What type of student are you harbouring?

The Student Species: subgroups at examination time

As our matriculants settle in for the long haul of final NSC examinations, examine this list of student-types and see if you recognize yourself or if you are a parent, ask yourself which one of these incarnations is occupying space at your breakfast table. If you are in the grips of exam fever, remember, it is not a terminal illness, although how you treat the malady may determine your fate:

In a typical classroom, or lurking in his bedroom in your home, one may find the following personas (genders transferable)

  • Last-minute, Lazy Larry: He leaves everything to the last minute because he couldn’t be bothered. Then his work is of course somewhat pedestrian or he cruises to good marks with no effort. He battles to complete his degree in 3 years because his work ethic is so poor. He is a regular at nightclubs and surfspots during exam time. His parents are very busy.
  • Tessa the Terrified is usually friends with Nancy the Nervous. They tend to focus on the fear of academics and appear like bokkies in the headlights when confronted by difficult work and stressful situations. They are the ones seen scurrying around before examinations, or anxiously scanning textbooks minutes before called into the examination room. They live on Rescue Remedy and their mothers have used up the medical savings plan by mid-March of any year on anxiety medication.
  • Terry the Tortoise: We all know who won the race, don’t we? Terry plods along devotedly, trying out all the exemplars on the internet and attending all his extra lessons, checking and rechecking all his examination answers. Slow and sure wins the race. Teachers love Terry and he is inevitably successful in life.
  • Then there is Terry’s rival, Rushing Russell: He is the first one finished in every examination. He sits with his arms folded, assuring his invigilators that he has checked all his answers. He is yet to score 100% for anything. He loves finals because he can leave as soon as he likes. He has been known to miss a few questions because he didn’t turn over the last page of his question paper. Teachers throw their hands in the air in distress when they see him emerge after one hour from a three-hour paper.
  • Angie, the Agile is dating Russell (for now). She’s the smart-alecky kid who spots questions for her History papers, never spending more than an hour or two studying for any test. She will dump Russell after school and marry Terry because he has made more money. He will buy her a Nail Bar to keep her busy, because she can’t finish any course of study.
  • Another popular couple is Avril the Avoider and Peter the Procrastinator. They never get around to studying for any length of time either, because they waste too much time tidying their desks, pouring coffee, adjusting songs on their ipods and ‘just quickly’ going on Whatsapp. When their parents buy them iPhone 6’s (not a smart move).they are doomed to mediocrity. Cassio the Casual often joins them when he is not shooting people on the latest bloodthirsty, Call of Duty-type Xbox game.
  • Then there is David the Dedicated who is diligent and conscientiously prepares ahead of every session. His timetable has been up since June and he has model answers pasted in his bathroom. He is entirely focused on his studies and has a clear goal in mind. He sometimes is considered a bit of loner or is called a killjoy at times because he refuses clubbing invitations now and then to study, but his mansion is often a hub of activity after he qualifies. His parties make the social pages then. His cousin, Richard the Recluse, is a different kettle of fish. He does too much; over tries and sometimes works too hard, second guessing himself all the time.
  • Stephen the Selfish and Brenda with Blinkers are not popular with their classmates. They are too focused on their own goals and refuse to assist their mates in study groups. They achieve straight A’s in the NSC examinations, but fail to be accepted at UCT Medical School because they have no history of outreach work. They join in the complaints of Elvis the Efficient who shouts at Hyperactive Hettie who is all over the place and eager for any conversation not about work. They find the student protests of @Feesmustfall to be an annoying waste of their time. Their parents were furious that they were not made prefects in matric.
  • Hettie did have the prettiest dress at the matric dance though – everyone knew exactly what it would look like because she thought of nothing else.
  • Stephen will marry Helga the Hostile who also hates group work. They will have separate bedrooms and be blissfully happy. Brenda will become a research scientist and is happy living alone in a cottage next to her private laboratory.
  • Sickly Samantha isn’t really. She stays home to avoid dealing with school. The vicious circle eats her in the end.
  • Then there is Mira the Magnificent, who is the envy of the class because she is annoyingly lazy (She’s near genius and a smarter version of Larry), but pulls rabbits out of a hat in every test. Her teachers often wonder just how brilliantly she could perform if she put in the same amount of work as Terry. She battles a bit at university due to her tardy work ethic, but is generally more stimulated there.
  • Rory the Resistant hates school and all his teachers. He is biding his time until he can play professional sport. He has no Plan B after playing for Barcelona and after he injures his knee at Ajax trials he is forced to sell shoes for a living. Spiro the Sports Maniac is his best friend. They do all their orals on sport.
  • Warren the Wallpaper flies beneath the radar. He is not a discipline problem and escapes notice by doing the bare minimum to pass. He will probably have ADD children later in life and wonder if that was his problem.
  • Babsie the Butterfly is friends with Angie, but is too flakey to care at all about school. She ends up working in Angie’s salon, where she loves to gossip with the clients.
  • Cedrick the Pseudo-Clever believes he’s over school and foolish teachers. He underachieves in matric, flunks out of varsity because he has no work ethic and is laughed at by lecturers for his wannabe-intellectual, attention-seeking ploys in lectures. His parents started out thinking he is a genius and realise too late that that they have spoiled him.
  • Thando the Talented grew up with He does it all with ease and is immensely popular too. He plays first team cricket and soccer, as well as moonlighting in the hockey side. He scores straight A’s with ease and can sing and dance too. His parents are humble, but support all his endeavours, although his mother worries he over-commits.
  • Inez the Insecure is afraid to try because she might fail. It’s safer for her to go along with Cassio and pretend school is beneath her. Her twin brother Cassiem the Careful drives his teachers mad by counting every word in his essays more than he edits his work. Both spend a lot of time with therapists.

