I started teaching last week – Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon at the Pedagogical University. I have 12+1 students, which means they are first year students of a two-year teacher training program, not a university degree program. In the class there are 35 men and four women! Probably only about half of them can speak English conversationally, yet they are all training to be English teachers. I definitely have my work cut out for me.
It’s been a long time since I’ve taught. The end of June 2006, in fact, was the last time I had a class of students. I led some workshops here last year and plan to do more this year, but they are not my students. I don’t get to build relationships with them and see their progress over time.
On Tuesday I thought things had gone well. I thought everyone understood me. When I looked that night at the profiles I had them write for me, I realized they only half understood.
On Wednesday I went in with lower expectations, reminding myself to be clearer and use lots of examples. I wanted to warm them up with an activity that would make them generate their own ideas/sentences, get them moving around, get them talking, and help them build relationships and community in the class – all very non-Mozambican teaching methods. They first spent a few minutes each writing five true statements about themselves. Then they had to move around the room and ask people if they had the same things in common. When they found someone who did, that person would write his/her name next to the statement. For example, for me, “I have one brother.” Then I walked around and asked people, “Do you have one brother? No? Okay. Do you have one brother? Yes? Please sign here.” When I told them, “Go”, they went! Thirty-nine people, each with five English statements about themselves, milling around asking questions. They had smiles on their faces, they were enthusiastic, they were all completely engaged. And in that moment I thought, “Yes! It works. This is why I teach.”
From across the room, a student waved his paper, “Teacher, I finish.” I gave him a thumbs-up them walked over to see his list and congratulate him. His first statement was, “I have a girlfriend. She is very cutie.” And with the proud smile on his face, he was “very cutie”.
When teaching works, it is such a beautiful thing. Learning well is a beautiful thing – to fall asleep at the end of the day feeling that you have more knowledge and more skills than you did that morning. Having fun and building relationships in the process makes it even more beautiful. And for me to come out of the office where I feel so discouraged and often so useless and purposeless, to teach makes me feel somewhat beautiful too.
I’ll leave you with an anecdote from the class (which may or may not negate everything I’ve just written about any success in these students learning from me!). On Tuesday the students were asking me questions about myself. Someone asked, “What is your marital status?” Someone else asked, “How old are you?” Another student asked, “Where do you live?” I explained that for Western English speakers, these are not polite questions, especially for a man to ask a woman when he first meets her. (Don’t worry, I did it light-heartedly.) They laughed; they seemed to understand; we had a little discussion about it.
On Wednesday four new students joined the class – two men and two women (one young and one probably a few years older than me). I asked them to introduce themselves to the class. No one asked the men anything, and no one asked the “older” woman anything. But when the young woman finished introducing herself, from the back someone yelled, “How old are you?” She said she was 22. Someone else yelled, “Are you married?” I said, “Guys! What did I tell you about these questions?” In unison, several of them recited, “These are not polite questions to ask.” Then from the back a voice called out, “Where do you live?”