Tuesday, October 6, 2015

I Came, I Saw, and Overcame

October 2, 2015

So we are now about 5 weeks into the school year and I have no idea how time has flown by so quickly.  The days can be long, but the weeks seem to vanish as though they never really happened.  Except of course they did... I finally have a bit of a rhythm down and am getting situated as to the real english and reading levels of my students (although my oldest class, 3e, is still causing some problems).  Everything is coming together and I finally feel like my classes are moving in a direction, not always the direction I'd intended, but hey, that's teaching in every country.

So my first week of class started on Monday, September 7th.

The Sign to my school: CES Bamena.
The dirt road on the left is the road to my school. 

I showed up to school at 7:30, as I was told to, nervous about being a little late since I had to walk the 2-3 miles there for the first time (harder than it sounds as in the rainy season the road there is basically a mudslide), but of course other than the two neighbor boys who walked with me, there was absolutely no one at the school when I arrived.  I shouldn't have been surprised really.  Cameroonians are not at all famous for their timeliness.  So I took off my chacos and wiped down my feet to get the red mud off before slipping on my "teaching shoes" (my sperrys) and waited.  Students began to slowly trickle in at around 7:45, openly staring and pointing at the strange white person hanging out at their school, and the principal arrived at 7:58 or so.  Eventually the other teachers arrived around 8:10-15 and we all kind of stood around chatting and discussing the plan for the day.  The school schedule had not been made yet, so each teacher wandered into a classroom and taught for however long they felt like teaching, and then left to either wander into another classroom or to hang out outside of the school office with the other teachers.  Without explaining this system, the principal led me to the 6e (about the equivalent of 6th grade) class and left me to do my thing.  I introduced myself, we discussed class rules, and then, not knowing what else I was expected to do with them on the first day and assuming someone would come to relieve me, I blew through my first week of lessons.  I spent 2 1/2 hours with this class before I decided that no one was coming to relieve me and I should probably leave... I did and found the other new teacher at the school, Made, sitting outside the office waiting for the principal to direct him to another class.  I grabbed a chair and sat down next to him, awaiting the same thing, and we chatted for a good 2 hours before we were sent to another class.  This time I did my introductions and class rules as I'd planned for the first day and then left and, again instead of waiting for the principal to tell me what class to go to, I just wandered into a class that didn't have a teacher and did the same thing.

Schools are organized a little differently here.  Each grade has it's own classroom and the students stay where they are while teachers wander from class to class depending on which level they are teaching.  At CES there are four levels: 3e, 4e, 5e, 6e (roughly 9th grade, 8th grade, 7th grade, and 6th grade in that order, although ages for any of the grades can be between 10-19 years old).  We are a small school with just over 100 students (EXTREMELY SMALL by Cameroonian standards), 8 teachers and staff (with myself as the only female that works at the school), four classrooms (more like cinderblock constructs for the most part), and 1 small hut for the "office".  No electricity, no water nearby, I'm told there are latrines in the back but I've never seen them nor ever seen any of the students use them.  There's a wooden stand for a woman to sell food during the breaks, but I've only seen her there once, so most of the students and all the faculty and staff go without eating during teaching hours unless they bring food from home.

My 5e class.  There are a few more of them now (about 20), 
but only about half the students of the school showed up on the first day. 

We ended the first day of classes at 2 pm (as opposed to the theoretical 3:30 pm... although I've never seen a teacher other than myself teach after 2:30-245.)  so that we could all sit down together and plan the school schedule.  For some reason the principal wasn't with us, but the rest of us sat down to try to figure it out.  

Made in the corner, our school secretary, 
then Duclo, Ulrich, and Doda at the board writing out last year's schedule

We worked on it for about 2 1/2 hours and did not get much done other than writing the  schedule from the previous year on the board. As we were finishing the previous year's schedule, the principal came in and stated that we were all incompetent (except me, of course, as I couldn't be expected to understand what was going on... thanks man) and that he would have to do it himself. 

