Saturday, February 6, 2010

Learning how to teach

I just finished my third week of teaching and I cannot describe how relieved I am to be done. Teaching is tough! Before the semester begun, I discussed with my counterpart, Tok’a how I would like to begin teaching. We noted that I had no teaching experience and had never observed a Tongan classroom. We decided that it would be best for me to observe classes for the first three to four weeks and then begin co-teaching with another teacher in the classroom once I felt comfortable. I would continue teaching more and more and eventually I would be given my own classes.

The Peace Corps has a specific approach to development and does not want volunteers teaching alone. This ensures that volunteers are not taking away a local jobs and it allows volunteers to learn from local teachers and vise-versa. The reality here in Tonga is that there is simply not enough money to fund the schools. Schools have almost no money for maintenance or supplies and almost all of the funds go to paying teacher salaries. The schools can only afford so many teachers and most schools are left needing more teachers than they have. My school requested four additional teachers to help cover all of the classes but they know that their requests fall on deaf ears and the education budget simply makes it in impossible. Most of the teachers here teach five out of six periods a day and some even teach all six several days a week. It is a demanding schedule and as a volunteer hoping to start projects outside of the classroom, it was a schedule I was not interested in joining.

The first day of school came and went three weeks ago and I was given four classes to teach, all different and all requiring a new lesson plan everyday, not exactly what I talked about with my counterpart. The next few days were daunting for me, especially during the first week since the daily schedules were only posted minutes before the school day started. Not only was I teaching for the first time ever but I had no idea which classes I would be teaching each day or how long the periods would be. Some days my classes were twenty minutes and others were fifty. I asked the teachers what was going on with the schedule but I could never get a straight answer. Sometimes they would tell me they did not know the schedule and other times they told me that we would have twenty-minute periods and we would end up having fifty-minute classes. I suspect that there was not a schedule at all. After the first few days of that, I decided to make rolling lesson plans and planned large sections of material so I would never run out.

Some of my classes went well and in others, I fell flat on my face and my lessons bombed. Prior to figuring it out in the classroom, I had no idea what level my students were at. I tried to give them initial assessments but even those were tough as well. It is tough to get Tongan students to talk and when they do talk many of them talk softly and I cannot quite understand their English accents yet and sometimes they just cannot understand what I am asking for. My first few classes were all over the place, some were too hard, and others were too simple. I changed things around and after a few tries I actually had a bunch of good lessons.

As soon as I saw my schedule with many more classes than I had initially discussed I went to my counterpart Tok’a and had a discussion with him. He told me not to worry and that the schedule had to be worked out and eventually I would have fewer classes to teach and more time to observe. I worked through three weeks with four lessons and stayed up late every night trying to figure out how I could explain my lessons to the students. It is difficult to compare and contrast a free market economy to a planned economy to students who live on an island with little economy at all to speak of.

I kept talking to Tok’a and other teachers about my schedule and asked when I could get one of my classes taken away. They kept says yes, yes, yes, we’ll take one away, but nothing ever happened. After almost three weeks of teaching four classes, I decided that something actually had to happen. I need more time at night to study Tongan and to spend meeting and talking with the other teachers and my community. It is often the Tongan way to wait for tomorrow to fix something and when tomorrow comes you make a deal to do it the next day and so on. Enough was enough so I laid out all the reasons why I needed to drop one class and made it clear that I was not a replacement teacher, my deputy principle listened and actually took away a class. It was magic. I went in this morning and I only had to teach two classes which gave me time to observe two other classes. It was exactly what I needed. I learned a ton from simply observing two classes today.

During our first assembly on the first day of school the principal implements a new rule that all classes and all conversation on the school compound would have to now be completely in English. It is a great goal since the school I am at aims to be college preparatory and the regional exam to get into university and all university classes in the region are in English. The only problem is that the kids do not have a good enough working knowledge of English to do it. At first, I did not realize that. I have been teaching all of my classes in English and have only talked to the kids in English. As a native English speaker, I figured that I would be a great example for them to listen to. After observing two classes, today I quickly realized my mistake and learned that I will have to teach bilingually. Getting that one class dropped gave me enough extra time to observe other classes and realize some things I need to change and even better, I can now act on what I need to change and begin studying more Tongan so I can teach bilingually more effectively. So, that is a short wrap up of my teaching experience so far. More next week.

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