Education

All I really need to know about teaching I learned from teaching without a light switch

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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Education, Travel

Bright smiles and marker caps

marker caps

I wrote this years ago reflecting on time I spent teaching English in Burkina Faso, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world.  Thanks to these children, hardly a week passes that I do not think of the realities of children living in poverty.

“Nasara! Nasara!” the children shouted as my moped puttered down their street. I may have been the first white person they had ever seen. “Goo morneen!” they waved. Some wore tattered clothes. Some wore none at all. None wore shoes. Bright smiles dominated their tiny faces.

I arrived at school where I was met by my students, “Goo morneen, Meess. How are you today?” they inquired, taking my books and bag.

“Fine, thanks,” I was overjoyed, actually. Having taught in American public schools, the Burkinabé students continually amazed me with their respect and kindness. Together, we crossed the dusty school yard toward the classroom, dodging an occasional pothole, curious child or stray pig.

One florescent light bulb provided light to the classroom. To turn it on, you had to precariously maneuver the wires until sparks flew and the bulb flickered on. Thankfully, my students were more adept at hot-wiring light bulbs than I. They had already swept the dust from the room and arranged the desks. Covered in a mix of sweat and red dust, I opened the metal slatted windows to let in a breeze. Four grinning faces stared back at me, eager to catch a glimpse of the nasara.

staring at the nasara

When it rained, my students didn’t go outside for fear of catching malaria from getting chilled, and because the flooded, broken roads were too difficult to navigate on moped. I found this out one rainy night when no one showed up at my class except for the Bright Smiles. I invited them in, offering some paper and markers from my bag. Their eyes glistened with excitement to see such bright, clean colors in a land where most brilliance had faded and/or been covered by thick red dust long ago.

For an hour, we spoke broken French and colored together under the dim glow of the lone light bulb. When they left, several of my marker caps mysteriously disappeared, even though I thought had clearly asked for them all back. I never did figure out why they took just the caps and not the markers. Maybe that inch of brilliance was still more color than they’d seen in their short lifetime.

The World Health Organization reports that 23% of these bright smiles will die before they reach age 5. If my marker caps add a bit of brightness to their lives, they can have every last one as far as I’m concerned.

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