The content and opinions found on this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect any position of the United States Government or the Peace Corps.

March 30, 2011

Back to School / A Rant About Fear

Registration of new students.

Having grown up in the US, where the school year begins in September, I tend to associate going back to school with the end of summer and its promises of cooler weather, falling leaves, pumpkin pie, and all that autumnal stuff. Here in Uganda, though, the school year begins in early February, at the height of a long dry season. Instead of falling leaves, there's falling ash from farmers burning their dead, dry fields in preparation for the coming wet season. The sun shines bright and hot every day; it goes for weeks without raining. Overcrowded taxis rocket down the dirt highway I live on, sending up opaque plumes of red dust that find their way into every corner of every house. The dust is so thick you can practically chew the air. In short, it's a far cry from pumpkin pie.

Still, the back-to-school season here is a time for starting fresh, just like in the States. After a long "winter" break that included some HIV/AIDS education work with the US Embassy, an awesome visit from my family, a safari, hiking up a 12,000-foot volcano into three countries, and a rollicking trip through Egypt with two of my best friends just days before Hosni Mubarak was overthrown (I'm a little behind in posting, can't you tell?), I returned to teaching last month. It was nice starting school from the beginning of the school year. When I swore into service last April and headed out to the field, I began teaching in the second academic term, with very little idea of what I was doing, how to manage a class, or how a Ugandan school functions. Now, with two full terms of teaching and eleven months of service under my belt, I can confidently say that I have some idea of what I'm doing. Well, some idea of what I'm doing wrong, anyway, and possible ideas for how to do things right.

I took pictures of the whole Senior 2 class holding name cards to help me learn their names. The kids whose names I managed to learn last year tended to pass my class.

The first thing I made sure to do differently this year was put together a syllabus for each class I was teaching, and give a printed copy to every kid. Uganda is not very literate or text-oriented society ("reading culture is not there," as the locals say), so this kind of direct, written communication, especially to students in a government school, is extremely uncommon. In my syllabi, I outline my class rules, grading scheme, topics to be covered, office hours, etc. This ensures that my students know what to expect from me and what I expect of them. In doing this, my goals are to establish clear, two-way communication between myself and my students, to replace ambiguity with black-and-white, and to eradicate the traditional Ugandan teacher-student relationship from my classroom.

The traditional relationship is built around the idea that the student who fears his teacher learns best, because he is motivated to study hard in order to avoid punishment. Almost every Ugandan teacher I've met is dead-set in this mentality; the idea that our students are failing tests because they didn't fear the teacher enough to study hard ("they are not serious [about studying] because they are not fearing [us]") comes up at every faculty meeting. Some teachers will cane students for failing tests, in order to inspire fear, which they believe will encourage students to "pull up" their grades. I have literally shaken with rage when I've seen this happen. Imagine 30 teenaged girls in a line, shrieking like wounded animals as they are whipped one-by-one with thick sticks, while a few other teachers off to the side watch and laugh. It's fucking sick. Corporal punishment is never appropriate in my book (using violence to solve nonviolent problems – is that something we want to impart to future generations?), but especially not in this case. Though it's true that students in my school should be studying a lot harder than they are, that alone is not the reason for their poor performance. Large classes, no textbooks, the failure of teachers to show up for class (a huge problem here), and lecturing unclearly or ineffectively when they do . . . these also factor into bad grades. By beating kids for bad grades, teachers are blaming students for their own failings as educators. Fucked up, no?

The larger issue here, I think, is that this society confuses fear with respect. "Fearing God" and "fearing your parents" are commonly cited as values that should be instilled in children by schools and other institutions. Disgustingly enough, USAID funds the development of many Ugandan-made PIASCY (President's Initiative on AIDS Strategy for Communication to the Youth) materials that promote these same values. I show the federal government how I feel about this misuse of my taxes by wiping my ass with PIASCY pamphlets whenever I run out of toilet paper. While fear can in some cases inspire respect, fear and respect are not the same. Fear creates hierarchy when one person, to protect themselves from harm, submits to the will of another person who would otherwise harm them. Fear drives the submissive person to respect the other's authority. I believe that Ugandan society is really after this respect of authority, not the fear itself. Students and children should be doing what their teachers and parents tell them to do; they should be heeding to the requests of the authority figures in their lives. Inspiring fear is just one way of getting this to happen, and an extremely flawed one at that. In schools, the use of fear by teachers has some crippling side effects: students become too scared to ask questions in class, attempt work that they might make a mistake on (so they literally cannot learn from their mistakes!), or correct the teacher when he or she makes a mistake. Once again, we are smacked in the face by the twisted irony of the traditional Ugandan teacher-student relationship: the teacher uses fear to force the student to show respect and learn better, but this makes the student too scared to learn. The student fails the class. The teacher has thus failed at his job, but blames the student entirely for this outcome. The teacher then uses fear to force the student to show respect and learn better, and the cycle repeats.

Let me end this rant before my righteous foaming at the mouth spills over and damages the keyboard. To be brief, this year I am trying new methods to earn the respect of my students and help them master course material. These methods use positive reinforcement (rewards, pleasant interactions, etc.) rather than fear to generate respect. My classes are still large (there are 158 kids in my new Senior 1 class) and sometimes rowdy, but learning is definitely happening, and my students have a noticebly more positive relationship with me than with most of the other teachers, who scare and heckle them constantly. Maybe I can help the other teachers see that there multiple paths to respect; I'd like to think I can. We'll see.

Stay tuned for my next post. I'll tell you all about my secondary projects, with at least 40% less rant. Promise.

1 comment:

  1. I'm headed to Uganda (primarily in the Mukono District) for 2 months. I'll be working with teachers, mentoring them in leadership education (using the principles taught in A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver Demille). I enjoyed your insight about some of the failures in the current system of education in Uganda. Keep up the good work.