Teaching and learning

I’m here as an English teacher, but I have so much to learn. About how to teach in this context; and about how to survive this far out of my comfort zone. 

I’d taken a little hiatus from the blogging. Firstly, because I’ve been ill for a couple of weeks. In the same way it’s not good to make a decision when you’re angry, I decided it’s not a good idea to blog while you’re ill. I’d only be able to write an incoherent collection of everything that was painfully too difficult to cope with during illness: things that I would soon forget once I was better. And I already have.

Secondly, my social commentary of life here is becoming harder to write in anything more than occasional one-liners as it is now my way of life and the people with whom I’m living have become my adopted family. Writing about life here is starting to feel less and less out of the ordinary. This was perhaps best seen in my matter-of-fact video tour of our house that I posted on FB this week. So much of my life here now is just so totally normal. 

And it’s amazing how my body has learned to cope with this environment to solidify that normality. My back no longer aches when I get up from sleeping on a piece of foam that we refer to as a mattress (as I’m the only one in our family of eight who has one, I’m gratefully shutting up); my knees have adapted to the squatting; my hips now (in the main) love rather than loathe all the cross-legged floor sitting; my feet are just that little bit smoother than they were a week ago and my skin is generally adapting to life without very much moisturiser. I can even, finally, say my digestion is on the up. The human body rocks.

Though I have a lot to learn as a teacher in this context, it’s not about the English. Thankfully, I’ve got that covered. The grammar pedant in me loves the different ways I can highlight the beautiful eccentricities of my wonderful language to our students. The accent-lover and mimic in me relishes the new sounds I can teach the children as we discover together all the weird and wonderful pronunciations English has to offer. And though I am not a trained teacher, TESOL or otherwise, my years of working in and around education and young people have stood me in good stead for most of what I have come up against… Most.

Back to basics and back to the chalkboards

In the mornings on a couple of days a week, I’m teaching some adults as part of a programme run by two American volunteers. This couple have pretty much given over their lives to coming here for two three-month stints every year to teach English. Their commitment is overwhelming and their dedication to their students something from which I am definitely taking some lessons. And my jealousy at the home comforts they have managed to add to their home here is intense (a dining table and benches, a sit on loo and a tap and wash basin in which to wash your hands. Total luxury and all brought a tear to my eye…don’t get me started on my feelings about the cups of tea without sugar I consumed while over for lunch the other day).

Where was I? Oh yes, teaching. So, I add some words from the UK to what their groups of adults are learning in their American English textbooks (autumn is my favourite season after all and I definitely wear my pants under my trousers) and offer up my slightly softer lilt on consonant sounds. 

With adults, you can follow a textbook and although much of what they learn amongst the pages is outside of the students’ worldview here, they can grasp the concepts and the ideas of a different way of life elsewhere. Some discussions from the textbook can seem futile for a group of long-waiting refugees who survive on handouts from other world governments and UN agencies and who have very limited opportunities for careers. But the students’ commitment to learning English to improve or just add to their lives even a fraction is encouraging. For me this is especially the case when I know many of the women are getting up much earlier than they need to for class in order to do the household chores they would be doing when the class is on. And when you know that learning a language isn’t at all easy, you’re all the more impressed by their determination.

My older group of young English learners

My main programme here though, and my favourite part of the day, is the work I am doing with children in a local school who come out of their normal afternoon classes to have English and music lessons with me and three local teachers. Now, I haven’t suddenly become musical out of nowhere. Thankfully, my fellow teachers have been trained in the Stave House technique which offers an easy and positive introduction to reading and playing music for young children. The programme has been running for a year and a half here in Boujdour Camp having been established by a truly wonderful human who I am lucky to call a friend and supported by an organisation well-respected in the Camps (Sandblast which has been running a variety of different projects in the Refugee Camps for many years). The work is respected by the school and the reports of good grades in English classes for our students are music to our ears. We have a specially adapted classroom and can do much more sitting on the floor in a circle and walking around the room acting words out than we could in any of the school’s normal classrooms.
There are two groups and the older ones (mainly 9 and 10 year olds) are doing intensive English with me whilst their regular teacher is on maternity leave and then the younger group (7 and 8 year olds) have me for some hilarious English additions and their local teachers for all the fun of the music learning. (If you are interested in sponsoring a Saharawi child to do this programme, find out more here).

