Responding to Kristof

It has been very exciting for me to read through Nicholas Kristof’s Teach for the World article in the New York Times and the various responses that have followed it considering that I am kind of doing exactly what he is proposing. Or almost, since I will only have spent six months as a volunteer in this school, not a whole year. But not just that. The article seemed to respond directly to a thought that has been going through my mind for a while now.

When people think of ‘poor schools’ in developing countries, they usually think of the poor conditions: not enough desks, no electricity, no books, no writing materials. And there are plenty of NGOs or organizations that deal with the goods. Donating books, desks school supplies… But what these schools really need is people. More teachers. There are just so many students – up to seventy in a classroom – that it is just too easy for too many of them to fall behind.

I take this issue to heart almost every day, as part of my apprenticeship activities has been to lead library activities with students needing extra help with ‘lecture’, reading. At first I envisioned the typical, circle time, let’s each read a page and try to understand the story type of thing. And that works for certain groups of students. But when I realized that so many of them really just couldn’t read at all, and that many these students couldn’t read because they didn’t even know the alphabet (these are students in their fourth year in school), I decided I needed to modify my plans a little. Instead of telling the students to show up with their livres de lecture, I told them to come with their ardoises (mini chalk boards) and, taking a few tricks from what I’ve spent the past five months observing in the younger classes, I’ve started reteaching them the alphabet. But it just pains me to think that when I leave, these students will be completely on their own again. Their teacher is “too busy” to do the tutoring himself. And I can’t think of any one in the school community who would be able to take my place. Will they somehow manage to finagle their way through their exams in two year’s time and continue? Or will most of them drop out after just a few years in school, as certainly isn’t uncommon, without having ever learned how to read or write?

And the problem isn’t limited to these particularly troublesome 20 students. Watch any class and you’ll see that in general only about 25 percent really understand what is going on. The rest, the “imbeciles,” cheat off their neighbors, get beaten for occasionally holding up scribbles on their little chalk boards, and get sent back to their seats after failing to read the first few words of a text written on the board. It takes a truly incredible teacher to pace a class of sixty students properly, to be able to really look at every single chalk board to see what’s up, and to do so using methods sane and humane for all. I truly don’t think students, kids in general, would have to be beaten if there weren’t so many of them, or, so many of them that aren’t looked after.

Ideally, the answer to this problem would be more Senegalese teachers – more well trained, culturally embedded, motivated individuals to work in the classrooms. Two at a time if its really that hard to find extra space (classroom space is a problem). This lack of teachers is an obvious reality. Visiting a school in a village close to Sebikotane last week, Yeba, the director himself stated that, in his opinion, this is his school’s greatest need: more teachers. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the cause is that ‘nobody in Senegal wants to teach’ – its more that there are just so many children.

What about Senegalese youth? Couldn’t young Senegalese people my age help out in schools, tutor, work in the library, get a head’s start on their professional training? Just today in fact I posed an idea to a few Senegalese friends that I’ve met through the English club Victoria and I started at the high school. I asked them if they had ever heard of, or would ever consider, a sort of “service club” through which high school students could volunteer in schools, health posts etc., thinking that this particular American phenomenon might not be such a bad one to share. Their answer was simply, maybe… but we don’t really have time. Thinking back to my crazy busy high school days I wouldn’t exactly say that I had time either…. but I guess that’s just another cultural difference.

But anyways, what I wanted to say was, if you are looking for a good place to insert young, inexperienced Americans, motivated to give some sort of meaningful service while learning about another culture and the realities of the developing world (I never said anything about changing the world, or completely solving the problem of the lack of teachers), schools are an excellent option. True, I was pretty useless at the beginning, knowing very little about the culture, speaking faltering French, knowing not a drop about the Senegalese education system. But I’ve learned so much, and combining a young person’s capacity to learn with their energy and motivation, I truly think any sort of volunteer, local or foreigner, pre-college or post-college, can bring something to a school. Obviously the longer they stay the better, and I might say that six months is maybe two or three months short of an adequate amount of time to really carry out a meaningful project from start to finish.

I was actually thinking to myself not too long ago, what if GCY just sent volunteers to schools? Or what if there was some sort of an organization dedicated to sending volunteers to schools? And I think it is important at this point to ask the other fellows, who have been working on farms, in health posts, and with NGOs, their opinions on their apprenticeships. Do they feel like they’ve had meaningful experiences personally? Do they feel like they’ve been able to contribute positively to their work places?