A Class for Me in Africa

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A teaching experience in another culture.

Submitted: January 21, 2016

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Submitted: January 21, 2016



Well, I became a classroom teacher—my dream realized. It happened in Ghana. The Ghana mantra I had been hearing:

“Children in Ghana are so well-behaved, brought up to respect adults, to be humble servants and they will be so easy to teach.” Thus—an ideal situation to begin classroom teaching. Hooray!

Now in the bare concrete classroom, with no pictures or charts on the walls, these Class 4 children in front of me seem so docile. It will be easy to get them to listen to me. Unlike New York children, who even when taught individually, rebel and insult. Seventeen children. They’re all looking at me with attention, notebooks on desks, sitting straight and still. My heart goes out to them. They will love me because I have come just to help them—free of charge. They know how to respect and listen because that’s the way they have been trained. Teachers beat them with the cane. Why would anyone want to beat these children?

Just to be safe, I put on an air of strictness, asking what happens to children who make trouble. They say the cane, but I say, “If you don’t want to learn I’ll just send you to stand outside.”

I am armed with a syllabus and a textbook. My chance to teach them the irregular simple past tense, which gives Ghanaian children so much trouble.  (They have been brought up in their native language, though English is the official language of the state.) So I plunge in. They do pretty well with the past tense until it comes to words like bought and brought, taught and thought, and other tricky ones.

One boy, Kenneth, is so smart! Kenneth, a small boy with a set face. “But Kenneth, you want to give ALL the answers and ignore all the other kids! Sit, Kenneth, sit!” Even when he sits, his hoarse voice can be heard, going on in an undertone.

 Now I’ve got a tricky one. “What is the past tense of hide?” Each one gets it wrong with answers like, hided, hiding, hidded, hidden, hode. “Kenneth, this time you are wrong.” Dorine, a little girl with a smile, also shows a real brain and awareness of the structure of the English language. But she can’t decode this one. I want to bring in all of the children, but some are obviously not knowledgeable and trying to hide (no pun intended) from me. Priding myself on my egalitarianism, I assure them that no one will be punished (as is the tradition) for wrong answers, and there’s nothing to be afraid of (except possibly the scorn of their classmates). I finally have to give in and write this word on the board. Some of them now remember hid.

At the end of the period, I congratulate myself on my success and look forward to instilling light into these children. Wonderful!

The second day, I walk up and down the aisles, saying, “How are you? And you and you and you?” They are surprised, but respond well. Time to read. They take turns reading a story from their reader, in front of the class. They seem really interested in learning! They are not talking or fighting or disturbing in any way. These children are not fighting me! I even explain the words: author, title, illustrator, characters, and setting. I am doing so well! While they are reading, I patrol the room, to make sure all are paying attention. They are learning! I am teaching them things the local teachers cannot teach them. I can do a lot here! Teaching is actually fun—not stressful. I like them! In a moment of euphoria, I have them recite: “We are a good class. We do good work.”

I’m trying books from America. This book, Strega Nona, isn’t working. It’s all about pasta and a magic pot. They don’t understand, though they have plenty of pots around and some pasta. What are the cauldron and magic words all about? Some of them know what magic means, but they still don’t understand. “Excuse me, Sir,” Isaac says. “We know what a pastor is. Is it the same?” “Is magic the same as magi?” asks Dorine.

This will not work. O.K., here: I search through my bunch of books and find The Lucky One—about a boy who was crippled and ultimately cured by the medical profession. They can all understand that and empathize. They like this one!  All during the reading, they are commenting:

“Oh, he can’t walk, Look, he’s in a wheel chair.”

“I know a man like that.”

I’m still happy with this class. Am I ignoring little disturbances? No major disruptions, as I had been prepared for, considering my experiences with groups of children, wherever.

When I enter the room the next day, on the board is written: “God bless Sir Godfrey.” I try to find out who wrote it. Various names are suggested. I suspect Isaac, a tall boy who has always been respectful when I call on him. They love me, but not always. Things are beginning to occur. Maybe I didn’t notice it before, but this little boy, Patrick, is bothering other children. He picks up rubbish off the floor and throws it. What is it with this bright boy who has been writing good answers?  There is a baby in him. Finally, I take him and hold him with me at the board while I’m teaching. With this one it’s working. He is paying attention. He even writes on the board for me. The problem is that others also want to stand and I must order them down. And I am shouting because there is an undercurrent of voices—hard to pinpoint where they are coming from.

