Two weeks ago, I visited the primary school that is directly behind our house. The Head Mistress gave me a tour of all of the classrooms and we chatted about what the government fails to do and how few teachers there were for the number of students at the school. I learned from her that many teachers don’t live in the area because they can only house a limited number of teachers in the faculty housing. The teachers who don’t live there come from other areas, so they ride a public bus to get there. Sometimes the government forgets to pay them so they can’t buy the bus fare to come to work. The enrollment has grown substantially since the school was built, and rather than build another school, the students just keep coming. There used to be 50 in a classroom, but now there are anywhere from 90-200 per class. If there are 200, they assign 2 teachers. The school did benefit from a charity organization that built them several new blocks (classrooms) where they house the upper grades. In the newer classrooms, they have desks and chairs. The older rooms have a few chairs for the teachers to use; the children sit on the floor. To be honest, the number of children would not fit inside the room if there were any furniture for the children to use. Upon entering a classroom, the children all stood up and in unison said, “Good Morning Mother, how are you?” The Head Mistress would respond with, “I’m fine and you?” and again the 90-200 students would say together, “I’m fine thank you!” She then told them that they could return to their seats and introduced me as Amaibusa Rohde, Mother Pastor Rohde. I was tired after visiting all of the classrooms, so I told the Head Mistress that I would love to come on Monday to observe some and then, after a few days of observation, I could see how to best support the teachers.
I arrived the following Monday and observed grade 1 for about ten minutes. After the morning song that played on the radio (it was in Chichewa, so I’m not really sure what it was about), the teacher began a handwriting lesson. I noticed that only some of the children had paper and pencils, so I asked if the ones who didn’t could practice writing in the air. They did and then she asked if I wanted to take a group of students outside who could practice in the sand. I did. I had a group of about 60 or 70 who I had sit in a big circle. We would first practice in the air, and then write in the sand. A few spots of ground were more solid than others, so we used rocks and sticks as writing instruments. I walked around the circle giving handshakes and smiles to those who had been practicing. After about 20 minutes, their attention started to falter so it was time to return to class. The teacher settled everyone again, gave them their assignment and then said it was time to go to grade 2. There was no teacher for that class because she was out with a broken leg and couldn’t come to work. It was just next-door, and as we walked, she explained that they were working on subtraction. When we went inside there was a number of subtraction problems on the board. I noticed that the children had piles of bottle caps to use as counters. It was encouraging to see that they did have counters, however it was difficult to see if anyone was using them. I said I could teach the math and the other teacher returned to grade 1. So much for observation, I had seen and heard what I needed to. I would expect to teach something each time I came to the school.
After teaching English Comprehension to grade 4 on Friday, I ran into one of the 5th grade teachers. He asked if I could come to his class to teach a life skills lesson on malaria. I said, sure. I was happy to have some direction and time to prepare. The 5th grade is the year when students transition from having subjects taught in Chichewa to having them taught in English. This was encouraging, as I figured that I wouldn’t be acting everything out as I had with the younger students. When I arrived on Monday I was greeted with the same respect I had received the prior week. They may not have many materials, clean classrooms, or proper uniforms, but they do have a willingness to learn and good manners. As I began the lesson, I remembered to talk very slowly, having the students repeat main points, and allow for partner discussion. It seems that they are not used to talking about their learning with other children, but they enjoyed it. It’s like they couldn’t believe they were allowed to talk to their fellow classmates. I had the privilege of teaching the lesson to two different classes. The first had been in grade 5 for some time, while the other had just come from grade 4 (I’m still learning about the scheduling). The first class was more rowdy and larger in number. The second class was very pleasant to be with. They listened attentively, participated and did especially well during partner discussion. The classroom had life skills books that had a small summary about malaria.
As I gathered my things, I chatted with the teacher for a few minutes and she shared that her dream was to open her own school where she could keep the class sizes low, around 40-50 students. We enjoyed talking, one teacher to another. We shared the common struggle that comes with inspiring and shaping young minds. I walked away through the dust, past smiling faces and I shook small hands of children, saying “Tsalani bwino” (stay well) and “Tionana” (see you later). I continued past the young ladies selling mangos and sweeties, under the tall trees along the dirt path that led to the gate of manse number two. Happy to be so close to a multitude of children in need of another mother to share lessons with them.