Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Gettin' Ready to Teach...

Bishop Cipriano Kihangire S.S.S. (Senior Secondary School) is currently ranked 43rd among all secondary schools in Uganda, according to national newspapers.  These publications included over 1000 schools, public and private, in their list; they left out quite a few more.  43rd out of 1000.  95th percentile.  Not too shabby.  Not too shabby especially when you consider that the school was built fairly recently by a foreign religious leader with no formal educational training, constructed by said Father predominantly out of will-power and European donor generosity.
            I felt pretty intimidated going into the first big all-teacher meeting.
Now, it is openly admitted by adults here that the educational system will not be run to the standards of a place like the U.S., and no one seems to expect it to come close.  Whether this is pure pragmatism or something more detrimental I don’t know; I’m hoping right now it’s at least predominantly the first. 
Regardless, the massive volumes of students (4000 kids at B.C.K., which has significantly less classroom space than my elementary school) and relatively new development of curricula means that teaching must necessarily be a large-scale trial-and-error type activity, an activity being undertaken by teachers who were trained in a system with even more recently developed curricula and even larger class sizes.  I won’t be expected to deftly lead a small class towards theoretical understandings and perfect standardized test scores; rather, I will be expected to throw the fundamentals of practical reading and writing at whomever in the horde has enough discipline to pick them up. 
Still, I felt pretty intimidated going into the first big all-teacher meeting. 
I mean, every single one of my fellow teachers studied education in university for three years, studies based on the instruction of Ugandan youth in Ugandan systems.  I studied Geography in university, which taught me that Uganda was a country in central-eastern Africa, bordering Kenya, Sudan  (don’t think it was South yet), the Democratic Republic of the Congo, maybe, some other little ones, and a big lake named after some wrinkly dead English lady.  Many of these teachers have led 130-kid classrooms successfully at less well-endowed schools previously.  I've lead well-off white kids on canoe trips previously.  How could I possibly have the guts and knowledge to get these kids where they want to be?  And from everything I’d heard these kids are hungry—this is their one real chance to avoid the surrounding poverty.  A whole lot of life is at stake, and I’ll be the one balancing everyone on the point.
So, I was worried before the first big staff meeting.
Only, thing is, no one hear seemed particularly worried for me before the first big all-staff meeting…
The English division head, Mr. Musanje, gave Alex and me a basic rundown of the situation a week before the first meeting, and it went something like “There are lots of kids, sometimes they are stubborn, keep good discipline… yep, here are the books!  I’ll find you some syllabi eventually.” 
Alex and I could barely think of a question we had so many questions.
Uh, how much do these kids know?  How does grading work?  Do assignments count towards final grade?  What are punishable offenses?  What do you mean by “Discipline” (turns out offenses include going to the bathroom and writing notes; punishments include forcing students to kneel on bricks for as long as you deem necessary and forcing students to kneel on bricks in front of the entire school at assembly for as long as you deem necessary)  When are there tests?  Who writes tests?  What parts of the books are we teaching?  How long are classes?  How many classes will we get?
Slowly but surely throughout week, we received approximately zero precise answers to those questions.  We had an English department meeting wherein we learned that we would be reading Oliver Twist for possibly the entire term with our literature classes, and that we would have two or maybe four or five classes starting the next Monday.  We learned that marking is obnoxious and needs to happen on time, but not what to mark or how or for that matter why, because marking seemed to be too dreadful to discuss at length.  We learned that I shouldn’t have suggested Harry Potter as a book to get kids excited about reading because it could lead them into witchcraft, which besides B.C.K. being a Catholic school witchcraft is still a pretty prevalent idea in Uganda.  Just a week earlier our friend Samuel had ftold us a long story about the DjuDju practitioner he saw in his village as a boy, who made a tiny spirit creature appear out of the air, fed the creature goats’ blood, and then made the creature explode because it had been plaguing a neighboring family.  Real bright, Linder.  Real bright.
The most important things we learned were a few names and faces, and the date of the big all-staff meeting.  Which I was still nervous for.
The day before the meeting we received an email from Mr. Musanje, telling us that the official start time was 10:00 a.m. but that 10:30 would probably be a better bet.  Wait wait wait, we should turn up half an hour late to the only staff meeting before school?  Okay…
We showed up in the courtyard of the dayschool around 10:15, in case things actually got moving early.  There were 6 people there.  We were informed that maybe the administration was still meeting currently to prepare for the meeting that should have started a quarter-hour ago, and that they might be done within the hour.  We had a long talk with Father Kizito, the chaplain here; he went to seminary in Los Angeles and had a very intelligent and grounded view of the world, which he helped deliver unto the children through his morality classes.  He smiled a lot, and wore small, round-framed glasses that were somewhere between normal corrective lenses and shades.  He didn’t seem too warm in his enormous black priest’s robes.  I was impressed.
11:00 came and went, then 11:30, and finally at about noon we were called into the meeting by an administration that explained the importance of the meeting they had just had to plan this meeting.  The headmaster of the school, Mr. Okelo, is a solidly set older man with the most beautiful, deep voice I have ever heard.  He spoke very slowly, and made jokes every two or three sentence; by the time it was 12:30 we had successfully found someone to say the opening prayer.  We made a quick (18-minute) grammar check of the last meeting’s minutes, then introduced the new Class Teachers (kind of like Snape for Slytherin, or that little Herbology guy for Hufflepuff), to much applause and laughter and what miiiight have been derision.  This process lasted another half-hour or so.  Then we discussed a few important topics (the exact dates of midterm tests and making sure to mark on time) and then we broke for tea and then we discussed another couple important points (would the all-school celebration be this term or next, and would everyone please show up to the retreat next Saturday), and then we were done.  It was nearly 3 hours of lullaby voice and public debate, and I learned approximately three concrete things.  Of course, I learned many fascinating abstract things like how meetings work here, what kind of humor is valued most, how people acted in public settings—it just wasn’t quite what I expected as a new teacher.  I still had absolutely no clue what any of this was going to be like at all.  Thankfully, it turned out my first lesson wouldn’t be for over a week due to a public holiday the next Wednesday, so I still had all SORTS of time to wonder exactly what on earth I was supposed to be doing here…

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