Greetings! This past Saturday, Amy and I sat in an auditorium packed with students, parents, faculty, Peace Corps staff, and our fellow trainees to celebrate the achievement of over 700 students and the completion of Peace Corps’ model school. Three weeks ago we both walked into a classroom to teach for the first time. On Friday we walked out, covered in chalk dust, with real teaching experience and plenty of stories.
In Peace Corps Liberia, the primary focus of our role is to serve as math and science teachers in schools around the country. In order to familiarize the trainees with what this is like, Peace Corps Liberia arranged for us to teach real students in a real school for three weeks in what they call “Model School.” To date, all of our teacher training had been based on techniques and theories, but this was something entirely different. The Peace Corps staff had spent several weeks advertising the model school program and inviting kids from the community to attend. By the time registration ended, over 800 kids had signed up for the program, which consisted of 7th through 12th grade, 5 classes per day. We had no idea what we were in for.
For the trainee’s part, we were split into groups of five and assigned to a pair of classrooms each. Each of us would teach two classes per day. Amy and I were both assigned to different groups in the 7th grade, Animal Science for her and Plant Science for me.
It’s hard to explain what an intimidating prospect this was, at least for me. Having to teach (and marginally control) 40 or so 7th graders about a subject with which I lacked much familiarity was nerve wracking to say the least. We spent two weeks prior to this learning the material that we would teach and structuring our first lesson plan. We were able to practice it among ourselves a couple of times, which was both difficult and helpful. After much feedback from peers and instructors, it finally came time for the first day of Model School. We made the 45 minute walk to the middle school where we’d be teaching, and began a Liberian school day for the first time. Amy was assigned to teach 3rd and 5th period, while I would teach 1st and 3rd. Nothing like jumping right in on the first day, period one! I should point out that classrooms are quite different in Liberia than they are in America. Each room has cement walls and a cement floor, with beaten up wooden desks (often not enough for each student). There is no desk for the teacher, so all teaching is done from the chalkboard. This is in part because, unlike in American schools, the students remain in the same room all day while the teachers rotate from classroom to classroom. Compounding the issue is the fact that there is no passing time – 1st period ends at 8:45, and 2nd period begins at 8:45. There are also no lights, which is why the wall on the entrance side of the room is a kind of cement lattice structure, rather than being solid. This allows for both sunlight and wind to enter the room. Both are important as the rooms tend to be both dark and hot.
We began by introducing ourselves to the students and setting expectations for the class – i.e. listening, respect, being organized, etc. From there, I dove into my first lesson, which was about the basic parts of a plant. As I would discover throughout the first week of school, teaching the same lesson twice in one day did not mean I had the same experience twice in one day. Perhaps my teacher friends can relate, but I found that one class tended to be more of a handful than the other. This presented challenges, primarily in keeping them both at about the same pace. I suppose this was good experience for me, since I am likely to run into this again once I get to site.
Soon this process became normal – the long walk to school in the morning, teaching first period, making adjustments to my lesson plan during second period, teaching again third period, and observing my fellow teachers the rest of the day.
At 12:15 model school finished for the day, and all of us had to walk back to the training center for more sessions. It would have made for a very pleasant walk, were it not for the weather’s annoying tendency to torrential downpour on us – beginning around noon, without fail, every single day of model school.
We experienced a lot during those three weeks, from overcrowded classrooms to students missing school, from limited teaching resources to students with varying levels of literacy. While it was going on, it was exceedingly difficult, and I would be lying to say I enjoyed it. However, I do feel that it will prove to have been a valuable experience when I have to teach at our site. Suffice to say, there are some small mistakes I made in model school (setting specific expectations at the start, classroom management) that I look forward to amending when it is time for the real thing.
During the final week of model school, in order to give us a feel for what a big class in Liberia is really like, several teaching groups were instructed to combine their classes in a larger room – thus, the last two teaching days found me teaching 66 students in one classroom. I don’t mind telling you, keeping them quiet was a challenge – especially since some of them were 9 plus rows back from the front of the room.
At long last, the final day of model school arrived – exam day. I got the sense that this was more about our experience than the students, and am grateful for it. Now I can say I’ve proctored a test to 66 students. The most difficult part was keeping the ones quiet who finished early. Either that, or the fact that cheating is quite prevalent here – spying, as they call it. It was a difficult task, but I think I managed it all right.
The following day was the model school graduation, where we would return their graded tests and present them with their model school certificates. Prior to that though, the top girl and boy from each class were recognized, and awarded with a complete set of text books for the following school year, free of charge. I think that was the best part of all of it, seeing the two students from my class being recognized for their work in front of the whole student body, the administrators, Peace Corps staff, and other volunteers. I know it’s model school, and thus not really a big deal in terms of their overall education, but it meant a lot to those kids. As a teacher-in-training, it was wonderful to see those kids taking pride in their learning and their accomplishments. I can only hope to see more of that when I get to my school at site (more on this soon!)