As mentioned, little Kenneth loves to talk. He wants to answer everything. I like that he is interested and alert, but he is disturbing my class! And he is angry—angry that he can’t say everything. He starts to cry. “Baaa Baaa.” I can’t take this. Kenneth, do you want to go sit in the KG (Kindergarden) class? If you act like a baby, you don’t belong in Class 4. He says no and quiets down.

Diminutive Dorine is the best student. Yes, she is at the top. If she doesn’t know the answer, nobody will. If she doesn’t know it, I have to start over in my explanation, breaking it down to bare elements. Isaac is also pretty sharp. I like little troublemaker Patrick and try to give him a chance to be in the limelight because he is so needy. He writes well for me, but, like Kenneth, he can’t be allowed to overshadow the others in the class. I am now slapping Kenneth on the wrists when he takes books from other children’s desks and from my table.

Another glutton for attention is Jill, who is a boy stuck with a girl’s name. A handsome boy. I am so sorry for him, though he is tough and resistant, because the headmaster told me his father, a soldier, beat his head so hard that he was deafened in one ear! Jill, I must be careful with you, so as not to hurt you anymore. But you are not helping me.

Benson, a nice-looking boy with fire eyes, really wants to learn, but he is so excited and likes talking to others too much.

One day I say, “Class, this is dictation.” “Dic-what?” some asked. “Dictation. I will talk and you will write what I am saying in your exercise books.” Groans. Some don’t have books, some don’t have pens. Some seem deaf. ”Angela, are you going to just sit there and do nothing?” Angela Yellow (because she always wears yellow), is stout and lethargic, but a constant talker. “Patrick, you always want attention. Look at Dorine. She’s prepared. Why can’t you all be?” Jill and Benson are insulting each other. This is the prelude to a fight. “Fellows, stop!” I move Benson, desk and all, to the front. He cries uncontrollably and won’t tell me why he is crying. Nine-year-old boy, staring at me, stubbornly clamping his mouth. (Oh, but you can talk in the class when I’m talking. But now you are mute, except for sobs.) Is it because I moved him? Or did Jill hurt him? No answers. I must go on and ignore him.

Now I’m angry and losing patience. Angela is STILL talking. I go up and shake her. My hands wave and accidentally hit her face. She is crying. What can I do? “Dorcas, shut up! Stop turning around. What is back there that’s so exciting, huh?” Some of these children are getting to me! Ismael, seems a nice boy, but his mouth is a machine. “I’ll take all the exercise books and put a zero in all of them!” I shout. This quiets them for the most part. We get the dictation done, but I finish with a headache. Did I say these children were so good and really wanted to learn???

“Summaries, I say. “Today you will write summaries. First we will read a story called The Smugglers.” After I finish reading the story, I say, “Now write a summary of the story.” “What?” “What is a summary? Who can tell me? Patrick. Benson. OK, Dorine, you know it. No?” NO ONE. Finally, someone says sum is the answer in a math problem. “This is not math and the word is summary! OK, what happened in the story? Someone tell me. What was the story about?” Either they had not listened or had not understood it. I give up. OK, we’ll have to go back over it on Monday, today being Friday.

A new day. I look at the class. They look so nice! This is my class. They are OK. But--Gideon is singing to himself and tapping on the table. “Gideon, you are disturbing. Gideon!” Gideon, with the hatchet nose. Gideon is so sweet and innocent. Yet uncontrolled. Gideon likes to write on the board. Wait! I have an idea to keep Gideon busy. “Gideon, write something for me.” I give him a piece of paper. At least he is occupied. Now Jill. Jill has been bothering. “Jill, come up here.” He balks. (He is surreptitiously bothering Isaac, then Dorcas.) “Jill! All right, I’ll take you to the headmaster. Shall I bring the headmaster here?” Jill said he would stand outside. (I had started this procedure—sending children to stand outside, so they would stop disrupting.)

The others are OK. Now I can teach them punctuation. “We already learned that!” says Kenneth. “OK, I say, then spell it on the board for me.” He writes punction. “Not correct,” I say. Can someone else do it?” “It’s in my notebook!” says Kenneth. “Where is it? Show me in your notebook.” Kenneth can’t find it, but Dorine does. “Here.” She points. There at the top of her page is the (word): Punction.” You spelled it wrong.” But Gideon has it: Punction. Dorcas, Punction. Isaac: Punction. “Well. The teacher must have given it to you wrong. That’s a problem—the teachers teaching incorrectly.” I spell on the board Punctuation.

I’ll give them just five punctuation marks because that’s all they can handle. Forget quotation marks and semicolons. I let Jill come back in. “Will you behave now and learn?” “Yes.” (For a few minutes.)

