7:30am on Monday morning, hurrying back from school in the monsoon rain as no one told us there was an assembly in the hall before school begins. Not the best start to my teaching career as Saffron and I embarked on our three months volunteering as teaching assistants at the rural primary school, South of Lusaka. After the assembly the children were told to go over to the school unsupervised where they ran wild for the next hour or so; the teachers decided to have a staff meeting (after arriving an hour late!) which achieved nothing except revealing that they were unaware it was their job to have done their own timetable and lesson plans for their classes… Interesting.
Finally the school day began in earnest… Please imagine my dismay when I was put at the front of the grade 2 class and told to “teach them something” – without training, with no experience, and with absolutely no classroom aids! In desperation, I appealed to the teacher for help (she was sitting at the back of the class doing her own assignment for an evening course!), asking which subject, topic, level I should teach them, but she just replied “teach them something. Anything.” I ventured to do a spelling quiz; she had told me that the children could spell three letter words, but even when they had an animal starting ‘CA_’ in a game of hangman they were still guessing ‘J’ and ‘Z’ for the last letter! I felt so frustrated and kind of humiliated!
Unbelievably, the children have been allowed to get out of their seats whenever they wish, sometimes to go to the toilet or drink water, but more often to wander around the classroom or pick fights. They do not raise their hand to answer a question, rather shout out the answer or stand on their seats screaming “me, me” to get your attention. The teaching methods also have a way to go; the children have been taught to copy EVERYTHING without the vaguest understanding of what they are doing, and I saw one teacher spend over five minutes writing row after row of the letter ‘y’ on her blackboard whilst the children sat in silence, before copying the exact number of ‘y’s into their own books… Not too sure what to say about that!
The next day we were still not given any teaching materials AT ALL except chalk, and told that we had to manage a class each by ourselves as the Ministry of Education still hadn’t sent them the two new teachers they were expecting. Luckily there weren’t too many children (most don’t attend the first week of school…?) so Saffron and I combined our classes which was better as there were two of us. The mixed ability was not a huge problem as some of my grade ones were more advanced than the grade twos! Still, there is a big language barrier between us and the younger classes; we can’t explain anything in their native language, Nyanja, if they don’t understand us, and mostly their English is poor at that age.
We explained to the director of the school (who founded the on-site orphanage and the school and is amazing, totally holding it all together), that we are not trained as teachers and can not be expected to teach a class with absolutely no teaching materials or a copy of the curriculum. Fortunately, she completely agreed with us and told the head teacher the same, who finally got us a few books out of storage which gave us some ideas. However, we still have to have a class to ourselves until the new teachers come; what they would have done if we weren’t there remains a mystery!
On Wednesday the classes were too big to combine so I found myself alone, facing a large group of 7-9 year olds who can barely speak English, only just write letters and numbers and can’t read, with one picture book and a maths workbook. Hmm. I have been the Grade One teacher since then, and it has been a strange mixture of exhausting, frustrating and rewarding. We have been doing our best to deliver creative lessons at the right level for the children and getting through to them is a good feeling. More than anything, we find ourselves constantly saying “if only there were two of us…” Let’s just hope the Ministry teachers get here soon!