February 21, 2014

A Rough Start

The first day of classes this year was February 4th. I was scheduled to teach 11th grade ciencias and letras and 12th grade letras.  In Mozambique, there are two tracks (three at some schools but two at ours) when you get to 11th and 12th grade.  Every student must choose a track to graduate with.  Ciencias is the science track so along with portuguese, english, and other core subjects, students take biology, physics, and chemistry.  They have 4 hours of math per week. Letras is the letters track so they take core subjects along with history, geography, and french among others that I'm probably forgetting.  Letras has 3 hours of math per week.

Last year I taught 11th grade ciencias and letras: 3 turmas of ciencias and 1 turma of letras.  I found the difference between the two tracks absolutely shocking last year.  My letras students were SO far behind with much less understanding of the basics of math, though all of the students finished 10th grade together so should have had about the same levels of math knowledge.  I struggled in teaching letras because I had trouble moving from one topic to the next when over half of the class still wasn't understanding.  This got me in some trouble with my colleague who encouraged me to give homework to catch them up and continue to follow the curriculum and rush everyone through it.  Regardless of what my colleague said, I couldn't ignore over half of the class, and I also couldn't just give homework to catch them up or they would just copy the one person that knew how to do it.  Consequently, I didn't finish the curriculum last year for my letras turma and ended the year teaching them how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide integers.  At the end of the year maybe 50 percent of my students could get 8/10 integer operation problems correct.  And I called that a win.

So let me repeat:  this year, I was scheduled to teach 11th grade ciencias and letras and 12th grade letras.   Immediately, I had some reservations about teaching 12th grade letras.  The 12th grade curriculum includes limits, derivation, and integration.  Does that sound like something that students that can't do simple integer operations have any business learning?  It sure doesn't to me.  Thinking that it would be best to be honest about the situation, I approached my pedagogical director with the issue.  I explained that the curriculum is way too difficult for the level of the students, and with the letras especially there is just no way that I would be able to finish the curriculum.  I suggested if the curriculum was super important to him, that he give my turmas of 12th grade letras to a different teacher.  As we were in the middle of our conversation, the other 12th grade teacher butts in...

It just so happens that the only other teacher for 12th grade math is my douchey colleague that I have written about in the past (and is the colleague referred to above).  I think last time, I called him Fred.  So let's go with that.

Fred is the worst.  Seriously, though.  He asks me for all my work, asks me for money, sleeps with students, takes bribes, basically he's just everything that's wrong with the educational system in this country.  Lucky me for getting to work with him, right?

So he butts into my conversation and basically hijacks it, saying "Don't worry, Director, I'll deal with her and let you know what happens."  Nice, right?  After reliving the incredibly frustrating "just give them more homework" conversation that we have had approximately 10 times, I finally told Fred that I refuse to teach 12th grade letras if they are going to be mad at me about the curriculum.  I suggested that instead of teaching 11th grade ciencias and letras, and 12th grade letras, I would teach both 11th and 12th grade ciencias, and he could teach 11th and 12th grade letras.  That would give us the same amount of hours, and teaching 12th grade ciencias would be at least a little easier because the ciencias kids like math more and in general understand math better.  My ciencias kids from last year had also come up to me furious that I wasn't their math teacher.  They threatened to go on strike unless it changed.  As well as making me feel good about myself, it made me want to be their teacher again even more.

Of course Fred wouldn't accept that.  I don't know why, I was trying to make his life easier, but he insisted that I was trying to make things harder on him somehow.  After two days of being frustrated to tears (literally, I cried at school the first two days of this year...and even had to go home the second day because I was so mad...), my pedagogical director eventually decided that my suggestion was the best possible solution.  They didn't want to just give my 12th grade hours to Fred, because then they would have to pay him more and I'm free labor so that would really make no sense.  So moral of a long, long story, I'm now teaching 11th and 12th grade ciencias.  And I have to say I'm happy about it!

The first day I walked into my turma from last year, I got a round of applause and some cheering that could apparently be heard from two rooms away (Sarah could hear them where she was teaching).  I literally felt like a celebrity.  It made me smile and made me realize that maybe this year will actually be okay.  I was doubting it for awhile with the whole Fred fiasco.

