Settling in

5 02 2011

So it has been exactly 4 weeks since I’ve started teaching. After the first week, which was to put it politely, pretty trying, is behind me think I’m finally starting to hit my stride teaching and finally getting into a regular routine. I never really thought of myself as one of those people who needed structure in order to function, but after over a month of having absolutely no structure whatsoever, I’ve realized that I feel fairly lost without at least something resembling a routine.

Most weekdays start with me getting up at around 6:30am, which doesn’t really feel that early here since it’s usually lights out by no later than 10pm. I’ll either cook up some uji (porridge) which is the less expensive but more time consuming option or I’ll have some Quaker instant oats with a mango, banana, or peach. Yes, peaches. I didn’t know they existed here. I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, anything positive that occurs in regards to food here gets me more excited than it really should. But I recently found out that peaches are in season here and my local village actually has a guy who sells them. At first I figured they’d be expensive since it’s not something they usually stock, but for 100 Tanzanian Shillings (15 cents) I can get a nice looking peach. For fear that the guy who was selling them wouldn’t actually be able to sell them all, I promptly told him I wanted 20 in hopes that he would realize I’d be a regular customer and continue to make them available in the village, so we’ll see how that goes. After breakfast, I make the 2 minute walk up to the school at 7:30am to see the ‘parade’ prior to the start of the school. The word parade is probably a little misleading as it more closely resembles an assembly than a parade. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word ‘parade’ I think Thanksgiving Day, Turkey, dancing, singing, and maybe Santa Clause. Here, the word ‘parade’ means that all 800 students line up in the school courtyard for inspection. If your hair is too long, your shirt isn’t tucked in, or your nails are too long, you get a gentle reminder that you need to clean yourself up. After inspection is completed, the students sing one of three songs, depending on the day. Some days they sing the Tanzanian National Anthem, some days they sing the Tanzanian Akipenda (similar to what the song “America the Beautiful is in the US), or the school song. If the singing isn’t loud enough, or not in tune, or not all together, they are required to start over. After singing, the teacher on duty or the headmaster makes any announcements that are pertinent then releases the students to their classrooms. The only issue comes if the student was late, or was misbehaving in some other way, then instead of going their respective classrooms they are disciplined or required to do some type of manual labor. Because of this, I now make a point of requiring one of the students to tell me if any of their fellow classmates have been assigned manual labor. I can usually tell if this is the case because the classroom is half empty. I make sure that during my classes, none of the students are out cutting grass or chopping wood because since most of the time when I teach it’s the only time during the day that the kids actually have a teacher in the classroom teaching them. I can’t really control if other teachers assign students manual labor to do but I wish they wouldn’t make them leave the classroom when there is actually a teacher there to teach. If the situation keeps occurring over the next few weeks I’ll probably try to politely ask the other teachers to not schedule manual labor detail during times that I’m teaching but hopefully it won’t come to that. My week is frontloaded with 8 periods on Monday, 6 periods on Tuesday, 4 on Wednesday and Thursday, and just 2 on Friday. Because I have so many classes to teach on Monday and Tuesdays, I usually just teach my periods and relax or make myself available in the teacher’s office for questions students may have. I tell students that I am available for extra help after every period I teach but at first none of them seemed to take me up on it. I tell them to come for help with math, to practice English, or to teach me Kiswahili. For the first 2 weeks not one student visited me, but over the past two weeks they’ve slowly been trickling in to chat, which makes me happy because maybe they are starting to get comfortable with me as a teacher. During the latter part of the week when my actual teaching load is lighter, I plan my lessons for the following week and even further beyond if I can. This way I can try to get everything done at the school rather than having to worry about taking things home to work on. Not that I’m lazy, but with no electricity and hordes of mosquitos during the evening time, it’s not very conducive to sit in my house and create lesson plans. Not to mention there’s the issue of cooking, cleaning, working out, and bathing, all of which take considerably more time than you would think. I included the working out activity in that list because it’s been making a huge difference in my overall well-being here. In the US, I rarely went 3 or 4 days without doing some sort of physical activity and here for the first 3 months I didn’t do squat and it really affected my overall feeling of well-being. As soon as I get back from school I turn on my computer and get right down to business with one of my P90X routines. I’ve even made my own set of pseudo weights out of metal bars, dirt, and buckets so I can do curls, shoulder presses, and pull-ups. However, shocking even to me, my favorite workout is the yoga. I had only tried yoga a handful of times in the US just to see what it was all about, but here I look forward to the days I do yoga. Something about it just helps relieve all the stress from the daily activities. Not to mention, I am probably one of the least flexible people I know, so it’s been a good alternative workout to the normal routine of running or lifting weights. I’ve come a long way in only a month and a half and am now able to pull off a yoga move called ‘Royal Dancer’. That’s right, ‘Royal Dancer’. Look that move up and you give it a try; not easy. But because of the limited time after school, I usually find it difficult to cook an extravagant