Time to Teach

16 01 2011

So it’s Sunday and I’ve completed my first official week of school. It wasn’t actually a full week as Wednesday was a national holiday and taking into account that the first two days there wasn’t any teaching going on, I only actually taught for two days. But I’ll try to take you through the first week anyway, one day at a time.


So Monday, January 10th is the day the school opened. Yea, opened, not the day that classes started. I woke up extra early the first day because let’s be honest; there is nothing worse than being late to your first day of work. I woke up, cooked a little uji (porridge made of ground finger millet, maize, rice, peanuts, and soy beans; I’m actually a fan since it’s one of the few traditional Tanzanian breakfast foods that isn’t soaked in oil) over my kerosene jiko since I didn’t really have time to fire up the charcoal one, got dressed, and walked the 50 yards from the door of my house to the school. I knew that when classes began, class started at 7:40am, but nobody had told me what time to be there on the first day, so I took my best guess and showed up at 7:15. When I arrived to the center courtyard of the school, a good number of the students were already there standing in perfectly straight lines according to school level listening to the teacher on duty giving announcements. As I found out, the teacher on duty is a responsibility that rotates around to each teacher on the staff. During the opening, one of the other teachers leaned over and quietly asked me if I could be the teacher on duty (TOD) the following week. I stared at her blankly and said “sure, what do I have to do?” She said “you know, supervise the kids, make sure they clean the environment, write up the attendance report, and give the announcements for the day. I agreed, but made it clear that I didn’t know what the kids were supposed to clean, how I was to take attendance without a list, or what announcements to make, but yea, sure let’s do this. After she realized that she couldn’t just dump this responsibility on me right away, she agreed to be TOD the following week if I shadowed her so that I could learn the ropes. But back to the school opening; I discovered that every morning the students actually arrive at school at 7:00am to clean the environment. This entails such tasks as removing weeks, picking up sticks, sweeping the dirt out of classrooms, and clearing overgrown brush with a machete that is on school grounds. So normally I won’t have to arrive at school until 7:30am unless I’m the TOD, in which case I need to supervise the landscaping work that students are required to do before classes begin. During the school opening, the kids all stood at attention listening to the announcements from the TOD and the headmaster, sang the Tanzanian national anthem, and then was dispatched to their cleaning duties. At this point, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do so I set off to help the teacher who was creating the class schedule for the school year. Since computers aren’t really in use here, we used a giant piece of poster board and went to town the old fashion way; pencil and eraser. I spent most of the day helping him schedule all 7 teachers for classes. There was a decent amount of bickering between Stanton (who was creating the schedule) and the other teachers about what subjects and what levels they would teach. Since I was there, I told him that I would teach all of Form 3 math, which has 4 ‘streams’ of 50 kids each. Math here has six 40 minute periods a week so that comes out to 24 periods for me. Peace Corps recommend that volunteers teach between 16 and 24 periods, so I figured that 24 would be a good place to start. Other teachers were trying to convince me to teach other subjects, but I held tough and indicated that I wanted to make sure that I could teach 24 periods a week effectively before I tried teaching anymore. They were trying to convince me to teach more because many of them were scheduled for 32 or 40 periods. I think they reluctantly accepted my request to start out teaching 24, and I did feel a little guilty, but I’d rather not bite off more than I can chew. I don’t want to take on a massive load of classes then discover 3 weeks in that I’m not really effectively teaching any of them. This combined with the fact that even though all secondary classes are supposed to be taught in English, but after only half a day of walking around the school and talking to students it became quite clear to me that the majority of instruction is in Swahili. This increases the amount of time I need to spend A) lesson planning and B) teaching. During the creation of the schedule, which