A Good Day

by zunguzungu

Today was a good day. There were several reasons for this; the simplest was just that I had yesterday noticed a few things that the kids were really weak on, and had thought of an easy way to do some drills on it, first orally, then in their exercise books, and the plan turned out to be a fairly good one. The second and third reasons are related: first, I ate peanut butter on my bread for breakfast and simply had more energy as a result (the family normally eats white rolls for breakfast, with coffee or tea; about an hour later, I’m ready to eat goat’s head soup while the goat is still alive. This morning, Anton was laughing at me because I was stealing rolls to eat in my room with the peanut butter, so I wouldn’t have to share. When I offered the peanut butter out for everyone, it was gone that day). And the third reason was that Prosper, the school administrator, had a teacher meeting, and although it was in Swahili, so I wasn’t able to follow it that well, I got the gist of it, and it put a little fire in my belly.

The school is in the same state of semi-crisis that its been in for a long time, for the entire length of its existence really. There aren’t enough teachers, and my leaving next week will only exacerbate a problem that my coming was a brief band-aid for. Anton preceded my arrival by a week or so, and he said that, before I came the teachers didn’t stick to the timetable at all, since there were just so many gaping holes in it. They were trying to put out as many fires as they could. Prosper had a statement that he had written, which he read to the teachers and then there was some discussion; he addressed the lack of teachers, but it isn’t simply a problem of money to hire them. To hire the right kind of teachers, people who don’t merely have a cv but who have the right kind of spirit, the right kind of heart, is very important to him. The standard in Tanzania is for teachers to show up to class ten minutes late, write some problems on the board, then go smoke a cigarette in the teacher’s loung out of earshot of the mayhem that erupts in the class after his or her departure. We have some teachers that tend towards that norm, and Prosper is putting himself under tremendous pressure not to hire any more like that. But how do you do it? The pay is not good, not good at all, because the school has to run on funds raised through school fees, and those fees have to be kept low, otherwise most of the children would not be able to afford it. When I taught at the school the first time, there were three Tanzanian teachers and three Wazungu; now its eight and two. And while the school has grown a great deal (thanks to some wazungu donors and an incredible amount of work by the Kimaro clan), the simple economics of the situation are that the teachers cannot be paid enough to retain the best ones. Frank, for example, who sometimes will teach two classes at once rather than let the kids sit idle, spent a year in Nairobi at a teachers college, and is both the best qualified and most inspired of the teachers we’ve got. He makes the timetable and knows what goes on in the school while others are joking around in the teachers lounge (and, by the way, he’s from very near Nyerere’s village and speaks of the old “mwalimu” with an awe bordering on reverence). But he told me the other day that he’s going to leave the school to start a poultry farm. I asked him if he would be a teacher if it paid better and he said, of course, and didn’t have to even think about it. But it doesn’t.

Mzee Kimaro, Prosper’s father, had a vision for this school that, in the beginning, relied on keeping fees low by bringing in Wazungu teachers, and when I was there the first time, the school relied on us heavily. We wazungu taught all the non-nursery classes and the Tanzanian teachers were largely untrained. But the school’s growth has changed things. Whereas we were pretty much on our own, pretty much teaching whatever we imagined it would be useful for them to learn, there are now books (for the teachers), curriculum, timetables, exams. And most of all, we wazungu teachers are now simply the band-aid over the most gaping holes in the school; I teach English and Math because it frees up the Tanzanian teachers to teach the classes I can’t teach, classes like Civics, Science, Kiswahili, which in the bad old days didn’t get taught at all. All of this is for the good. Yet in some ways, the growth of the school has meant that the school is more like a business and less like a charity; the fees have gone up because having actual qualified teachers has meant actually paying them real money, having eight classes instead of four has meant needing qualified teachers, and hiring teachers who look on it as a job rather than as a stint in altruism-land has meant that we have some teachers who really don’t care that much. Frank and Prosper are two of the exceptions; Frank has taken a lower paying job for the time being because he truly cares for these children and wants them to succeed, and Prosper has taken up his father’s vision at the cost of essentially giving up the life he’d been leading.

When Mzee Kimaro passed away, about a year ago, Prosper gave up his job working for a safari company in Zanzibar and came to the school to take his father’s place. There is much I don’t understand about his situation, but its not hard to see how difficult his stuation is; he’s living in a house with his father’s second wife, filled with his father’s children by the woman he married after Prosper’s mother passed away. He’s inhabiting a job that should be held by a much older man, in the tremendously uncomfortable position of having to discipline and direct a large group of teachers who are mostly older than him. He simply exudes discomfort sometimes, and walks as if there is a perpetual weight on his shoulders; in the school meeting, he read from a prepared statement because he would not have been able to speak extemporaneously, about the many things that need to be addressed, from the bad road in to the fact that certain grades have not yet been taught subjects like Civics at all. And this all went on and on. I can’t imagine. Yet he doesn’t waver or flinch from that responsibility and there is a quiet determination about him and about the school that is now his responsibility that is termendously powerful. And at the center of the school is his father’s grave, a large cement ediface with a cross, and I pass it every day walking from one classroom to another. Mzee Kimaro is still here in so many ways, and if I feel it then his family must feel it all the stronger; yet there is nothing so like his father as the way Prosper looks forward into a future without assurance, only hope.

So, as I said, I was a bit more inspired than usual, and when I went back to the classroom, I did some things I don’t normally do.