“Full stops, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, apostrophes. We must use these in writing to make sense of what we are writing and so others can read it and make sense of it.” Michael is talking, talking. Michael with large, bright eyes and a pleasant face. I grab him and he accidentally hits his head against the wall and cries loudly. I’m a bit frightened. “It was an accident, but it’s your fault, Michael, because you won’t shut up. A nine-year-old boy shouldn’t cry so.”

They are understanding punctuation. (Why do they always forget to use it?)

They are writing, trying to use the punctuation they have learned. “What is it now, Patrick? No you can’t spoil things now.” I raise him and push him toward the doorway, slapping his buttocks, and am surprised that he is crying. I follow him out. “You did the wrong thing, Patrick. Why must you always make trouble?” But now his eyes are on the outside classroom wall. He points. Someone had written with a marker: Sir Godfrey is bad and crazy. Did you do it? No. I suspect Kenneth. Kenneth vociferously denies it. Who else? Jill. No. Who was standing outside? Patrick, but he was the one who pointed it out to me. No answer.

Gideon gives me his paper. He has been writing all the while—his own thing. A list: “Sir Godfrey is good. Sir Emmanuel is good. Madame Perfect is good. Patrick is good. Kenneth is good. Dorine is good…” Gideon, so kind! A dual personality!

The next day I’m noting that Gideon is behaving a little better. He comes up and hugs me. “Gideon, will you be quiet today?” “Yes.” But he starts to laugh or sing for no apparent reason. Patrick gets 5 out of 5 on the homework. I tell him to write: I am proud of myself because I did good work. (My innovation. Theory: develop self confidence based on real achievement.)

“Jill, come to the front. Move your desk and don’t even argue with me.” He wants to rebel, but this time acquiesces. In the front, he’s better in every way, even volunteering answers. “Jill, you can do so well when you want to.” He shows no emotion, no sign of receiving my encouragement. Jill, a handsome boy, but angry. I figure he wants to learn, but is discouraged because he is so far behind.

Angela Yellow talks, talks, talks, talks, talks, talks—all the time! “Angela, what are you saying—all the time?” I must put her out. “Angela, get out! Out! Now!” She must find her sandals under the desk first. But she has to go. I have told her too many times. I have my limits.

“Kenneth, you are smart, and have good answers, but you cannot shout all the time. You must give others a turn and you must raise your hand.” Kenneth doesn’t want to. Kenneth is not going to listen to me. “Out, Kenneth!” On the way, I slap him on the rear and he starts crying. But—what’s this, Kenneth? He is bending for another whack. What? Is he a masochist? He knows he is being bad. “Kenneth, just get out!” He and Angela must not stand in the same place outside. I go out and separate them.

Those who are left read about the weather in Ghana in a little book I have brought. They take turns. So hard to hear above the din from other classes! “Who can read loudly and clearly? Isaac.” He reads well, but what is he doing? He is clowning, reading in odd voices. “Cut it out, Isaac.” Someone else should read. Dorine, but she is too soft. “We can’t hear! We can’t hear!” I know. “Dorine, shout. Like this: Weather!” She can’t really do it. Someone else. The boys can speak louder.

I’m writing questions on the board. Those I have sent outside will have to come back inside to write their answers. “In! In! And just shut up and write!” Patrick will have to come to the front. He is glad because he wants to lie on his stomach on the floor and copy the questions from the board. They have trouble with the questions. There is a loud sound and there is a flash of light. They forget which is thunder and which is lightning. Why can’t they get it? Is it due to their difficulty with the English language?

Another day, I am standing in front of the class. Am I a complete idiot? Did I say this class was so good? Children so attentive and well behaved, really want to learn? Look at them!  Kenneth may want to learn, but he doesn’t want anyone else to learn—or me to teach! Kenneth: talking, fighting, crying loudly. Baa Baa Baa…totally uncontrollable. I told you you can’t stay here and cry like that. You disturb the whole class! He quiets.

Patrick definitely does better when I take him to the front. He is so stubborn with the bits of paper he picks off the floor, sometimes throws, and will not give to me. Standing keeps him out of trouble. There is a boy, Ismael (did I mention him?), who is also so STUBBORN. He WILL not stop turning and talking to Isaac behind him. How to stop him??? Same with Angela Yellow!

Today is bad! Three of them have to write: “I must not talk when the teacher is teaching.” (An innovation of mine—must not statements, covering every line on both sides of the page.)  As they write, I feel the power—that they will succumb to me, even with no cane.

