I HAVE never taught in a primary school before, and so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the challenges the teachers there face. However, I know people who do, and at times, listening to the many things they have to deal with, convinces me that there may be no justifiable basis for all the grumbling I sometimes do about secondary school teaching duties.
I was talking to a friend who has been teaching at a national primary school for years and have complained to her about the problems I faced dealing with students who dozed off in class, who didn’t hand in work or had no respect for authority.
“At least, your students will be more or less in awe of you,” I told her, “them being so young and all. Middle childhood to be exact. So much easier to handle than adolescence or young adulthood ….”
I was about to launch into some pretty impressive (or so I thought) quotes on developmental theories when she turned to me quietly and said, “Have you ever had to take a student to the washroom and change her clothes because she had wet herself?”
That made me stop and think. Rethink actually — and even though my teacher friend had the grace not to continue, there were many other questions that sprung up in my mind to follow her first question.
Have you ever had to sit next to a student, guide her hand until she gets the right grip on her pencil?
Have you ever had a child throw up in your car when you were taking him for a school competition?
Have you ever had to chase students around the classroom to make them sit at their respective seats?
Have you ever had to teach a child 100 times before she managed to spell her own name correctly?
There were more questions of course, millions of them in fact, that made me feel somewhat humbled. Many of these questions were based on memories of my own primary school teachers and the part they had played in my education.
No easy feat
On reflection, I realised that the thing I had been covertly guilty of during the conversation with my primary school teacher friend was the same thing I deplored in others — the tendency to regard primary school teaching as somewhat “easier”compared to the secondary school.
It is the same thing when people, at times, even teachers themselves, who suggest by manner or attitude that teaching in a primary school is somewhat inferior compared to teaching in a secondary school.
The implication here, however false it may be, is that your personal status as a teacher is a function of your students’ age level. The perception though misguided is widespread at least in our local educational setting, and is certainly not helped by a system that seems to place teachers-in-training into programmes suited for either primary or secondary level students based on their own academic performances.
While it is true that the academic curriculum in a secondary school is more advanced than a primary school, and teachers at higher levels therefore need to work with deeper subject content, I personally don’t believe that this alone makes their job more challenging or that selection of candidates for teacher training programmes should be any less stringent for those in the primary school compared to the secondary school.
There was a period perhaps when this kind of thinking seemed to rule.
The more “qualified” candidates were sent to teach in secondary schools, while standards were rather lax about primary school teaching.
“What’s so difficult about teaching in the primary school” was the unspoken sentiment in educational circles at one time.
It was exactly this form of thinking that may have deprived the primary schools of the kind of pedagogical expertise they so much need.
The crucial importance of this stage of middle childhood needs to be emphasised upon. This is the period that developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to as the concrete operational stage, when a child’s thought processes become more mature and “adult like”, and they start solving problems in a more logical fashion.
It is during the primary school years when the fundamentals skills of reading, writing, and calculating are first developed.
This is also the time when they learn the basic physical skills for ordinary games. They learn to throw and catch, kick, tumble, swim, and handle simple tools.
It is also the time when they develop habits of care of the body, of cleanliness and safety. They begin to learn friendship, how to get along with those of their age, develop conscience, morality, and a scale of values.
If a child has behavioural problems like ADHD or specific learning disabilities like dyslexia, it may very well be the teacher at this stage who will first notice these problems.
The primary school phase is where the foundations are laid, the ground is prepared, where they learn the rudiments of education and what school is all about.
It is perhaps the very significance of this phase in a child’s life that makes it hugely important to have teachers who are best trained and qualified at the primary school level.
The child’s primary school teacher is probably the next adult after his parents who will have the most significance in his life.
Those of us who are parents ourselves may have experienced episodes when their children insist that it is their teacher’s version of events that is more credible.
“‘But my teacher said ...” is a common phrase used by children to validate their point or to refute an adult’s statement.
Sometimes I do feel just a little bit envious when my friends in primary school regale me with little tales which although unintended, reflects clearly how students in their childish candour regard them as a hero, the fount of wisdom, the purveyor of knowledge and vie with each other for the special honour of “carrying teacher’s books” or helping the teacher with her bag.
I am glad that there are some changes now in the selection system of teacher training candidates for primary schools, and even if it hasn’t quite changed public perception yet, at least the changes are beginning.
Perhaps the day will come when teaching in primary schools will be considered a specialised field, where only those who have aspirations to teach children are trained and recruited.
TEACHER TALK By MALLIKA VASUGI The STAR Online Education Opinion Sunday 7 Apr 2013