Sink or Swim


“What does it mean?”

We are playing a ‘guess the phrase’ game, an amusingly complicated undertaking considering I am Australian, he is Jamaican and the game is American.

“It means… Someone gets thrown in the deep end of a pool and they will either sink or swim.”

His eyes widen, “Whaaaat?”

I try again: “It’s not literal … I mean, it’s a metaphor.” His confused expression deepens. “Like, they are saying being put in a totally new situation is sort of like being thrown into a pool and where you will either do really well and swim or really badly and sink.”

As I explain I realise it is a pretty perfect description of my own current situation. I feel like I am constantly having to prove myself in so many different ways. For the most part I think I am slowly becoming accepted and respected by the community. Still, sometimes it’s very hard to know if I am sinking or swimming. Take my “job” here, which is fairly vague except that I am meant to support education.

First, having never taught primary students before I am thrown in with a bunch of children from Grades 3 and 4 for a literacy class. I have no idea what level each of them are at or what they have already been taught. Sink.

I somehow manage to fly by the seat of my pants, grabbing various flash cards, scrabble letters, books and posters and making up activities as I go along. If they get it too quickly, I just make it harder. Swim.

Then I am asked to lead a visual arts class with Grade 6, with no further instruction. Say what now? The walls between classrooms are so thin and the other classes so rambunctious that is mostly impossible to hear myself or the children speak. Sink.

I start talking, loudly, and trust that something will come to me as I speak. It does. They fully embrace the activity, producing beautiful artworks and even more beautiful smiles. Swim.

Then it reading with Grade 5 – they are loud, hyperactive and rowdy. They are used to teachers yelling and physically punishing them. I will not partake in either of these methods and they know it and take full advantage. Sink.

I use the only weapons available to me, the ones that have always hit the target with preschool kids: positive reinforcement, respect and fun. I lavish praise and attention on children who are listening and participating. I calmly tell the children who are not that they will have to go back to their regular class and miss out on the games I have planned. It works a treat. Swim.

Many of the older children struggle so much with reading that they cannot even recognise words such as “and” or “the”. I feel overwhelmed by how far behind they are for their age. Children from all grades indicate issues such as dyslexia, ADD, colour blindness, the list goes on and on – but there is no way to get them diagnosed and I have no idea how to help them effectively. Sink.

With the other teachers the children must sit at their desk and listen for hours on end. I purposely make my classes practical and interactive. The other teachers make it clear they disapprove of this move away from the traditional way of teaching. Sink.

At the end of my lessons the children always want to stay longer, and beg to do more “games”. They ask when I will be coming back and can they please be chosen to be in my class again? Swim.

Then I am asked to take Grade 6 for maths class. Huh? Maths?! Uh-uh. No way. Seriously, am I being Punk’d or what? This isn’t going to be sinking, this is going to be all out drowning, swallowing lungfuls of air and never to be seen again.

The bell rings. Swim, swim, swim!


8 thoughts on “Sink or Swim

  1. So love your posts, Cat! This one is excellent. To me, it sounds like you are doing a marvelous job. It also sounds like you are being to hard on yourself. To have kids begging to come back and learn more…you get my vote for Teacher of The Year! As far as sinking or swimming , all areas in life deal with a little bit of both…such is the nature of being human. Keep on doing what you’re doing!! This Curious Gal is very impressed!!!

    • Thanks Barb. I can’t help but wonder if they want to come back because a) my skin colour makes me a novelty around here and b) I’m not as strict as their regular teachers. But still, you’re absolutely right, we are always our own worst critic and must remember that life is always a complex blend of both sinking and swimming.

      • Great post! It reminds me of how I felt during my first days of teaching EFL. Classes of late-elementary/middle-school students are the toughest to handle, but not impossible. Just remember to breathe, apply everything you’ve learned, and I’m sure you’ll continue swimming 🙂

      • Thanks for your advice, its good to know its not an entirely uncommon feeling. I am breathing deeply although I can’t really apply anything because I have zero training in primary teaching – but I am certainly learning through pure trial and error!!

  2. I’m so glad I found your blog. It’s lovely & you are a lovely person! I have ancestors who lived in Jamaica for 7 years, in the 1790’s, after fleeing civil unrest in Haiti where my 6th GGrandfather and his oldest son were killed. The Caribbean fascinates me, as so much of my family history goes back to there. Another 4th GGfather fought for Napoleon in the Haitian War, was captured by the British, and imprisoned in Cuba, from whence he escaped and made it to New Orleans. I myself lived in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico for 6 months many, many moons ago–VAST stretches of exquisitely beautiful beach with NO ONE on them!! Thank you for your observations and your musings!!!

  3. I had to re-read this post. I’m full of admiration and sadness and joy and I’m so proud. So many feelings!

    Just keep swimming, swimming swimming!

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