Teaching the young people has been a pleasure and a privilege. Of course it has its frustrations and we’ve had our ups and downs over the last eight weeks of teaching. But these young people are fearless, they are inquisitive and their energy is infectious. Their young minds are hungry for this language I have on the tip of my tongue. They are intringued by the weird and wonderful sounds I make with different words and they eagerly contort their mouths in different formations as we work out ways they can match my pronunciation. And I love the fact that their accents make their ‘hello’s sound like it’s coming out of the mouth of the Queen!

Our youngest learners figuring out how to read music

I am constantly having to adapt what I would teach to make it relevant to the their context. How do we talk about different professions when many people’s parents don’t work and in the main their fathers are all in the army? How do we talk about the weather when we only have different degrees of hot and sunny to go by? The seasons when there are only two which look very much the same? The natural world, when there’s very little to see in our vicinity? Transport when they may never have seen a train or a boat? What we did at the weekend when activities are very limited? But we’re finding creative ways and we are understanding each other through action and gesture. And I have shown a few photos of snow and the green, green grass of home. (And when we have talked about future careers I am thrilled by how many want to be teachers and doctors and that only one wants to be a footballer).

I’m also constantly navigating the differences between the education system I am used to in the UK and the one I am learning about here. Teaching seems in the main very traditional and based on copying from the board. The children’s listening skills are low because I imagine they never do class discussion, something really important in language learning. Talking to them about why their not listening and shouting out and hitting each other are things that aren’t acceptable in class is hard when they have not been equipped with the skills of emotional literacy (and when I don’t speak their language).  And seeing children be hit in the playground by some of their teachers has shaken me to the core of my being. 

But I had to throw out most of what I knew from my DBS guidelines when I got here: all the children plant huge kisses on my cheeks as they leave the class. They tell me I am beautiful, they hug me tight and squabble over who gets to hold my hand in the circle.

I can’t change the whole system unfortunately. I can’t give the school enough funding to ensure all their teachers are properly trained and all their classes use interesting and different learning styles to engage all types of learners (for there are some great well-trained teachers doing great things). I can’t give them all experienced TAs and Learning Mentors so that students with additional needs get the support they deserve. 

All we can do as a team of four teachers is offer an hour a day for each group where they can learn in a different way, where they are praised and punished through explanation and reasoning. And I can revel in the fact that the children I know are finding school dull or difficult get a different learning experience with us and get the extra support they need for the things they are finding difficult to process.

And for this as well as much of the rest of my experiences here, I had to learn to let go. I’m never going to know the whole story here. I’m never going to understand why sometimes the school isn’t open when we arrive for class, why the schedule has been changed and no one knew or thought to tell me in advance. And I’ve just learned to go with that. I’ve given up asking questions about times and schedules and forward planning. It will happen and I will just have to be patient. 

Some of the youngest learners discovering how to answer more questions about themselves in English

But my new found attitude had quite hilarious consequences the other night. So, I’ve accepted that I might feel and look like crap and have no bedroom to lock myself in and no bath to have… And that I’ll have to see everyone I live with and many additional neighbours at the same time. I’ve accepted that I’ve lost my anonymity given that a man stopped his car in the street the other day to ask me if my tummy was better (couldn’t have told you who he was)… But then one of the neighbours who I had not yet met was round the other night as I was lying down with a bit of a fever. She marched over to me with a bottle of cologne and started rubbing it all over my forearms. She then pulled me up and took off my cardigan to be able to rub into my upper arms and into my armpits. My eyes were widening and I was starting to protest, at which point she rolls me over and pushes my top up to rub it into my back. Before I can say a word, she’s got me back on my back and she’s rubbing into my neck, over the chest she can see and then down my top and over my boobs! She lets me do my own forehead as I think that would be considered an invasion of my privacy. 

Much laughter ensued as I joked with her about how well I would normally need to know someone for that to occur and how upset I was that she was leaving before we’d had a chance for a full conversation. But there you have it. A cure for a fever, thrust upon with me without question of whether I might know best or whether it was anything I was comfortable with. And so, I’m letting go.

And my family too are learning about me. They seem to read me better than I read myself and at the moments when I am feeling really fed up with the food and the same-same-same tastes, they throw the tastiest new recipe my way, or they buy me a pomegranate and I marvel at the way in which they do incredible things with their very limited resources. And I fall in love with them all over again. 

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