This is just about my longest blog entry ever, but no apologies – this essay absolutely sums up why I’m here…
Another brilliant day today, but in a wacky, unexpected way. This is the day when I really earn my spurs as a school inspector and when at least one Rwandan school discovers that Claude and I mean business!
Into the office ready to go out to Cyicaro school. I’m planning to go by taxi bus to Buringa market and then hire a bike to take me to Cyicaro. This is at the far end of Mushishishiro District; when I have done this one I will have done every school in Mushishiro secteur. I’m planning to quickly print off some stuff for the tronc commun section. Their results in the S1 exams have been not bad: average in everything except in Entrepreneurship where they were disastrous. So disastrous that it looks as if they forgot to teach the pupils at all and left them to their own devices in the exam. I know there are problems with the Entrepreneurship programme of study, so it would be feasible that rather than teach the “wrong things” a school would simply ignore the subject altogether and hope it would go away…..
Claude has the modem and I quickly check emails and post blogs; the pace of work is fast and I’m working just as intensely as if I was back home. Then Claude confirms that he is also going to Mushishiro; to Nyarutovu school, but that that there are issues to sort out at Cyicaro with the staff. He says we should go together and – get this – he’s hired a taxi!
There’s one of those absolute panic stations moments you get here in Rwandan after days or hours of inactivity. I’ve just had a text from Soraya asking for the name of the dentist I went to. I hope she hasn’t got tooth trouble on top of everything else. No time to find out further details; Claude is champing at the bit and barely waits for me to switch off my laptop.
We charge off in the taxi, and we go in this car along earth roads which I’ve always assumed were off limits for anything except 4x4s or motos. Honestly; you’ve got to experience this to believe it. Imaging one of our log bridges, with wide spaces between the logs, and sited in a tight little valley so that as well as the bridge there’s a right angled bend to negotiate. I’m sure the car’s wheels will get jammed between the logs; if that happens we’re well and truly stuck. But the driver shows consummate skill, and we negotiate the tracks. I’m shaken around all over the back of the car, but it certainly beats walking.
On the way we go through Mushushiro village; one entire side of it has been demolished. A bulldozer is still sitting on the piles of rubble. I ask Claude whet the hell’s going on. He says it’s so that the Indian engineers working on the hydro project will be able to get their heavy equipment to the site. As it passes through the village the road is too narrow for their widest pieces of earth moving equipment. So the village has to go! Just imagine that happening in England! There would be riots; the government would fall! Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind going out with the Indians for a day and let them show me exactly where they’re working and what the scheme looks like. I’ve got so many inspections coming up in the coming days that I’ll be due for a day off soon!
Also as we’re driving along Claude explains that he’s going to Cyicaro and Nyarutovu because there are issues with the staff there. At Cyicaro there’s a small tronc commun section and Étienne, the head, is asking for help. When he’s not actually present on site the teachers seem to please themselves whether they bother to teach or even whether they stay on site. In England that would get you sacked. Here there’s an element of shoulder shrugging from the teachers concerned and the kind of sulky, resentful half smile which says “OK, I know I’m in the wrong, but deep down the only thing I’m regretting is that I’ve been caught out. As soon as you people from the District Office have gone, I’ll be back to my lazy business as usual”. When Claude explains some employment facts of life to these idiots he does it in Kinyawanda and I can’t begin to understand the nuances. They shuffle their feet; they won’t meet his eye; when he asks them things directly they answer in whispers and monosyllables. They’re a pathetic shower; I’d love to send them packing and get some replacements with a sense of urgency and a bit of flair about them.
I do my inspection of the primary section at Cyicaro (I’ve already been to the tronc commun section). The buildings are OK; mud brick but in reasonable condition. There’s a big area of land, with trees planted round the edge. There’s a sizeable garden, well planted with pineapples, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots and a handful of coffee trees. Étienne’s canteen for the staff and tronc commun pupils still isn’t finished, but it’s been used for cooking because there’s plenty of soot up the wall and a stack of firewood outside.