we were doing in an office near the side of the school I heard a loud whipping sound coming from outside. I thought that it was maybe something cleaning something, but as I leaned back in my chair to see what the noise was, I saw two male students in the push-up position on the ground being hit. We had learned that corporal punishment is the norm in schools here, and strangely enough it didn’t really bother too much because I think I’ve conditioned myself to expect to see it occasionally, but when you actually see it occur for the first time, it’s a little bit of a shock. For me, it was similar to a horrible car accident you see on the side of the road; you know you shouldn’t look, but you’re just so damn curious that you slow down and try to sneak a peek anyway. It was also odd feeling I had because it was my headmaster who was doing the beating. This is a guy who has been nothing but nice to me, invited me into his home, cooked for me, and drank a beer with. Before Monday, I never could really picture him beating a student, but there it was, happening in the middle of the schoolyard plain as day. I chalked it up to a “cultural” experience and told myself that ‘hey, I remember my dad telling me stories about how his teachers in private catholic school would do the same thing’ and continued to work on the schedule with my fellow teacher. After we finished the schedule, I was yet again at a loss for what I was supposed to be doing. I asked all the other teachers if I could help with anything, but they said to just wait in the teachers’ lounge for a short while, so who was I to argue? I took the time to put the finishing touches on some of my lesson plans I was working on. At around 2:00pm, I realized that my stomach was growling and that I was pretty damn hungry. As luck would have it, the students re-convened in the large courtyard just after 2:00pm to await the final inspection of the school grounds and classrooms from the headmaster. Mind you all this was in Kiswahili, so I was picking up most of what was said, but not everything. However, when the headmaster started raising his voice and yelling, it was quite obvious he wasn’t happy. Picking out words in Swahili here and there I could tell he was upset that the From 3 students had not done a satisfactory job of cleaning their classrooms. What happened next was quite shocking to me. All the students that the headmaster was addressing proceeded to line-up while the headmaster and two other teachers walked around looking for a switch large enough to discipline the students. One by one, the students walked up to 1 of the 2 teachers and received their punishment. The boys as I’ve quickly learned go into the push-up position and are struck twice on the rear and the girls hold out their hands and are struck twice on the inside palm of the hand. Not that I think hitting students is the best way to discipline them and there is a good way and a bad way to hit a student, but it occurred to me that the girls had it way worse. They were hit on the soft part of the hand with a stick the same width that the boys were hit with on the rear, where there is, like it or not, way more padding. In all, about 50 or so students were disciplined. Again, I didn’t agree with what was happening, but who am I to tell the head of the school what he should and shouldn’t be doing, especially on my first day? I just had to swallow my words and look the other way. After this spectacle had concluded, all the students were dismissed for the day. It was also at this point that I realized that these kids arrived at 7:00am and left at around 2:30pm without eating a single thing. I had had a large breakfast of oatmeal and a banana at around 6:45am and two hardboiled eggs with 2 pieces of bread at 10:30am and I was starving. To add to the ridiculousness of it I realized that I had been sitting at a desk all day, barely moving, while all these kids had been busting their ass chopping down trees and sweeping classrooms. I honestly don’t know how they did it. Even the other teachers hadn’t had anything to eat. When I asked them what they usually do for food, they said to me “didn’t you drink any chai at chai time?” I responded “why yes, I drank the tea, but that doesn’t really satisfy my hunger.” They kind of chuckled and responded with “so sorry”. It was at this point that I realized I needed to figure something out. I want to fully immerse myself into Tanzanian culture as deep as possible, but not if it’s going to affect (effect? I never know…) my health. After the students were dismissed, me and 2 of the other teachers were finally able to go into the village for another hearty meal of rice, beans, and meat.


