Maybe I am a bad teacher?

I kicked out my entire Thursday afternoon class.  Immediately.  They were the one class that I have ever assigned homework to.  Their assignment was to defend their answer as to why the sky was blue in the last exam.  There are over 30 people in this class, though I only run at about 2/3 attendance on any given day.  Not a single one did their assignment.  I kicked them out.  At first I said it nicely, in english and kiswahili.  Nobody moved.  Then I said it again, more sternly, nobody moved.  So finally I had to stand up and practically shout, “GO NOW!” and then they moved, but not with the expected energy I had hoped, they just sort of shuffled out.  They did not seem dejected, and they were laughing quite loudly in the hall.  The Mzungu made a spectacle.

I am not saying what I did was correct.  I was actually not even overly frustrated, half expecting this to happen, considering it’s kenya.  But at the same time, if I am to prove to these kids that I seriously want to teach them, and they should take that seriously as well, words just are not enough.  I needed an action to substantiate my claims to caring.  This is why I settled on kicking them out.  It was not a knee-jerk reaction.  I am hoping, as terrible as it may sound, that this will serve as an example.  I have had a professor do this to one of my classes in college and it worked.  For the rest of the year, us bratty, spoiled, disrespectful college kids did our reading.

Of course, in retrospect there are some things I would have done differently.  First, I would have given them a bit more reason as to why I am kicking them out.  Of course, they would not have understood most likely, and I would have been unable to convey it in kiswahili, nor would it have sunk in because I think there is still a factor of “Oh wow, he’s speaking swahili,” whenever I talk, and it overrides their actual listening-comprehension.

Second, I would have told them to do the assignment again.  I did not.  That is my mistake.  I doubt they will do it on their own volition.  I should have also made the ultimatum that class will not continue for them until they do their assignment.  But I did what I did, and I am ok with it.

I talked with Dai Kato about it and he was 100% supportive.  He said that if they were in Japan the teacher would have done the same thing.  Words we looked up in the dictionary for this conversation included: disrespectful, correct, reflect (student’s don’t reflect on their performance, he said it, not me).

I also talked with David and Frida about it.  To clarify, they have pretty good english, and are much better at at least listening and comprehending what I am saying, if not speaking with an articulated vocabularly.  At first they thought it was a bit funny, but that’s most likely because I was gesticulating wildly when describing the situation.  Afterwards though, they also agreed, saying that now the student’s will know that it I am no joke and they need to take my class seriously.

Hopefully they will.  As my second and third week experience proved, I know students want to be in class.  But I almost wonder if schooling is affected by the same appreciation for superficiality that affects many other aspects of culture.  That going through the motions is enough, but substance doesn’t really matter.  Sure it looks great to dress up an entire village of children in their uniforms and march them around, proudly proclaiming they are getting and education.  Sure an 87% literacy rate is great!  Especially for this region of the world.

At the same time though, are students being taught the value of their education.  The lifelong impact knowledge has on one’s life?  Or is the value of the education simply the cost of purchasing books and a uniform at the beginning of the year and hoping learning just falls out of the pages of the books and into your head.  What is a literacy rate of 87% if your fluency rate is nothing (an exaggeration to be sure, but an interesting study to be conducted)?




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3 responses to “Maybe I am a bad teacher?

  1. dad

    Time to read “To Sir With Love” and “Up the Down Staircase”.
    It is frustrating, but it will be worth the effort for you and for them.
    Love You, keep up the good work

  2. Jeff Briggs

    Hi Jon,

    I read your blog and it took me back to my early days of teaching in Saudi Arabia. It took me a while to figure out what was going on back then. Here are a few suggestions.

    1. You can’t change 3,000 years of culture in 3 week, 3 months, or 3 years.
    2. They do not think the same way as you or me (you already figured that out).
    3. Beating your head against the wall only gets you a bloody wall and a headache, so relax a little. Go with the flow.

    That being said, you can bend the flow your way as you go with the flow.

    They are looking for someone to “teach” them, not make them think. You have to make them think without their realizing it. In the end you will make a BIG difference in the lives of 2 or 3, maybe half a dozen people. It will be worth it.

    Here is something you might try to get going. I assume this is a “computer class”.

    Introduce them to how a computer “thinks”. Go through a little computer logic: IF, THEN, GO TO, LARGER THAN, etc.

    End by diagramming a small counting algorithm to show how IF-THEN pairs work

    Next class write 4 or 6 lines of code (BASIC or something else) to show how the computer goes through the diagram you made. I am sure they are very familiar with following paths. Like any story, it will have a beginning, middle and an end. This will be an opportunity to get some give and take (probably mostly give). It should probably last the whole period.

    Next period, divide them into groups of 3 or 4 and ask them to come up with a different way to do the same thing (count). This will be a struggle but you can go around to the different groups with suggestions. In the end you can have them either write their attempts on the board or make suggestions for you to write on the board. Also, you should have another algorithm to count to present in the next class. Then you can start modifying it to show how different approaches give you a different answer or even the same answer. This shows them that the teacher can “help” and that there may be more than 1 correct way to do something.

    A few will really get into it, some would rather eat lunch.

    Computer logic is a good way to teach logical thinking.

    Food for though.


  3. Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for all the great advice. Peace Corps tries it’s best to prepare us for what seems like the futility of working in this culture. It gets to the point where the only official thing Peace Corps wants us to do in TWO YEARS is make at least one friend. Change at least one person and how they perceive the world. That’s all. Don’t tell the taxpayers though, they might get mad at how their money is being spent.

    As for your tips on teaching, I was contemplating them. I was contemplating using Python to teach them how a computer thinks. My problem though is that I need to come up with the middle ground between teaching general computer theory and practical computer application. These kids are all going to be tradespeople and this will most likely be their only exposure to computers. And they just don’t have a lot of time with them, especially just free time. I am also acting, personally, as a salesman, trying to sell the concept and worth of computers to kenyans at the everyday village level. In the cities and administration they get it, and in some of the better-off boarding schools they get it, but it’s not as pervasive in the kijiji (not so well off villages).

    So instead of teaching them computer logic as a whole, I am trying to insert how a computer thinks in specific situations. So far my best example would be teaching word processing and explaining how a computer thinks about text. Plain text vs. formatted text and how that translates into different applications. They still aren’t getting it. But that’s fine. At some point, they do need to start to understand this, so I will just keep giving it to them in smaller and smaller doses until they are able to digest it.

    And I am stopping going against the flow as much. I have had to revert my teaching style to much more lecture oriented but I am being more specific in my goals. I have also explained that you learn following three simple steps: Hear it, See it, Do it, which also, thankfully, translates easily into kiswahili. I also have been up front and told them that I am unable to teach them everything about every application on every computer, but that I am trying to teach them how to teach themselves computers. I get a few (maybe 4 out of 150) who seem to understand that fully, they grok it.

    And in the meantime, I am trying to just get them to think a little more abstractly not just about computers as well. I do this by giving them assignments that use computers, but computers aren’t necessarily the focus. Again also stressing that computers are tools for completing tasks and not the end itself. But that’s for a blog post for another day.

    Again, thanks for all the great ideas! I’ll keep you updated!