I haven’t had a huge amount of experience as a teacher, but I’ve at least sampled a variety of teaching environments. I began teaching through the Teach for America program in a middle school in the Bronx, where punch-ups and drug busts were common, and general mayhem was the order of the day for the majority of my first year. Not fun ‘this is kind of crazy but good life experience,’ mayhem, but demeaning, depressing, ‘how can 12 year old children make me feel so lame’ mayhem. My self-esteem hit rock bottom when, after a particularly riotous ‘English Enrichment’ period, one of my 7th graders presented me with a drawing, swore he wasn’t the one who did it, and quickly disappeared down the hall. The drawing was of the stick-figure variety, and showed a fairly normal classroom scene: blackboard, children sitting at desks, and, oh yes, a woman hanging from a noose next to the door. In case I missed the point, there was a caption: TEACHER GOT HUNG. MS. O’GARA. The silver lining is that I now have a perfect title for my teaching memoir, should I ever choose to write one.

My second year was waaaaaaaay better. I had a new group of kids, my own classroom, and a huge reservoir of anger and resentment towards young adults. I had developed the philosophy that for children to learn anything from me, they first had to be scared of me, and I worked the bitch angle for the first few months. It was effective. But by the end of it all I had experienced what I like to call the Dangerous Minds turn-around. While my students weren’t quoting Bob Dylan and confiding in me about their illegitimate children, I loved them and they loved me and we all learned something.

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7th grade cuties in the Bx

Before heading to Uganda, I worked for a few months as the school-based sub at AAH’s sister school in Virginia, Arlington Traditional School. It’s one of the best public primary schools in the country, and was quite an eye-opener. I wandered its pristine halls, past columns of silent children and well equipped computer labs, muttering ‘I never knew it could be like this.’ The resources, the discipline, the lack of armed guards! Everyone passes the standardized tests at Arlington Traditional School. At this point I could go into a long and detailed rant about the absurdity of the blatant racism and inequality in America’s public education system, but maybe I should save that for the memoir.

So, I’d seen the good and not-so-good fruits of American tax dollars, and now I was ready to see what American donor dollars had created in the middle of the mountains in Uganda. Unless you’ve actually spent the hour rattling down the bumpy road from Mbale, shoved on gum boots, made the twenty minute hike up the impassable road, and peered inside the other schools in the area, it’s impossible to communicate the revelation that is Arlington. It sits in the middle of the jungle like a figment of your imagination, a colorful, vibrant, bastion of hope.

The ten months I’ve spent there have helped me clarify some of my opinions about education. My experiences have taught me one major lesson: all the fancy buildings and resources in the world mean nothing if you don’t have quality teachers. I would seriously rather pay a good teacher to sit under a tree in a field without so much as a sheet of paper, than pay a bad teacher to waste everyone’s time in a state of the art classroom. A good teacher accepts responsibility for everything in her classroom, including the attitude of the students. This is maybe the most challenging role of a teacher: working to adjust students’ attitudes so that they stay receptive and interested. During my second year in the Bronx I told incoming new teachers that they should prepare for a year-long fight with their students. We had to be relentless, vigilant, and unceasingly anal if we were going to get them to learn anything. I nicknamed myself Roboteacher. Teachers should be prepared to spend large amounts of money at Kinkos, and a large amount of energy doing epic battles with photocopying machines involving a long ruler and scotch tape. They should buy bags of candy for bribery, and bottles of vodka for sanity. They should try not to confuse the two. Get up at 5am, go to sleep at 12am, and generally look and feel like you’re on your deathbed. Take them on trips, give them stickers, go to their goddamn house and drag them to school yourself if you have to. Teachers have to be like soldiers, freakin General First Class Special Force Marines I tell you!

Of course sometimes, you get lucky.