So Tuesday I woke up again at the same, wanting to be sure that I was on time again because let’s be honest, nobody wants to be late to work on their second day either. I walked up to the school to the exact same scene as the previous day. All the students were standing in what I thought were perfectly straight lines. But after about two minutes it was clear from the tone of voice of the TOD giving announcements that the lines weren’t straight enough as was walking up and down trying to fix the issue. The school looked like it was in good enough shape for me, but apparently it really wasn’t. The students spent the whole of day two again clearing brush, picking weeds, and sweeping classrooms. This time I didn’t have any schedule to work on so I agreed to walk around and ‘supervise the cleaning’ with another one of the teachers. This was an interesting experience, not quite something I thought I’d have the pleasure to do in addition to teaching math, but interesting none-the-less. I supervised the cleaning of the school for the entire morning then retreated with the other teachers back to the staff room for chai. This time I came to school prepared; two boiled eggs, two pieces of bread, and a banana. The rest of the day was pretty un-eventful as there was only so much supervising I could do, so I proceeded to follow the lead of the teachers and hang in the staff lounge. Students were in and out all day, I think mostly relaying attendance information. Again I tried to work on some lesson planning to pass the time until school ended, but after 2 hours I was pretty burnt out. I decided to walk around the school grounds and chat with the students. 99% of the students tried to talk to me in Kiswahili rather than in English, but as I’ve mentioned before, all classes in secondary school are SUPPOSED to be taught in English. When they would start talking in Swahili I’d say “ahh, in English please” They would give a half smile and struggle how to get their point across in English. I don’t purposely try to make them uncomfortable, but I figure if all their exams are in English, they should be practicing it as often as possible. Anyway, before I knew it 3:00pm had rolled around again, and I started the now daily ritual of walking 20 minutes down to the village to grab food. It’s virtually impossible to cook anything for lunch because there just isn’t enough time during breaks at school. Additionally we are supposed to be available in the teachers’ lounge during periods we aren’t teaching.


