My first experience teaching English was in Burkina Faso – at that time one of the ten poorest countries in the world. My only resources were a box of chalk, a chalkboard, and a florescent light bulb. The light bulb turned on (most days) by maneuvering two wires sticking out of the wall precariously to make them spark. (After I nearly burnt my fingers off one day, my students determined they would be the ones turn on the lights.) My ride to school on the unpaved roads of Ouagadougou involved dodging livestock, steering around deep ruts in the road, and waving at the bright smiles of barefoot children seeing a nasara for the first time in their lives.
Many of the fundamental tools I still use in teaching, I learned in that sparse classroom.
- Students who want to learn can accomplish unlimited things. I had one student ride his bike two hours one way to come to my English class because he wanted to practice speaking with a native speaker to improve his English before he went to seminary in English.
- There are always resources we can’t afford. Using what is available goes a long way. While we didn’t even have textbooks, we used songs, quotes, and the chalkboard. We did groupwork, individual work, and pairwork. We wrote on the chalkboard, used photocopies, and memorized poems.
- Students are first individuals, students second. Until teachers know what affects students’ realities outside of the classroom, they are limited in their knowledge of how to help them learn inside the classroom.
- What happens inside my classroom is not the only factor that affects students’ attitudes. The developing world makes it very easy to remember that humans do not completely control what happens around them, and that this sometimes spills over into the classroom. The donkeys braying outside my classroom every afternoon made this quite clear. On rainy days, my students didn’t come to class because the unpaved roads turned to mud and made travel challenging.
- Sometimes the bigger systems keep the little systems from working right. Hungry children do not focus as well as fed children. Access to money means access to education means access to freedom of choice. Corrupt governments oppress the poor and enable the wealthy.
- Being a teacher holds inherent power, whether we recognize it or not. In Burkina Faso, I represented America – as much as I hated to admit – and the power that came with it. Regardless of where my classroom has been, the position of teacher has given me a platform which affects others. How it affects them is left to whether I handle my power with humble servanthood or proud dictatorship.
- A smile goes a long way. Even without the ability to communicate with language, smiles speak a message of their own.
This isn’t to say that resources are bad – they are, in fact, very helpful. It’s just that sometimes the most potent realities of teaching don’t have anything to do with resources for teaching is an act that occurs between two human beings, not two computers or two pieces of paper or two textbooks.