Teaching Moments

This will be similar to my random thoughts post, but exclusively in the classroom.

Ethiopian classrooms are, unsurprisingly, less formal than their American counterparts. But, teenagers and students are largely the same. This includes doing work for other classes in my English class. Well, it did. I have taken the measure of snatching any notebooks from other classes and launching them out the window. It’s a multi layered solution. It removes the problem. It embarasses the student. And, it’s, quite frankly, fun.

I have a 32 year old student, Tajudin. He’s one of my better students. He is well organized, hardworking and serious about learning. I told myself I would treat him like everyone else. I have found that impossible. He misses class frequently, he has to work on his farm. Particularly now because it’s coffee harvesting season. When he is in class he’s just trying to catch up. I make accommodations for him. For example, he missed a quiz and the make up quiz day. I let him take the quiz on his own time. It’s a mystifying power dynamic too. I’m his teacher yet he has 9 years on me. We have to talk often because he misses class frequently. We use a jumble of Afan Oromo and English to get our points across.

I took my class on a field trip. Unit 7 in the Ethiopian English book is on cities. Baffling enough it mentions Addis Ababa and world capitals as the source for lessons. Vocab words include traffic light, sky scraper, and airport. My kids haven’t the slightest idea what any of those are and it shouldn’t be a test of English skill if they can name, to them, abstract vocabulary. So, I decided to take my 60 students out around the town and just start naming everything. I didn’t tell anyone from my school, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission (Life advice from John Keller). On my way out teacher Fanta comes sprinting over to me, the gig is up. Fanta informs me to go out the side entrance, he doesn’t want late students to slip into my class. He grins, and says “Ah, you are doing a field trip.” I change our route to the side entrance followed by a horde of 9th graders. The students aren’t excited, only confused. I start pointing out various landmarks in town, barber, tractor, carpenter etc. The townspeople are eating it up. The carpenter, Rabuma comes out and brings out various tools to help me quiz the students on. My students never get comfortable, after 15 minutes they tell me ni ga’a, enough. I return after a half hour. I was excited for this, lesson, disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm by the students, but that happens. Oddly enough the other teachers were thrilled by my trip. There was apparently a training where the mentioned field trips. They were stoked to tell me I had a field trip.

It’s common practice, to tell a teacher the time is up. I have a watch. My poor 9A section of students who have me during the last period on Friday. I know the time, and will gladly inform the students the correct time.

Most children who see me on the street howl Johni at the top of their lungs. My students are the exception. In public I inevitably see some of my students. They break into a nervous smile when our eyes meet. They appear as if they wish they were anywhere else in the world but, simultaneously, don’t want to do or say anything to extend our interaction. I holler a “hey, Wakjira, how are you?” They respond in a soft whisper, well or good. Then escape in the quickest possible direction.

Splendid news!  I got a promotion! I’m now one of two unit leaders. It consists of making sure students are on time and providing punishments if they aren’t. When I found out I got the gig the first thing I was told no corporal punishment. Shucks, there goes my chance to beat children. I put on a goofy, toothy smile in the morning and belch out “GOOD MORNING!” to every student that trots on by. I am still haunted by the scowl Mr.Fleshman would adorn as he stared down every teenager he so blatently disdained at Palm Beach Gardens High School. I also get a desk, my desk. Growing up I never thought my first desk would be in rural Ethiopia. But, to be fair, I never hoped to have a desk, the dream growing up was to be a baseball player.

I enjoy giving tests. Well, I enjoy proctoring tests. 60 students packed into a classroom is a breeding ground for cheating. I take it as a challenge. How many can I catch, 15, 20? I don’t give them zeros, just move them. I don’t think it’s fair to fail them for something ingrained in the culture. I have found students with the same answers (Including incorrect examples of sentences). I make a harder test, tear up the test in front of them then make them retake it. If they can copy a few answers from a friend while I’m not looking it’s my failure.

A bird got into the class today. It was bashing itself against the window trying in vain to escape. I figure it’s my duty to get rid of it. It is perched on a half open slit, tired from bashing its brains against the window. I grab it and it freaks out. I lose my grip and off it goes. A student, Fikre, gets up and grabs the pigeon. Alright everything seems to be working out. I point to the door. Fikre goes and sits down, bird between his clenched hands. I say Fikre take the bird outside, he doesn’t understand me. I point to the door. He shrugs and lets the bird go. What the f— Fikre? The bird does a couple more rounds against the window, losing again. He’s tired, I grab it and toss him out the door.

I have done something that can never be undone. I have introduced an evil every American knows all too well. I feel power, I feel vigor, I feel a betrayer. Lalo now has detention. As mentioned before I am now a unit leader. I am responsible for punishing late children. I described detention to other teachers and they were delighted. My counterpart Geneti said “If they are late to school they are late home.” It got universal praise from the teachers, invoking words like creative, fair and brilliant.  I’m so sorry. Yet, I’m so proud. The child in me pulses with rage, the adult in me tickles with joy.