meal, work-out, shower, and clean all before the sun starts to set so I’ve been getting creative with evening time meals. Some days I’ll go right from school at 3:30pm down to the village to get a hearty helping of rice, beans, and meat. On days that I’m feeling extra tired and that I have bread in stock, I’ll just make a couple peanut butter and honey sandwiches, mix up some powdered milk, and have a few pieces of fruit for a late lunch and let that digest before I work out. After I work out, the mystery is always what I’ll do for dinner. One of the easiest things to do is cook up some pasta, boil some tomatoes, green peppers, garlic, and onions and eat that but I recently discovered another option if I’m really running short on time. The school has a ‘hostel’ or boarding house with room for about 150 girls. Obviously, these girls need somewhere to eat, so I found that around 7pm every night dinner is served at the school “kitchen”. Again, when you think kitchen you probably think stove, microwave, and refrigerator. Yea, the type of kitchen I’m talking about is stripped down to the bare essentials; sticks holding up a tin roof with rocks arranged in a circle so that something resembling an oil drum can be set on top of them while a wood fire burns beneath it. I knew the school “kitchen” existed, but never really thought about it as an option for me to eat at. One night however I was walking back from the village and decided to wander through the kitchen area. I met the cook who is a young guy who is absolutely ripped named Moses. There is also another guy that cooks occasionally named Gaston, who is even larger than Moses. I started chatting with him and after about 5 minutes he offered me some food. At first I looked over at how it was being prepared and momentarily thought about passing on the opportunity, but then looked at my watch and realized I wouldn’t have too much time to cook for myself at home so I said sure, why the heck not. He got me a chair and got some of the other girls to get me a giants helping of ugali (THE signature dish here in Tanzania; ground corn boiled in water for a super thick porridge. Think grits but so thick it’s like play-dough) and maharage (beans). To my delight, the beans this guy cooked were out of this world. I looked up at him and told him in Swahili that these are the best beans I’ve had in Tanzania. He laughed and said I’m glad I enjoyed them and told me that I’m welcome to come back anytime to eat there. Score, score score. This new revelation that I could get a meal cooked for me at no charge and without the excruciatingly long process of cooking something substantial for myself made my month. Needless to say, I’ve been a regular customer at the school jikoni about 2 or 3 days every week. Just this past week, I asked Moses if he would mind if I came by early one day to learn the secret to his scrumptious bean recipe. Again he laughed and said of course. So Monday of this coming week I have a lessons to learn how to cook about 20 gallons of beans all at one shot and still make it taste respectable, which is pretty exciting. Anyway, even though I do enjoy the food and not having to cook, it’s also good to go and eat with the students. They all find it hilarious that I think the beans are so delicious and think it’s just awesome that the teacher from America likes to eat ugali. Additionally, this gives me a chance to learn their names, to force them to speak English, and to even practice some of my Kiswahili. I feel like a rockstar when I eat there sometimes because usually a large crowd grows around me as I sit there eating ugali and beans with my hands attempting to speak Swahili. The correct method for eating ugali is to ball up the ugali with your hand, dip it into the beans, and use the ball of ugali as a sort of spoon; it’s an interesting experience but I think I still prefer to the good ole fashion spoon. If I didn’t get made fun of for USING spoon here, I would continue to use a spoon. So much for your mother telling you to use utensils to eat your food with when you were little; that is one piece of advice you need to forget about here as even in my homestay family my little sister would ask permission to eat with her hands rather than use a spoon. At first I felt guilty because I thought that maybe I was eating food that was meant for only the students but judging by the enthusiasm of all parties involved, I think it’s safe to say that’s not a problem.
As for my actual teaching in the classroom, I’m getting more comfortable every day. It helps that I’m starting to learn the individual students’ strengths and weaknesses and can know when some of them may struggle and need extra help. My main difficulty in the classroom isn’t behavioral, but rather the gigantic difference in ability level. Currently we are covering the topic of graphing inequalities. In order to graph inequalities, there is a small amount of basic algebra that is needed. Some of the students have no issues with the basics and blast right through the problems I give so I always have a couple advanced problems ready so that the more advanced students don’t feel bored. Others however have issues with such things as “-4+3”. When I see kids tell me that “-4+3=7 or 1” it arouses all sorts of emotions inside me. At first I feel anger. Not anger towards the student but anger that the education system and the teachers here that have so utterly failed this student who is 1 year away from graduating secondary school and can’t add properly. I feel sadness to think that these kids are so far behind and wonder if it’s even possible for them to catch up. Then I feel slightly overwhelmed that the more time I take to help this student to catch up to where they should be the less time I have to help kids who have a much more likely chance to actually pass their exams. I like to think I’m a pretty upbeat person but sometimes it’s tough to deal with. There’s a feeling of helplessness, a part of me that says I can’t possibly undo 6 years of non-existent teaching and neglect. But then I try anyway because damn it it’s obvious that no one else cared to try and because it’s all I can do. I can honestly say that for all the problems I see, the thing that gives me hope is when I spend maybe 10 minute with a student who doesn’t understand a topic, and they finally get it after slowly walking them through the problem. It’s an amazing feeling to see that light inside the students head go on when an idea clicks or the solution to a problem becomes clear. I had forgotten what that feels like, but it helps me remember this is the exact reason I loved coaching swimming so much. I suppose this is nothing that all teachers who are passionate about what they do don’t already know, but for me as a rookie teacher, I can definitely not just see now what drives great teachers to do such great work but I now know what it feels like. It makes all the other white noise I deal with at the school and all the frustrations I feel sometimes not matter so much anymore….