Of course this is all just fun. They are not based on anyone specific, but on students I have encountered over my 20-odd years in teaching.Chances are that you are a mosaic of all these types.

Happy studying.

In Praise of Primary School Teachers

A high school teacher in Grade 4

Five things I learned about ten year olds while substituting at a primary school:

Never mind An Englishman in New York. Sting (a fellow high school English teacher made good) had it easy. Try being a high school teacher in Grade 4 for a fish out of water experience. Those who teach fourth graders have my unadulterated respect. After spending one day substituting in a class of ten year olds, I not only bow in admiration of primary school educators, but confess to having discovered things about these little people during my educational experiment that not even raising five of my own children could have prepared me for:

They move. Constantly. They flit from desk to desk like young flies, never still for more than a second before spinning on to another location. Once settled, they continue to squirm and wriggle, a seething mass of delightful cherubs with endless, random questions.

I stood there in growing dismay as my earlier piece-of-cake-this-Grade-4-thing swagger faded and I worried how I could call them all to order. Unafraid of the stranger in their midst, they pelted me with questions of whether they could get a tissue, pick up an errant pencil, find a lost hat; enquiring about why I was named after a car and my personal favourite: ‘May I go to the bathroom?’ (although, if the truth be told, the latter profundity is frequently heard in high school classrooms too.) By the time they were vaguely settled, I was sweating.

First up was Mathematics. Easy, I thought: two worksheets on money: They would industriously dedicate themselves to numerical fun and I would benevolently supervise their diligence and burgeoning capitalism.

‘Is this for our busy books, or our Maths books?’ Siya* politely enquired.

Panic. There’s a difference? I pushed aside the errant thought of ‘Do I care?’ as mean-high-school-teacher sarcasm and answered with what I hoped was seasoned Grade 4 teacher aplomb.

After debating what the lumpy Rorschach blot in the supermarket trolley to be costed was, we settled on ‘a sack of potatoes’ although personally I would have gone with ‘head of dodgy man with big nose, wearing a hat’, but I suppose such a delicacy would be a trifle dark for a child’s shopping cart. And they went back to their calculations.

That was when I discovered the second interesting fact about my young charges:

They like to operate dangerous machinery.

