It is exam time. Country X has a very strong exam culture. Children from pre-primary on up have twice yearly exams. These count for increasingly more of their marks as they go up. In fourth grade, which I teach, the exam is half the mark at midterm and 2/3 at the end of the year (overall, 3/5 of the mark).
The odd thing about this is that Country Xers have no concept of the unit or unit planning, although their textbooks are arranged in units. They do not routinely give unit tests or plan culminating activities at the end of units. I suggested that backwards design is intended to be a part of unit plans and was met with blank stares. Teachers give tests according to whim. Some teachers only give 1 or 2 tests a year. We now have a cycle of tests on Saturday, so that each of the subject teachers must give a test every 5 weeks, whether it is needed or not.
Anyway, so I spent yesterday morning monitoring about 150 4th and 5th graders sitting in an echoing multi-purpose hall while they took an exam. It was an unpleasant and frustrating experience, as it often is.
Nothing about it was organized or coordinated in terms of the human beings involved–there were 3 monitors and 3 subject teacher. We train the student to ask permission to enter a room, which means you have students standing in the doorway asking loudly, “May I come in?” whenever they need to return to the classroom (and students you have given permission to go to the toilet asking whether they can leave the classroom), but if no teachers are present, they walk on in. It’s one of the stranger things about the culture (for me).
So 150 students entered the exam hall unattended, because someone had left it unlocked. They have to be checked for cheat sheets beforehand, because Country X students cheat as much as you let them. While I was checking, the math teacher began to give instructions to his students at a deafening volume in the National Language. This meant students as a group were not first given any instructions generally about the exam–there was a page to attach to the front. They needed to be reminded to raise their hands silently if they needed something rather than calling out or leaving their seats.
It also meant when the children asked me what he said later, I had no idea. I find it frustrating that whenever there are ordinary matters to talk to the children about, the teachers who are meant to teach in English lapse back into the National Language. How is it they can understand the complexities of the subject in English but they can’t understand “turn to page 7 and look at question 14”?
In the long run, it means students do not learn what we call “mortar words” in language development, which are the vocabulary words common to all subjects. They learn the specialized vocabulary of their discipline, but not things like “open” or “draw.”
In the short run, it means I am left out of the loop and cannot fully participate with the group in many situations, although I would like to.
So that was a frustration.
In the afternoon, I sat with the math teachers and tried to mark the 5th grade math papers. It is done in a group to minimize the unfairness that comes from one teacher being very punitive about marks and another teacher inflating the marks.
Also, Country Xers like to do everything together.
I don’t like this system, because I find the people with me spend half of the time marking and half the time off-task and dragging others (including my distractible mind) off with them, so that the effort of maintaining my attention feels Herculean. Also, several of the math teachers are very careless in how they mark, and I find I need to redo it anyway. So it’s not a time-saver.
The thing is they have been giving me the multiple choice sections to mark. It’s very easy, of course, but I began to think they do this because they are all men and they see me, as the only woman, as not being very capable. I can only be expected to do the work normally given to non-teaching staff who have 10th grade educations.
It’s not always very easy to make sense of social messages in another culture, but yesterday I began to suspect men here typically do not see women as being very intelligent. This had never crossed my mind as a possibility before.
It’s an odd experience for me to ponder this, because in the US, I am never seen that way. The gender bias is less intense, but I also talk less here because I am consistently left out of conversations (or the endless gossip and complaining bores me to tears) and no one has any special reason to think I have thoughts of any kind, let alone intelligent ones.
While I was marking, The Girl called. She had wanted to go home in the afternoon, because she is off school in the afternoons, but I am not, and it gets lonely being in the house by herself for 3 hours. I know it doesn’t seem like a long time, but this is Country, where people don’t buy shampoo by themselves.
Then she got home and evidently found the household in more chaos than anticipated. The best cow had died, a second cow was sick, and her mother had responded by embarking on a drinking binge. She said she wanted to come back. I said that seemed like a good idea.
After the marking was finished, I tracked down The Boy, and told him we were going to fetch her. He was not at all happy about this, but went. I have recently (as in, day before yesterday), instituted the “naughty chair,” although we just call it a chair, because I was fed up with his obstructionist tendency (if I can keep you from doing what you want to do, I can feel I have some power and I feel safer). I started this after he was gone for a weekend, and I began to see that life is actually fairly pleasant. He just objects to everything so relentlessly that he sucks the joy out of daily life.
The (maybe) strange thing about having traumatized children is that it’s possible to see them in this very negative way (that he really is grasping at control, it really does make me feel like life is nothing but bleak and unremitting desert), but still feel concern for them. I can’t live with someone who spends so much time trying not to mop the floor that it’s actually more pleasant for me not to try to teach him responsibility, life skills or teamwork, and it’s also not going to be good for his adult homelife if he needs to be in control all the time. (I think of C’s family, and I am pretty sure her stepdad’s need for control is one of the core reasons behind their collective misery.)
What I am getting at is an attitude of acceptance rather than paranoia about negative behaviours. What I see in the children at times appears to be the result of alternating over-indulgence and neglect. I think in The Girl’s case, her parents are afraid of her dramatic presentation of emotions and so either become punitive or frightened in the face of them: either placating or abusing her. What you get out of that as a child is that you are a frightening and dangerous person, and yet that is how you know to get your needs met. It’s not a good self-image to have, and it’s also confusing. Why am I so bad? Why do I do such bad things? You haven’t learned to curtail your own aggression through deliberate control of your impulses, and you also haven’t learned other strategies. What I see in The Boy is more a kind of laziness on the part of the parents or maybe the result of despair. Enforcing boundaries is just too difficult, or maybe the parents feel guilty for the times they have punished their children harshly as a result of lost control and in the same situation where they have once lost their tempers enforce no rules at all. I am not sure.
There is some kind of confluence in my mind of knowing that what I am faced with in the children is re-doing normal developmental stages which were not successfully mastered and trauma-based behaviours.
I remember last year, my therapist was surprised that I mentioned that for traumatized children, personality disorders are one possible outcome. Specifically, one reason I intervened in C’s life is to to try to prevent this. Maybe it’s neater to categorize the world into victims and perpetrators, but sometimes perpetrators are former victims who are now in positions of power.
It’s exhausting, and I feel very keenly I have no one to talk to about it. The loneliness is sometimes quite intense.