But to abruptly switch topics (I apologize for doing so, but I find for me it’s easier to write this way), the other night I was over at my headmasters’ house getting the key to his office at the school so that I could attempt to fix the printer there. I was there at night because there is a huge generator that runs most every night, unless there is some unforeseen issue from 7pm-10pm. This generator is hooked up to the headmasters’ house, about half the classrooms in the school, and a handful of the teacher’s houses, but not my house or my two neighbors. I’m not really complaining because I don’t really need electricity during the day while I’m at school but my other neighbor Charles who also doesn’t have electricity has been battling with the headmaster for a couple years now trying to convince him that he should run a line down to our three houses. In Charles’ defense, the distance from the generator to our house can’t be more than 100 yards, so I can’t see it costing that much. Charles says that the cost would be minimal, but even still the headmaster gives him excuse after excuse. Charles also says that it’s hard enough to get teachers to come out to villages to teach and that by providing things like electricity to the houses it will increase the job satisfaction for teachers who live there. I’m definitely not trying to lobby my headmaster for electricity because I’m only here temporarily, but Charles did have a good point. If I was here long term, it’s probably something that I would try to bring up. Charles said that “a dog who has meat in its mouth can’t bark” referring to the headmaster having power but half the teachers still sitting in darkness. I’ve never heard the saying, but I have to say I thought it was pretty clever. But back to my original point I was trying to make… I was at my headmasters’ house getting the key and is customary here, I was required to sit and eat at least a small amount of food. While we were eating the TV was on and there was a roundtable discussion regarding the educational system in Tanzania. When I heard this, my ears immediately perked up and I turned around to watch. Everything that I’ve been seeing and thinking that is wrong with the system and ways that it could be fixed, this roundtable discussed. It was refreshing to hear these people talk and express openly what I’ve been feeling and seeing for the past couple months. They gave a statistic which said that spending on education has something like quadrupled over the past 10 years. You would assume this would translate into at least a small bump is the performance metrics, but alas, the gentleman talking help up a graph showing that student performance has actually DECREASED over that same time period. He went on to elaborate that the issue is that many people think education is brick and mortar buildings but in actuality education is what you fill a child’s mind with; not how many schools or how many classrooms you can build. He also said that there is too much emphasis on enrolling students and not nearly enough emphasis on the quality of the education the students are receiving. He actually quoted Einstein and said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results “. He was referring to the fact that in response to poor tests schools, the response is to build more schools and increase the size of the ones that already exist. You have no idea how uplifting to hear that someone else realized what the problem actually is rather than trying to pretend like everything is all rainbows and butterflies. Even in Peace Corps training, we didn’t get a realistic picture of what is happening in schools; we got a picture of what they would like to see happening, but not what the reality is. It was a great feeling, a feeling of vindication even if it was only internal, that more educated folks were expressing the exact same feelings as me. I was glad to hear someone finally honestly talking about the situation honestly rather than bragging about how many new schools had opened the past year and how many students were now enrolled in secondary school. I think the first step would be to require a small shred of accountability from the teachers who are currently employed. If you teach in a government school, you get paid every month by the central government regardless if you show up to class or not. I don’t believe the headmaster has the power to directly fire a teacher. From what I gather talking to other volunteers, it’s an extremely difficult and lengthy process to get a teacher removed from a position but there has GOT to be a way to require even the smallest amount of accountability. Take this past week as my school for example. On Wednesday, about halfway through the school day I was sitting in the office talking to some other students when another teacher looked like they were about to leave. Before they could slide out the door I said “ahh, you off to go teach a class?” She laughed a little bit and said “no, I’m really tired; I think I need to go home to sleep” I smiled and replied “but what about all those students thirsting for knowledge??” She laughed and told me that her thirst for sleep was greater than the thirst or the students so she was going to go home. I said “hold on, let’s do a math problem to see if you’re right” I went up to the blackboard in the teachers office and wrote “800 students; each student has 1 unit of thirst for knowledge; 1 teacher who has 3 units thirst for sleep; if 1 unit of thirst for knowledge is equal to 1 unit of thirst for sleep, then 800 > 3 so you should stay to teach!” Again she laughed, and so did I. I think I maybe slightly