I should probably finally explain teaching. But it was such a whirlwind of emotions and highs and lows that I almost don’t know where to begin. I suppose I can start by saying that I was incredibly looking forward to the experience, especially given how well microteaching went and the like. Not only did I get great feedback, but I also LOVED doing it. Which was encouraging since that was the majority of what my next two years would be. But then, I got faced with reality.
Quick overview of the Tanzanian secondary school system:
Secondary school consists of 2 tiers:
O level: Form 1 -4
A level: Form 5 and 6
We all intern at O level schools, so the highest you’d teach would be Form 4. The ages vary drastically in each form, so a good equivalent would be that since primary school is Standards 1-7, and Form 1 follows that, then Form 1 = 8th grade, Form 2=Freshman year of HS and so on… Get the picture? I hope so. It sure took me a while. As a little disclaimer: there are many flaws in the Tanzanian school system (as are there flaws in the US school system). To a Westerner, these flaws are very evident. However, as a member of the Peace Corps being invited into Tanzania, it is in my and many other’s best interest if I do not focus on these in my blog, merely the details of my specific experience. So, just be aware that I’m telling of my experience diplomatically and that some specific opinions and observations have been omitted. Sawa? Sawa. Okay, enough cryptic messages.
So my first day was teaching a Form 1 Biology class. When I asked the teacher where I should pick up, she said that she’d only taught them the scientific method. I was free to do anything else, but the next thing was an Overview of a Biology laboratory. She suggested I start there. Considering 1) this was my first EVER real class 2) this school didn’t actually have a biology laboratory 3) it would be incredibly time consuming to dig whatever remnants of a bio lab they had out of the office storage bins, I settled on “Personal Hygiene and Good manners” as my first topic. Two comments: Yes, good manners are in the Biology textbook and, give me a break, it was that or “Waste disposal”. So, I came up with a lesson plan that night, got really excited to teach and went in on Monday all ready to go. I was following up John, a math PCT here and it seemed like he’d had a really good class. The kids had just finished a game and were loving being divided into two teams. So I went in feeling super confident and excited. However, even just stepping into the room, it became apparent that about half of my lesson plan was obsolete. There were between 70 kids in this classroom, most sitting 2 or 3 to a desk. Okay, so there goes any small group activities I want to do. Additionally, only 10% of them had notebooks (daftari) and pens. As for textbooks, there were 3 max. 2 of these were out of date. Awesome. Well so much for having them copy the board. Oh my goodness I wanted to run back out of the room and tell them this was impossible. To make it worse, after about 2 minutes of speaking (even using the slow pronounced English) it was clear maybe about half of them max were understanding the jist of what I was saying. Oh my oh my oh my.. I struggled that entire period to present ideas, have them translated and even started teaching in the little Kiswahili that I knew just to get a response out of these kids other than chatter amongst their friends. It was horrid. I tried so hard but just left feeling so defeated. It was so frustrating, intimidating, overwhelming. Everything.
Luckily, I didn’t feel alone in this experience for too long because I soon found out that John had struggled initially too and that, although he’d had them playing a game, only about half of them were getting the right answers. Oh boy. So that night, I got home and avoided lesson planning for a solid couple hours, instead writing letters and reading. Finally, at about 10:30, I brought out my stuff for tomorrow and started looking over it. Then, I worked and reworked ways to present ideas, games to play and countless other suggestions on how I could put even a little knowledge in these kid’s heads. So Tuesday morning, I strut into class at 8am, and, after greeting the class, start writing the rules that I’d had my host sister translate for me that morning into Kiswahili. They basically said “No talking” and “Ask questions” but in a little more elaboration. (Later, I realized how contradictory these two ideas were, but that was another problem I’d add to the list of things to address later). After that, their listening skills improved slightly. Next order of business: notebooks. I asked them all to take out their notebooks. Blanks faces. I repeated in English and Swahili. Maybe 2 more. Then, I started walking up to each individual student, asking them where their notebook was. Okay, now over 90% of the class had a notebook out. It took some effort, but it worked. Sawa. Next order of business. Review from yesterday. I asked the class the answers to questions I’d given them before and the best students answered it for me. Then, I asked them to translate that into Swahili (granted, I’m aware this is under the assumption that they will translate it correctly). Okay, so most of the class seemed to be following along. Whoop. So after that little review, I took out flashcards I’d made of each of the principles and had them guess what each one was. They did a really good job at this…mainly because I’d written the possibilities on the chalkboard beforehand. Then, I turned it into a game. They were split into 2 teams and I told them that when I showed them the flashcards, they had to slap the correct circle (I’d written on the chalkboard) with their hand. Whomever slapped first, their team got the point. The purpose of this game was 3 fold. 1) Basic review of material they’d seen yesterday. Repetition, repetition, repetition 2) To see what they actually comprehended of what I taught yesterday 3) To see if they could read the answers correctly in English. Writing and reading in English is where they are strongest, so speaking comes much slower to most students. So, while they really liked the game, even though plenty of them got it wrong, I was really just trying to assess their comprehension of English and interpretation of the material. As PCT’s, we’d already been warned that the students are used to rote memorization and copying directly from the board. So, if you give them notes and tell them to copy them, they will. But that doesn’t mean they understand them, will study them and can apply them. This whole internship, I’ve realized, is really just an opportunity to figure out 1)the level of English these kids will have 2) mechanisms to deal with that. My Form 1’s are like taking Classroom management 101. (To be continued later…)
So, after the game went sufficiently well (aka it got played accurately and they paid attention), I moved onto giving them notes on the board about first aide. This included definitions, and examples. To make sure they had this copied, I went around after finishing writing on the board and checked their notebooks. I keep repeating while I was at the board “Andika sasa. Andika sasa.” (Write now. Write now.) because if they need to be told to take out notebooks, they need to be told when to write notes. Then, as I started moving throughout the classroom, I would put an A+ at the top of the page if I saw that they copied it all. (I also explained a little what that really means). Suddenly, EVERYONE was scrambling to copy the board. If I walked by and they weren’t ready “bado!” they’d say (“not yet”) Oh my, my pen mark on the page was suddenly like the golden touch. I finished checking their notebooks as class ended and I felt very very accomplished. It was disheartening still at how little I feel I’m really able to teach them (I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away) but I was happy that my altered methods had worked. My goals were few and small, but they’d been achieved nonetheless. It’s amazing how altered one’s definition of success can be in different situations. I feel that is how my Peace corps experience is beginning, and will continue, to unfold. My idea of success has been, and will continue to be, morphed into a realistic view of what I want to and will actually be able to achieve. And what, to an outsider may be considered as indifference, is merely recognition of the fact that I’m only able to climb so big of a mountain. I need to be okay with that. Kweli kabisa.