There is a lot to be said for sticking your neck out and trying your hand at something completely new and different when you’re volunteering abroad. However, a lot can also be said for utilising skills where you have a proven track record because, ultimately, you’re there to do a role that is needed, and sometimes the place you volunteer at may well require you to have the relevant experience for the work you’re doing.
In the case of me teaching, I have experience of teaching whole classes of kids mostly at secondary (high school) level, but I also have some primary (elementary) experience as well. It is all, however, experience that is within the confines of the United Kingdom, with all that this entails in terms of its subject content, examples of best practice and pedagogy, and overall cultural influence.
When I applied to teach in Uganda it was made clear that no teaching experience was required; interestingly, since then, the company in question now ‘strongly encourages’ those who are applying to teach on one of their programmes to get a TEFL qualification. And I can understand why…
The teaching profession is one that gets unfairly knocked in some quarters: ever heard the expression ‘those who can’t, teach’? Some no doubt assume you clock off at 3pm every day, and it’s a simple case of standing in front of a classroom of kids and stuffing their heads full of knowledge. Oh yeah and you get all the long school holidays. Nice gig huh? Ah if only it were that simple…
First of all, kids can misbehave. If you’re boring the pants off a room full of adults, the worst that can happen is that they’ll probably just start playing with their phone. Kids can disrupt your lesson in a variety of ways, some of them unpleasant (ever been sworn or spat at by a kid? I have). So you need to engage them, and often that means planning a well-paced lesson that will meaningfully educate everyone from the brightest sparks to the biggest strugglers. Oh yeah and you need to assess the progress of each and every one of them as you go along too.
So teaching in your own country is something that can most definitely turn your brain to mush. Doing it in a strange land and way outside of your comfort zone? Now that’s a bigger challenge all together, and that’s how it was for me at St Andrew’s Primary School in Kampala, Uganda.
On a normal day, 60-odd children were crammed in to the mud-walled, dust-etched, barely-furnished classrooms I taught in. I taught three separate classes (P4, P5 and P6, who ranged in age from 8 to 11 years old) a mixture of Maths, English and Religious Education. The last of these was most interesting because I happen to be an atheist. In terms of resources, there was typically one text book per class, so we teachers were obliged to painstakingly copy out whole pages of textbooks word for word, on to the battered blackboards.
How do they teach in Uganda? More or less through learning-by-rote. You know, teacher writes something on the board, asks the kids to recite it back at them, keep repeating until hardwired in to the brain. Now this wasn’t for me: I’m more used to actively engaging with them, asking them questions, encouraging them to make mistakes on their way to the right answer. However, early attempts to impress this on my Ugandan charges were met with baffled silences and wide-eyed stares of the ‘what is this crazy Mzungu (non-African person) doing?’ variety.
Then, of course, there was the stick. Take a guess what it was used for. During my first blissfully ignorant few days, I thought it was simply used as a measurement tool for drawing graphs on the board. Then a boy from the class next door came in and asked me for ‘the stick’; a few seconds later I heard the unmistakable sound of wood smacking on flesh, the teacher shouting reprimands as he walloped his silent victim. I stood in gape-mouthed silence for a good few seconds; the kids in my class, unfazed by the commotion they were all too accustomed to, politely waited for me to continue.
It’s fair to say that it was a struggle for me at first. Was I getting anywhere with these kids? Was I doing more harm than good? After all, the teachers here know the Ugandan educational system, and by extension Ugandan society, better than I ever could. So isn’t it rather arrogant of me to think my ‘Western’ ways are superior? Ultimately, as with all teachers across the world, they are striving to do the very best for the children in their care; and if that means caning them for apparent misdemeanours, then so be it.
I could’ve sulked, I could’ve stubbornly persisted, or I could’ve caved in and just copied the other teachers. Instead, I compromised. Yes, I decided, let’s allow them to do some of the reading off the board stuff. And yes, let’s mark and assess the work exactly as the teachers told me to. But no, I’m not going to cane them. And no, I’m not going to stop asking them questions. So I kept at it and, if I was met with a silence, I wouldn’t try to fill it. Instead, I would praise them if they got it right, and try to encouragingly equip them with the tools to work out the right answer if they got it wrong.
And you know what? It started to work. OK, so they were fascinated by the crazy Mzungu and they liked my novelty value – plus I did teach them a few songs and they love to sing – but, by taking a softly-softly approach and mingling it with the teaching methods they were used to, they gradually warmed to my actual teaching too. Even better still, some of the other teachers at the school started to incorporate what I was doing in to their own lessons. This could not have been easy for them, but the fact they were willing to give it a go shows that they were every bit – if not more – open-minded about approaches to teaching as me.
I should add at this point that I learnt a lot from the kids too, who were simply remarkable. But that’s another post for another day. As far as what teaching itself taught me, I learnt to appreciate that the way I’d learned to teach is not always better all of the time in all of the world. But I did learn that – through resilience, patience and flexibility – it can work some of the time. And, after all, isn’t showing such qualities in the face of challenges, and learning about yourself and others in the process, what volunteering abroad is all about?