Teaching in an international school where 99% of the students come from very rich families pose no different challenges to me compared to teaching in a regular, government school. All the problems are the same, stale, but the same – neglect, parents’ divorce, abandonment, single-parenting, death, parents or father who is working overseas, sickness, step-parents etc, etc, etc.- all except poverty.
The only difference is that in my home country, I didn’t face much problems dealing with the students. I do not know why, but maybe due to culture differences. Students do not bring their problems to school – it is not reflected in their behavior. You would think they they do not have problems at all. Only in very rare cases, things would crop up and our principal will be the one informing us about a particular student having family problems due to parents divorcing or separation or abuse etc. Then, the issue will be handled by the students affairs department or the social service staff.
But here, in Egypt, it’s different. Maybe because of the close-nit community, everybody seems to know everybody and everybody seems to know problems or issues faced by everybody. So when a couple is getting a divorce (including the school staff) , news will get out very fast and the effect on the students affected (or teachers) are very clear. It’s a good thing though. At least teachers understand why certain students (or teachers) misbehave suddenly or change or are absent a lot.
I had a student who came in the year 2014-2015 in Grade 7. Let’s call him A. He was an Egyptian but had been living in Saudi Arabia with his parents and went to the international school there. He was a very neat, quiet, well-behaved and polite boy. He is very weak in English but very hardworking and always tried to improve in his work. He’d always attend the remedial class I conducted and always did his homework as best as he could. At the end of that year, the whole family went back to Saudi Arabia again. However, in the middle of the year 2015-2016, I heard news that he was coming back to our school again. This time, in Grade 8, he was a changed boy. He dressed sloppily, talked rudely and often picked up fights with other students. I was wondering what had happened. Soon, it was all over the staff room. News about his parents divorcing circled around. And not only that, the mother is fighting in court as the father is trying to fight for the kids and bring them to Saudi Arabia (He has a younger brother with a heart problem). (I do not know the outcome of that legal fight but since the boy was still in school till the end of the year, I suppose the mother must have won the case).
The boy got worse as the year passed by. He was practically absent for most of the time, attended school for 2 or 3 days per week only, was not tardy in his work, fought with both boys and girls in class and even used profanities. He skipped my remedial class many times and failed to hand in his assignments and books. Despite being counselled by the social service staff/counsellor, principal and other teachers, his behavior didn’t change. Other teachers faced the same problem with his brother who was in Grade 6.
His case is a typical case of a student craving for attention due to problems at home. I sympathize and empathize with him but there is so much I could do. I managed to persuade him to at least attend my remedial classes and he did. Thank god he passed his English exams and didn’t have to take summer lessons. But in class, due to his disruptive behavior, I had to send him out of the class or to the Principal’s office many times.
There are two other students in my class with almost the same issue – all craving for love and sympathy. One boy, K, unfortunately, is the son of a colleague who teaches in high school. I kind of feel embarrassed for him (my colleague) as his ‘household’ problems are being talked about in school. See, the mother of the boy (the colleague’s wife) often came to school and complained to the principal or teachers that he (my colleague) has failed his job as a father or husband (since the beginning of the year). She claimed that he was always busy outside, giving tuition or doing his own things and he neglected his wife and children. Nobody knows the true story because of course nobody dared to ask this colleague but I personally feel kind of unfair that the wife spread out news like this for the whole school to know. She let out the ‘skeleton’ in her closet which may not be a skeleton at all. She may be trying to hide her own flaws or mistakes and put all the blame of the failed marriage on the husband, citing irresponsibility, neglect or whatever it is.
This boy, K, too showed a change in his behavior. He became more talkative and sometimes rude. Other teachers often complained about him and his younger brother and always reported him to the principal. However, I didn’t have much problem with him in my class. He was extra talkative than before, but he always did my homework, was obedient to my instructions and was even more hardworking than before. Maybe because, like he said, Literature was his favorite subject.
K and his younger brother stayed with his mum throughout the whole ordeal while his dad moved out. So early in the morning, I would see his dad (my colleague), standing outside the classroom before the first lesson started, waiting for him to come up from our normal morning assembly, to have a 5-minute chat with his son, K. Or sometimes I would see him (my colleague) coming through the school gate early in the morning, and his sons would be waiting for him and they would stand around at the courtyard talking or hugging each other or him giving money to them. I really feel so sorry for him, and for the boys. As far as I could see, he did seem like a responsible father who loves his sons very much.
