I haven’t savored a Friday as much as I savored November 24th, the last day of our first week teaching, in a very long time. As part of our training, and in order to obtain our TEFL certification, Peace Corps Trainees in Rwanda teach at what we call “Model School,” a two-week program that any primary and secondary school students in the vicinity are welcome to attend for free during their school break. They receive English classes with native speakers at no cost (as well as a notebook and a pen), and we’re able to practice teaching in a Rwandan classroom with Rwandan students. Volunteers form groups of three or four, and share five, 40-minute periods between 8:00 and 11:40 am. The first two days are reserved for informal games and activities while students and volunteers find their bearings; on Wednesday, we began teaching our own, academic lessons. My group of three dedicates one period a day to ‘fun’ (this is, after all, a kind of summer camp, so we figured that students deserve some non-academic relief), and we take turns teaching two periods a day instead of one.
At first, I had the valiant intention of learning all of my students’ names over the course of two weeks. On Monday morning, however, I struggled to remember a single one because I’d never heard most of them before: added to the difficulty of putting names to faces was the difficulty of learning the names themselves. A few familiar ones stuck – Frank, Bruce, Richard, Queen – but for the most part, I gingerly abandoned this goal. On Wednesday, we gave students paper to make name tents for their desks, but by Thursday three quarters of the name-tents were gone. We’d forgotten to explain their purpose and importance, and we’d also forgotten that we lack readily available paper with which to make new ones…I’ve since embraced the awkward necessity of referring to a student I’ve called on as ‘our friend’ or ‘your fellow student.’ Our class (Secondary 2, the rough equivalent of 7th grade) fluctuates between 10 and 33 students throughout the morning (many students arrive late). We have students between the ages of 13 and 16. When 11:40 am strikes, intense relief washes over me, and I drag myself to the market like I’ve survived a shipwrecked. Many primary school volunteers have between 70 and 100 students; I can only imagine how they feel at the end of our daily four hours, because for me, noon feels like 5 pm.
On Monday morning, I initiated a few American-style get-to-know-you activities, curious but wary of posing Rwandan students questions I’ve only ever posed American kids. When one student struggled to tell us her birthday, we quickly encouraged her to share a different fact. In Rwanda, many families don’t celebrate birthdays, which come and go without fanfare. They either don’t consider birthdays particularly important or simply lack the money to spend on elaborate festivities. Even my language teacher forgets it’s her birthday until Facebook sends her a notification. The next day, we asked students to name something they like with similar apprehension: is it insensitive to ask Rwandan students about their hobbies? After all, most students don’t have the plethora of entertainment options we’re accustomed to hearing about in the States. Besides, I reasoned, they probably spend a lot of time helping their parents or commuting to and from school. On this front, I was mistaken; I received a variety of enthusiastic replies: they love to sing, dance hip-hop, eat meat, play football, write songs, and play volleyball. Even so, my suspicion proved somewhat founded on Wednesday, when many students arrived late after helping their parents prepare for market day. My oversensitivity in one sense is constantly matched by insensitivity in another: who am I to assume that children without iPads can’t have as assortment of hobbies? Then again, wasn’t it thoughtful on my part not to ask about their favorite foods, since most people eat the same exact few things, since there are no fridges or pantries to reach into for an assortment of snacks, since many of the likes and dislikes that set students apart in America may not help students distinguish themselves here?
The Peace Corps encounters the same problem every time they organize Model School: many students show up for one day just to swipe a free notebook and a pen. Some students keep coming back and claim they haven’t received supplies in order to accumulate extras. If we’ve seen a student before and they’re in our class without supplies, we’re supposed to turn down their requests and even turn them away until they return with their originally issued notebooks in hand. But it’s difficult to be stern and remain unmoved when a quiet and attentive student looks at you during a lesson and gestures for a pen to take notes on a piece of paper borrowed from a friend, when these supplies are easy for us, and much more difficult for them, to obtain, when it seems wonderfully miraculous that these students choose to sit in bare classrooms during their school break in the first place.
My students have been disciplined and respectful: they listen, participate, answer questions, and follow directions with nothing but a few extra English classes, a notebook, and a pen to gain. Even when they misbehave, they do so in a subtle, almost conscientious manner: at worst, I notice a soft hum as I speak, an unusual buzz among the wooden desks, an unnecessary turning of heads or rustling of papers.One day, just before I warned my students to quiet down, I realized the commotion was due to an attempt to circulate one pen among several students so they could all copy down notes. In fact, our students tend to speak quietly, so much so that one of our five, cardinal rules invites them to speak loudly in class. This is particularly true among our female students, who are also less likely to participate. We’ve been urged to emphasize and implement ‘gender balance’ in our classrooms by asking for female volunteers or simply calling on girls even when they don’t raise their hands. Despite the generally quiet tenor of our students’ voices, when we ask a question that many students feel confident enough to answer, a forest of skinny little arms suddenly shoots into the air. A few particularly eager students snap their fingers and beg to be chosen by pleading, “teacher, please!” When I instruct students to work on exercises individually, most of my students urgently seek my correction and approval. Their eyes follow me as I move from one student to the next, and they watch with anticipation as I check their work. I’d like to think that my students treat me this way because I’ve done a remarkable job proving myself to them. In truth, I think my students already respected my title and role, before we ever met: I’ll I’ve had to do is preserve the validity of their preexisting deference by doing a decent job.
