My third blog has covered the hardest of the fortnights socially. By this time living alone in a foreign country begins to start highlighting the things you miss. Luckily I have colleagues coming out this weekend and from there on most of my time is with company. It isn’t the day that is difficult - when you’re working time flies and there are numerous conversations to be had. The difficulty is in the evenings where in reality after 7 pm you are in the house. There is very little night life in Thaba Tseka and what there is would not attract a 60+ year old. In fairness the day for the majority starts at around 5 am so early evenings are a necessity!
I guess the hardest part recently has been a change in routine. A teachers strike was called at the end of last week. The warning bells had been sounding for a while. In reality this seems the culmination of a well of anger and mistrust since 2014. As is common pay is a core gripe, however other factors are also coming into play, including permanency of contracts for principals, a lack of training for teachers and significantly a dearth of resources. I think it’s worth highlighting that the schools I work at have no electricity in classrooms, few text books, no electronic whiteboards, computers or photocopying. Personally I think that considering everything education here is good; how much better it could be is a question I guess needs to be considered.
The planned action blows my mind away. In effect what has been mapped out is three weeks off teaching followed by a return for a week. This is proposed to repeat throughout the year. From a selfish point of view it means that my role is diminished and I guess that the days will become longer. I am looking to see what constitutes a reasonable and appropriate course of action. One plan could be to run a series of open workshops for teachers, helping them gain confidence in mathematics, to deconstruct the syllabus and see how they can plan lessons, to come up with whole school strategies for approaches to maths skills. For me the sad part will be the loss of the teaching but in all honesty my role is to help teachers not to teach students. I’m also looking to take a more active part in the teacher training college and although I’m unsure if having someone in their classes is welcome, most of the lecturers know me and seem ok with it.
The saddest part is the wider aspect of the role here. I was looking at photos from our time last year and the huge investment made in the four schools celebrating St David’s day. We had art, music, plays castle building, singing and info graphs creation comparing Wales and Lesotho last year. This year unless the strike is resolved none of that will happen. That said from my recollection Welsh schools were snowed off last year!
Outside of the strike. teaching has been great. The children genuinely love maths. I think sometimes if as a secondary school teacher I can inspire them, what could a primary teacher do? The feedback I’m getting from staff is good. I’m often stopped in the street by staff or parents to thank me or to say how much the children are enjoying. I’m not sure if they know it’s me or if the assumption is that any white man in Thaba Tseka is Ntate Sion. What has been most interesting is some teachers telling me that the children know I care about them. To me that’s the hardest part when you are facing from 60 to 100 in a class how do you let every child know that you’ll help them? Additional Learning Needs is a huge issue with classes this size and no additional adult support.
One of the things the children find strange is that LTPP teachers move around the class, checking supporting, anticipating. They are funny when you ask them to move up so that by sitting down next to them you can show them a pathway. I’m trying really hard to get the better mathematicians to help explain to their peers. The other thing I guess which they find different is the idea of explaining not telling. I’m trying hard to question their logic and then show them where maybe they have made some questionable assumptions. The best recent example was the assumption that 1/4 was bigger than 1/3. My props were two sheets of paper two different size books a pair of different length chalk pieces and a chair. I guess that when you don’t have those pre recorded lessons you have to use your imagination.
What have I learnt? That primary teaching is hard, that good planning always helps but mostly that I’d forgotten that teaching is fun and really rewarding. I’m also acutely aware that there are teachers who want to learn and some who see you being there as a break for them. In the best case scenarios the teachers are actually taking on board what you are doing and using the approaches to plan new lessons. One of the most uplifting examples was at Bocheletsane school where after deciding that each grade teacher 5 to 7 wanted to see how I approached subtraction, they taught the same lessons in partner classes. Best of all was coming back a fortnight later and seeing a board in the staffroom covered in examples of the approaches showing that they’d been working with other teachers on a staff development meeting on it.
The lack of a wide variety of vegetables is limiting meals. I’ve been vegetarian since I came. This is not out of choice but because with the number of power cuts I’m hesitant about meat from the freezer. I could replicate the Sunday steak at a local restaurant known as Motherland, but sitting on my own isn’t appealing. Most days I make various risottos, lentil based stews, a variety of pasta dishes or baked potatoes. The diet is fresh and I don’t think I’ve opened plastic wrapping since I’ve been here. The weight comes off with the combination of healthy food and a 5 mile walk every day. My current favourite meal involves anything with a carrot and beetroot salad. I remember my primary school and hating beetroot, why is it that your taste changes later on in life?
