Under the Neem Tree

Why Are Teachers So Different?

  • PublishedJanuary 29, 2009

All teachers undergo training. And if they all pass the same final examination, we can expect that they will provide the same quality of teaching, right? Wrong. I discovered this answer in my very first year at school.

Well, of course, some smart guy can pick me up for not understanding the laws of logic. He could argue that people are different; and teachers are people; ergo [therefore] teachers, being people, are bound to be different, and only someone silly could wonder why teachers are different. To which I would say, “Fair enough”. Except that the nuance or subtext of my question had escaped the logistician. It is this: all teachers undergo training. Before they pass out, they are given a supposedly tough test to see whether they have absorbed the techniques they have been taught. Therefore, if they have all passed the same final examination, we can expect that they will provide us with the same quality of teaching, right? Wrong. I discovered this answer – which defies the laws of logic – in my very first year at school.

The Second World War was about to end when I entered Class One, but, of course, we started schooling in January and the war “began” to end in May (don’t laugh: the war did end in stages: the war in Europe ended in May 1945, whereas the war in Asia didn’t end till August) but no one had told our teacher anything about these things. He carried on as if he was Field Marshall Montgomery himself, turning our classroom into Dunkirk, Alamein and Burma all rolled into one. The guy’s name was Teacher Akwa. (Now, note this: no one called a teacher “mister”; once you became a teacher, you got the appellation for life. I know this, for I was a pupil teacher once and although this was so long ago that I prefer not to remember it, some of my fellow townspeople still address me as “Teacher”).

If you ask me, I think Teacher Akwa was secretly annoyed that he was teaching during World War II, for he was what the French would call a soldat manqué (a soldier who had missed his calling). He walked as if he was marching to the sounds of a military drum. And he always wore the hard-soled boots of a scout master. So we could hear him coming from very far away, as he walked on the concrete veranda of the school: “KAH! …KAH! … KAH! …KAH!” Everyone would say in hushed tones: “Teacher ‘eba o!” and the classroom which, only a moment ago, had been filled with the twittering of 45 children, would suddenly go dead quiet.

Small kid that I was, being exposed to Teacher Akwa was an education in itself. He spoke clearly, and his voice always carried just a smidgeon below top decibels. That alone sparked fear into the six- and seven-year-olds he taught, to whom only drunken people spoke at the top of their voices. But he also spoke in the Akuapem dialect. This gave his speech a formal, almost Biblical quality, because the Twi Bible, the Twi Catechism and the Twi Hymn Book (passages from which we were forced to chew by heart) were also written in the Akuapem dialect. We were taught in Sunday School that these books represented the “word of God”, so you work out and see for yourself, where we placed Teacher Akwa in the scale of things, since he spoke in a Biblical “tongue”.

I still remember the instructions (or was it commandments?) he gave us: “Do not count on your fingers.” And later, after we had graduated from slate-and-chalk to pencils, “do not press the pencil hard [on the paper]. Do not rub any of the writing off with your sputum. Do not rub any of the writing off with an eraser. Do not wet the lead in the pencil with your tongue before you write with it…”

The eraser/sputum commandment in particular was most difficult to obey. Almost every pencil had an eraser at one end of it and it was instinctive to try and correct a mistake by rubbing it off the paper. But Teacher Akwa said no to that. You had to cross out your mistakes instead – and show him exactly how stupid you had been before you came to your senses. He might even suspect that you “stole” the correct answer from someone else. And no matter how lightly you thought you had applied the eraser, it would show in your exercise book and he would catch you.

By glancing over your shoulder, you could always tell which of your classmates were going to get “done” – some had black patches all over their work, while a few incorrigibles had rubbed so hard that holes had sprouted on their papers. Yet Teacher Akwa possessed a cane, which he applied to the boys’ bottoms and the palms of the girls. Sometimes, he reduced the classroom into a scene resembling a household whose chief benefactor had passed away and where each denizen was trying to surpass the others in the “I can weep better than you” sweepstakes. Some unfortunate fellows were sent out of the classroom to stand outside, so that everyone in the school could tell how “stupid” they were.

I feared the cane. In fact, I feared the cane badly. So I tried as hard as possible not to go against the commandments of Teacher Akwa. I chewed my tables until I could recite them by heart. And I listened to the chap as if my life depended on it. When we reached the stage where we needed to add not one figure to another, but two figures to two figures, with a “remainder” to be memorised and added as necessary, few of the children understood it. Yet without finding out whether we had all understood it, Teacher Akwa set us a test on it.

There was a massacre in the classroom that day. Almost everyone had got some sums wrong and the cane was liberally applied. Fortunately for me, I got all the sums correct. Now, Teacher Akwa was as liberal in his praise for good work as he was ruthless in punishing poor work. Because I had got 10 out of 10 and the next best chap had only got 8 out of 10, he put me on a desk by myself. Gee, it felt good: I was Number One without a Number Two! Not only that, he wrote on my desk, “DANGER DD BOY”. What the DD stood for, I didn’t know. I later worked it out that it was probably taken from the two D’s in my surname.

Worse was to come: he brought the big boys and girls in Standard Three to inspect the inscription he had written on my desk. I felt as self-conscious as an animal in the zoo. It was enjoyable but a shade embarrassing: I felt almost like a freak. Anyway, from that day on, no one in Standard Three ever wrote my name down for imaginary offences like “loitering”. And nice girls whose dresses were beginning to show very attractive lumps in the bosom area, pointed to me and giggled in a coy manner. I was so enchanted with Teacher Akwa that when he asked us to get up early and go into the bush to collect palm kernels and bring them to school to be sent to England – to be made into cooking oil, soap and margarine for the British soldiers – I obeyed the “commandment” enthusiastically. But it was a tough job. In the early morning, the bush was all wet with dew. If one found a palm tree and looked underneath it for palm nuts, sometimes one got nothing. And one always ran the risk of disturbing a snake.

But Teacher Akwa was a great psychologist and gave us rousing speeches to inspire us to better the efforts of the other classes. Each child had to bring a cigarette tin filled with palm kernels. Collecting the palm nuts was one thing. Shelling them to get the kernels out was another. You found two stones, put the palm nut on one and cracked its shell hard with the other, breaking it open to bring the kernel out. Often, instead of striking the nut as you held it in place, the stone would hit your fingers instead: ouch! Each class emptied its palm kernels into a special open-ended tin drum. At assembly time, the contents of each were measured with great ceremony against the others and the class that produced most palm kernels was declared the winner. We in Class One, the smallest kids, won it many times. We were made to march past the whole school as a mark of honour, to great applause.

I was promoted to Class Two before the end of the first year. However, I found the Class Two teacher so intimidating that I couldn’t absorb what he taught – if he ever taught. For he left a lot of the “teaching” to be done by a hectoring class prefect. They didn’t take into account the fact that I had come to the class after it had been taught certain things, and these were new to me. They probably expected me to pluck such knowledge from the air! It was all a great, humiliating mistake and eventually, I was sent back to Class One. That was when I began to wonder how teachers could be so different, one from the other. But though I didn’t know it at the time and therefore felt sore, my revenge was coming. And it would be sweet.

Written By
Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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