The well-equipped classroom I had been assigned featured a guillotine for cutting paper. Why cut out your worksheet neatly using your scissors when you can risk losing a digit or two?! I held my breath for several minutes as they navigated the super-sharp equipment, imagining how I would explain myself to their parents at the emergency room of the Blouberg Hospital.

Then it was story time.  In my naïveté I had had a vision (delusion) of myself ensconced in a comfy chair with eager listeners held in thrall at my feet on the mat, as I wove a web of magic for them. But I’d forgotten about the worm factor.

The carpet seemed to encourage more wiggling, shifting and fidgeting and I couldn’t help but be glad that their parents yet again couldn’t hear my thoughts as once more I pictured their offspring as tiny maggots.

The boys next to me snuggled in, which was cute until one began to massage my shoulders, giving me a huge fright since in high school one tends to avoid all contact with students lest it be misinterpreted. Feeling a little uncomfortable with such open affection, I inched away, not wanting to upset the young masseur, or the flaxen-haired lass playing with my hair and being careful to avoid kicking the elfin-faced girl who was stroking the fur at the top of my boots. The insect image had reminded me of my own son who had lice several times in Grade 4 and my head began to itch. I was saved from my growing entomophobia by Emily* proclaiming loudly that Dylan* had thrown Ryan’s* eraser out the window.

‘OMG! The window – they’ll fall through the glass behind the cosy window seat they are reclining on!’ I thought with alarm. Outwardly calm, I sent the delighted Dylan to fetch the disputed stationery item and attempted to return to the story of Goosie, the unfortunate hen (Huh? I know – that confused me too) who was a victim of battery farming. That was when I discovered fact number three about Grade 4s:

The can squabble over anything.

They debate with the vehemence of lawyers in Suits, and the moral outrage and proclamations of innocence of the South African government’s denials of wrongdoing in procuring the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Dylan* was lucky we don’t have a jury system because some of his classmates would have imposed life without parole for his offence.

Just when I had finished administering my Nobel-laureate peacemaking skills, honed from years of teaching adolescent wannabe gangsters, Dominic* produced a rubber egg (I kid you not) which bounced erratically around the classroom amid squeals of delight from all in its path.

I was saved by snack time during which Thandi* produced  a verboten chocolate egg, causing much discussion about how unhealthy foods were not allowed in lunch boxes. Taking charge, I declared this was acceptable today, only because we were learning about all things oval.

I spent break time staring fixedly into space, trying hard to look as if I were at ease in this alien land of small people, but I am sure that the kind glances of my fellow teachers  hid their certainty that the Zombie Apocalypse  had come to their lounge in the shape of the dazed substitute teacher.

And so the day continued, during which I learnt another undeniable truth about my young charges.

They cry.

Unlike teenage dramatic incidents which tend to occur in bathrooms as communal angst fests, juniors cry quietly and the teacher (well me) has to be prodded to notice that ‘Marta* is crying, Ma’am.’ But they are easy to soothe, even though the reasons for the upset can be bizarre: ‘Cassandra* took her paper snake.’

Seriously?!

At least Connie’s* distress at the end of the day was fitting. Her chair fell on her as she was putting it up on her desk to make way for the classroom to be cleaned. That was when I discovered again that a child’s hurt is rapidy dissipated by a hug and kind words and I realised the fifth thing about these precious creatures placed in my inadequate care for the day:

They are easy to love.

Fortunately my fears of juvenile anarchy overtaking my tenuous hold on classroom control and images of Lord of the Flies-like chaos (there’s that insect theme again) came to nought. The quiet announcement from Mandla* that he would miss me, as he sidled up for a shy farewell hug, carried me off with a light heart.

And then I went home and slept for two hours.

The esteem in which I hold elementary school educators is now even more profound. Respect.  I really did enjoy the Grade 4s, especially the one who thinks we should eat free range chickens because they are happier, but I should probably stick to teaching seniors.

Come back, Grade 9s; all is forgiven. Never again shall I call you a wimp, Hamlet.

*Names withheld to protect the author from embarrassment.

Colleen Bentley