Tuesday, September 6, 2011

First Day of ... School... Not as a Student!

So, I figured a good, much more organized way to now update my blog is to tell the story of my first day of school teaching. Which I should probably rename to my first day of school as not a student. Because, it was more than a little bit of a joke of a day. Shane and I are teaching at the same school. we left home at 8:00, hopped in our awesome tricked out BMW, jamming to some Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson (two favorites here in Uganda), picked up the kids we’re carpooling, and arrived at school 15 minutes early to our perfectly decorate rooms, and began teaching on our smart boards… oh wait.  Just kidding.

So here’s actually how my day went down:

8:03 – Shane and Anna walk out of the door of St. Joseph’s house on our trek to St. Jude’s after some really helpful and inspirational messages from some great friends. (Thanks for all those!) We just kind of assumed this would be a good time to leave, considering we had tried calling the headmaster 5 times the week before, but his phone was turned off the entire time. The walk is indeed a BEAUTIFUL one, with amazingly picturesque views of the rolling hills of Jinja province Uganda the entire time, and friendly children urgently screaming “MZUNGU!”

8:28 – arrive at the base of the hill in front of St. Jude’s, not sure if we are going to find anyone there yet.

8:33 – Finally make it up the hill and into the school, where we see maybe 4 students and one more official looking woman. She pointed us in the direction of the staff room. We enter the staff room to find three male teachers already seated and reading the newspaper. We begin a conversation with them about who we are, where we’re from, and how we’re finding Uganda. (A common conversation I’ve had approximately 382057849 times since being here. Understandable considering white people are not so common in these parts.)

9:45 – The headmaster rushes in, perhaps having just arrived at school, and notices us sitting there. Asks to be reminded of our names. We tell him, and he says, so glad to have you at school, I must go find the piece of paper on which I wrote all your information. Shane and I decide to walk a little around the campus of the school and introduce ourselves to whatever students and teachers were there. This takes about five minutes. There are maybe, MAYBE 30 students there… in a school of 450. Most of them are moving back into their dormitories. 

9:52 – The teachers and us continue our conversation, this time, delving into the topics of the United States, Obama, and our involvement in Libya.

10:30 – The headmaster torpedoes back in, saying that he has not yet found the paper. We tell him, it’s alright, we can just tell you all the information. Because the paper he has lost really only has our phone numbers and our preferences for teaching. He brings us into his office, has us repeat our previous conversation about what we feel qualified to teach (my inner thoughts… um NOTHING?!? Haha), and then tells us that the teachers he needs to talk to aren’t here yet, so he can’t assign us yet, but as soon as they get here, we’ll figure them out. We return the staff room where I learn from one of the other three teachers (who haven’t really moved since we got there) how to escape from various wild animals in Africa should they try to attack me. Important information to know, I think, but funny, considering had you asked Anna of 2 years ago if she thought she’d be sitting at a table in 2 years learning how to escape lions, crocodiles, snakes, leopards, cape buffalo, and angry monkeys from someone who actually HAD to learn this information as a young child from his grandmother because he had a high probability of being in actual threat, I’d probably laugh a little. So, if you have any desire to learn how to save your life in the event of a possible angry monkey attack, just ask, I’ve got all the answers. I might make that the next blog post, in fact. So stay tuned for future life saving tips from East Africa. 

11:25 – Tea time! Tea with lemongrass (SO good!) is served. We continue in conversation, moving more towards the differences in food between Uganda and the United States. It blew their minds that there’s no posho in America. (Posho is ground maize just mixed and cooked with water kind of as rice is). 

12:15 – The teacher who kind of seems to coordinate all of the classes finally comes. She is a whirlwind of energy and really took the general sense of confusion and calm and yanked it back into a sense of control. It was actually really impressive. She figured out which classes Shane and I should be teaching… all in Lusoga. So we really had no idea about what was being decided, we were just generally confused. She then announced that she was going to try to find the book for me for the English class, to which I was unsure of what to do. Was I supposed to follow her? Was I supposed to stay there? So I chose to follow her, as she combined a sense of franticness (ßI had no idea that was actually a word until Word just now told me it is. Well done, Anna, well done) and control in a crazy mix that I’ve never before experienced. She said she couldn’t find it then, she’d have to wait for the headmaster to unlock one of the cabinets.

12:32 – I return to the staff room. We’re now talking football (as defined by the rest of the world… us Americans call it soccer) as the Ugandan Cranes had just lost one of the qualifying matches for the African Cup, but they have one more chance yet coming up. Shane seems to be taking over one of the other teacher’s classes, so they’re figuring that out. 

