Best: Why a teacher-led classroom is still a locus of a lot of learning

Like the archer’s arrow into the flame cauldron at the Barcelona Olympics, it sailed out into the arena from beneath the old wooden scoreboard at the Queen’s Park Oval.

It’s a Shell Shield game. Inshan Ali, the left-arm unorthodox spinner who first made the national team as a teenager, has just bowled three consecutive googlies to a regional batsman. As each new ball thuds into the keeper’s gloves, the oohs and ahs grow louder.

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Ball four, perhaps predictably, is a chinaman. It cannons into the batsman’s pads. On the field and in the stands, a roar goes up.

“Not out,” intones C.Z. Bain.

For half a second, stunned silence. Then, audible, voiced disbelief. Suddenly, the flaming arrow.

“Doh dig nutten, Indian! (Inshan?) Yuh have ’im in school!”

Germane that, for the Romans, no distinction existed between a game and a school; ludus, a single Latin word, translates both. So when did school develop this unflattering reputation? Hard to say precisely.

Charity, we know, begins at home. Ditto, one might argue, for happiness. Sparrow, with his Education already a classic, was trumpeting to all and sundry in 1972 that his ‘School days were happy, happy days.’

Never mind that, in Dan is the Man in the Van a decade earlier, he had complained that ‘If mih head was bright, ah woulda be a darm fool!’ because ‘Deh beat mih like a dog to learn dat in school.’

Photo: Slinger “Mighty Sparrow” Francisco performs as an emerging calypso talent.

Another bard, Horace, Quintus Horatius Flaccus to give him his full Roman name, tagged his teacher, Orbilius Pupillus, Plagosus, meaning ‘full of blows’. Why? The severe floggings he visited on him and his classmates.

No complaint about excessive licks came from Marcus Tullius Cicero who, like Horace, lived in the last century B.C. But on classroom culture, the Roman statesman/orator had this caustic comment: “The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”

George Bernard Shaw’s caustic tongue went permanently silent in 1950. Not, however, before he allegedly quipped none too kindly that ‘He who can does; he who can’t teaches.’

Or before he also famously declared that ‘The only time my education was interrupted was when I was in school.’

In pandemic-hit T&T, education has come under close scrutiny. Schools and teachers have been attracting plenty criticism. TTUTA’s public stances, more unionesque than educational, have not helped.

But, in truth, a conscientious teacher’s work is never done. And teacher ingenuity, alive and well, still often saves the day, I think.

Photo: TTUTA leads teachers on a demonstration.

To try to cast them in better light, three more tableaux:

Tableau 2: Fourth Form French. It’s Friday afternoon and the classroom is uncomfortably hot; few can focus on the exercise at hand. In many minds, the imminent weekend too looms large.

Manfully, however, the teacher tries to proceed with the work.

“Will you settle down and stop the fidgeting?” he urges. “You’re behaving like a bunch of five-year-olds!”

“Ronald, your turn,” he continues. “Le soldat (jeter) un coup d’oeil vers la porte. What tense do we need here?”

“The soldier threw a cup of oil at the door. The Passé Com   ”

The class explodes. Jeter un coup d’oeil has nothing at all to do with cups. Or oil. It means ‘to glance’.

“Ouch!” Ronald tries to deflect attention away from his howler. He sticks his hand inside his trousers and begins to scratch his thigh.

Photo: A satirical take on modern education.

“Sir, there’s an ant in my pant!”

“Really?” the teacher drawls. “It has my sympathy.”

Tableau 3: Third Form Spanish class. Across the blackboard in three different colours is emblazoned the theme of today’s direct approach class: A Dios ROGANDO y con el mazo DANDO. (God helps those who help themselves).

It’s a half-hour of charades focusing on the present participle. A you-show-and-we’ll-tell session for which the class has for a full fortnight been repeatedly urged and reminded to prepare.

They have done their homework; it’s going well so far.

Ian passes an imaginary comb through his hair.

“¿Qué estoy haciendo?” he asks.

Facilito,” Marquito announces. “Estás peinándote el pelo.”

Muy bien,” says the teacher.

“¿Qué estoy haciendo?” asks Marquito, moving an imaginary toothbrush vigorously up and down over his front teeth.

Photo: Teacher at whiteboard.

Estás cepillándote los dientes,” says Graham.

Muy bien, Graham,” says the teacher. “A ti te toca ahora.”

“¿Qué estoy haciendo?” asks Graham, holding up his index finger and waving it around in a tight circle. The look on his face is a dead giveaway but Graham, just 14, won’t leave it to chance.

“Miss, how yuh say ‘to finger’?”

The class roars with laughter. For a couple of seconds, the precipice beckons.

“I don’t know, Graham,” says the teacher, “but here’s the deal: stand on the bench with your hands in the air until we find out.”

Tableau 4: Mid-morning Guidance period. A lively discussion is in progress when, from the middle of the room, a ball of paper sails towards the bin. Hitting the rim, it falls to the floor.

Everyone fully expects Martin to retrieve his errant lob. He stays put.

“Martin,” comes the teacher’s polite order, “do you want to do the needful so we can proceed?”

It’s not rare to try a jump shot. Or to miss one. Refusing to clean it up is a once-in-a-blue-moon event. Refusing to do so on the teacher’s invitation is completely unheard of.

“No, sir.”

Photo: Wired868 Editor Earl Best as he looked when a teacher coaching cricket at QRC in the late 1970s.


Pressed, Martin argues that there would be no work for the cleaners if students pick up all the garbage.

Martin’s parents are both teachers at a private school. They are invited to intervene. They demand an apology, both to the teacher and to his classmates.

Later, between gritted teeth, Martin hisses this to the teacher: “I really do not like you.”

“My job is not,” the teacher responds, “to make you like me.

“Nor is it to make you think you like me.

“I just try to make you, like me, think.

“That’s what makes me a teacher.”

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About Earl Best

Earl Best taught cricket, French, football and Spanish at QRC for many years and has written consistently for the Tapia and the Trinidad and Tobago Review since the 1970's. He is also a former sports editor at the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express and is now a senior lecturer in Journalism at COSTAATT.

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