But along with my happy ciencias students, there were also the very disappointed letras students who felt abandoned by me.  Let me make this clear, my intention was not to abandon my letras students.  Some of them work extremely hard and really want to understand math, but I just knew I wouldn't get through the curriculum and thought being honest would be for the best.  Maybe that wasn't the best choice.  I'm still not sure.

Some of my letras students have been to my house multiple times since the school year started for math help, which I encourage.  I just don't like the reason why they've had to come here.

Apparently Fred hasn't been doing much teaching.  The first day of class, he walked into the classroom, wrote 5 problems on the board, and walked out.  My students didn't know how to approach the problems at all, they had no instructions, so they came over.  I helped them work out the problems and that was that.  I got another visit from them last week with a similar situation.  They had no explanation and more problems to do.  This morning they came over again.  Fred had given them one example in class and gave them two homework problems that they had absolutely no idea how to do.  After showing them my notes from my lesson and explaining how to do the problems, they were content to have some sort of understanding of the material.  Then they presented me with a three page packet of questions from past national exams.  They told me that the packet is due on Monday.  Now, I also gave this packet to my students, but the difference is that these students hadn't had a lesson in class about almost all of the material in the packet.

I told them that it would be impossible to do the packet without at least a few more lessons, but they insisted that Fred made the packet due on Monday.  I asked them to ask him for an extension on the packet, and they looked at me and started laughing.

"Why are you laughing?"  I asked
"Because...you can't just ask for an extension."  One student said.
"Why not?" I asked
"Because he will just fail us." The other student answered.
"Then why don't you go talk to the pedagogical director about him?"
"Because he will find out and then fail us." They answered again.
"So...what can you do?"
"Just accept it.  And ask you for help."
"Well what about if I say something to the pedagogical director?"
"No, teacher.  He will find out.  He will fail us."
"So I can't do anything to help you?"
"No, you just have to accept it.  That's how it is here in Mozambique."

There are really no words to express how I feel about this system that makes it impossible for students to help themselves or even for other teachers to help them.  The only thing I can do is sit and watch.  And teach these two students who are obviously the only ones in the turma that care about learning math and not just copying the answers from someone else.  That is another reality of the situation that makes me extremely sad:  everyone else in the turma clearly has no idea what's going on, but they don't care enough to ask because they know they can just pay to pass the class.  It's just so wrong.  But what can I do?  Teach the ones that come to me.  And teach them without someone to break this cycle of corruption, it will just continue.

These students are scared to speak up, but without speaking up, how can changes be made?  Not that changes would definitely be made, but they definitely won't be with students scared into silence.

The worst part is that I absolutely believe them.  Fred would find out.  He would fail them.  And they don't deserve to be failed.  Of the entire turma, these are the ones that deserve to pass.  So what do I do?  How do I proceed?

Well I told the students to do as much of the packet that they could and to come on Sunday so I can help them with the parts that they can't do.  I also told them to come to the first meeting of the school's new Math Club that will be held on Monday morning at my house.  I'm excited to see if students actually show up.  If so, I'm hoping to pair up ciencias students that are very good at math with the letras students that struggle and set up tutoring.  That way, ciencias students will be able to practice explanation skills and letras students will benefit from the explanations.  I am also hoping to do logic puzzles and exercises to have a little fun with math.  I taught some students to do sudoku last year, so maybe I'll introduce that again.

All I really know at this point is that even after almost a year and a half in country, I still have many struggles here.  For the next year, I hope I have the patience to put up with Fred and I hope to help the students as best as I can.

Something else that I know for sure: when I leave in November I will be giving my school strict instructions. If they get another Peace Corps Volunteer to teach math, they WILL NOT be working with Fred.  Not that I can verify that they listen to me, but I can try my hardest to make my voice heard.  And I promise you, I won't be sitting around silent and permit other PCVs to be used in the same way I've been by him.  Luckily my school director's a reasonable man, and I actually think he'll listen to me.

Wish me luck for the rest of this year.  I can tell it's going to be a tough one.