Back in PST, as naïve little Peace Corps Trainees, we visited schools close to our training sites. We watched teachers write notes or exercises on the board with little explanation. How BORING for the kids! WHAT AN ABOMINATION.
Now we’re doing that.
This is an observation the mini-Los Angeles Volunteer Support Network my fellow PCV bud George and I have made. (George and I enjoy discussing and helplessly laughing at school issues and reminiscing about Los Angeles taco trucks and freeways in our Mini-Volunteer Support Network. Angelenos thing alike, thank God there’s one here with me!)
I thought because I was different, I could do something different in the classroom too. I could make my own rules, my own discipline system, play games with the kids and make my classroom a mini-America. The kids would love that – something different, interactive and creative for a change.
ERRRRRR. These kids aren’t ready to handle “different” – whether that is because of their age or the language barrier. Now, instead of setting expectations before I jump into something, I am learning to mold my expectations as I go. I expected them to love my new style of teaching so much that they would be interested and listen, but now I just expect them to copy what’s on the board in a timely manner.
The learners really only respond to the board or violence. If I don’t want to deal with constant chitter-chatter, I must write exercises on the board or I could (but wouldn’t) hit them. Only busy work like that keeps them focused and on task. My learners even hand me the corporal punishment stick when the kids won’t be quiet. It took me less than a month to realize the genius idea that sometimes teaching is just making sure the kids are on task and at least attempt to complete classwork.
Last year, the infamous uncontrollable factors at Markham Middle School were helicopters, the fire alarm and lockdowns – most of legitimate concern. Here, the uncontrollable factors are a little different and of very little concern – teachers randomly popping into your class and making announcements, asking you questions while you are lecturing, yelling at the kids when you ever mention any problems to the teachers and my favourite of all – a student’s little brother that wanders the grade 5 class. Of course we can’t forget African time and time management – teachers not finishing their classes in time and using some of your teaching time, kids not able to follow a timed schedule, kids leaving your class to play soccer at another school etc. It makes me laugh writing this – I went from outside factors that really could involve life or death to factors that South Africans treat as if they are life or death situations, like signing a paper with an announcement on it. And I can control very little about it.
What I can control, I will control. As mentioned that my kids are far behind grade level, few are at the level of the grade 5 workbooks I have access to. I have taken upon myself to write two stories a week for the students with ten vocabulary words that are tested on on Friday. The stories will also focus on one grammar or punctuation concept. It’s been hard so far, but I’ve only given them three stories. Eventually I won’t have never-ending writer’s block.
The story is about a boy, Umhaha (greed in Zulu), his best friend Thobile (humble in Zulu) and Amandla, a taking horse (power in Zulu). Amandla grants Umhaha three wishes. Umhaha’s first wish is to travel the world and see other countries. So after the horse hazes the boy, Umhaha will go off on this grand ol’ adventure through the world and I will show the kids where he travels to on a world map mural a health PCV painted at my school last year. Unfortunately, the stories aren’t illustrated so I had the kids enter a drawing contest and draw each character. We will use the winning illustrator’s drawings to illustrate the rest of the stories! Africa hasn’t won just yet on this one – their classwork is officially Americanized and that’s one thing no one can do anything about because no one can change my lesson plans or weekly structure focusing on the two stories a week.
Back at home sweet home, we can Americanize many more things. I’ve Americanized my hut with endless inspirational quotes and pictures of family, friends and former students. I can semi-Americanize the way I dress – I still can rock skinny jeans and over-sized shirts here (the Liz style). These few things help keep my sanity here and are totally harmless.
Inspirational hut quotes!
Pictures upon pictures
But there’s always a “but”. South Africa Volunteer Group 26 is the first group of Peace Corps South Africa to be “full-time” teachers. We are expected to teach at least two classes a day and be at school Monday-Friday from start to finish unlike previous groups. I am teaching a little less than that, but it’s how my principal and I worked out my schedule. Teaching even one class is extremely time-consuming, especially if you’re making up your own classroom material like I have been doing. It takes at least a full day to lesson plan for the week because we’re new at this and reinventing the wheel as we go.
Work comes home with us. Work outside of work is unheard of here – my host family doesn’t understand what I mean when I say I have a lot of work to do. “Weren’t you at school all day though?” is the common response I get. Yes, yes I was, but I was trying to juggle at least four different things at once (in my arena, my girl’s club, my library, my classes and helping my counterpart with her English class) so is it really possible for me to get everything done? Yeah, but I need sleep too!
In America, it looks good if we bring work home or do extra work. It shows we really care about what we are doing. Here, because people place so much importance on relationships, bringing home extra work means you’re too busy to spend time with people and don’t care to, which can be seen as an insult. And on the weekends, most PCVs want at least one day and night to ourselves to read (I am intellectually dead), watch movies, study for the GRE, relax and do absolutely nothing, blog or clean and do all the laundry after a long week at school. We don’t have much time to integrate into the community fully and most of the time we want our free time as our free time, not as the community’s. If a kid comes to my door on a Sunday and asks to visit, I generally will say hello and talk for a little, but after that I have to close my door because I’m busy with something.
I have Americanized my weekends, which may be detrimental to any community projects in the long run and my language exposure. I speak English at school Monday-Friday; Zulu gets a little peep. And I know I could push myself to an extreme, but I’ve also gotta keep my sanity. The new structure of our Peace Corps program sometimes makes me and other PCVs feel as if we are teachers abroad and not Peace Corps volunteers. I understand this is what the country needs, but our expectations as Peace Corps Volunteers in our community may not be the same as expectations of other education Volunteers around the world because our education program has become streamlined to teaching only. You think maybe America would win in this sense because I still get to have “American-me” time, but in my opinion, Africa won this battle too. Few Africans understand “American-me” time even after explaining. No matter how much or how little work we do, Africa will always win.
As Peace Corps Volunteers, that is something we must come to terms with because Africa has a home advantage over us in this upward battle. We can control a couple of things, but need to also be okay with the things we cannot control because this is not our home country.
But, at the end of the day, I can still come home to my Americanized hut. Mini-America does exist here after hours!
Classroom rules: Learners follow rules they have known in school their whole lives
Classroom incentives: Only few care enough to get sweets
Classroom crafts: TAKES WAY TOO LONG
Classroom decorations: Kids don’t use them for reference when writing
Classroom games: Kids get too riled up to control 40 of them
Explaining things in Zulu:They just laugh at me
Time management: Jokes
- Coming up with my own story/curriculum: YOU GO AMERICA!
Reading outloud and acting out picture stories: Kids can’t sit still
Keeping kids at break: Teachers have “break duty”
Explaining things in English: Language barrier
Doing extra work after school: Cultural misunderstanding
Doing work at all times: Cultural misunderstanding
- Decorating my hut: GOD BLESS AMERICA
- What I wear to school: Yea, you a Los Angeles wannabe hipster!
- How I organize my lesson planner: Red, white and blue.
- Speaking English: Native language!
As you can see, now that I’ve figured out few of these things I can really Americanize I will either have to make a hybrid plan or just deal with it. I call that cultural understanding!
Sorry I write so much. One of the things I never really learned in journalism school was how to follow a strict limit, somehow I always talked my professors and editors into giving me a couple more words…
IF Amandla the Talking Horse gave me one wish, it would be the ability to be in two places at once.
Yours in service,