Let me set the stage: First, some of the students (but only some) have rulers and they prefer using their rulers to actually doing their work, so one constant problem that we have with them is that, when faced with an assignment that will force them to fill in boxes or blanks in a table I’ve drawn on the board, they tend to dither around with their rulers instead of working (or waiting and doing nothing until their neighbor can lend them their ruler). And second, one of my students, Wisdom, is both my favorite and also my nemesis: he’s probably the smartest one in the class, but he’s also a little too aware of it and a little full of himself. In addition, he’s Prosper’s young half-brother, and Mzee Kimaro’s son, which factors into it: he is often leaving the classroom to help Prosper with this or that and I suspect that some of his moodiness is a product of recently losing his father, if not merely the fact that he’s just becoming a teenager and all that implies. I’m extremely fond of him, but I have to hide that, because it only gives him the ability to give me even more sass.

So, as I was struggling to regulate the various ruler borrowing that was going on, not to mention the consternation and strife that it produced, I noticed that Wisdom had figured out a way to do the exercises on the board without using his ruler (instead of redrawing the boxes I had drawn, he laid out the same problems in a more linear way, and I won’t try to describe it any better than that). And I took two minutes to hold up his notebook to the rest of the class, being mock-stern with them for wasting so much time, and praising the others who then clamored to show me the various ways they had managed to do without their ruler (Betty used her dictionary as a straight edge, a few other kids just drew the lines freehand, and so forth). I did it in such a way that Wisdom took more interest in his work than he had been, and the ruler borrowing ended. The next ten minutes or so were noticeably more productive. It was a good class; I didn’t have to use the kind of verbal intimidation I resort to instead of a stick (and never let anyone tell you that words are less violent than a little physical pain).

I want to make several observations from this tiny incident. Firstly, the teacher in a class like this is always pulled in ten different directions at once. Here’s any given instant of teaching: while you are writing an assignment on the board, Aurelia is punching Omari because he has taken her ruler, Monica and Riziki are playing with their dictionary, Saidi doesn’t understand the assignment, Christopher is gazing out the window, and Betty and Maria want to go to the bathroom, all while you notice that only a few of the students have even taken out their exercise books or recognized that they are getting an assignment. And Salimu’s pen isn’t working. And Wisdom is sitting with his legs on the table. There are different responses to all of these facts, and if there were ten of you, you could give the appropriate one in each case. Since there are not, you do the best that you can (and keep in mind that once the students start working, you are also trying top give as much individualized attention to them as you can, to correct them where they are going wrong, and so forth).

But the more energy and drive you have, the more you are able to be proactive and stay one step ahead of the students. I realized only afterwards that the kind of “look at what Wisdom is doing” approach that I had taken had been just the right touch: Wisdom didn’t get too proud of himself, while the other students were both encouraged not to waste time (which is a constant problem) without me having had to be too negative and chastising, and they were (oh so briefly!) focused on their work. Multiple fires were put out at the same time. A good teacher is someone for whom that comes naturally enough that they do it many times a day; when it doesn’t, an exercise that should take them ten minutes, will take thirty, half of them will do it wrong because you didn’t correct their misunderstanding of how to do it, and Betty and Saidi will not have even gotten started because they were waiting for someone to be finished with their ruler. But another way of saying that is that to teach this kind of class well, you’ve got to have a tremendous amount of heart. It is the hardest thing I have ever or will ever do, and part of that is because it is so easy to slack off (and let me just put in here the confession that I do slack off, a lot). Saidi doesn’t understand, but will you spend two seconds correcting him instead of the minute it will take to do a proper job (or the three that would really help him). Wisdom is being disruptive in a very subtle and difficult way; can you get him to stop without playing into his hands and giving him the kind of attention he wants? Aurelia is pounding the crap out of another student; can you mediate the situation without simply snapping at her and making her cry? How do you deal with a student like Christopher, who is always daydreaming and does badly on tests as a result? How do you even have time to deal with all the problems that you haven’t even noticed because you’ve been too busy putting out the biggest fires as fast as you can?

I’m not a bad teacher of college students, I think, but that comes sort of naturally; you can just teach a seminar as an extension of the kinds of discussion classes one takes as a regular graduate student. You talk about books, you argue, you grade papers, you go home. Teaching primary education (particularly under the kinds of conditions we’re blessed with here) will take everything you can throw at it and remind you that three times as much as that would never be nearly, nearly enough. And you will love those kids in a way that surpasses description, even as you see their futures passing through your hands, hands which are too tired and too unskilled and too busy to do what’s really necessary. If only you had enough time, enough energy, enough of you, then maybe Saidi wouldn’t be failing so disastrously, maybe Salimu’s strong motivation would be yielding better results, maybe Wisdom wouldn’t be learning to go through school with a chip on his shoulder and a sneer on his lips, maybe Christopher wouldn’t be drifting farther and farther away… Yet who can blame Frank for wanting to start a poultry farm instead of being a teacher? It doesn’t pay, and he might want, for example, to start a family. Who can blame him? I’ve come to teach for less than three months, because I need to return to my work at Berkeley. Do I blame myself for that? For not helping out more? I don’t, not really. I have my life and I’m going back to it, just as Frank can only put so much of himself into the school before he has to think of himself. But at a place like Shinda, at a place where Prosper, so improbably and so inspiringly, dammit, is carrying on his father’s legacy and vision in a way that just seems too good to be true, you can’t help being aware of what you could do. If there were another three teachers. If the standard three class could be divided into two. If the standard six class could be in its own room instead of right next to the nursery school, which makes so much noise that I’m hoarse at the end of the day from shouting over them. If only I had textbooks to give them. If only we could buy them pens. If only we had clocks in the classroom. If only we could give them a better lunch than porridge. If only we had gravel to make the road a little more passable. If only, if only, if only.