Let me come in small! Nick and I had similar experiences in many ways teaching 7th grade during model school. We were able to learn from each others successes and, more frequently, our missteps and challenging days. But teaching different subjects and different students gave me a different perspective on a few things, and I wanted to share a bit about my three weeks.
Before we left America, I had more than a few people allude (sometimes no so subtly) to the likelihood that teaching would not come as naturally to me as it would to Nick. Thanks for that by the way. But to be fair, I’ve been working at a software company for the past six years, and I was terrified when I found out Peace Corps wanted me to teach. While my experience in facilitating professional training was an asset I had hoped to leverage, it certainly did not help me wrangle a room full of 10-18 year olds.
No, 10-18 as an age range in 7th grade is not a typo. Ages very widely across most of the grades here, and it’s not uncommon to have students well into their twenties working their way through high school. There are many factors that contribute to this, including Liberia’s disrupted history and tremendous economic challenges. From an American perspective, access to information and education is something we absolutely take for granted, and I am a bit embarrassed by this at times being here. America’s challenges revolve around the quality of the instruction and school resources, but we do not question the basic ability of a child to attend some school.
This is so different in Liberia. Not all children have access to education in their communities- some communities don’t have a school, or the school they have isn’t functional/doesn’t have qualified teachers. Among the children that do have access, many are unable to start when they’re supposed to. Though primary school can start as early as age three (what an American would consider preschool) Liberian parents are often forced to keep their children at home. Sometimes the school is too far away, or the road is not safe enough for a young child to walk alone. Sometimes children must wait until their family has enough money for the school fees for the year (supplies, uniforms, etc.) or until they’re old enough to earn the money for themselves. Students sometimes must take a year off school to save up money, or work for their families on their farms or in the market. Young women in particular can face even greater challenges. I will say, however, that there are some amazing people in this country working to fight against these issues. Something you’ll likely hear over and over again in this blog (that I will never get tired of saying) is how resilient Liberians are, and how hard they are fighting every day to rebuild their country. I cannot wait to tell the stories of these inspiring people. But this post is about model school, and I digress again…
Back to the topic. Despite my previously mentioned struggles with classroom management, I had some amazing moments and started to get a glimpse of how some people can catch the teaching bug. Here are some of my highlights:
We survived. At times I thought model school would never end, but it did and we all lived to tell the tale. It took me the full three weeks, coming close to tears, several “heart to hearts”, and much trial and error to finally get my bearings. Considering we’ve only had two months of technical training (and only a portion of that was focused on teaching strategies), I’d say that’s pretty good 🙂
We learned from one another. This experience brought me closer to my fellow trainees, our technical trainers, and my host family in ways I could not have anticipated. Our Ma is a teacher here in Liberia, and became an amazing resource. Each day she explained to me why my students were eating paper, whether or not they were making fun of me, and the meaning of the new Liberian words I was picking up. She also taught me some great lectures to really guilt trip my students into behaving.
We learned from our students. I had some whip smart kids in my class whose goal, it seemed, was to try and trip me up during my lesson everyday. They kept me on my toes, and forced me to learn about some obscure animal science trivia. For example, did you know that the largest living organism is actually a fungus in Oregon? I also had students who really wanted to learn, students who surprised me in artistic and creative ways, and students who came and listened every single day even though they couldn’t read the notes I wrote on the chalkboard.
We helped. The second week, we took an entire day of instruction to teach our students about sexual and reproductive health. It’s a conversation that many Liberian youth aren’t ever able to have, and an area where misinformation and myths present significant dangers. They can’t just Google this stuff. At the beginning of the day, many of our students lacked an understanding of basic reproductive anatomy, how a woman can become pregnant, or that safe and effective family planning is available for both men and women. By the end of the day, we had gotten our classes comfortable with the discussion (having all my students syllabicate and shout ejaculation at me was a highlight for sure), worked through many rumors, and did our best to teach them plenty.
The third week, we took an entire day of instruction to teach our students about malaria, an area where, again, misinformation and myths are contributing to the numerous malaria deaths Liberia sees every year. If you read the post about the other activities we’ve worked on outside training, you know how important this education can be to the youth in this country.
We became teachers. Every single student in each of my classes improved in some way, and I was pleasantly surprised at the number who passed. I was even more surprised at the improvements and achievements of my female students. A good chunk of our training has been focused on the barriers young women in this country face when it comes to education, so I was over the moon when 60% of my girls passed with a B or higher.
Am I still a bit nervous to stand in front of my (likely very large) classroom when the school year starts in September? Absolutely. But considering how far we’ve come over the last three weeks, I am beyond excited to see what we can do with a whole school year.