Hey there, long-neglected family and friends! My tail is, indeed, between my legs; it seems I have done exactly what I said I wouldn’t and totally slacked off the ol’ writing game once things got busy. Sowwy. Though we have been hustling hard on the grind, I should’ve tried harder to keep up with our promise. This is my first step towards reconciliation. Take it as you will.
After all of the build-up, I’m sure you’ve been sitting at the edge of your ergonomic office chairs gripping keyboards with white knuckles and wondering what on earth teaching is like in Uganda.
This article will discuss the highs and lows of amateur birdwatching in Uganda.
Psych! You got me, it’s about teaching. Though I have been toying with the idea of writing more about the birds here; there are a whole ton of them…
Anyways, in order for any posts about teacher-student interactions to make any sense there are a few structural basics I have to share. First of all, Bishop Cipriano has two sections; Day School and Boarding School. They are in separate facilities on either side of a main thoroughfare, and the walk between takes about 4 minutes. Students in the Boarding School pay very high school fees, and as such are typically much better-off than their Day School counterparts. They are also, on the whole, more literate, more insolent, and more apathetic. The Day School kids come from our local area (which is not one of the nicer neighborhoods in Kampala), and tend towards a more enthusiastic, if slightly less educated and hygienic, mode of existence. Contact is discouraged between students in the two schools; the only time they really meet is on the one or two School Days and Dances that happen in a year. If a student leaves the gates of the Boarding School without express permission they’re expelled. Opportunities for hooliganery are limited.
Most teachers will teach on both Day and Boarding side during a term, but it seems a general practice to trade classes with other teachers until you are primarily on one side or the other. Instructors that make the quarter-kilometer walk more than twice a week are considered athletes. This is in part due to the general fitness levels of teachers here; I think there may be blue-collar/white-collar body image issues at play, but I digress.
There is a single four-story building for classes on each campus. The doors from the classrooms open out onto balconies that line the front of the school. There isn’t any need for hallways or enclosed spaces because, hey, the equator! The overall effect of this open-air one-sided building-ness is something like a matching pair of Motel 6es in Oklahoma, except red brick and a lot less depressing. One of the reasons they’re less depressing is that they both have the words “I Care” printed in size one million type on the uppermost balcony. It looks like the buildings really love one another. It also looks like a student could have a really fun time getting expelled with a bucket of white paint. “ThI Caress.” Just saying.
Anyways, besides the constant temperature, the need for hallspace is limited thanks to the immobility of students while school is in session. This was one of the ideas that really blew my mind on arrival: kids stay in one room for the entire day, while the teachers move about and come to them. It is an important tactic in that it minimizes studential hustle, bustle, discipline issues, and space shufflage.; minimizing space sufflage is very important, because there is very little space in which to shuffle. Seriously, these children are crammed closer together than the Black Keys crowd at Bonnaroo.
As a teacher, this system would be helpful if it weren’t for the fact that we are afforded about as much shuffling space as the students. The single staff room on either side is often packed with teachers and exercise books and laptops and purses, because it is the only place you can sit down between classes. Lesson planning, marking, pedagogical theory discussions, and refueling all occur herein. Marginally legal transactions also occur herein; one of our fellow English teachers approached Alex the other day, sidling up slowly to ask if Black would perhaps be interested in purchasing a bunch of fine bananas. A different female teacher, who was sitting two meters away, stared at Alex intensely. The madame in question had brought the bananas in from her village, and asked Brother Paul to ask Alex if he wanted to buy any because, you know, that’s how the black market should work. (Editor’s note: I did buy the bananas and they were delicious.)
I always stop in the staff room before my lesson to check for good deals and stake out a claim, then take my computer over to whichever class I’m teaching that day. Every age group is divided into 6 color-coded “streams” (3 per school), each of which gets its own classroom for the year. My two streams are Senior 1 (general equivalent of 7th grade) White in the Day School and Senior 2 (8th grade) Blue on the Boarding side. Alex has Senior 1 Pink on the day side and Senior 2 Green on the day side. We both teach English Language to the Senior 1 classes and Literature to the Senior 2s.