Many students seem unfamiliar with the bridge between school and play that pervades many American schools. They enjoy competitive activities, but we often have to nudge them to let loose by modeling the enthusiasm and reckless abandon that games are supposed to elicit. When we introduced them to charades, students tentatively raised their hands instead of calling out their guesses. They waited to be called on as their eyes darted uncertainly between me and their performing teammates. I encouraged them to shout without asking for permission, but by the end of the period, they’d only learned to guess freely at a polite, mezzo-piano volume, and they had only just begun venturing into the world of goofy acting that charades opens wide.
We make do with very little in our classrooms. They’re all bare, with big rectangular blackboards at the front and back of each room. The other two sides are lined by windows, many of which are cracked and broken; classrooms are filled with rows of plain wooden desks whose benches (cozily) seat about three students each. So far, I’ve planned and delivered four lessons using chalk, a chalkboard, and a few pieces of paper. In some respects, I’ve found the absence of fancy teaching equipment refreshing. Instead of fumbling with powerpoint slides and speakers, or stumbling around the classroom with my arms full of markers, handouts, folders, and whiteboards, I write a couple of things on the board, ask a pointed question, and begin to teach. My lessons have a more stream-lined purpose, and I rely much more heavily on the clarity of my explanations, the quality of my rhetoric, the confidence of my (commanding?) presence at the front of the room, and on my creative improvisation as a chalk-bearing, extemporaneous speaker. In the States, I felt paradoxically stifled by an overwhelming number of ways to communicate new information. I fretted about using all of the resources available to me to please and stimulate my students with colorful surprises.
One difficulty I have encountered is the inexplicable lack of notebooks and pens among students who should have received them on their first day: interrogative pronouns must be even less interesting without the option of jotting down exercises and notes. But even without school supplies, my students show up. Still, they remember what I taught the previous day, and answer every dry question I pose. They seem devoted and willing, and I don’t feel as pressured as I did in the States to engage them with a good time. I sense that this isn’t what they expect, or even what they want from an academic class. I’ve had American teachers apologize for boring content, or preface ‘fun’ activities with a vaguely insecure announcement about how fun this aspect of the class will be. The students in my class don’t seem to feel entitled to an entertaining show, and I consequently don’t feel obligated to become a super-human, super-fun, yet legitimately instructive figure to meet their expectations, dissipate their boredom, and render less than thrilling content supremely exciting. The seriousness of my students, their willingness to learn in simple settings in very simple ways enable me to focus unapologetically on the essence of teaching – the transmission of knowledge – unencumbered by other concerns of (ultimately) secondary importance. I teach creatively within reason, and focus on teaching content effectively before wracking my brain for ways to make it more interesting than it really is.
I suppose what I’m alluding to is the lack of entitlement I perceive among my students, especially where their personal attention is concerned. They sit still for 2 hours, and when I announce that it’s time for their twenty-minute, 10 am break, they usually don’t spring out of their seats and rush out of the classroom in a somewhat inconsiderate burst of impatient energy. They’re probably hungry, but none of them bring food; sometimes, they’re probably bored (despite my best efforts), but none of them act like they have a right to flaunt this feeling and influence the mood of the class. There’s no customer service complex among my students: no sense that they expect me to pique their interest before gracing me with their attention, that they expect me to satisfy wants and needs beyond the deliverance of my expertise. I don’t need a million Aces up my sleeve because my students don’t seem to believe that it’s my job to persuade them to learn through entertaining tricks.
When I first walked into my classroom, I was afraid to confront a different kind of student I wouldn’t understand, one who has experienced a childhood and school system very different from the ones I’ve known. But after a week, we make warm eye contact, chuckle, and work together. They work in groups and pairs just like my American students did, they encourage each other, snicker at each other’s mistakes, and correct one other like all kids do; they pass notes and give me blank stares if I haven’t spoken slowly enough, or if they just don’t know the answer.
One day, we ushered them outside to play red light green light. This game evolved into the loud, dirt-raising race I’d known as a child myself: whenever the leader of the game whipped around to catch moving players, those accused laughed and shouted ‘you’re lying!’ with the same, unconstrained conviction of suburban, American kids. I don’t notice that these are Rwandan students, and they don’t intimidate me as such. They’re just good kids who are willing to listen, try, and learn for its own sake; kids who aren’t as entitled as many of the American students I’ve encountered, but enjoy red light green light to the same, amusing extent.