struck a chord with her and made her think about it because she stuck around for another hour or so. Unfortunately she eventually succumbed to her need for sleep and left school early. Even though she left, no one can say I didn’t try to convince her otherwise…. Then on Friday, there was a grand total of 3 teachers out of the 9 total that are supposed to be there. The motley crew of three included me, Charles, and another teacher, Mr. Mdeke, who is really good and always shows up. Again, I don’t want to give the impression that ALL teachers have complete disregard for their duties because there are a good number who really care and do an excellent job. Charles is in that category as is the other teacher who showed up on Friday, Mr. Mdeke. Both have been at school every day and not once have left early. However, the other teachers weren’t there. After some research, we discovered that two of them went into town instead of coming to school. Another one I saw later on Friday down in the village cooking pork at a local restaurant looking slightly intoxicated. My jaw dropped. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any wackier I see my fellow teacher taking over the role of chef at the local bar. I’m not sure anything can really surprise me now in regards to teachers’ antics here in Tanzania. I also know these incidents are not isolated to my village because today in town I met up with another volunteer who I began to tell the story to and they proceeded to finish every single one of my sentences. For example I’d say “and the teachers didn’t even complete their lesson plans but” and the other volunteer replied “but they still found time to beat the kids” I then said “and the teacher who didn’t show up on Friday, I found” and the other volunteer finished my sentence with “found him down in the village at the local bar” I looked at her with an expression of disbelief. She just smiled and said “yea, it’s the same in my village too.” Unreal.
Anyway, the last major event (for me anyway) that occurred over the last two weeks was the wedding that I was invited to. I know I said in my last blog post that I’d be going to a wedding, but it turns out what I actually attended was basically the reception without the church part of it. Here it is called the “send off”. On the invitation I got for the event, it said the festivities started at 5:00pm. I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to get showered and workout and all that between the time school got out until the time the send off started. I should have known better. When I talked to the other teachers who were going, they said we’d leave our houses at 6:30 and we’d be there in plenty of time. I figured they knew better than me but thought that showing up 1.5 hours late, even for Tanzanian time, was pretty late. As it turns out, we didn’t end up getting to the place until 8:00pm because the ceremony was being held at the Italian mission about a mile and a half from the school. I was worried that I’d miss some of the ceremony but lo and behold, it turns out we arrived a full hour early! The send off didn’t actually start until 9:00pm. Yea, the invitation said 5:00pm and the thing didn’t start until 9:00pm. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. As it turns out, we got there just in time; just in time for the first round of beers anyway. While everyone was in their seats awaiting the start of the ceremony, several ladies came around taking orders for beer and soda. The three other teachers ordered beers, so as to be culturally appropriate I reluctantly ordered a beer as well. Even though we sat for an hour, in an overcrowded room, it wasn’t so bad when you’re sipping on a giant sized African beer. The room that the ceremony was held in was about half the size of a high school gymnasium. The back half was all plastic chairs with white sheets draped over them. The front half of the room had two long tables on the sides, then several seats facing the crowd. The two tables were for the families of the bride and the groom and the seats up at the front of the room on the elevated platform were reserved for the bride and her bridesmaid. The whole place was decorated with white and pink lights with white lace, white sheets, and huge pieces of red cloth. It was pretty neat looking, but unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera as I didn’t know if it was appropriate or not. Anyway, right before the ceremony got started, they passed out small white towels with a little thank you message from the bride on them. While people waited for the MC to kick off the ceremony everyone started to wave their white towels in the air while sipping on their beer. For a second I had a flashback and thought I was back in the states at a college football game but quickly snapped out of it when the MC started the ceremony by speaking in rapid Swahili. From this point on, I really can’t tell you what happened because I only understood about 10% of what was said. Some things that did occur though were many things that occur at the wedding reception of a wedding here in the states; the toast by the bride’s family, a toast by several members of the grooms family, toasts by people I had no idea how they were related, bottles of champagne shook up and uncorked, and a lot of cheering. There was also a time for us to dance out of our seats and down to the front to give money or other gifts to the bride. By the time all the festivities concluded, it was 1:30am. It wasn’t until 1:30am that the food was finally served. By that point I was exhausted and only managed to cut a rug for one or two songs, after which I was liable to fall asleep on the dance floor so I convinced the other teachers to head back home since we did have school and all the next day. I didn’t end up getting to bed until 3:30am that night, but I can definitely say it was worth it. Even though I didn’t understand exactly what was being said, it was easy to follow along with the reactions and body language of everyone around. Again, I’d have to say it was fairly similar to a reception you’d find in the states. I don’t know if this was abnormal or not, so hopefully sometime in the near future I’m invited to another one so that I can A) compare this experience to another and B) actually get some practice with my dance moves.