There’s a lovely stone built water cistern, but Étienne tells me it isn’t working. It abuts onto a large building which is church property but on long term loan to the school. This has his office at one end, and a store room for books and official documents, but is mainly comprised of a long room which doubles as a church, a school hall, a dining room, and a classroom when there is a need to run several classes together. It looks really funny. The whole room is filled with school desks. There are a few pieces of the coloured fabric Rwandans use to decorate rooms for weddings or naming ceremonies at the front. There’s a full length blackboard running along the end wall, which is beautifully decorated with pictures – a bible, a chalice and patten, an altar. Religious slogans and verses from scripture are interlaced with educational slogans like “justice for everyone” and “genocide – never again”. It’s actually a lovely coming together of church and school, and I’m so pleased that church and school are able to co-operate so well and make the most use of the resource.
I tell Étienne to get estimates for pipework and fittings to put gutters on the big building and feed rainwater into the cistern. If it comes within my budget I’ll fund it. He’s gobsmacked; he’s so grateful it’s almost embarrassing. I just hope that he, and the builder don’t think too big. At the same time Étienne has bought himself a computer which he can’t use because the school doesn’t have electricity. He’s planning to buy a small generator. I say ”isn’t that going to cost a fortune, and what about all the petrol to run it?” He seems to have done his figures and reckons it’s feasible. It will encourage pupils to stay in school if there’s a chance of doing some computing with an actual computer instead of just drawing computers in ICT lessons.
I sit through a really good maths lesson. The teacher uses pupil’s names; he goes at a cracking rate; he praises success and encourages everyone; he asks questions equally to boys and girls and even makes sure to ask the older kids hiding in the far corners of the room. It’s all in French because these are year six kids and they will be the last year to be able to sit their concours exam in French. It’s actually a joy to sit through this lesson and I give him an excellent write up. My only criticism is that the matter being taught – calculation of interest on money – is made so theoretical and dry. Even this man, who I’d love to have as a teacher in any Rwandan school, doesn’t think to give examples that relate to these children’s daily lives.
The exercise he gives them at the end of the lesson is so hard it takes my breath away – but at least half of the pupils get the correct answer. Here it is: how many of you blog readers can do the calculations without using computers or calculators? :-
“Calculez le capital qui, augmenté de ses intérêts, est devenue 24,273.50 Francs pendant 7 mois et 15 jours au taux de 6%?”
(Calculate the capital which, when interest is added, becomes RwF24,273.50 over a period of 7 months and 15 days at a rate of 6%).
By contrast, the yr 3 English lesson which follows is so boring it feels as if it goes on forever. The teacher seems barely able to summon up the enthusiasm to speak to the pupils. Everyone is addressed as “you”. Why can’t they bring themselves to treat the children as people, not just numbers? It beats me.
And in another English class with year 5, the entire lesson is spent on the conjugation of the past perfect tense of to be. “I had been”; “you had been”, “she had been” etc, over and over. We listen to her saying it; we say it ourselves; she writes it on the board; we write it in our books; we repeat it, we all chant it together. We close our books and try to write it on the board. We then have a test which consists of simply writing the whole thing out again on a different page in the exercise book. She collects all their books in after ten minutes and quickly marks them – a step up from the usual system whereby the teacher walks round the room correcting pupils as they finish. Most pupils can do the conjugation by the end of the lesson, so by this woman’s judgement she’s done a damned good lesson. She’s therefore not best pleased when grade her performance as only “satisfactory”. I criticise her for doing the whole lesson without any context. “Why didn’t you give them sentences containing the conjugation?” I ask her. She shrugs and looks daggers.
Honestly; how difficult would it have been to scrawl something on the board like “She had been going to school when she saw the accident to the bus. Look how something like that widens their general vocabulary as well as reinforcing the conjugation. This is when you feel you’re absolutely banging your head against a brick wall out here….
It’s obvious that today’s going to be another day when I don’t get to eat anything at mid-day. My tummy’s rattling. We sit down with all the staff; Claude makes me do my “pearls of wisdom” session to debrief all the staff. He’s so pissed off with these teachers that after a couple of minutes he interrupts me and snaps at them. “Takes notes on what Bruce is saying!” There’s a scramble for pens and their lesson planners. For the rest of my debrief they’re all looking down at their pages and writing; nobody is making eye contact; nobody will respond to any question I ask; nobody dares give their opinion. It’s just like taking 5Z on a wet Friday afternoon for something like French grammar back in England, and just about as enjoyable….