Enter the current P7 class of Arlington. If I was given god-like powers to design the perfect group of students, I’m confident I would produce that class. They have the perfect combination of discipline and spirit, diligence and mischief. When you tell them that you need them to listen, they are instantly quiet. When you ask them to participate, they are rowdy and contradictory and interested and thoughtful. I’ve spent a lot of time conducting reading classes with them this year. It’s like a dream. I can concoct activities that require movement and discussion and self-directed learning and random groupings and they always step up to the plate. The levels of English vary in the class, but everyone tries and everyone is curious. We spent a few weeks reading a Ugandan novel about a young woman who has to drop out of school because her parents are dying of AIDS. A large part of the plot concerns this girl’s growing romance with a former playboy, who becomes a one-woman man under her influence. I asked the P7s to pretend they were the boy, and write a love letter to the girl. My oh my. Shakespeare step down. “Your body is like an empty glass, ringing with beauty.” “You are the star of my life.” We read a book that contained an anecdote about the sign language symbol for “I love you.” Several of them still flash it any time I walk into the class. They make fun of my accent, and each other. They wonder if my hair is real, or a wig. They wonder if I can take them to America. They come to school at 7am and leave at 6pm and still would like more work, please.

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The P7 all-stars

The Ugandan primary school system puts a huge amount of pressure on children. It is essentially seven years of learning that culminates in one final exam: the PLE. Students sit four PLE papers: English, Social Studies, Mathematics and Science. Any random fact that has been taught, from P1 to P7, is fair game. I can find no logical system behind the content of the questions. For example:

1. Mention one disadvantage of building in a wetland.
2. Suggest one way of improving the labour force in Africa.
3. Mention one reason why the Equator is marked 0̊
4. In which way does God communicate with his people?

That’s social studies. There is one right answer to every question, even on the English paper. Any error in spelling, grammar, or phrasing automatically makes an answer wrong. I would sum up the preparation process as the memorization of thousands of pieces of information, all in your second language. But it’s the key to your future in Uganda. Here you have to apply for secondary school, and PLE results determine your options.

Our P7s just completed this torturous process. In the weeks leading up to the exam they were in a constant state of revision, and their teachers were bleary-eyed and nervous. But the kids were high-spirited; the end was in sight. They had taken a total of eight mock papers, and most were confident. We had a blessing ceremony, where we invited their parents to come and show their support, heard many words of wisdom and encouragement, and prayed vigorously (or at least pretended to). Arlington hosted the exam this year, so the students were able to sit in a familiar environment, and enjoy the same break and lunch snacks they always do. The rest of the school had to remain closed, and teachers weren’t supposed to come near the premises for fear of awakening the suspicions of the ‘invigilator’ from Kampala. Sounds like a character in a Harry Potter book if you ask me.

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P7 lads at their blessing

At 4:15pm on the 4th, they all emerged into the afternoon sun, tucking their little ‘maths sets’ into their pockets and comparing answers. There was unanimous agreement that Social Studies was the hardest paper this year, while Science was the easiest. They horsed around and we took lots of pictures and gave out candy. They planted a symbolic tree, to illustrate the fact that the students’ roots are at Arlington, but there are no limits for their branches. Everyone felt they had passed the exam, and odds are they are right. Arlington has a 100% pass rate on the PLE so far. Bududa District has about 115 primary schools, sits hundreds of students for the PLE each year, and in 2005 managed to get only three students scoring in the first division. Then Arlington came on the scene, and out of our first candidate class of thirty, we got fifteen first divisions and fifteen second divisions. Based on my experience with this year’s P7s, they will more than uphold this record.

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Enthusiastic tree-planting

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Candy: works every time

Officially, these students are now finished with their primary education. They really should just sit back, relax, and wait for the results to come out in January. But they don’t want to do that. They’re coming back to school, to take classes on life skills and get ready for the science fair and hopefully have the odd reading lesson. They wouldn’t stay home if we asked them to. It’s hard to say what exactly has created this positive attitude in the kids. I know that a large part of it comes from the experiences and teaching they’ve had at Arlington for the past four years. I also think that part of it is the in-born good nature that is so common in the Ugandans I’ve met. They’re also a group of kids who gel really well, and work as a team. I know these kids would be a pleasure to teach regardless of their location: the barren Bronx classroom, the high-tech Virginian computer lab, or the concrete room in the jungle. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to interact with them, and they have a high position on the growing list of things I’m going to miss.

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