Then there is another boy (H) whose parents got divorced when he was very young. His father remarried and he had been staying with his father and stepmom. He had a brother in high school (T), who was in the same class as my son. This eldest brother (T) had a different mom, their father’s first wife, who died when T was very young. Both brothers, H and T hated their stepmom (which is actually the father’s third wife – remember, first wife died (T’s mom), 2nd wife divorced (H’s mom). They have another younger brother, in Grade 6 (who has the same mom as H). Their father owned the whole block of 5-storey flat. T stayed alone in the upper floor flat, practically don’t talk to his father nor the stepmom. His father, despite being hated by his eldest son, tried to make it up by giving him monthly allowance in the thousands (as claimed by my son). For his graduation this year, T bought a 7,000 Egyptian pound Valentino (I think, or some other crazy expensive brand) tuxedo. Wow! One of my friends commented that a 7,000 tuxedo for graduation is outrageously crazy – her husband wore a 3,000 EGP tuxedo for their wedding.
Going back to H (who is in my Grade 8 Literature class) – this boy is totally lost. He was absent for 4 days per week, and even when he did come to school, he would sleep the whole day or be sent to the office to do his work. He never handed in his work at all nor participated in class – like I said, he slept or daydreamt most of the time. Classmates told me he smokes and sleeps overnight at A’s house whenever he has a fight with his father or stepmom.
What I’m trying to deliver here is that, as teachers, we have to be sensitive towards changes in students’ behavior. Most of us would quick to suggest that this student or that student who misbehaves or doesn’t do his homework, to be suspended from school or be punished severely or be expelled. Sometimes, we fail to understand or empathize with their situations or sometimes we are just too bogged down with teaching academics that we forgot that as teachers, we should be teaching kids about life skills too. Instead of trying to help these kids cope with their personal problems, we add more to their problems by punishing them or suspending them from school.
The important thing here is to try to reach out to these kids. Not by punishment or more counselling (I’m sure they’ve heard one too many) but to treat them normally. Be sensitive to their feelings but reach out to their other basic needs. And one of it is love and care. Reaching out to them also means holding their hands and guiding them on how to manage their stress, their sadness, their insecurity and their fears. Grab their hands by showing them that it’s okay, that problems are part of our lives and that they still have a future ahead of them.
I managed to talk to A and K to continue being hardworking and pay attention in class and do their homework despite their problems. I never really bring up their problems nor did I do any prep talk or counselling with them. But during my Literature lessons, I would always relate it to real life issues. In reading Literature, pupils have to know the 5 plot stages – Exposition (Introduction), Rising Action, Conflict, Falling Action and Resolution. I would reiterate to students that every conflict has a resolution and in life, we are always facing conflicts but we should never give up nor lose hope and instead we should persevere in whatever we want to do, resolve our conflicts and move on.
I have more students in this same Grade 8 class who are all craving for the same thing – love, attention, care, – but with slightly different issues. Like the girl, his younger brother (Grade 6) and the youngest sister (Grade 1), who are left in the care of their 21-year old unmarried aunt while both her parents stay in Kuwait. Then there’s another girl, who shows symptoms of the middle-child-syndrome (Has 2 elder sisters and 2 young twin sisters). Then there’s another one who is on medication as he was mentally affected after being kidnapped when he was 10 years old and his parents had to pay millions to get him back from the kidnappers. And another one who has problems at home which I do not know what and always pretended to be sick in class and all the students would converge on her and help her and give her things, like food, water, hug. All these students crave so much attention more that we teachers are able to give them. They become misfits in class, disrupts the sanctity of the classroom and cause lots of problems. To narrate the story of each child would take me days and weeks.
As for the three specific students, all three did well in their exams. A got a C and K got an A. As for H, it’s a miracle or pure genius that he passed with a high B despite the fact that he didn’t pay attention in class, nor did he do his homework. I can only pray that their problems or conflicts are resolved or at least they have learnt how to cope with their issues and move on with their lives. I hope to see a better high school year 2016-2017 for them and this time I would want to see them craving for success and glory and hope that they come out of their problems stronger and more matured.