When I was a little girl I used to torment my younger sister by insisting that we play Schools and insisting that on I would be the teacher. I was an unusual, solitary child and I didn’t have the same need for a playmate as my sister. To get me to play with her she always indulged me. I would set real maths problems and tasks involving maps and actually expect my student to complete the tasks. Hannah has never excelled in Maths and has little interest in geography so she must have really wanted to play with me to submit to such ‘games’.
Teaching is in my blood. Both Mum and Dad are primary teachers. Dad taught intermediate school until I was about 10, taught adults New Testament Greek and Bible Studies and now does literacy work in the Forensic Mental Health Unit at Kenepuru Hospital. Mum taught primary school and when she returned to work after raising us when I was about 13 she worked in special education, first with students with physical challenges and now with students with visual impairments. It was natural that I should want to be a teacher “when I grew up”. Besides, as a child I knew few adults outside my immediate family and had little idea what other people did for work. It all made complete sense to my young mind.
Experiences with leading youth through church in my teens and early 20s changed that- it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Everyone said I ‘came out of my shell’ as a teenager, and I certainly gained some confidence and learned how to interact with people and develop meaningful relationships. Still, I felt I lacked the natural authority a teacher should have. Teachers need not only to teach, but also to manage a class full of students and this idea held less and less appeal as I grew older. My life was taking a different track.
I completed my BA, retaining my education major, though my heart wasn’t really in it. Then, after a heartbreak and before I’d had time to consider my vocation I decided I needed to leave New Zealand for a while. I spent time volunteering in a Johannesburg children’s home and came home via Europe and America with even less of an idea of what I wanted to do than when I started out. I quickly found work doing administration for Government department knowing full well that it would never satisfy me. All I really knew was that I wanted to be useful to God.
So I went on, through a lonely, melancholy time of wondering for a year until, fed up, I decided to take a fast and commit to discerning my future with God. Several days into it I found myself discussing the question with my Mother and heard my voice saying that “if I had my time again I think I would do nursing”. For some reason I thought that, at age 25 I was too old to study again, it seems quite ridiculous now. From that point it became clearer and clearing that Nursing was exactly what I should be doing and that it was a good match for my skills, interests and passions.
Fast forward 14 years and I am an experienced nurse embarking on a new adventure in Papua New Guinea, this time with a husband and two beautiful children. I became a nurse to fulfil the calling of God in my life, to work out his just and compassionate nature in the world he created. I believed and still believe that he calls me to serve the ‘least of these’ those who lack money, power, privilege, beauty and all the things the world holds in such high regard, through my nursing training. Returning to PNG with some capacity to make a real contribution had been in my mind since the summer I spent here 12 years ago. I couldn’t wait to get started with the important Nursing work the Lord had prepared for me in this part of the world. Then this happened….
“I’m going to need you to teach Primary School when you get here” Barbara, the School principle and my PNG mother said by text message. Um? Teach School?! I said, but I’m a nurse not a teacher! I protested inwardly. Teaching was not part of my mental picture of this at all. And besides, I’m meant to be working on TB control! My old childhood dream suddenly came back to me, but that was a long time ago and I’d taken a different road. But how could I say no? Of course I could not. “Sure” I told her, “I’m really keen to do nursing, but if you need me, I’ll help out for a few weeks.”
And so, three weeks ago, I stood in front of a real live class of 6th Graders and embarked on my teaching career. I can tell you, it is not like playing schools with your 7 year old sister. I love explaining things and sharing my insights, I’m excited to think I may be able to make a difference in the lives of the young people in my class, and maths and English are subjects that are not difficult for me, especially not at grade 6 level. But I have no training, have had next to no induction and I’m working in a cross cultural context. To say “in over my head” is a considerable understatement. Just yesterday I remembered, for the first time, that teachers need to take a role call and record absences in a book. It had not occurred to me to do that previously.