 My principal seemed like such a nice down to earth kind of guy when we first met, and whenever I interact with him outside of school he's very friendly and encouraging.  But as soon as he steps foot into his Principal mindset, he turns into a... well there's not really another word for it... he turns into a bully.  He mocks the other teachers for their incompetence, going on long insulting rants about the inadequacies of the teachers and students in question.  And he does so with a degrading smile.  What I think is more frustrating than his degrading smile though, is that, from my limited experience, this seems to be the form of management that is sought in the heads of schools.  It's certainly a tactic that I've seen in other administrations, and daily in the classroom with other teachers.  Instead of encouragement, both teachers and administration use insult and mockery in order to try and motivate both the students and teachers.  This is not a question of efficiency and barking harsh orders or corrections, as we end up spending more time listening to the principal or the teacher berate the inadequate subject, than any amount of time we might have lost with the mistake.  I'm at a loss as to how to even begin approaching this teaching style, how to start changing it.  For the time, I'm just trying to understand the reasoning behind it.  So far, I see it as the course of action taken in lieu of "corporal punishment". 

 Corporal punishment has finally been outlawed in Cameroon, but enforcing this law has proven difficult, as most teachers and administration see it as not only their right to beat incompetent students, but also as the only way that the students will possibly learn.  I've grown very tired of hearing that Cameroonian students (particularly les noirs cameroonians) are not like the "whites" of Europe and the United States.  I've been told over and over again how les noirs here need more severe motivation in order to learn.  

Although my school claims that there is no "corporal punishment" there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding as to what "corporal punishment" means.  Most of the teachers in my area (at my school and the three schools close by) do not use what they define as corporal punishment, i.e. hitting children.  However, asking children to kneel on the uneven concrete or gravel stones, or whipping them with a rubber chord is acceptable.  This is something that I absolutely do not allow in my classroom, of course, but I can't protect my students when they're with the other teachers, other teachers who, for the most part, I really like and respect as people.  It has been difficult coming to terms with the colleagues that I enjoy spending time with and talking to, and who really do get along well with the students, and pairing that with the teachers that tell a student to kneel on the ground and then pick him up by his cheeks, because he called another student a mean name.  One of my many goals for this year is inherently to try and start changing the attitude and understanding of what "corporal punishment" is, and why it should never be used in the schools. I don't expect I'll be able to change everyone's mind, but hopefully I'll at least be able to spread a more complete understanding... 

So once the principal came in, we stopped working on the schedule for the year, and quickly cobbled together a schedule for the rest of the week.  Turns out, as a teacher living in town, this meant I would have to work 7 hours every day that week (as opposed to the 12 hours I was supposed to work total that week).  Needless to say, I was not overly thrilled by this schedule, but who am I really to complain when as a teacher here I only work 12 hours a week at the school? That's a pretty amazing schedule by American standards, although it appears to be fairly standard by French and Cameroonian standards.  Most of the teachers I worked with in these two countries worked an average of 12-16 hours a week, with the idea that they needed the other hours for lesson planning, grading, etc.

Since that first day of school, I have received my full time schedule (Monday from 9:40-2, Tuesday 11:40-3:30, Thursday 8-11:40) and am starting to fall into a more regular system, although much of that time has been spent trying to get to know my students and figuring out where they are in their english learning.  I still have not received two of the books I will be teaching from, and I only received the scheme of work for the year (the thing that tells me where each grade is supposed to be and where they need to be by the end of the year) last Thursday.  On top of that, we were required to have our first tests last Thursday.  Mine inherently consisted mostly of "Hello my name is... I am from... etc" introductions, the alphabet, and maybe a lesson here and there of grammar.  It has been an interesting ride, and I still feel as though school hasn't quite gotten underway, but perhaps that's because each time I go in to teach a new lesson, I discover that the students either never learned or do not at all understand the previous lesson on the subject, and therefore end up spending the class time working (or re-working) on their lack of previous knowledge.  It's going to be a challenging year, with lots of improvised lessons and activities, but now that I've gotten more of a handle on the personalities of each class, and the overall school itself, I think it will also be a fun year! And next year will be so much easier.  


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