Monday mornings I enter my S1 White class and face down 85 students in a classroom the size of an inner-city backyard. They average around 12 or 13 years old; some are as old as 16 or 17, as they couldn’t raise school fees when they were younger (or had to repeat a level (or three)). There are three columns of three desks each stretching from front to back, hugging so close that a student on the inside of a row couldn’t leave their desk without doing at least a couple of backflips. I plug my computer into the SmartBoard at the front of the class (a kind of touch-screen computerized white board) and about 60% of the time it works; when it doesn’t I shrug and start teaching “American Style” (without a touch-screen computerized white board).
The first time I entered a class the students went a little crazy—let’s just say they haven’t encountered many white teachers before. I quieted them down, introduced myself, and then asked everyone to make a name card for the front of their desk. Mr. Musanje, the department head, told us that we should try to take attendance every day. Then he laughed. I have worked hard to get to know names and faces, but it has been exceedingly difficult: first of all I am not great with names, second there are a trillion of them and they sit in different places every day, and third they are all (male and female) required to buzz their hair to a standard length. Seriously, I dare you to tell these kids apart. The only ones that stand out are the 16 year olds, because they are 6 inches taller and an octave deeper than they children surrounding them. B.C.K. Jump Street.
It might be easier to place names with personalities if the students spoke at an audible level, but there exists some unwritten rule wherein a student must answer any question under their breath in a monotone even when they VOLUNTEERED TO ANSWER THE QUESTION. I have to ask the kids to repeat things at least three times no matter what, and it is often wholly confounded by the fact that a bunch of other students who I didn’t call on will shout out what the kid has been trying to say, all at different times, so that the effect is generally
Teacher Samuel: “Alright, just to figure out what we know before class starts, can anyone tell me what kind of word describes a noun or pronoun?”
Student (raising hand): “mumbleshgrumble mumble.”
Teacher Samuel: “What was that?”
Student: “mumbleshgrumble mumblemumble.”
Teacher Samuel: “I’m sorry, you’ll have to say that again.”
Other Students: “MUMBLESHOUTGRUMSHOUTATUMBLE!!!!!”
Teacher Samuel: “Uh, okay, yeah, adjective is the right answer, moving on.”
When they are not answering questions the students can be loud and boisterous enough. Indeed, as soon as I have walked somewhere in a class to “hear” an answer, the part of class I cannot see starts up an animated conversation about what I assume must be the finer points of English grammar. I have managed to curb a lot of this extraneous philosophizing by instituting a “two warnings and I’ll give the entire class an extra assignment” clause; if there’s one thing students fear it’s an extra assignment. Or any assignment at all, for that matter.
Near the end of the lesson I always make sure to give an assignment. At the completion of the dreaded exercise students will stack their notebooks in a couple of massive piles that their class monitors will bring to the staff room with me. The students usually confront this great fear with stoicism, if not skill; most of the answers are completely B.S.ed for lack of consequences. We can’t mark assignments for credit, because only exams are counted towards the students’ grades. Thus, marking is pretty much entirely a test of willpower and care on our parts. A teacher came up to Alex and looked at the spreadsheet he’d created with all of his students’ scores and abilities, exclaiming,
“Wow, the ideal teaching method!”
Alex replied, “Yeah it’s pretty helpful to know how the students are faring, do you guys use it too?”
“HHAAHAHAHAHAAhahahaaaaaha, ha, ha, aaaah.”
Lest you think I’m being too down on the system, let me say that I am having a good time and feel I am doing important work. Some of the kids are brilliant, some are hilarious personalities, and the other teachers really are a wonderful and caring bunch. I am just trying to set the scene a bit. Later posts (coming soon!) will go into more detail about the kids and lessons learned (by both sides).
I hope everyone is doing wonderfully, can’t wait to see you all again. Drop me a line if you’ve got time,