Our school consists of is 4 class rooms, all much like mine, build out over the swamp beside the village. At high tide the water comes up under the classrooms and mudfish skip along among the reeds. In a king tide the water covers the concrete path as well. Like all the buildings in our village, the classrooms are built for airflow- there is no glass in the windows just a wide wire mesh. In a rain storm the noise on the iron roof is deafening. In my class there are 10 wooden desks with bench seats attached in rows facing the chalkboard. For resources I have a class set of maths books, an English and a social studies curriculum book, an encyclopaedia, a set of map books, 4 balls and a pump, and 2 shelves of assortment of books that the students may borrow for a week- mainly Enid Blyton novels, and a machete for students to use to cut the grass. The students bring their own exercise books and pencils, but I scavenge for scrap paper for other tasks. The toilets are composting and are much better than they sound. The students are rostered to bring in dry grass, coconut husks and cold fire ash to use to cover the pek pek and pis pis (use your imagination) and ensure that they function effectively. The water fountain is a tap connected to a rainwater tank, and the bell is an old piece of iron that is struck with a rod, usually by a proactive student who has sensed the teacher has forgotten this task. In this environment every week day 60 students gather to drink from the cup of learning and it is my job to fill it daily for 10 of them.
Although I am teaching grade 6 my students range in age from 13 to 24. Many have had variable careers in schooling. Some have completed the first 5 grades at Kapuna. Others have attended village schools where teachers may or may not have turned up for school on any given day and this is a second chance at schooling. Educational standards in PNG are low, especially in isolated places like the Gulf. Physical punishment of students within Government classrooms is common and it is not uncommon for government teachers to misuse their position of authority over students in the most inappropriate or even criminal ways. I am absolutely certain that, however poor my offerings may be, they are a vast improvement on that low standard!
After two weeks with my small group of students I have found a sort of muddled rhythm. I have learnt their names and am beginning to learn their characters, strengths and weaknesses. Our days begin with devotions and I have discovered a new delight- teaching students from the Word of God and seeing their faces light up as some new insight is suddenly clear. I have long had a passion to see people of all ages understand the faith they are growing in and in this place there is plenty of opportunity for that, and it integrates seamlessly with all the other aspects of learning that we do in the classroom.
The students and I have formed a pattern together of basic facts drill, spelling lists and tests, maths problems, speaking challenges, vocab games, comprehension exercises, writing exercises and reading. My mornings are full of explaining tasks again and again in careful detail, waiting patiently as my students write beautiful headings, hoping I’ve explained well enough and finding that I often haven’t. Tasks involving creative thinking or developing one’s own ideas are a tough sell in a PNG class room, or at least certainly in mine, so we’ve been working a lot around local knowledge and culturally important skills and events. And then there are the verbs. You may remember them from your own school days – ‘doing words’ or ‘action words’, often contrasted with ‘nouns’ or ‘naming words’. Was this the main reason for my year of French lessons in the third form that I have a concept of how to conjugate a verb and can teach it? I guess I’ll never know, but it wouldn’t surprise me- I have found few other uses for that year of knowledge (with the possible exception of making a stab at translating the French occasionally included in a few classic novels). Verbs are incredibly challenging for students who grew up speaking another, or several other, languages so I’ve taken to teaching them explicitly. Even so, with my scant knowledge of the grammatical structure of my own language I may need to brush up if I’m to teach for many more weeks. English is a hard language for any learner and I’m not sure how many will ever master the intricacies of the irregular verbs. Fortunately for me and in the afternoon students go to Barbara for art, science sport and, exhausted, I’m relieved for other duties.
I’m not the most dynamic teacher, and I aspire to be more creative, but I’m there, doing what needs to be done and hoping I’m getting it right some of the time. Each one of my students has so much potential, so many gifts and abilities waiting to be unearthed. Many of those talents will be discovered outside the classroom I’m sure, but if just one discovers a love of learning some new thing in my class I will be delighted.