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Commentary: Becoming a teacher in Trinidad
Published on May 27, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Joseph Bridgewater

On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left the temporary safety of their spacecraft Apollo 11 and entered into the lunar module – ‘a flying box’ – which descended and landed safely onto the moon’s surface. Armstrong reported that his biggest concern about landing on the moon was that “the unknowns were rampant… there were thousands of things to worry about”. When Armstrong eventually stepped onto the moon’s surface he proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Joseph Bridgewater is Head of the Modern Studies Department at San Fernando East Secondary School
The sojourn of Armstrong and Aldrin came sharply into my focus when on the 19th May 1977 I took up my first appointment in the teaching service at San Fernando Methodist Primary School – a small school located just off the main shopping area in San Fernando. It was with much trepidation that I ascended the steep slopes of Mon Chagrin Street to my place of work. I had arrived before students, cleaners, teachers, or principal. I was attired in my shirt jac outfit and having recalled that my teacher would have had two pens – one red and one blue, I ensured that I had two pens as well.

Slowly the school began filling up and I soon became the object of curiosity by the familiar (to the school) arrivals. At the first opportunity, I retreated to the principal’s office where I was closely looked over and welcomed to the school. I was formally introduced to members of staff on their arrivals. Thereafter the principal informed me that i would be teaching the post primary class, following which she introduced me the school during assembly.

Later I was unleashed into the post primary class, much to my consternation when I saw that the children in the class were for a large part as physically big as I was with a few being bigger. I was dumbstruck and overwhelmed with a feeling of hopelessness as I contemplated how to begin teaching. I had been set forth on the children bereft of pedagogic skills, devoid of the principles of how children learn, ignorant of the philosophy of teaching and learning and meandering between Standard English and the vernacular. Like Armstrong, I felt the unknowns were rampant and there were thousands of things to worry about.

My classroom was placed close to the principal’s office, which would have facilitated her having to cast an eye on the class and to supervise me if time allowed. Neither of the two intentions occurred on a frequent basis so I was left up to my own devices and the fashioning of innate methodologies to treat with events as they popped up. I sought the advice of and the intervention of my colleagues. I copied what I gleaned to be the successful methods they utilized in their classroom practice.

Thus, I soon had my own ‘strap’, which was wielded frequently to promote learning and law and order in my classroom. In a short time I had fashioned myself like my peers. However, I felt guilty and uncomfortable about my conduct and the intimidation that was taking in my classroom and the school. I did not have any friends at other schools with whom to share and had come to rely on the teachers I met at the school many of whom had gone to teachers training college in early 1960s.

On reflection after the successful moon, landing Neil Armstrong was asked what had contributed to its success. Armstrong relates that the success can be attributed a large number of things, the principal one being training, which presented himself and the crew with the efficacy to conduct that momentous extent.

Unlike Armstrong, I had no formal training when I embarked on my own expedition. Training provided the necessary wherewith all for Armstrong to treat with imponderables as or if they arose on his trip. As an entrant teacher I did not have the philosophical underpinning to chart my way forward but rather I embarked on a ‘vie ke vie’ teaching expedition. No profound thoughts occupied my mind. The nature of teaching or the triadic relationship I did not contemplate.

Winch and Gingell (Winch and Gingell 2004, p. 36) posits that teachers must be engaged in activities, which are likely to bring about the learning, which is intended. No one exposed me to the intended nature of teaching as a planned activity with intent. As an entrant and untrained teacher, I failed to understand that teaching requires display of subject matter at the appropriate level. Further Hamm articulates that the good teacher places the subject within the grasp of the student but makes him stand on tiptoes to get it (Hamm 1989, p. 96).

Neil Armstrong must have spent thousands of man-hours engaging in simulated flight for his journey, during which simulated events would have been thrown up to prepare for the known and the unknown. I was not presented with any such opportunity on the commencement of my career. I relied principally on the values that my parents, teachers and community had signed off as being acceptable. Perhaps it is those things, values system, which allowed me to cope with the task.

No doubt, the attributes ascribed by Witty (Witty 1950) to describe a good teacher may have contributed to my ability to function in the classroom. Some of those attributes that I could more readily ascribe to myself, based on the comments and conduct of my students, included friendly, wide interest, well-mannered, demonstrated interest in my students, generous, humorous and patient. The mask I wore was that of a dramatist since I had trained and participated in secondary school drama festival. In addition, I was an avid sportsman and sought to interest my students in those areas.

While there was no formalized introduction to the art of teaching at my first school, there was what I may call an informal type of mentoring. On most evenings, schoolteachers would remain to engage in such matters as correction of schoolwork or the making of charts. Those interactions provided some platform for my development. I would listen intently as my more seasoned colleagues discussed, described, argued or enquired as to what passes for education. The “Education Journal” was deemed mandatory reading and offered what I may term professional insights into the issues of teaching and learning.

You may imagine that I had tremendous difficulty coping with the language of education having just left secondary school. I endeavoured to utilize what I perceived to be acceptable language in the classroom, for me proper English was Standard English; but invariably rescued myself with the vernacular usage. I suspected my students were much more comfortable whenever we engaged in the vernacular. They and I had better engagements as we told stories, related incidents, played games, held our (some) classes outdoors, recited poems, sang folk songs and sought to make our days interesting.

Unlike Neil Armstrong, I did not have the quality assurance or the rigorous testing that would have gone into his enterprise or the provision of the necessary platform to work towards a successful mission. Exposure to the mechanics of teaching; the philosophical and sociological underpinning that gird the noble profession; the fundamentals of language and its applicability to the discourses and narratives within the teaching learning environment and the understanding of the development phases in our clients as presently obtained within the pursuits of the Diploma of Education is absolutely warranted so as to undertake the mission of teaching.

Teachers must remain vigilant, be continuous learners, passionate, fair and just, so they too can report, like Neil Armstrong, “Houston, the eagle has landed.”
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