1:40 – The headmaster returns from looking at the power lines… turns out that sometime during break, people were stealing power, so the power company came in and cut the power line that connected St. Jude’s to an electricity source. That same teacher finds the book I’m supposed to teach from (the student’s book, definitely not the teacher’s manual). She shows me what has already been covered in classes, and what I still need to cover with the rest of the term. She cannot find the math teacher or the math book, however, so I’m just going to have to wait until he comes to school, which will probably be tomorrow. 

2:11 – Lunch (scheduled for 1pm) is finally served. It’s a HUGE dish of matoke, which is basically mashed and cooked banana. It’s the staple food here. I’m not the biggest fan of it, myself, but cultural sensitivity, right? I dig in. At this time, what has been definitely apparent for the entire day to this point becomes more than blatant. The entire day, I have been the only woman in the staff room. The whirlwind teacher is also a woman, so she has walked in and out, but has never sat down. The women are all seated down below (the school is on a hill, the higher grades are nearer to the top of the campus, and the lower classes near the bottom), and a woman comes in, serves us our food, then heads back down. A few minutes later, a student comes in and carries down enough dishes for the women. I looked pointedly and questioningly at Shane, who then asked the other teachers why the women didn’t eat with them. They said that they taught the younger kids, “the baby classes,” and they couldn’t come this far away from the kids, because they would get out of control. Which definitely makes sense. Just was an interesting division. I walked past there a couple of times trying to see if I should be sitting down there, too, but they were always talking in Lusoga, so I felt bad making them speak in English just because I was sitting there. So hopefully they were not too offended that this new white woman teacher was sitting up in the staff room with the other men.  

2:41 – Every other teacher has finished eating. I’m still working on my dish. We are in the midst of an intense conversation about the differences in dating, marriage, burials, dowries, you name it, we covered most of it. 

3:40 – I’m still picking at my food, deciding whether it would be worse to not finish it or to have it all come back up into the hole of a toilet that they have at school. I decide the latter would be worse, so, attempting to be discreet, stand up quietly and slide the plate into the pile of other plates. But, alas, the other teachers catch me and say, but Anna! You are so big! Do you not need all of it?! (There is NO sense of concern over calling people big or fat here in Uganda. I’ve gotten it multiple times. Unfortunately it’s because I’m nourished… and that’s what they have to compare it to) 

4:12 – Shane and I look at each other and decide, we’ve sat here doing pretty much nothing except talking long enough, we can head home now. We walk home along the beautiful red dirt roads, to the chorus of “Mzungu bye bye!” and random taxi drivers stopping, hoping that we were too lazy to walk. 

4:37 – we make it back to the house finally, and head over to watch the seminarians (our neighbors) play a game of soccer.

As for a few other notes of points of interest. Kind of the whole day, I was finding random things that I thought were funny when thinking about how different this first day was from any first class day in the US. Here is a brief list:
·         On the walk to school, seeing multiple kids who barely looked as if they could walk, tottering themselves alone to school. It was really cute. And there were multiple other people walking down the road more than happy to help one of them if they had fallen or anything. However, would NEVER see that in America.
·         Bringing my own roll of toilet paper to school… the toilets are… holes in the ground, with basic outhouse structures built up around them. I have to say, I’m so grateful to have grown up camping, and using the outhouse there so often (it’s like a palace compared to some of the “short call facilities” here.) It definitely doesn’t bother me, but it’s just funny… not on every first teacher’s packing list… a roll of toilet paper.
·         The fact that there were maybe 30 students there for the first day of school. I saw one class being conducted. Other than that, there were simply not enough students to merit teaching them. It’s a vicious cycle. They’re used to being not really taught the first week of classes, so they don’t come. They don’t come, so there’s no one for the teachers to teach the first week of classes. CATCH 22!
·         Tea break. It’s an awesome invention. Half hour break for tea? Yes please! For this, I will say, Thank you, England!

I’m sure there are others, but I can’t think of them so much right now. If I remember or notice more, I’ll add them later!