So Wednesday we didn’t have school. Turns out that January 12th is Zanzibar Revolution day, which is a national holiday. Instead of hitting the books on Wednesday I hit my garden hard. I had been neglecting putting the finishing touches on the garden for a couple weeks now, and it was becoming over-run with weeds. I spent the entirety of the day removing all the weeds and digging so that I could finally plant something. By the end of the day I had cleared enough area to plant corn, beans, lemongrass, and a local leafy green vegetable called matembele. It is actually still only halfway completed but I definitely was feeling a sense of accomplishment at finally being able to plant something after putting so many man hours into this tiny piece of land behind my house. I’m crossing my fingers that the stuff I planted actually grows because I’ve been informing all the villagers and my neighbors that I do in fact have a garden, and will be planting corn, beans, spinach, green pepper, and carrots. Most people gave me a surprised laugh and didn’t really believe me (which of course made me really want to have a kick-ass garden even worse). I’ll try to take some before and after pictures. However, I think I’ll only post them over on Facebook if I have a decent ‘after’ picture to contrast against the ‘before’ picture….


So Thursday turned out to be the first day that I actually got inside a classroom. I was nervous and anxious, but a great sense of relief washed over me that ‘ok, I’m finally doing what I came here to do’. I had two 80 double block periods to teach, both of which were actually the same kids in stream 3C. Like I mentioned before, my school has Form 1, 2, 3, and 4. These are roughly the equivalent of maybe 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th grade. For each Form, there are about 200 kids, so they are broken down into streams so that the class sizes are more manageable (that’s the idea anyway). There are 4 streams for each Form. For example, I am specifically teaching Form 3A, 3B, 3C, and 3D. Today from 7:40am to 9:00am I had 3C, then again had 3C from 10:50am to 12:10pm. After the opening of the school in which the students sung the Tanzanian National Anthem, I waited for the students to filter out to their respective classrooms, then I sauntered over to the 3C classroom. I think overall the class went well, but it’s difficult to tell because the kids didn’t really didn’t talk much. I think they are clearly still trying to figure out what kind of teacher I am and are still in that phase in which they aren’t sure what to think. I started class out by introducing myself in Swahili then stated that I will be using English as the primary language to teach, and only using Kiswahili when I feel like something is still unclear. I started out writing the 5 class rules on the board. I wrote them out, one by one, pausing after each sentence to allow the students to copy them down, and then I would call on a student to stand and read each one. I carefully explained the rules as best I could. Some of them were more difficult to explain, like “Treat fellow classmates with respect in words and actions”. After explaining all 5 rules, I continued to detail out the punishments for breaking any of the 5 rules (don’t worry; beatings didn’t make my list of top 5 punishments for students who behave, I explicitly told them I would not using a stick to discipline them). I think they agreed that the rules and punishments were fair and as far as I could tell I think I got the point across, but only time will tell. Next I had a brain teaser for them. I told them to expect a question, game, or puzzle to start every class. The game we played today was The Game of 24 in which students need to take a set of 4 numbers and combine them to arrive at the number 24. For example using +, -, x, and / arrange the following numbers to equal 24; 6, 4, 3, 6. Solution: (6×6)-(4×3) = 24. We went through a couple rounds of this with pretty good success. At first the students just stared at me when I told them to begin. I don’t think they’ve really done anything like playing a game, especially in math class. After we finished playing the game, I had all students make name plates for their desks. I had them tear one 1 sheet from their workbooks and tear that piece in half. I want to try my best to learn all the students’ names, so I figured this was a good way to start. I went around the classroom asking each student to pronounce their names for me. I know for a fact I butchered some of them judging from the laughter or other students listening, but I think I nailed more of the names like ‘Mary’ and ‘Emanuel’. It will take time, but I’ll get there. After we created the name plates, I had one final activity. I asked the students to write down what they wanted to do after school. For some students, this was a very difficult task. It was obviously which students needed help with their English. A large percentage of them could barely complete two grammatically correct sentences, while others were able to write a full paragraph. The most common answer was ‘teacher’ by a wide margin but other answers included ‘pilot, so I can be the first Tanzanian to transport people to other countries’, ‘singer like Beyonce or Rhianna’, to ‘driver of a bus’. There were only 2 students who said ‘engineer’ which was slightly dis-heartening, but when I thought about it, the profession of ‘engineer’ in Tanzania is a rare one. After completing this activity, we had only a small amount of time left, so I proceeded to review the topic of graphing points on a coordinate plane. Most students were able to do this without any problems, but there was a decent number who needed some help. The range of abilities in the class in terms of English and Math is quite staggering from what I can tell after two double block periods. This obviously adds another layer of complexity to the class, but hey, I’ll get through it. These two double block periods were the only ones I was scheduled to teach for the day, so I returned to the teachers office area to hang out for another 3 hours and work my lesson plans for the following week.