Then Claude gives them both barrels about their attitude to punctuality and attendance, about their sloth, about their bolshiness towards Étienne. I can’t understand what he’s saying but eventually they seem to realise he means business. I think he actually tells them that if things don’t improve next time he comes, they’ll be unemployed in January. They might think he’s bluffing. I know from last year’s personnel lists that he means what he says. Expect a 25% turnover rate between years, and that’s just the headteachers. And few of them are retiring or going on to promotion elsewhere!
Actually, I’ll print my entire debrief on the lesson visits for you because I know that some of you reading this are thinking about volunteering with VSO, and this Cyicaro debrief neatly sums up so many of the issues I’m fighting against here. ( If you’re not interested in school, skip the whole of the next section)!
• Textbooks exist for both subjects but were not used. It seems silly to have resources yet not to use them. Textbooks make individual work easier for pupils, and reduce the preparation burden on teachers
• Only one teacher appeared to know pupils’ names. It is a mark of basic respect to call, pupils by name, and improves the rapport between teacher and pupil. It builds up the self respect of pupils. At this stage in the school year it is simply not acceptable to have pupils referred to as “you” or “you, boy”.
• One lesson was conducted at a fast pace with plenty of energy and some sense of drama and performance. The other two were rather lethargic. If teachers come across as having no sense of urgency, pupils quickly realise and their own efforts become half hearted.
• While some books were marked in all three lessons, only in one English lesson were all books marked. It is particularly important when marking by walking round the classroom that the books of all pupils, and especially the weakest and slowest, are corrected.
• When teaching English grammar it is important to put the learning into a context. Learning conjugations by heart serves no useful purpose until pupils show that they can incorporate the material into sentences which they would be likely to use themselves. Similarly in maths, exercises must be seen by pupils to have some relevance to their own situation.
• In none of the lessons was homework set or called in for marking. Does Cyicaro have a policy on homework? Is homework being set at all?
• The best lesson (maths) was good because the teacher involved all pupils. He made sure that he asked questions to all corners of the room as well as treating boys and girls equally. Pupils were encouraged. Pupils were praised when they answered correctly, including applause from the whole class. This is an essential teaching technique because it builds pupils’ morale and confidence.
• In the best lessons pupils were made to sing at the start and end of the lesson, but in each case there were opportunities for more active involvement of pupils which were not taken up.
• Cyicaro pupils will sit this year’s concours in French. The Maths lesson was taught in French. The school must ensure that all lessons in yrs 4 and 5 are using English.
Now, you tell me – isn’t this a reasonable level of expectation even for classes in one of the poorest countries in the world, where resources are scarce?
On we go along roads that I would have thought were only passable on a moto. The views across are, as usual, fabulous in every direction. Wave after wave of mountains recede into the distance towards the Congo. Their colours are a dusty dark green where there are trees, and a yellowish brown where cultivated patches are sizzling in the hot sun. Boy, do we need the rains to come. I know that over in that direction are the volcanoes but there’s too much dust in the air to see them. Down on this side the river Nyaborongo peeps occasionally from between the spurs of hillsides; a brown lazy snake hiding far down below. Perched on that spur in front of me is Gasave school which I visited with Moira. Next to it, about a mile away as the crow flies but at least an hour’s walk up and down the mountainside on twisty, rutted tracks, is Nsanga school, one of my favourites, which I went to with Michael. To our left we’re looking into Ngororero district, terra incognita to me. The hills all around here are desperately steep, and agriculture is precarious. Houses are built in niches laboriously dug out of the hills. Erosion is everywhere; gulleying wherever a water course arrows down the mountainside; from high up you can also actually see how the colour of the earth grades from yellow at the uphill side of each field, where most soil has been lost, to a chocolate brown at the bottom, where some of the soil has been piled up. (But how much soil has been washed into the Nyaborongo)?