I had an afternoon class today. It was 4:00 P.M and the kids just wanted to go home. I don’t blame them. I noticed in my previous class at 3:30 P.M. the kids were tired. It was a steamy afternoon, the sun blazing down inspiring the flies to come in onslaught after onslaught. There’s no Steve Weagel here to tell us the weather but hot, damn hot, will suffice. I decided on something simple. I wrote “Lalo Secondary School” on the board and instructed them to write down as many words as the could with the letters. An exercise we have done before. After 10 minutes I had a student come up and write on the board. I told Birhanu he could go home. At first confused then elated. He scrambled back to his desk to pickup his books then left in a whirlwind. I turned around to a sea of hands begging me to call on them. Cries, pleads of “Teacher, Teacher, TEACHER,” echoed throughout classroom 9B. I obliged each student as quick as possible. In the wave of students leaving I see the back of a head I didn’t call on. I shout at the blur leaving, recognize the student Muhadir then follow him out. He’s been caught. He doesn’t stop, but breaks into a jog.  At this point I’m pissed off and switch from a shout to a yell at Muhadir while I break to catch him. Here I will mention the school buildings are all in close proximity. There are two parallel building each with 5 classrooms about 10 feet in between them taking up 50 yards. The windows of every classroom are shuttered open, as mentioned it’s hot. I am making a huge scene. Eyes are glued to me from every classroom. The teachers who don’t have class are relaxing under a tree fortunately placed next to the exit. Muhadir has doubled down on running away from me but hasn’t spotted the teachers. Melcamo, math teacher, Wubutu, math teacher, and Ambdisa, Afan Oromo teacher, stand up confused, but wanting to help. They see the running child and get the picture. Muhadir sees the other teachers and any chance at escape is squandered. There is a universal look of a student that knows they’ve done some bad shit and got caught. Muhadir has that look. Like the look my dog, Hammling has when he’s gotten into the trash, he knows it was wrong, but… I end class and the teachers want to make his punishment a group effort. I explain to them the situation and they are incensed. Another universal punishment was quickly agreed upon. A call to the parents. At this point I have no idea what happens. 

I had a quiz on a few vocabulary words. Forgot, remember, explain, travel, change, improve and send. I had a true false section a matching section and they wrote a few sentences using the words. First is 3rd period, class 9A. I write the quiz on the board and after two or three words I snap around and search with malice for cheaters. The students will have their exercise books in their laps. I chucked 17 out the window. I move students who I even suspect of looking at anyone else’s paper. They still cheat, but I have the knowledge they are good at it. At the end of the class I gave them the answers. Then it was break time. Next up is 9B, they have the same quiz. I’m not an idiot. I switched up the answer choices, question order and matching words. As I was writing I would do the same snap back and search for dirty cheaters. This time I was not in luck. I launched a measly 5 exercise books out the window. I was disappointed with myself, my 9A class has a much higher level, I figured 9B would cheat more. I pride myself on my cheater catching ability, I was once a disgraceful cheater myself. Back in the dark middle school days in Mrs.Weasel’s science class I scribbled answers on my calf. Then I crossed my legs during the test, answers conveniently and discreetly located. As everyone turned in their quizzes I glanced down at the papers. The answers are the same as 9A. I flip through the whole class and find 20 students who have the same answers as 9A. I’m incensed. I break into a tirade about cheating. Absolutely none of which they understood. I announce the 20 cheaters to the class and storm out. I hone in on the nexus of the cheating and am horrified. The cheaters even used the same sentences from their 9A counterparts. For example, the question is “Use travel in a sentence.” 3 from 9A and 10 from 9B had some variation of “Bontu traveled from Lalo to Jimma.” Without even changing the name. Finding the source didn’t take a genius, although it was thrilling to search for the culprits. The source was Sofiya, my best student in 9A. She is quiet, unsure of herself, yet incredibly intelligent. I took her on a camp to Gore because she was my best student from 9A. Now, two other students had copied from her in 9A, they very well could have been the criminals who gave the answers to 9B. Later in the day I pull all the cheaters out of class. I explain my findings in broken Afan Oromo and English. I’m still working on adrenaline and don’t have a punishment. I see Sofiya turn around in shame and a moment of humanity grazes my ball of anger, she won’t even make eye contact with me. Luckily I’m a livid badger at the moment.  In reality I had nothing lined up, so I covered for that by saying I’ll think about the punishment. I’m proud of that spurious decision. There’s nothing worse than the waiting. Coincidentally, I’m teaching paragraphs the next day. Maybe it’s destiny. I go through my lesson on paragraphs and instruct the students they have to write a paragraph for next week. Groans creep out, mumbling is barely audible. After class I pull Sofiya and the other cheaters of 9A (The cheaters in 9B were punished by getting a 1 on a quiz) aside. They have to write two paragraphs. They are upset. Sofiya says but teacher that is difficult. My smirk gave away my emotion,  I’m pleased, content, satisfied.

Knowledge is power. Is that quote even attributed to anyone? One of the true joys of teaching is seeing students gain knowledge. To give a lesson and walk out that door with a wry smile because I know the students understood what I taught them. There are few better feelings than the walk from the classroom to the teachers lounge knowing I just crushed a lesson. My walk with a purpose, my greetings distant, my mind buzzing as dopamine shoots through my veins. 

One thought on “Teaching Moments

  1. I remember the best of my teachers because I knew they cared about me and cared that I learned something. It was personal. I think your students, most of them, get a sense that you care that they learn. Why else would you be there in the first place? The girl who is smart, I hope you continue to find ways to encourage her. Today I am mailing the PBS film about African Civilization that I told you about. It came yesterday. I hope it adds to your enrichment about a beautiful place. Love, G


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