A Year As A 9th Grade English Teacher Finished

My first year teaching is over. As with most first year teachers it was a rollercoaster. Successes, failures, regrets, inspiration and lots of future ideas were abundant. A year ago I was getting ready to come to Ethiopia. I was knowingly ignorant about my future. I had no idea what was in store for the next year. I had no idea if I could teach. I had no idea if I could live in rural Ethiopia. I had no idea if I would like the food. I had no idea if I could learn a language. I had no idea if I could exist outside the United States.

One of the major reasons Peace Corps attracted me was this doubt. I had, have, a challenge. There are plenty of things I would have done differently this past year, but that’s inevitable. If someone told me they did this past year to perfection, they’re a f—– liar.

I went into the classroom not really sure of what I was going to do. Then on my second day of teaching I was consolidated to the capital, Addis Ababa, for political reasons for 3 weeks. I came into the classroom as almost a myth. The American teacher was here for one day before disappearing.

I quickly learned I had multilayered challenges. Here are a few.

Communication in the classroom. Adapting lessons from an, at times, poor textbook. Trying to figure out what to teach and how to teach it. Should I revert back to previous tenses, structure and words? The first tense in the textbook is present perfect. I had days where I left the classroom knowing my students didn’t understand, let alone learn a damn thing. I had to grapple with moral problems. In a class of 60 who do you teach to? I for better or worse settled on teaching to the upper tier of the class. With 9 kids from my school (300 9th graders, 150-200 10th graders) making it to 11th last year the odds were stacked against the kids from Lalo (All 10th graders must pass an extremely difficult exam, entirely in English, at the end of 10th grade to progress to 11th grade).

I may not have solved or answered all my problems but I came to terms with them. I made decisions, who to teach to, what to teach, how to teach. For example, I set a goal for myself, my students who try will be able to recognize, and produce 6 tenses. Simple Present, Simple Past, Simple Future, Past Continuous, Present Continuous and Present Perfect. I came to grips that for some students I am going to fail and some students it is impossible for me to reach them. That’s an awful thing to say, but, nonetheless I would be doing a disservice to the students who are eager and ultimately deserving of my attention.

I want to tell you a little story about  one student who was, is very deserving of my attention, Sofiya. She is a quiet, intelligent, motivated 9th grader in Lalo. I remember when I first noticed her the 1st semester. I was grading tests and saw she got one of the highest scores in the class. I was leaning towards her cheating because I couldn’t recall who she was. When I passed back the tests I made sure to remember Sofiya. She was one of the quiet girls who sits in the back right of the class. The next day I did a lesson and chose her at random for a question, was the sentence compound or complex? She turned her head and put her hand over her mouth, common among girls who are shy, and whispered something. I was a bit surprised, normally I beg for any response, right or wrong.  I leaned down put my ear next to her and asked her to repeat her answer.  Complex she said, correct.  I asked other teachers about Sofiya, they said she wasn’t a good student.

Over time she would prove everyone wrong. At the end of the 1st semester she was the highest scoring girl in my classes. Sofiya would rarely raise her hand in class. When she did she was always correct. When I would call on her at random Sofiya would turn her head away like so many other girls, but if I listened carefully she would whisper the correct answer. After the first semester we had a camp GLOW (Gender empowerment camp) in Gore. I took her along much to the dismay of the teachers who said other girls were much better. I pointed to the grade sheet and said I’m taking the girl with the highest grade, Sofiya has the highest grade. When we arrived at the camp GLOW she was intimidated. She dropped into her shell in this foreign environment with other students who were very good at English as well. I talked to her and encouraged her to talk. I was worried I had pushed her too far. Lalo was the smallest town represented and students from bigger towns are understandbly better at English. That along with most of the students being 10th graders had me fretting. Then there was an assignment on conflict diffusion. Students were asked to volunteer their answers. I, flabbergasted, see Sofiya’s hand rise. I pounce on the opportunity and fumble my way to the front of the class to make sure Carolyn, who is facilitating the session, calls on Sofiya ASAP. Sofiya stands up in front of the class and recites her paragraph. Half the kids couldn’t hear her, I strained every muscle in my cranium and ear drums to listen. Everyone applauds, I have a grin from ear to ear, from this point on she actively participated in every session. No, she wasn’t clamoring to answer every question but she did show off what she knew.

This 2nd semester came around and Sofiya crushed it. She did have a mishap where two other girls clearly copied off her on a test. To make up for the cheating I made the 3 girls write 2 paragraphs for homework instead of 1. Sofiya wrote 3. When I asked to write 5 sentences for homework, she wrote 10. When I asked the formula for Past Continuous, her hand shot up. At the end of the semester I tallied up my grades. This second semester she also scored the highest grade in all my sections for a girl. But, this semester she scored the highest grade of any student in all of 9th grade. Her section’s homeroom teacher came over to ask me if a 98 was correct. I’ve never been prouder to say absolutely.

These are the anecdotes that keep me going. Even if it’s just one girl who will remember I believed in her. Changing one person’s life is powerful enough for me.

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