Yes, Teacher Posted on May 12th, 2010 by

Now that you know a little more about schooling in Tanzania, I can tell you more about my adventures as a teacher.  This year, before arriving in Tanzania, I thought perhaps I could volunteer at a school and help tutor or do other things.  What I never expected was that  I would become a teacher. 

Needless to say, when I was offered a position as a teacher I was shocked.  In the States, being a teacher requires taking many classes, student-teaching and passing exams.  I have just finished high school (only a few years ahead of some of my students) and the closest I’ve ever been to teaching is class presentations.  I am more than confidant that this makes me far less than qualified.  That said, I am probably a more normal teacher here than I would be in the States.  The profession of teaching in Tanzania is, for most, a fallback job.  For many of them it is a capital-raising stop to gather enough funds to continue their education at university so they can get the job they really want.  Many teachers here were never interested in teaching and are only teachers for the money (though being a teacher here doesn’t pay well either).  I find this point shocking when  I think about it because teaching is a profession that truly requires passion.  A good teacher is one who loves his/her job, not one who is just in it for the money. 

And so I became teacher of Information and Computer Studies.  In my first week I acquired a syllabus.  For many of the topics I was to teach, I was either unfamiliar with or totally unaware of the material.  Only after some serious research was I able to acquaint myself with what I was to teach. 

I have found many challenges in my new profession.  The most obvious is that I’ve had no experience teaching.  This problem is magnified when you are teaching in a different country.  Within your own school system you know how things work.  You know the level of material students are taught at various levels, you know how the marking scheme is laid out, you know how things are done.  Here I’ve had to figure out what my students knew before I could start.

I’ve been teaching Forms I and II which are the Tanzanian equivalent of 8th and 9th graders.  Though you might assume that because there are so many students in a classroom that they are ill-behaved.  On the contrary, Tanzanian students are actually much better than American students.  When a teacher enters the classroom, all of the students rise and say “Good morning/afternoon, teacher” which is then returned by the teacher.  All of the students stand until the teacher tells them to sit and then class can begin.  If a student is called upon, he/she will stand before answering.  Questions addressed to the class will be answered in a chorus “Yes, teacher”.  Students are taught to respect teachers from the start the way we are taught to eat with our mouths closed. 

This respect seems like a great system until you learn how it is enforced.  In Tanzania, punishment is legal and widespread.  Students who misbehave are paddled or caned.  In one instance, I was sitting in the teacher lounge before class when another teacher brought in three boys.  He first caned their hands three times each and then set them hopping out the door and back to their classroom  like frogs.  Just as common, and probably even more effective, is humiliation as a form of punishment.  When the other teachers find out I don’t believe in these types of punishment, they ask, “Then how do you keep them under control?”  To them, this is the only way they know. 

The students seem to like having a mzungu (white person) teacher, though they probably have a harder time understanding me.  My American English with a non-Tanzanian accent has on several occasions confused them.   But I find that as long as I speak slowly, repeat myself and write on the blackboard they seem to understand.  Or at least they say they do.

Unlike in the States where children grow up around computers, many students here have never even touched a computer.  So teaching computers requires starting with the basics of turning on the computer and how to use a mouse.  Now teaching computers, once you know where to start, isn’t an altogether difficult task.  But teaching computers without electricity on the other hand, can be rather challenging.  Two lessons plans per class period are required – one for electricity and one without. And even more challenging than no power is variable power because you never know which version to teach, practical or theoretical.

Even on a good day, one with reliable power, teaching computers can be difficult.  When you have a class of 60+ students and less than 30 working computers, things can be a bit crowded.  Though my school is lucky enough to have computers, all of them are old and a few of them are nonfunctional.  Students have to share machines, often three to one computer, which means each task takes three times as long because every student needs to do the exercise in rotation. 

Assigning homework can be just as difficult at teaching without electricity.  Students here don’t have textbooks for most of their classes (and if they do they share), the library is small, and of course they can’t just hop on the internet to look things up.  Consequently, this means think of out-of-class-work becomes a creative exercise.  And grading that homework is no easy task when you have over 60 per class essays to mark. 

Through grading of homework and exams, observation, and other ways I have noted that Tanzanians excel in rote memorization but are challenged by creative thinking.  Students here can memorize formulas, definitions and lists and hold on to that knowledge for long periods of time but problem solving is not taught.   Though some school-knowledge is valuable in daily life, the most important things you learn in school are not the facts, but what to do with those facts.  If I could leave my students with only one lesson it would be the importance of thinking creatively is. 

Though it has been difficult at times, I am glad to have had this opportunity as a teacher.  I have learned many things about teaching and probably just as many about being a student.


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