teaching the mob

by zunguzungu

School starts again tomorrow, after the last few weeks of holiday.  To sum up my experience before the holiday: first I was teaching standard two and three, and then after I conceded total defeat, I became strictly a standard six teacher, which I enjoyed much more. Was I better? Probably.  But someone has to teach the young kids, and the fact that I fled probably didn’t do them much good, especially since even the Tanzanian teachers acknowledged having difficulties.  This is something I wrote (but didn’t put on the blog) while I was teaching standard two and three and doing a terrible job of it:

In teaching standard three, I’ve often taken a moment from the insanity to gaze out into the horizon and try to imagine how I might express the sheer unadulterated chaos of the experience for you, gentle reader. I’ve considered several different metaphors for these kids: giraffes, warthogs, locusts, even a herd of little elephants seems not totally inappropriate. Dogs baying for my flesh comes to mind, of course, since I have to listen to snarling dogs howling, snarling, and infecting each other with rabies at night anyway. And the laughing hyena, that’s another apt one; always when I most want to chuck them out the third story window is when they’re smiling and laughing the hardest. Breathe deeply…

But I think the best way to describe them is as a mob of peasants charging up the hill towards the castle doors. Its hard not to become a stodgy defender of the ancien regime when you are faced with torches and pitchforks, and it may be that the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is remain level headed and not became a reactionary despot when my rule is challenged, flouted, laid waste to, and made utterly irrelevent. Being an educator for children and for young people is two incredibly different things; while I find myself to be a much better teacher of these standard 6 kids of mine (all of whom I taught before) than I feared/expected, the standard three and two kids are a class five hurricane (and, to continue the metaphor, I’m an inefficient, understaffed, and poorly directed federal disaster relief response team). A class where anything gets accomplished, at all, is a good class. A class where I leave angry, defeated, and depressed is an everyday experience.

Why that is is an important question to me.  They’re not bad kids.  On the contrary, they seem to want to learn and outside the classroom they are adorable, even angelic. Outside the classroom they are curious, patient, quick, respectful, and perceptive. Inside the class, they are monsters. What is it about the dingy, dirty, and dark classroom where they’re required to sit quietly and repeat sentences in a language they don’t understand, write their textbooks out by hand, often hungry, and so often sit there without even a teacher, that brings out the worst in them?  I just can’t imagine, can you?

So I start to feel not like a teacher unlocking the gates of knowledge, or whatever crap people think, but like a repressive dictator battering them into silent submission. That’s not a good feeling.

Funny to read that now, now that the intense frustration of being a bad teacher on a daily basis has faded. I’m looking forward to the next two or three weeks of teaching with a different sense of ambiguity, now. In my mind, I’m already partly gone; I’ll be back in Berkeley in a month, and it’s hard not to think more about my work at the university and the various things I’ll be doing over the next few months than about the short few weeks I’ll be teaching again, expecially since its not clear which classes I’ll be teaching (Frank wants to teach the standard six kids, since he knows the test they’ll be taking at the end of the year).  It’s hard to work up much enthusiasm after a vacation, anyway, and you need a full head of steam with these kids; but its also hard not to notice that I haven’t actually done that much teaching since I’ve been here (having scheduled my visit unknowingly to catch all of the mid semester holiday, and having only come for about three months anyway).  I hope the work I’ve done has helped them a bit; it certainly has been good to see the school again, and the experience has been a good one to me.  But I can’t help but notice how pitifully small my actual productive time in the classroom was; after I fled the standard two and three, tail between legs, I spent a few weeks with standard six and some of those classes were good, but then it was the holidays. Oh well.