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Month seven: I struggle, you struggle, we struggle [present tense]

I already did something I was trying not to do. I yelled, very harshly, at my students. My “everyone’s hands are in the air so it must be quiet” method wasn’t working — too much chitter-chatter. Another group was stealing each other’s rulers and hitting each other. One girl even started to cry during reading time. I couldn’t take it anymore – it had been a week of childish games. They’re just children, damnit, just children. I closed the book I was reading, told them we would try again tomorrow, and walked out of the classroom holding back tears of frustration.

I told the other grade 5 educators that the grade 5s were being “naughty” (a favourite South African term) and that they were disrespectful. Two teachers went and yelled at them, and likely threatened to beat them, or did. I know it’s hard to fathom that a child may have been beaten or threatened in my name, but this early in the game, I have no choice. I either get the other educators to help me control the kids and speak to them in a language they understand, or wade my way through a neck deep river until the student’s finally trust me, which could possibly be never.

To effectively teach, one needs to build relationships with the students to gain trust. I can’t just pop into their classroom and expect them to respect me just because I am different from them. My PCV friend George couldn’t have summed it up better — right now all the students see is, “OMG OMG LOL LOL UMLUNGU (white person)” instead of someone who cares and is here to really try to give them an adequate education. They don’t know much about me, and I don’t know much about them (although I am learning a lot through their journals!) Also, they know I won’t hit them, so they aren’t scared, which opens a whole ‘nother can of worms.

The day after the grade 5 educators addressed the class, they kids were angels. They earned a lot of rocks in their “rock jar” (if they’re good, they get rocks. If they’re bad, rocks are taken out. If they fill it, I will give them a class prize like an English movie).

After class, all of my girls came to the library and gave me a card. They tried their best in English — it was a “Happy Birthday” card (too cute) from Mr. Verb to Ms. Noun. Inside it reads, “Mr. Verb loves Ms. Noun. They agree all the time.” If you’re wondering what the hell that means, I made these stupid-childish-looking cardboard puppets named Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun. I introduced them to the class as our classroom friends and as the year goes on I will ask them, “Do Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun agree in your work? Remember they really love each other so they agree a lot!” I told the kids Mr. Verb paid a heavy lobola to marry Ms. Noun. Cheesy, but that’s the kind of stuff you’ll get in my classroom. Any oddly creative thing that can stick in their heads I will try.

The girls are mostly well-behaved in my class. The boys are usually the ones who are acting up. However, a couple of the boys also came by to apologize to and then spent the day in the library reading grade one books while I worked on classroom posters.

I know they were probably told to apologize to me, but I am human and I need love sometimes too, especially in my Peace Corps lows.

After school that day, another girl, Nqobile, came by to just say hello and one of my boys, Siyabonga, came by with a friend and hung out. I talked in Zulu to him, and he basically said he wants to try to learn English and he is trying. Ngiyazama (I am trying).

I felt pretty helpless after that. I realized that their behaviour isn’t just the problem; I am the problem too. I am trying to get used to a new classroom culture, teaching for my first time, and not really knowing if my students understand me or not. They rarely will tell me if they don’t because it’s cultural that the educator is a divine being. I even have a group of students who can’t even read in Zulu — let alone understand a sentence of English.

It occurred to me that we are in this battle together. It’s like a symbiotic relationship — we both want something out of this, but we’re going to have opposite struggles. They are going to have a hard time understanding me and the work and adjusting to me, and I will have a hard time communicating with them, explaining concepts and adjusting to them. If we can get through this year together as a unit, we will all only be better in the end. But it won’t be easy and we will need to help each other.

Seeing my students read grade one books and my student Siyabonga trying his hardest to say simple things in English at my hut door, slapped me upside the head to be easier on than them and lower my expectations. During reading time, instead of reading longer grade 4/5 passages, I will read picture books. My Peace Corps leader even made the awesome suggestion of having them draw and describe their favourite scene from the book afterwards. Likewise, I will start translating some things into Zulu when necessary. I need people to translate Zulu to English for me many times, so it’s only fair.

Once I start doing sports activities with the kids, I think I’ll start bonding with them more because that is something that a language barrier can overcome. As we always say in the Peace Corps, only time will tell.

In honour of our grammar review: I will struggle. You will struggle. We will struggle. [future tense]

Eleven months from now I hope we can all write on the chalkboard: I struggled. You struggled. We struggled. [past tense]

In honour of spelling: I am now using British English.

Keep on zamaing (like my Zunglish?)

Yours in service,


The card the girls made me. Pretty sure they meant to say, “Simple Present Tense” and not “Simple Person” but they tried. Bayazama.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. wms #

    Hello Liz! It’s pretty amazing to read your posts. You being out there teaching for the first time and me studying to be an ESL teacher with all the theories under my belt but with little to no practice in the real world. But I think you’re doing a great job. That Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun story is awesome!