Last week involved a considerable amount of travel. My handler from the education department arranged three consecutive days in Mantsonyane. This is a town 50km away a mere 30 miles - what I used to travel from St. Clears to Ammanford. The difference is that there is a 1960’s bus with genuine issues taking you over high mountains and a Beatles song of a road. The bus timetable rivals the happily departed Aviva train schedule for promptness. After arriving there is usually a dirt track journey by minibus or taxi as it’s called or failing that a four and 1 which is what we call a taxi in Wales. Complicated you don’t know the half of it. The main journey costs M30 for 48km. Quite often I’m staring out the window at the beautiful scenery listening to something loud. When I arrive with no hearing, then it’s an African massage as your rear end gets battered over a stone path for ranging from 2km to 7km. The 4 and 1 is just a guideline for health and safety - in reality you can well be squeezed into a six and 1 with your face pressed against a window. Again if the driver sees you are not local - in my case there’s no way i can pretend -they’ll charge you anything they fancy! So a 2km journey cost me the same as the 48km one M30. Needless to say I walked the journey back - I have my reputation as cardy born and bred to keep. Another time a lovely taxi driver was there to meet me and take me to Auray school. On the way we stopped for some random guy and it took me a few minutes to realise we’d been flagged down so that random as I thought of him could borrow a mobile phone to contact someone.
What about the classes? For the most part I’m teaching in the older classes. Grades 4,5,6,7 - I guess in reality that’s a bit like the old middle school of 8-13. The children are keen to learn. There are some disenchanting side effects of a large class. A question is often answered by a child standing up, repeating the question and then giving the answer. Alternatively a checking question such as “ do you follow my meaning?’ raises a chorus of 80 voices “yes Ntate Sion”!
I think Jacob Rees Mogg should come here if Brexit fails - he often seems to hark back to Victorian values and education here provides some examples. I can imagine him shuddering in delight at the children shouting “stop speaking Sesotho” to a miscreant who has slipped from English. I’ve had the discussion about the history of the Welsh Not with staff. I think they understand my argument that maths is hard enough to explain in your own language let alone one you’re still learning. There’s a tangible relief from some children when i say you can explain how you got your answer in Sesotho.
What the children like most is recognition and encouragement. They also like a bit of humour in the lessons, seeing things explained but most of all to explain things themselves. They do want to work. It’s not quite as simplistic as some friends hint …. “oh I bet the difference is they want to learn”…implying that’s not true in Wales. There are differences but I suspect that like all children what is wanted is to have the chance to explore ideas without it just being telling. Going back to the strike the saddest part is seeing how lost the kids are - they miss school, it’s a central part of their life, where they can just be children. I think their life outside that part is very much about learning what life as an adult is like.
Where I try to avoid is anything below grade 2. As a father to a youngster my favourite program shared with Gabriel was a cartoon called Recess. The life of some stereotypical kids in an American primary school. One of the scary areas of the school was the kindergarden zone. Here some primal creatures wandered under their own collective rules. Maybe a bit like lord of the Flies. These munchkins are seriously scary. They have a mixed bag of school uniform, some standard some design altered to include lurid pink leggings or a bag with my little pony. They have one reaction to a visiting white man …..charge. Then it is followed by a physical pawing forearm hair pulling leg hugging and considerable screaming. I have previously commented on how effective a tool they might be to say the CIA if they want to extract vital information. From a personal perspective I’d happily name my poor departed mother as a JFK conspirator just to be allowed out safely.
Yesterday I asked the college if there was anything I could with my time to help out. The college of education is an interesting visit. Students range in age, many are married with children and are now seeking to improve their education. I’m hesitant about saying prospects as very few over the last 10 years have had a job. Coupled with the fact that there is no such thing as a supply teacher, you can see that a generation of potential teachers are de-skilled before they start. The third years I was supporting were at schools through the whole of last year. I knew around 20 quite well as I’d worked in schools with them. They’re lecture was primarily a workshop solving some maths exercises themselves. I noticed that they were using calculators and tried to get them to think about how they would teach the same exercises to primary kids where there are none. Interestingly the methods without calculators were often easier. They are great students lively, funny and so cool. Their experience at primary schools can with the Gods. If they are placed in a class with an uncaring teacher, the experience they get from watching a professional or from what subjects they’re allowed to teach can be limited.
This is the time of year for nightly storms. Last night was truly Draculean. I thought the roof was going to come off and a clawed hand would reach out and grab me. Storms are often partnered by no electricity. Not a consistent experience like no electricity Thursday but something random or is it…? I have found that there is a pattern. To date I’ve watched 6 romcoms on television here. In each and every one, the final 30 minutes has been ruined by an electrical cut. I’m suspecting there’s a Basotho jobsworth out there monitoring Sion’s TV habits and chuckling at my frustration as I fail to see the end of Maid in Manhattan!
That’s my lot for this a third of the way through my stay.