Friday I only had one double block class, 3D. It was the first class of the morning and the routine was pretty similar to the previous day. I used the same lesson plan because it is the same level of class, just a different stream. Friday’s here though end early because a decent percentage of the students are Muslim and need to get home early to attend worship on Friday afternoons. There are classes scheduled until about 11:30am after which the students are expected to self-study ‘Religion’. I wasn’t able to figure out what exactly this means, but I did hear a lot of singing and what sounded like dancing coming from many of the classrooms. Near the end of the day, one of the other teachers came up to me in the office and proceeded to ask me if I would be a ‘mentor’ for all the Form 1 students. I asked what this entailed and she explained that it was basically a guidance counselor position in which students could come see me about issues or problems at school or at home. I said sure, but wondered when I would be able to meet with all the students considering I am only teaching Form 3. She said, ‘oh, you will get to know them when you teach Form 1’. I looked puzzled and looked at my schedule again and told her that I wasn’t scheduled to teach Form 1. She asked me why and I explained (for the 4th time) that Peace Corps recommends that volunteers teach between 16-24 classes per week. I said that I know many of you are teaching 32-40 classes, but that most of your instruction is in Swahili and it’s much easier to plan for a class when you speak the same language. I also pointed out that 196 of 200 students got below a 20% on their terminal math exams the previous year and that I wanted to ensure that my Form 3 math students were being taught effectively before I took on any additional responsibility. I got the feeling that the other teachers thought I was trying to get off with a light workload; they never really said this to me directly (not the Tanzanian style) but they went about it in other ways. I wouldn’t say I was yelling, but I definitely was raising my voice trying to explain that even if you teach 40 periods, if all the students fail their terminal exams, what’s the point? I also explained that even though I was only teaching 24 periods per week, I had been attending and teaching all the classes I was scheduled to teach. I think I was the only teacher that actually TAUGHT all the periods that I was scheduled to teach. When I politely asked the other teachers the previous day when they were teaching I would get answers like “later” or “oh, I’m not really prepared yet”. I knew this was the case because every time I left the staff office most of the teachers were sitting there and when I returned from teaching they were again sitting there. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me slightly upset that they were gently hinting at the fact that I was only teaching 24 periods when they hadn’t even taught one class they were scheduled to teach. I was able to keep myself under control though and make my point in a diplomatic way; I think they all understood that it’s going to take me more time to adapt to teaching here in Tanzania, and that I will add periods later if I see I have the extra time. However, about 10 minutes after this conversation, the one teacher who told me “oh, I haven’t yet prepared my lessons yet” brought 2 students into the office area and was yelling at them for some reason. I couldn’t tell exactly what they had done to anger this other teacher, but within minutes both of these students were in the push up position being beat as I sat at my desk in the teachers office area trying to plan lessons for the following week. At this point, my blood was boiling; I was incredulous that this teacher had the audacity to tell me “oh, school started this week but I’m not prepared and haven’t taught one period” then 10 minutes thought it was a constructive activity to be beating students rather than oh I don’t know, maybe planning his lessons? I had to remove myself from the room before I said something I would regret. After I cooled down I returned to the staff office area where the other teachers proceeded smile and sort of laugh then ask me why I won’t hit the students. They jokingly tried to hand me the stick to practice, but clearly I wasn’t going to be baited by this. I explained again that I have other methods I plan on using to discipline students who misbehave and that beating them is not one of the techniques that I would employ. Perhaps if my methods work, I can bring these other teachers into the class and say “see, it is possible to control a class even though I don’t beat my students”. Again, it’s not the fact that students are being beat that bothered me so much because that’s just the way it works here; and that’s the way it worked at my dad’s school when he was younger. My dad told me that the priest at his old school would tape two rulers together, then tape quarters to the end of the ruler and proceed to beat the kids in that fashion, which honestly sounds worse than was is occurring here in Tanzania. The problem I had was that instead of concentrating on educating the kids, these other teachers were more concerned about making sure the proper punishments for not cleaning properly were dished out. Again, I’m just being honest, I was angry, but tried to keep my cool. Then the last straw was when yet another teacher walked into the staff office area, just as I was cooling down from what I had just witnessed, and informed me that the students had been down at my house to clean the environment (aka remove grass, trim bushes, and pick up debris). I looked at my watch and looked back up at the teacher and proceeded to say “why?? The kids should still be in their classrooms shouldn’t they?” He said “No no, here they learn everything. They learn to study, they learn sports, and they learn to clean.” Again, my blood pressure began to rise, I briskly walked out the door telling him that if the students were at my house still I was going to direct them back into the classroom and that he was NOT to instruct them to clean anything near my house. I can’t stop him from making them clean the area near his house, but I was not going to have these kids wasting their time (or what I saw as wasting their time) picking weeds out of ground near my house. This teacher insisted that the students didn’t learn to clean at home, and that they needed to be taught this at school. Now I don’t want to sound insulting, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pick weeds or wield a broom, and I would bet money that the first thing most of these kids do when they get home is help around their houses whether it be doing laundry or sweeping. After this latest exchange, I politely said my goodbyes for the day and removed myself from the situation, again before I said something I would regret. I could lie here and tell you that the first week was all peachy keen, but it really made me realize what an uphill battle my time here could be. I’m hoping that it really was just the first week and that the other educators will be more prepared in the coming weeks. I talked to my parents this weekend and they really did settle me down. They reminded me that I’m not going to change the world, or even this village overnight, and that all I can do is set an example of an alternative way to do things. They said that even if I could only affect a handful of kids, then what I’m doing here would be considered a success. I have to constantly remind myself, as we were reminded in training, that progress here is slow and that signs of progress may not be visible for 1, 5, or 10 years. So thank you to my parents for re-iterating this fact. I think now I can go into the week two and the rest of this school year keeping these ideas in mind that I’m not going to change the way things are done here overnight, but that it’s going to be baby steps at best. I think as long as I keep this in mind, I’ll be fine as I continue to progress as a teacher here.