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3 responses

7 02 2011
Aunt Lynn

Hey Holt, I am proud of you for catching and speaking up to that teacher in her exit. I knew the kids would adapt to you. I can only imagine how interested they are about you and where you come from. I am expecting you to cook the beans at one of our family functions or a villanova tail gate. But you have to be ready, you know your father and uncle will have to be by your side stiring and tasting :>). I am loving that you are liking yoga. I will have to check out -royal dancer-. I don’t know if I know that position. Keep up the excellent work. Stay strong and positive! Know that you are in our thoughts and prayers! Love Aunt Lynn xo

7 02 2011
Melissa McDermid

Well done on recognizing your students’ needs! It is such a challenge to teach to everyone – you seem to be doing it!!! Keep it up! I’ll report back to your pen pals in Room 20!

6 02 2011
Nancy Legacki

Glenn, It was great to read your blog but what was even better was getting the chance to talk with you this morning! You sounded up beat and happy this morning. I am going to try and work on getting our Skype running and hopefully we will be able to connect this coming weekend (but I think Uncle Greg has to work) or maybe the following weekend so we can all get to see you and talk to you in person. Keep your chin up and keep doing what your doing for your students. I have no doubt you will make a great impression on a few if not all of your students.

We love ya!

Uncle Greg, Aunt Nancy, Gregory, Kailyn and April

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