The Peace Corps starts a program in a country when the country requests its presence. They decide which sectors they would like help in: agro-forestry, small enterprise development, health, etc. Over 200,000 volunteers have served or are serving in the Peace Corps. We are currently in around 70 countries. Rwanda asked the Peace Corps to return to Rwanda in 2008 and they’ve set the goal of having 250 volunteers teaching tens of thousands of students by around 2014. When you put it in perspective, you can see what we are actually accomplishing. Oh the ground, things seem to move a little slower. Currently, PC Rwanda only has education and health sectors. I am an education volunteer and as our school year comes to a close, I’d like to tell you more about Peace Corps, my school, students and classes.
Last week I met with a Peace Corps staff who was doing site development in my district. We had a motivating discussion about what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer and why PCVs are so exceptional. I’m eleven months in and often lose site of my purpose and goals. The PCV is a teacher not only in the classroom or at their job: the PCV is also a teacher in the community. Just publicly washing my hands before I eat, other villagers can say, “look! She is washing her hands. I think I will too!” They can observe us in the market, making healthy food choices with the same options they have. Also, as volunteers greet villagers on their daily walks, community members learn that foreigners, or Americans in general, do not need to be treated differently than others. They are not above anyone.
This is an important distinction to fight in Rwanda. The Peace Corps staff member and I discussed the divisive social hierarchy that exists in Rwanda. It is something I discovered only after I moved to my site. In Rwanda, there are many social divisions. Many education volunteers see the artificially imposed distinction between “villagers” and “the educated.” School and government officials, raised and educated in larger towns, often move to rural settings for work. For many of us, these are our colleagues. On the weekends, they return to the larger towns like Kigali and Musanze. This creates a harmful distinction that I am fighting. I have had colleagues tell me, “You should never visit your neighbors” because they are bad, uneducated people. Nonetheless, I continue to visit and greet my rural villagers and friends. When people see me at the tailor, greeting a poor neighbor while talking with a successful female colleague, they see the possibility of breaking these barriers. In a culture where judgment and division are prevalent, it is important to show friendship and acceptance.
The other part of my job is teaching in the classroom. Rwanda offers 9 years of free, basic education. Twelve are available- if you can pay or get a scholarship. I teach at a private, boarding school where parents or guardians work very hard to pay school fees for students. Our school fees are around $140/year. Students come from all over the country to my school to specialize in math, sciences or business. We have a staff of around 30 from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and America (that would be me). We also have our own cows, which is a huge source of pride.
I teach 250 students in 10th grade economics, 10th grade English and 11th grade English. Class sizes are large, around 50, so the bare classrooms are crowded. My resources are chalk, a chalkboard, pens and a small library. I make do. I feel fortunate to have natural lighting, desks and one chalkboard giant chalkboard, though I do not have my own classroom. In the Rwandan system, students stay in one classroom while teachers rotate. It has its advantages and disadvantages.
We are now halfway through our third and final term. This many months in, it’s exciting to see the progress my students have made. The first two terms, I focused on speaking and listening exercises in my English classes. We’ve done activities like skits, telephone, Circle Talk, group work, dictations and tongue twisters. Their achievements are remarkable but I know I am not the one to thank. It is their hard work and motivation to learn English as well as the effort all the other teachers have made to learn English and use it in the classroom. We are now focusing on grammar and writing, which some classes love. They are hungry for definitions, rules and new words.
My economics class is my favorite class and it is where I have seen the most improvement in my teaching and my students’ performance. To see so many boys and girls participating is very gratifying. Last term, I noticed a marked improvement in their English and decided it was because I use a content-based TEFL approach to teaching them. Through verbal review, lots of exercises and having students read my notes on the board, their English has gotten much better. I decided to apply this content-based methodology to my English classes. As an example, we’re now studying Sustainable Development in my 11th grade class and through this I will teach outlining and composition writing.
My teaching style is more casual than my students are used to but I believe it creates a very safe classroom environment where students aren’t afraid to talk, make noise and make mistakes. My first week teaching economics, one student said, “Teacher, this is not how you teach in Rwanda” to which I replied, “I know.” And they’ve gotten used to it. If class finishes early, I open it up for a Q&A session on English vocabulary. My favorite questions? “What is the meaning of ‘I am so hood’” and “cantertable?” I am not sure.
Rwanda runs on polychromic or “African” time and for many volunteers, this means school starts minutes, hours, even days late. My school is particularly serious and this isn’t as much of a problem. Still, our students have many responsibilities including cleaning the classrooms and fetching water so sometimes class is disrupted. One week, I kept walking into classrooms of only boys because the girls were having mandatory pregnancy tests at the clinic. Discipline is very serious at my school but not something I want to discuss on my blog. Afternoons are difficult, either because of the heat or the rain. Staff meetings are becoming regular. Our morning tea has enough sugar to kill a diabetic. Our library has a dozen English dictionaries. We are one of the few schools to hold our own genocide commemoration week. We have no hand washing facilities (yet). We have a working computer lab. Our girls volleyball team is one of the best in the country. All in all, things are pretty impressive at my school. This past year has been quite a positive experience, despite my own personal struggles.