At School in Mozambique

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Each day at school begins with the national anthem and morning meeting under the big tree that shades our classrooms.

The sound of wooden desks scraping on the cement floor greets me, as students stand.

“Gooooddd mooorrrniiinng teeeaccher.”

Forty five adolescent voices echo off of the cement walls.

“Good morning,” I reply. “How are you?”

“Weee arrreee fiiinnneee teacher, aaaannnddd yooouuu?” they ask, as part of a greeting formula that has been memorized for years.

“I am fine thank you,” I tell them. “You may sit,” I say, motioning with my hand

A few do, but mostly, they stare at me.

“Podem sentar,” I tell them in Portuguese.

This is 8th grade English, but still during these first few weeks I have translated everything, especially directions, into Portuguese for clarity. At least as much clarity as my still-shaky Portuguese can offer.

They sit, and Palmira, the bell-ringer, bangs a rusty wheel well with a stick to signal the start of the period.

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We go over the date and what we will be learning that day, and they copy it into their notebooks.

Copying is familiar; rote memorization is the method most commonly used for teaching here.

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I am determined to expose them to new ways of learning, and each activity or change of their routine learning style requires a lot of explaining and modeling.

My request for volunteers to come up to the board and write an answer was surprisingly well-received. My challenge warm-up of telling me in English which number I had just written on the board bred a certain friendly competition among them.

My request for students to work with 3 neighbors to complete a task was met with blank stares.

My idea for a ‘gallery walk’ through the classroom to copy down class rules was followed by the gathering of most students at one station, although I got them split up after a few minutes.

Playing a big circle game to practice the verb ‘To Be’ was riddled with distraction and a disturbingly uncompromisable separation of the genders. But, in the end I considered it a success because students were speaking one by one.

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Playing a game to build comparative sentences.

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The idea of raising your hand to speak and waiting for the teacher to choose you took multiple days of explanation and practice; students here seem to be used to answering as a whole group. The problem, of course, is that everyone follows the lead of stronger kids. But they are adaptable:now, they are beginning to understand the idea of sharing their idea as an individual.

And changing the response to a student that stands up and shares an incorrect answer, or needs time to think after being chosen to answer, is clearly going to take some time.

“You have to have respect for your colleagues,” I tell them when students laugh at an incorrect answer. “Precisam de ter respeito para colegas,” I repeat.

“She is thinking. You need to stay quiet while she is thinking. Sometimes we all need time to think,”I say when students impatiently begin yelling out the answer. “Ela está a pensar. Precisam de ficar em silêncio quando ela está a pensar. Algumas vezes, precisamos tempo para pensar,” I repeat.

Although the students seem to enjoy the variety of activities that we do in class, I am certain that my teaching style is just as foreign to them as their school system is to me.

Students here attend school for half of a day, all the way from Kindergarten through 12th grade. At our school, 8th, 10th, and 12th graders have classes during the morning session, while 9th and 11th come in the afternoon. During this time, the students are scheduled to have 6 classes. However, it is not uncommon for some professors to be absence from class, an there is not system for getting a substitute teacher; sometimes I come into class for 5th period and the students haven’t had a teacher since 2nd period.

This is when deep breaths come in: for the calming of the energy of 45 8th graders that have been left alone in a room for 2 hours. I am impressed though, that these students don’t cause any more trouble than just making noise and,in fact, that they stick around at all for their later classes.

Unlike in the States, here in Moz, it is the teachers who move rooms as they teach different groups of students. There is no such thing as hanging up any kind of permanent materials, setting up bookshelves or homework baskets or comforting decorations. Everything needs to be mobile. That would be easy if I could just take my laptop with my slides on it from room to room, projector to projector. But those things do not exist in the majority of schools here.

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Our school is lucky to have desks and chairs and clean, newly-painted classrooms. Many classrooms in Mozambique are in much worse condition.

Instead, I find myself either writing material on the chalkboard as fast as I possibly can or preparing more wordy material ahead of time on ‘papel gigante,’ which literally translates to giant paper, that can be bought in school supply stores in bigger cities. Then, because printing is uncommon due to cost, the students copy the material. Appearance of their notes is very important to them, and it takes them many,many minutes to copy things precisely and neatly.

As the students copy notes, I try my best to squeeze between the rows of desks to make sure that each student has a pen to write with, appears to have understood the directions, and is staying on task. The lack of school supplies-whether because of the cost or good ole teenager forgetfulness- is a problem on a daily basis. And in a class of 45- actually a wonderfully small class size for this country- it’s not hard to miss one student ignoring your directions, misunderstanding the task, missing supplies, goofing off, staring out the window, or finding themselves in any number of other circumstances that keep them from finishing the task at hand.

But for these first 2 weeks my classes have, more or less, run smoothly.  Most of the students are extremely respectful. Most of them are quiet when they need to be working, without being asked. Most of them do their best to understand and follow my directions. Most of them show up for class, look at their teacher, and are eager to learn and understand.

Some of them talk while I am talking. Some of them throw things or laugh at fellow students, especially at girls. Some of them are always whispering. Some of them look at me with scary, moody, teenage faces and don’t seem to care at all what I am saying. Some of them show up a couple minutes late and some of them never want to participate.

But despite being part of a flailing educational system, these students impress me already with their eagerness, respect, and desire to learn. No doubt that ahead are many reminders to be respectful, many failures on my part and theirs, many systemic frustrations, and a whole lot of confusing moments. But, still I look forward to strengthening my teaching skills while spending time with these students, seeing their growth, exposing them to new ways of learning, and fostering their curiosity.

Alex and I in our batas, like lab coats, that all teachers here wear. The future of our students is in good hands 🙂

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