Teaching a Class of Primary School Students: A Day in the Western Classroom

There I was, perspiring in the stuffy classroom, all aflutter.

It has been a long while since I last led a group of primary school students around. As a camp facilitator, as a talk coordinator. Those experiences were stuff that nightmares were made of.

It was with great ambivalence that I accepted the opportunity to be an ad hoc math trainer. And yesterday's experience, surprisingly, wasn't as daunting as I had envisioned.

The kids were rather well behaved. I gave a boring lesson in model drawing and algebraic patterns. They whispered to each other when they thought that I wasn't looking. I ended with an almighty sore throat and headache.

With age, there was a shift in perspectives. I was once a little kid too - yes, difficult to imagine - all innocent and shy.

And, for better and for worse, I was about to be a teacher.

It's rather disconcerting, the entire experience.

Primary school students, to some extent, are narcissistic. They lack the worldly wisdom to cease projecting their thoughts on others. If they're hungry, they'd think that others are hungry too. If they're needy, they expect you to respond to them immediately.

It was a refreshing challenge.

I'd be trying to explain a particularly trying question to a befuddled kid when two students from different corners of the classroom will start to call for my attention - "Teacher! Teacher!" From their urgency, you'd think that they just discovered the Grand Unifying Theory. But, no, they just wanted to go to the toilet/ ask for answers/ complain about their friends' farts.

And the kids processed the assignment at vastly different speeds. One was able to handle all the questions by himself - a feat, considering that these questions were pegged at Secondary 3 E math level. Some can't even manage simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

The faster students were bored and clamouring for attention. The slower ones were frustrated and unwilling to attempt the questions.

I sat next to the slower students and projected calmness in my voice. Sometimes, I did a half squat as I explained. It was important to be on the same eye level as one explained concepts. To stand and tower over them would create a counter productive psychological oppressiveness that impede effective learning. This was true for communication in general.

The lesson, while standard, was nothing brilliant. It was spoon feeding of facts and memorising of approaches. It threw up some vital questions:

How to engage a group of students with different inclinations?

How to cover diverse and voluminous materials in such a short span of time?

How to inspire students to be interested in learning?

What should be the objectives of the lesson, anyway? What about the purpose of education? To impart facts? To teach vocational skills? To guide minds on how to think?

All questions with no easy answers.