th April 2004 at 01:00
It doesn't matter where you are, the pressures are the same, writes Jude Mallatratt

I walked into my son's classroom the other day and discovered his teacher in tears. She was embarrassed to be caught in a moment of weakness by a parent, and a former teacher at that. She said she was "feeling emotional".

I made sympathetic noises, she shooed the last stragglers from the room, and we had a chat.

I approached it with some apprehension. What contribution had my son made? Had he lost his rag and lashed out at a fellow student? Failed to hand in homework on time? Talked back?

It seemed I could relax. It wasn't just my son, it was the whole class that had induced the tears. No one listened to instructions, no one handed in their homework, no one bothered to pick up at the end of the day, there was no support "from above" (her head jerked suggestively towards the headmaster's office). She sniffled into her tissue, adding that kids today aren't like they used to be: there's no respect, no discipline, no appreciation. She'd spent last night preparing a stimulating social studies lesson only to spend the past hour in near chaos.

Some major catastrophe had clearly caused the mayhem of dog-eared books, crumpled papers, assorted crayons and pencils (all broken, naturally), chairs and desks arranged at jaunty angles, some toppled over.

Someone had even managed to add a little graffiti to the chalkboard; either that or my son's teacher can't spell her own name and is disposed to advertise that she pays scant attention to her personal hygiene. The scene was straight out of St Trinian's.

As I listened to the catalogue of wrongs (no parental discipline, the lack of decent materials to support lessons, the decline in motivation among teachers), I realised I could be in any classroom - state, private, primary, secondary - anywhere in the developed world, and now, apparently, in a tiny African kingdom where respect and appreciation for education are basic tenets of the culture.

In my last year of teaching in England I was interviewed as part of the Vitae project, a four-year university research study that canvassed teachers' opinions on their profession. I was cynical and despairing; the research team reassured me I wasn't alone. Up and down the country there were teachers giving honest viewpoints of life at the chalkface, and most of us were feeling "emotional".

I shouldn't feel surprised, therefore, when a colleague in Africa has a touch of the bane. I call her a "colleague"; next week I'm standing in for her, in my son's class, to give her a break. No doubt I'll be feeling suitably emotional by the end of the day.

Next week: a touch of teacher heaven. Jude Mallatratt is a medieval historian and writer who currently lives in Mbabane where her husband, a development worker, teaches ICT at Swaziland college of technology

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