11 November 2015
As far as teaching goes, this has been one of the most difficult two weeks of my life. I have never had so many problems with a school, and so little motivation to work on them. Often here, it feels as though every thing that I am trying to do gets stopped by the very person who requested my presence at the school.
Last week, as the first week of the month, we had our teacher "amicale" or social meeting. In American terms, this would be the monthly faculty and staff meeting, often held before school with donuts and coffee available to everyone. There would be announcements and updates on the goings on of the school, and an address of whatever problems the school might be having. Generally lasting (at least from my experience) no longer than an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and ending before classes start. In Cameroon, this means that on Wednesday at noon, the teachers stop teaching and hang around the office till about 1, when the head of the Parent-Teacher's Association and other "notables" of the school arrive with food and beer. We all crowd into the tiny office room and the principal starts the meeting. We spend 1-2 hours arguing over the wording of the agenda, before actually starting on the agenda. Then, we move on to money matters. At these meetings, it is required that each member of the faculty put in 1.000 CFA for food, at least 1.000 into the "school bank"(if there is a funeral, birth, or some other sort of occasion, this money goes to that person... which means that there is always a lot of arguing about what warrants "special occasions" and how close the death or birth has to be to the person), 10.000 CFA into the monthly pot (every month, a different person gets to take home this collected sum), and 1.000 CFA into something that I have yet to understand. Somehow it takes over an hour to collect this money from the 12 people present. It is the same every month, but yet we still must discuss each fee for 45 minutes before settling on the same exact fee that was decided upon at the beginning of the year.
After money matters are sorted, we must each give a "brief" account of the events of our life. For me, this is usually a "I am so happy to be part of Bamena life" kind of sentence or two, but for others, they feel the need to enlighten the assembly about the goings on of their goats, or the food that their wife (wives) have cooked over the last month, the cold that they had last week, or... All things I'd be happy to hear, but at this point it is always around 5 p.m., and after 4 hours of sitting in a cramped space and listening to endless bickering of what seem to me to be inconsequential things, I have very little patience for this and am well past ready for the now warm beer that we are allotted. When everyone finishes with their news, we are FINALLY able to eat the now cold food, and drink the very warm beers. And not allowed to leave until everyone has finished their part.
Every month I am hopeful that things will run smoother, and finish earlier. Or that maybe there will be a chance to talk about some of the actual issues going on at the school, and every month I am again disappointed that the focus seems to be on each person's individual queries and complaints. By the time I am allowed to go home, I am usually sprinting out the door and away from my colleagues, no matter how much I normally enjoy their company.
This month's meeting was particularly difficult, as we started even later than usual, and I had a fever through the whole thing. Being sick does not allow you to miss the meeting.
The amicale, on top of a nasty cold, made last week an exhausting and infuriating week, but it was nothing compared to this week.
As we "near" the end of sequence 2 (the second grading period... technically ends on the 27th, but my principal has decided that it will make our school look better if we finish on the 18th, I found out yesterday), I was trying to give my students a quiz to see how they're doing with the material we've covered over the last few weeks, in theory before I give them their final exams. So this Monday and Tuesday, I gave all of my classes a quiz, that in theory should have taken them half an hour at most, but took most of them an hour to an hour and a half. Good sign. Because of their skill levels, I have been teaching the same lessons to the grades 5e, 4e, and 3e (7th, 8th, and 9th grades), and therefore they were all set to take the same quiz. With my 8th grade class, things went fairly smoothly. It took them a longer than necessary to arrange themselves boy-girl-boy-girl and put away their books and notes, but that's not all that surprising. They took the test and finished it 20 minutes before the class was over. We quickly went over the answers and I was able to let them go 10 minutes early, which of course they were thrilled about. I went to sit in the sun for a moment, as it gets very chilly in the dark classrooms, when the Principal called me over and asked to speak with me in his office. This didn't seem all that unusual as I hadn't had a talk with him in a while. I went into his office and we started off fine, him asking me about my classes and how things were progressing. I explained to him the difficulty I'd found with my upper two classes and their lack of understanding and how far behind they were, and the principal jumped onto this, focusing on the 9th grade class. At the end of 9th grade, students here are forced to take the national exam, BEPC to see if they are fit to continue to lycee (high school equivalent starting in 10th grade). A student cannot progress unless they have passed this exam. The principal had noticed, however, that I was very far behind with my 9th grade classes. I explained to him that I was behind because the students did not know enough to be able to continue to the more difficult vocabulary and grammar, but he laughed. He called in two other teachers to help him explain to me that, here in Cameroon, teachers are not meant to make the students understand, but to simply present them with the information and stick to the syllabus presented to them (difficult for me since I was never give the syllabus that is expected of my 9th grade students), and that if I was waiting for all of, or even the majority of, my students to understand, then I would never be able to teach the material on they needed for the BEPC. I tried again to explain that I couldn't teach my students new ideas without them understanding the basics, and he responded again that I just didn't understand how things were done in Cameroon, never mind the fact that the reason I was brought to this school was to help change this very form of teaching. The other two teachers then piped in to tell me that it's useless to try and make sure students understand the material and I just need to stick to my syllabus. Eventually I told the principal that I could not and would not teach this way, and that if this is what he needed, then he'd have to find another teacher for 9th grade. But he laughed again and gave me a syllabus for the class, instructing me to just start there next week.
I am still lost with how to approach this issue. The entirety of my Peace Corps training focused on "student-centered teaching" as opposed to "teacher centered teaching", meaning we are meant to focus on the students' needs and level of understanding as opposed to where the government program claims they should be. The grade-levels before 9th grade promote all of the students, regardless of whether or not they should advance to the next class, so by the time they all get to 9th grade, there are many students who still can't read or write, and have no idea how to do simple addition, much less conjugate english verbs in the conditional, or construct a thesis and essay about deforestation (which is a recommended topic by my new syllabus). I had started at the basics because when I asked my students to introduce themselves in english (something they should have been taught before sixth grade) they were unable to do so, either in writing OR verbally. We ended up spending a month just on learning how to introduce ourselves and our friends, yet I am expected to teach them advanced grammar that I myself struggle with. So, I will spend the next few weeks trying to devise activities and lessons that will enable me to both teach them the basics and introduce the very advanced lessons expected of me. Really though, it's hard to stay mad at the other teachers for too long. We are all working within an education system that is, in my opinion, broken. There is very little chance for success, and even if the students do manage to pass this 9th grade exam, they will be thrown into more of the same in high school. The number of students who make it through to the end of high school is minuscule, and then the number from there to make it to university is even smaller. The education system relies on reputations of schools, so the schools kick out students that might need more work, rather than helping them to improve. That and many students in these small villages see very little use for a higher education. Half of my 9th grade students are repeating the grade for the second or third year in a row, and most of them simply want to pass this year so that they can stop going to school and start working. As much as I try to stress the importance of education, it's hard to explain to a girl with two children and no means to feed them, that continuing with her education is more important that finding an unskilled job, especially since so many of my students see adults who did get their university degree and are still stuck in the same kinds of jobs. With all of this stacked against the students, it's hard to keep myself motivated and not lose hope some days. But every Thursday, walking home surrounded by all of my students picking flowers for me and pestering me with questions about my life in the States, I am reminded why I'm here and what I'm working towards.