Alone in a room, I examine the writings they have given me and am discouraged by the scrawls and impossible grammar and sentence construction. What have the teachers been teaching them for the past five years, since they started learning to read and write English?

I am trying American worksheets on these children. This one is about trees. They fain difficulty. “I don’t understand.” “It’s too hard.” They whine. Today, Ismael is too much for me. I am shouting (screaming). I grab him and shake him. I drag him to the front and push him out to stand outside. “Stubborn boy!” I shout. He looks puzzled. How can he not understand? He is disrupting my class! Gideon is also too much. “Gideon, you don’t want to do well and be proud of yourself. You only want to do what YOU want to do and not to respect the teacher. I can’t help you because you don’t want to help yourself! Get out!”

Kenneth does well on the worksheet (smart boy!) and at the end wants to write that he is proud of himself and I let him. SO—SOMETHING GOOD! After I have made so much talk that he acts like a baby and should go to the nursery and have warned that if he cried loudly that way again I would just send him out.

I change Benson’s seat permanently. I make him write: “I must not take things off the teacher’s table.” He is not usually defiant, but he has taken a book to read without permission. I like him, though he likes to talk and gives me some trouble. Strange boy, who loves to smile, but loses his temper quickly over small things.

Wow! Teaching these kids is a whirlwind of trouble, with a few perks along the way—a few positive surprises.

Another day they are trying to unscramble scrambled sentences. Is everything really that hard or are they just complainers? Angela Yellow is sleeping. I walk up and clap loudly in front of her face. She starts awake. “No sleeping in class,” Angela. Ismael, amazing boy! He gets two of the sentences right on the board. And he is not disturbing today. Able to be proud of himself—at last. So it CAN happen! I hug him with real feeling.

Look at me, a teacher from New York, where it is lethal to touch a child at all. I am pinching cheeks, squeezing faces, having children slap their faces with their palms, etc. Should I be doing these things? My modus operandi: Jill moving his desk to the front, Patrick standing in front (he likes to write on the board), putting children outside, making them write: “I must not…” Gideon loves to write. “Gideon, write down everything you did wrong today and give it to me.” Gideon does a good list. Strange boy! So aware, yet so uncontrolled. Ismael is trying, but it’s hard for him to keep quiet. Angela is NOT trying. This Dorcas has a neck like a bird. “Shut up, Dorcas, and turn around!” I scream so that they are stunned into being quiet for a while.

Jill wants to come up and read. He reads so hesitantly and misses so many words. It’s a strain to listen and correct him. But he needs the opportunity to develop some confidence. (My bird-brained theory is that if he develops confidence he will do better and behave better. All this disturbing is a plea for attention—so I say.)

Now I am trying to get them to write a story, a real story, from start to finish—their OWN story. But they only want to tell stories they have read or heard.  Dorcas is eager: “Once upon a time there was a princess and she fell in love with a handsome prince…” “Come now, that is not your original story.” “It is!” “You are lying to me.” Jill: “Long ago there lived a beautiful girl. She had a magic slipper.” “Jill, that’s not yours.” “It is. I swear it!” “Jill, sit down.”

Maybe if I make an outline on the board. I try it.

Later, looking over what they have written, I see that they still haven’t gotten it—except—yes, Dorine actually has done it. Not much of a story, but it is HERS.  Only Dorine. Isaac a little. They don’t want to think. It all takes so much time. But I WILL make them do this story thing. We’ll write Dorine’s and Isaac’s on the board to show them how to do it correctly. Then the others can rewrite theirs. Am I dreaming?


These are tough kids and I am shouting and pushing them around! But this is a tame class compared with what’s to come.

The end of the term approaches. I give them the examination:  I say, “If you talk, look, copy, even talk to yourself or anyone except the teacher, you will get a large red X on your paper.” So, do they listen? Yes, for a while. After a long time, when I step out of the class momentarily, because of another disturbance, Michael talks to Isaac and I seize his paper and put him outside. He is crying. Patrick sits and won’t work unless I urge him. Finally, he talks to Jill and so loses his paper. But I will have to let them make it up later, Just want to scare them.

On the last day of class, these children in front of me again so docile. How can it be possible that they caused me so much trouble? I ask them, Will you wait for me? Yes from most. I walk up and down, giving hugs. Mysterious African children!  They will wait for me and I will return and expect them to worship me. And they will defy and disrespect me and I will be stressed. But I will keep returning.

© Copyright 2017 Godfrey Green. All rights reserved.

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