So, as far as I can tell, this first day of classes is almost identical to any other teacher’s first day of classes right? Oh wait… haha. So it was definitely… slow… but at least it was decided officially that I would be teaching 4th grade English (reading comp especially) and Mathematics. Which is exciting. It definitely can seem easy to judge this system, but I’m doing my best not to at this point. It is the way that they are working the education system right now, and it’s the best way they know how, mixing what they have right now with the culture and expectations of the country already in place. It’s what is allowing them to get by. They have so little resources, they do their best. There IS only one book, so it’s sometimes hard to find it. When things like power lines get cut, they have to be taken care of. And the best most qualified person to do that in the school is the headmaster. Students don’t come to school on the first day because they have spent their holidays helping out their families at home and haven’t yet had enough time to prepare themselves to come back to school. Their families expect a certain amount of help through the last day they are supposed to be home, so they have to prepare themselves for school after that. On top of that, many are scrambling to scrape enough money for school fees together. Due to the fact that the Ugandan schilling is the worst performing currency in the world currently and that the entire world is suffering economic hardship, money has become even tighter and the schools had to raise fees to feed their students, as the food prices are skyrocketing here. Things move slowly in Uganda. And that’s just the way things work. And it’s how they get by. And I know that pretty much everyone I meet has their own stories and hardships and difficulties, so I’m trying very hard not to judge, just to observe. And throughout it all, I didn’t get frustrated, because there were these teachers who were willing to talk to us, and I was so grateful for such good conversation where I learned a TON about our cultural differences (and how to escape attacking animals). I imagine there will be days that I am here where I am INCREDIBLY frustrated by the system and the lack of organization and the inefficiency of it all, but as for now, I’m not. I’m doing as best I can to keep an open mind, and *profile of a Jesuit grad at grad* be open to growth! So it’s just a very interesting experience. And ta-da! Anna finished her *revised statement* first day of school not as a student! I’m not going to my first day of school teaching… cuz I didn’t really teach. Except to tell the other teachers more about my own culture. But overall, a very interesting day!

And then day two was a good day: We showed up and as I walked up, was greeted by a teacher saying, “So what classes are you going to teach?” To which I responded, P4 English and probably Mathematics. And he revealed that he was the P4 math teacher, handed me a book, and said, “Go teach!” But then I asked if I could just sit and watch him instead for the day, as I didn’t really know what I would be doing, and he said that was entirely fine, and I watched him teach (algebra—we’re working our way up to variables). We had tea, and then I was told that one of the teachers for P4 was stuck in a line at the bank, and would not make it, so I should take her class, and then what would be my class right after it--2 hours of straight teaching. (Nothing like being thrown right into the fire when least expecting it!) So I walked into class and introduced myself, stumbling over my words only a little bit. The kids, whenever anyone new walks into the class, stand up and say in unison, “Welcome, Madame. This is P4 English. You are most welcome.” (Or something along those lines anyways, changed depending on the gender of the visitor and the actual current class). One of the biggest problems I knew I was going to face on the first day was the fact that I knew none of their names, and they are taught from a young age to be “humble” which translates into whispering into a hand in front of their face what their names are. So I had to get them up and out of their seats and trying to be loud, using some good old Jesuit Drama techniques, which was generally successful, loudly saying their names. They loosened up a bit as the class went on, and we went over the classroom rules, acting them out and seeing if there were any more which should be added. I did some very general review stuff, and then played a few games with them. (I decided to play a newly termed “Build the Man” instead of “Hangman” because I’m not quite sure of the cultural sensitivity on that one). What ended up being most difficult was the fact that they are just newly being taught in solely English in this grade, and an American’s accent is very different than any they are used to. So I was explaining everything about 4 or 5 times in different ways before a few students would get it enough to be able to show the other students what to do. Build the Man was kind of funny, they were really excited about playing, but one game they guessed the letter b three times, and they even guessed “double b” twice. I think I’m going to have to work on my direction giving skills a little bit! But overall, a good class period I think, where I got them to laugh some, and speak louder than a muffled whisper. So tomorrow I’m going to move on to actual material, and hopefully keep the progress I’ve made! And thus begins the teaching career life of “Madame Anna”…


  1. I'm laughing so hard I'm falling out of my chair!
    please don't send me to the headmaster because of it, Madame Anna! I 'd LOVE to be a student in
    your class!

  2. Nanana - awesome posts. and franticness and control are solidly part of your genetic make-up, btw! sending you love and prayers all the time! aunt helen

  3. Haha I'm glad your first day wasn't too bad! Except the mashed bananas part-although I love bananas...is there a recipe ;) ?

  4. Haha Nanana, sounds like a riot. Is double b another letter? Like double u? Thanks for the amusing update!

  5. Anna ---Emily's Dad here... this is really funny stuff! Keep a journal and write a book about your experiences!
    Take care of yourself, you mashed banana eater, you...

  6. A wonderful post Anna! I marvel at how you have to "think on your feet" - good call on the build a man game - I'm not much of a fan of hangman myself. Yes... I would love to know how to avoid an angry monkey, just in case I were ever to encounter one. God bless you!

  7. Hey Anna!! Sounds amazing!! I'm glad to know that eventually you can teach me how to defend myself from wild monkey attacks... I'm never going to look at those "baboon islands" at the zoo the same way again. Keep up the posts, I love reading them!

  8. Into the fire - only way to really learn. I'm sure you're fantastic.