When we eventually reach Nyarutovu things become farcical. Adalbert, the head, has asked Claude to intervene to back him up because some of his teachers are being disobedient. So Claude has come at great expense (it has cost the District RwF 80,000 to hire the car; that’s about two teachers’ annual salaries for one day’s excursion to two primary schools). When we reach the school Adalbert isn’t there. Apparently he’s gone to Gitarama. Not only that but the “responsable”, the person who deputises if the head isn’t there, isn’t present either. Claude’s spitting rivets. He’s got nobody in authority to speak to at the school. I’ve never seen him so angry. It’s pretty well a wasted journey for him, because Rwandans are sticklers for protocol and it wouldn’t do for him to speak to someone who wasn’t in a position of formal authority.
I’m at a loose end; I inspected this school when my daughter Catherine came out to visit, so I don’t need to do it again. But I go into a year 4 science class to get out of the way! This lot are doing the classification of living things. All chalk and talk. The only textbook is a photocopied version of the old Rwandan text, with blurry images or sheep, snakes, chickens and people. We talk about invertebrates and invertebrates, about classes of vertebrates and invertebrates, and the characteristics of mammals. At the end of the lesson the woman gives them a test and it’s painfully obvious the class hasn’ t learnt a thing. They’re completely muddled. I want to bang her silly head – she needs to give them concise written definitions, or better still use things like spider diagrams to help them learn. She typifies the arid, totally impersonal learning style. At no point was there any active learning; precious little pupil participation. As a learning experience it’s rock bottom. Ho hum………..
Where are the new Science textbooks that were collected from the District Office last week? Dear God, that’s four lessons in a day and not one of them using textbooks!
Claude decides to talk to one of the more experienced teachers so that that he can feel he’s had some justification for the journey out. I bet Adalbert’s ears are burning, and he’ll get a rocket from Claude tomorrow whether it’s Saturday or not! Claude’s right; the heads spend far too much time away from their schools. Claude asks me why this is, and I tell him I’m sure it’s because they’re bored. In England, I explain, almost all primary heads of smaller schools do some teaching. It keeps them in touch with the realities of the classroom, gives their teachers a break to do preparation and marking, and there’s an element of solidarity with the other teachers and of giving the head more credibility. Here in Rwanda primary heads don’t usually teach at all, and marooned in these little villages out in the middle of nowhere they’re bored out of their minds and desperate for some social life. We agree that next year, if the Maire agrees, we’re going to insist that all primary heads do a proportion of teaching themselves. It’s a brilliant idea. The heads’ll hate it. But it sums up how Rwanda operates that the Director of Education will have this sort of conversation with an English VSO in a car, and by Monday morning he’ll be proposing it as District policy to the Maire. We’ll see. But I love the spontaneity, and I love Claude for being so open and receptive to new ideas. That’s why he and I get on so well together, and why he’s such a delight to work for.
We bounce back in the car. Claude wants to talk about anything other than these bloody teachers! So we talk about the probability of him coming to Britain next year to visit the schools on the British Council twinning project. It sounds as if one of the three Scottish schools we’ve got ourselves linked to is on one of the Hebrides Islands. I think it’s called “Scorreig” or something similar – sounds very Gaelic. I must look it up online. We’re trying to work out how Claude could combine a visit to the north of Scotland with a week in West Dorset; he’s got absolutely no idea of the distances involved…. Watch this space and see how things evolve before I leave!
Back at the ranch I’m exhausted but very, very happy with the work I’ve done this week. Four schools! I cook up a big meal; when I take the guard his portion he’s not there – twice. I leave it on the table in the lounge. Eventually, an hour or so later, there’s a sheepish knock on the door. Cue an obsequious guard with a story about having to go to the hospital because a relative is not well. Yeah, well, that might be true………….
Tomorrow is sodding umuganda once more I’ve got tons of things to do. I’m hosting le tout Gitarama for a poker evening and I’ll need to go to market and cook something for them. But tomorrow’s another day.
Best thing about today – everything.
P.S. It’s not Soraya who has toothache. It’s not even Els who rang Soraya asking about dentists. It’s one of the American girls in Nyamata who needs to get treatment. How’s that for networking?
Thursday, 3 September 2009
Posted by Bruce's Rwanda blog at 08:09