Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of Teaching

"Boa tarde Senhora Professora."

Imagine this in the same tone you would use for an "Our Father" in mass. These words haunt my worst nightmares and yet sometimes still manage to make me smile. Especially when I mistakenly greet my students with "bom dia" since, despite my regularly scheduled classes beginning at a cool 1 PM, I've usually rolled out if bed pretty recently and still consider it the morning. Of course saying good morning after 11:59 is a major faux paux here in Moz and highly hilarious to 8th graders.

It occurred to me that I have yet to write anything about my actual job here, so here is a post solely about teaching...not one complaint about the lack of acceptable snack foods, cross my heart.

This year I am teaching 8th grade Biology and 11th and 12th grade TICs. TICs stands for Tecnologia de Informação e Comunicação, and basically consists of me teaching Microsoft Office and typing, because despite the confidence my school director and the ministry of education seem to have in me, I haven't the slightest grasp on the concepts of  algorithms and wireless technologies nor the ability to teach them to kids who are still trying to figure out which mouse button to use. In spite of my innovative teaching techniques (mostly yelling) they're still trying to right-click their way through life, and find how upset it makes me amusing.

The thing I like most about teaching TICs is that you can really see the progress the kids are making. Some of them had never used a computer before this class, and now the majority can at least navigate through the basic operations (given sufficient handicap time for the right-click thing).

Here in Panda we are very lucky to have a computer lab with 20 (12 or so functioning) computers, and a smartboard (also currently out of commission)! Seriously though, even with the continuous stream of issues with technology we are still lucky to have it at all. I know some volunteers who have to teach the class without even one computer to demonstrate.

Biology is an entirely different beast. I love my eighth graders and they can be better behaved than the upperclassmen. The problem with them is they've just come from primary school where they are molded into parrots and taught to write everything longhand. My greatest challenge has been to get them to think critically instead of just regurgitating information. No matter how many puzzles or experiments you give them, they always revert back to the term-and-definition approach to science they're used to.

I remember an episode of Letterman where he revealed some statistic about the intelligence of children in each nation. There was some standardized test with several parts and the only one the USA scored highest in was self-confidence. At the time I was ashamed that the only claim to fame our country's youth had was being #1 in arrogance. Now my experience here has put that data in a new light.

Americans aren't the smartest people on paper. Our self-confidence stems from our society and culture. We're taught from birth to be individual thinkers and are encouraged to be the best. This social mindset breeds a highly competitive group of people. In our efforts to edge out the competition and stand out in a society of over-achievers we become inventive and innovative. We take pride in ourselves and or work. We're forced to think critically and to be resourceful.

Here in Mozambique I notice a lot of cookie-cutter mentality: let's do exactly what we've been told to do exactly the way we've been told to do it. There's little thinking outside the box and less questioning authority. This is probably to be expected of a country with recently broken ties to colonialism and socialism, respectively. That being said I grow prouder of my students every day in their efforts to live up to the expectations I have for them. I can only hope that they'll be able to pay it forward one day in whatever sector of the country they end up in. It's a slow and gruelling process and I do get frustrated, but fortunately for the kids I can never stay mad at them for long. I'll end this post on a high note with a prime example: something I call The Chicken Incident.

The Chicken Incident happened in one particularly frustrating biology class during which no one was coming forward with an explanation of the difference between voluntary and involuntary muscles despite my talking about it for the past  35 minutes. I launched into the fiftieth explanation with my teeth gritting.

"Voluntary muscles are used when we consciously decide to use them, like standing up, or running, or..."

Just then, a chicken struts shamelessly into my classroom. Partly because I hold a perpetual grudge against chickens for waking me before dawn every day  and partly because I didn't like how cocky he seemed (pun intended), I decided not to ignore it.

"...Or to kick a chicken out of the classroom."

Maybe kicking the chicken wasn't the mature thing to do, but watching him catapulting towards the door, feathers flying like a cartoon sure was satisfying. Unfortunately in his panic he ran for refuge under the desk of 3 girls in the front row. This set in motion a frenzied attempt to extract him from the labyrinth of desks and successfully shoo him towards freedom. In the end he  ran smack into the wall beak-first before making it out the door, leaving behind him 54 flustered children and one very uncomposed and hysterical adult.

Never a dull moment, I'll tell ya.