    I gotta say classroom management is something I think all teachers struggle with and I struggled a lot with it in my student practicum. It was actually the only aspect of teaching that I felt I didn’t do a good job of (I felt I wasn’t a figure of authority for my students being so young, not actually being THE teacher but just a student teacher and being so flexible with them at the start). I’m not sure if any suggestion I can give would help you. Maybe you’ve already tried it or it’s just not applicable given your current context. Either way, here goes!

    Something I do remember reading from one book and that was actually really useful was that the teacher should try to “control your classroom, not the students”. It gave lots of suggestions on how you can improve students’ behavior by making students aware and responsible for their own behavior. I don’t know if this would work with younger students (I taught 10th grade) or with students from such a different culture but perhaps taking aside the students who in the moment are causing trouble and not letting you give your lesson, talking with them and directly asking them “is this how you are supposed to behave in a classroom?” or “when you decide to behave better, then you will have X or Y activity/reward, until then no reward”. Also, re-arranging chairs or where they sit may also help. If they ask why you are changing things, you can say that when they decide to be respectful and participate in class, students can choose where they sit. There’s so many other things but these are the ones that really come to mind at the moment.

    Another thing that I could say is that when teaching using culturally relevant activities may also help students understand the material better. For example, when teaching grammar making sentences about a South African holiday, popular folk characters or other stuff related to student’s everyday life could help (learning about their hobbies and family situation definitely helps). Also since I see that communication between you and your students is so difficult, then incorporating as many drawings and visuals as you can is very important as well as using your body and hand gestures to communicate.

    If students can’t read in their first language as you mention, then that also means you may have to teach them reading skills rather than just the English language itself (using context clues, previewing, predicting, paraphrasing, etc.). If they can’t read at all, then the most basic things such as sound to letter correspondence should be taught. Even if it seems like stuff they would/should learn in kindergarten or first grade, it’s better to make sure students really learn how to read than trying to give them 4th or 5th grade material that they won’t ever understand and have them go on to 6th grade still not knowing how to read. Sometimes we expect students to read without first knowing if they even know all the names of the letters and how they sound. Also, if you have students who know how to read, while others are lagging behind, try to separate the group and give those who already understand more challenging activities so that they don’t lose motivation and

    Something that could help both your own language learning and that of your students is figuring out the sounds that are found in English but not in Zulu and vice versa. Maybe one of the reasons students can’t understand you is because they can’t tell difference between some words that you’re saying (bad, bat; no, know).

    Anyway, hope this helps in some way. All in all, I really gotta say hats off to you for the journey you’re embarking on and taking on such a difficult and often underrated job of being a teacher. Your blog also has me excited about Peace Corps and I look forward to someday applying as well.

    February 3, 2013
    • Thank you so much for the suggestions and reading about my Peace Corps experience! I have started kicking kids out of my class and making them wait by my door and inviting them back in when I have time to ask them if they are ready to be respectful. Sometimes it gets in the way of my lessons though so I don’t do it all the time. Cultural activities about grammar and reading comprehension are a great suggestion because students need to relate to something. I will keep all your suggestions in mind. Best of luck with your ESL studies and if you ever have any questions about teaching with the Peace Corps don’t hesitate to ask!

      February 3, 2013
  2. Great window into your daily life Liz. It sure sounds challenging having to run your own class with students that barely understand English. I know that a few rambunctious boys won’t faze you though; could they really hold a tourch to the village boys of markham? Lol. Much love.

    February 3, 2013
    • DP!!! Did you finally start that blog we talked about you doing last year? I see one post… Start writing, you are a great writer!

      Haha — a fight broke out in my class the other day. A “fight” aka the kid pushed one kid to the floor. Boring. All I could think about was, “damn, at least the Watts kids could throw down.” Miss it more than anything. And miss you too of course, thanks for readin’

      February 3, 2013
  3. Hi Liz! My name is Rachel, I just got my Peace Corps invitation two days ago to be an ESL teacher in Benin. (Wooo!) I love reading your blog! I’m really intimidated by the thought of managing a classroom of 7th to 9th graders too. My experience is TEFL has always been with adults who don’t really have behavior problems. Eek! But it sounds like you’re doing a great job, so keep it up 🙂

    February 3, 2013
    • Ah, Benin! You must be leaving this June, right? Classroom management is such a challenge because of the language barrier. Most high school students have a good grasp of English but they’re also high schoolers. My friend is teaching grade 8 right now and goes back and forth between struggling. Some are very respectful and others are the big bad high schoolers. It’ll all just take time. Good luck prepping for your journey and welcome to Africa and Peace Corps network 🙂

      February 4, 2013
      • I am leaving in June! Four months from today 🙂 I’ll be teaching middle schoolers, which scares me a little! I’m sure patience will be key. Thank you for the luck, it’ll come in handy!

        February 25, 2013
  4. I’m nearing the end of my Peace Corps service, and around the 6-7 month mark every here starts struggling. Hang on to the little victories. They get you through.

    February 26, 2013
    • Ah, yes the 6-7 mark is definitely hard…in time I hope it gets easier. The little victories are what get me through, too. Congrats on COSing soon. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

      March 1, 2013

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