|TERESA DA SILVA|
Let me start by explaining what I believe to be the “middle-class” syndrome – a syndrome that affects everything and, especially, anyone that is average. With the recent crisis and austerity measures, the average-paid middle class suffered a considerable cut in their income which had many reduced to poverty losing jobs and, consequently, cars and other commodities. Some even lost their homes. The poverty-stricken families couldn’t have fallen any lower and were it not for the charities (run by the above-mentioned middle class) their lives and those of their children would be drastically endangered. On the other hand, the one percenters have never been so wealthy! Thus, grossly put: if you’re in the gutter you’ll find it very difficult to get out, if you’re sitting in the shade you’ll stay there. However, if you’re somewhere in between you’re in trouble and it might be very difficult for you to help those in the gutter as you’re busy falling in yourself.
Now let me apply this crude theory to the educational system. Fate had it that I should move once again and get to know another school, other colleagues and other students. Despite the almost-80 km daily trip, I was grateful for having secured a fulltime position until the end of the school year and I was pleasantly surprised by the top-notch school facilities and the warm reception given by the school coordination team. Never had I seen such a huge teachers’ lounge with sofas, table and chairs, a snack bar and, even, a microwave for those who take their own lunch.
It wasn’t until I caught my colleagues’ pitiful looks when hearing about my classes that I began to feel something was off. I’d been given 10th graders and 12th graders of the “professional” courses. As a firm defender of a technical, hands-on syllabus as an alternative for those who want to start working as soon as the finish high school or prefer to acquire a technical skill, I was happy to get to know what was being done in that field of education. I knew they’d be less academically challenged and a lot noisier but that would be acceptable. I was even prepared for the “I hate English!” act. I started thinking CLIL for a change as a way of getting them involved in the learning/ teaching process. How naïve!
Nothing and no one had me prepared for such rudeness, insolence and downright aggressiveness. At the very first minute, I was insulted as I was stepping into the classroom. I was later told that the students loved the other teacher and didn’t want a substitute teacher.
There’s no amount of wooing, sweet talking, elaborate or motivating activities that will get them to show any kind of interest, let alone work. In a class of twenty-five, you’ll get the odd student or two who will actually bring a notebook, a pen and the adopted manual.
It’s a continuous battle to get the majority to minimally respect teacher and peers – I have seen my role reduced to that of a police officer trying to get them to notice their infractions and repent. Low and behold should I try to speak or teach in English. Occasionally I get to fit in some English exercises because they allow me as they know there has to be some type of evaluation. Most of the time I feel demotivated and unfit to be called a teacher.
What I have experienced so far has made me realise that these courses are becoming unacceptable and off limits to the “middle” (middle = average) student - those who don’t really want to go to college or university. Why? For starters, they don’t want the derogative label that has become associate with these courses. Unfortunately, it seems these courses have become an escape for the students with severe behavioural issues and potential school dropouts.
The students attending these technical courses are given school material, meals, travel expenses, and training in Portugal or abroad. If the teacher is ill or can’t teach, those lessons have to be compensated in the teacher’s free time. If the student misses a lesson, the teacher has to come up with an optional activity to wipe clean the absences. If they fail the tests, they’re given additional opportunities to “pass”. If they’re disrespectful (a continuum), the teacher has to “motivate” the students to change their ways (or repress the discomfort). They aren’t interested in obtaining a skill so why are they still benefiting from these courses?
Where does that leave the average students, who aren’t really cut for the academic world or whose parents won’t be able to afford college? I can only see one of two outcomes: either they remain in the traditional system and end up in the unemployment lines or they join one of these courses and be engulfed by all this bad behaviour and random scraps of teaching that persistent teachers keep trying to introduce in the lessons. In the end, very much like the Portuguese middle-class, our average students are contaminated by the “middle-class” syndrome which leaves them in a No-Man’s land of education.