So after re-reading this post, I apologize if this post seems a bit harsh, but I figured there’s no use lying as to what I’m experiencing over here because then what’s the point? I don’t hold anything against the other teachers at my school; they are all genuinely nice people and are only doing what they were taught and doing what they know. It was just shocking and frustrating to me. Now that I’ve had time to reflect though, I think I can go back into school next week with a clear head and continue to do what I came here to do; teach kids in hopes that they can create a better life for themselves. Anyway, this post is long enough as it is, so I’ll try to stop it here. I’m not sure when the next time I will post is because I’ve actually been invited to my first Tanzanian wedding next weekend (wooo hoo!) so I won’t be able to come into town.

Anyway, hopefully everyone is having a fabulous new year! And to those of you who post words of encouragement here on the blog or over on Facebook, thank you. I’ve said it before but I really do read all the comments and deeply appreciate all of them, even if I don’t respond right away!




6 responses

26 01 2011
Simon Harrop

Wow listen to you sounding all grown up! Don’t you miss configuration in Kansas?
Seems like you’re having an amazing experience, good for you, and you’ve been replaced in the office anyway, there’s a new ginger.

5 02 2011

Mr. Harrop,

Are you implying that I didn’t sound grown-up while I was working at Manhattan?? I resent that comment sir… Anyway, as much as I do miss i-series configuration in Kansas, the experience over here has been quite interesting thus far.

And I guess I’m not surprised I was replaced; you need at least one red-head to keep that place running anyway…

17 01 2011
Aunt Lynn

Hello Holt, my voice did sound like a chipmonk saturday. too funny! At least we both got a good laugh. I was so happy to see you face to face! I made some adjustments to the audio on my laptop and purchased a headset with a microphone. I plan to make a practice call to your Mom and Dad or Lindsey to audit my calls. Remember that you are an amaizing guy! Your kind and gentle nature will spill over to others. Keep praying for strength and peace during the difficult times. You have many Angels watching over you. Call upon them when you need encouragement. Have a “great” week! A wedding how fun! Enjoy. Love Aunt Lynn xo

17 01 2011
Melissa McDermid

Stay strong with your beliefs. You might not see the effects of your work right away, but the ripple is out there!

17 01 2011
Roxanne Mecham

Thanks for the candid and honest account of your experience in that school. Stay strong and keep doing what you know is right! You ARE right! It’s too easy to give in and become lazy and apathetic. My prayers are with you–along with MANY others. You’ll find the strength when you most need it.
Good luck with your garden. Are you composting? That would make a difference. Home Composting Made Easy by C. Forrest McDowell, PhD and Tricia Clark-McDowell is a small, easy to understand guide. I’m starting a community garden with FHS kids in a vacant lot near Solcum and Farmington. (We’re starting seeds in the 500 hall green house attached to two science rooms. And trying to figure out how to compost at school…)
Take good care of yourself.

5 02 2011


Thanks for the comment! I have started composting, but only on a small scale and not really enough for my entire garden. It is something we learned in training so hopefully I’ll get around to starting it in the next couple weeks.

The community garden with the kids sounds like an amazing idea! Even me at 25 I had no clue where a lot of our food came from but being here I’ve learned more than I ever thought about agriculture. It’s great to do an activity like that with the kids they’ll learn a great deal! I’ll try to post some picture of the garden I’ve got over on Facebook but I’d love to see some pictures of what you’re working on as well!

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