Uganda Blog 26.January 2019 Nicola Tomlin

Trying to be an English teacher 

As mentioned in my first blog, I came here to work as an English teacher and although the school year has finished now and all the kids have gone home for Christmas holidays I would like to tell you about that journey. 

To speak truthfully I didn’t come here expecting to work as an English teacher but more precisely as a teaching assistant. After all I don’t have a degree in teaching and have only ever tutored one child at a time, so I have next to no experience in teaching. My only qualifications are being a native English speaker and having gone to school in Germany, what does that count for? 

Well, according to the Primary School’s headmistress that qualifies me to teach 70 kids in Primary 7, the graduating class, aged 13-15. Doing anything else would just waste everyone’s time. 

And so I started work as a fully independent English teacher. In my first few weeks the kids were off on holiday. There were, however, 300 communion children on the compound. Thus the eldest children (P6-P7) were told to enter into a classroom and be taught some English. I scrambled to piece together a lesson I thought might be suitable for a wide array of English skills consisting of tongue twisters, songs and short stories. I was expecting maybe 30 kids in my class, all my endeavours to find out exactly how many kids to expect remained fruitless with the endless reply being “I don’t know, maybe ask …” 

When I entered the classroom for the first time I was, well, shocked to find that there were way over 70 kids squeezed into the class with a far greater age variation than expected, 8 to 16-year-olds, eagerly awaiting a lesson from the white foreigner. Apparently, when the news had got out that a muzungu (someone with pale skin) would be teaching, everyone wanted in on the action. 

Saying that they were “eager” doesn’t mean that they were easy to control. I entered that first lesson and the next few literally trembling and left sweating like a pig and wondering what the hell I was doing here. It got better with time, although I am certain that many had no idea what I was saying most of the time due to my British accent which was completely foreign to them. 

Soon I started teaching the P7 kids. Thanks to my previous lessons I had a large array of class introductions prepared which worked well to break the ice and get the kids involved. However, I still struggled to get them to engage in the lessons the way I was used to it in Germany. It turns out they were not used to this teaching style, most teaching here is less interactive and more of a lecture. Many were still quite scared of me as a white foreigner, I explained time and time again that I was here as a volunteer and what that meant. 

Additionally, it was difficult at times to keep them all attentive, I tried numerous different strategies to reach all the kids in my class. With 60-70 children in a classroom at a time most were not going to get the attention they deserved. I tried introducing voluntary tutoring lessons, splitting the class in two according to their previous grades and teaching them individually twice a week. This worked well for a while and I noticed that especially the weaker group enjoyed the calmer class environment and to be given the chance to participate more actively in the lessons, once they built up enough confidence to do so. Soon, some even started raising their hands when the whole class was present. 

Another noticeable aspect was that the weaker group consisted mainly of boys whilst in the stronger group over 80% were girls. I found that to engage the boys more in class it would help to specifically ask for a boy to answer the next question.

Another problem I faced was that quite often when going through the rows I would find that some weren’t taking notes saying that they were missing pen and paper. This went on for some weeks until I decided to just go and buy 70 exercise books and pens from my own money. They were excited to receive their new supplies but soon these started getting “lost” and “stolen” as well. 

With time things got easier and I started to enjoy the lessons more and more. I grew more confident and learned how to explain things to the kids and how to make sure they engaged and understood it. Not that it was all plain sailing weather after that, far from it in fact. There was one time when two boys started fighting in my class and another where kids continued to leave the class to go to the toilet until I was more or less alone in the room. 

However, looking back, I would say that my main hurdle wasn’t the teaching itself but the general organisation and communication in the school. And I am still not certain that I have fully understood how information gets around, at least it always managed to skip me. I would not seldom enter the classroom only to find no one there, “they had been given a few days off/ had exams/ were at an assembly and no one had thought of telling me.” This would of course always completely mess up my teaching plan. The difficulty in preparing things was also connected to that. Sometimes the teacher with the keys to the library just couldn’t be found and I remember one instance where I had spent the whole morning preparing a worksheet on my phone for the lesson taking place that day. When I went to the office to print it out, it turned out that they didn’t have wifi and no data left on their phones. In the end to get the document from my phone into my hands we had to embark on a complicated adventure through multiple laptops, printers and mobile wifi stations. But, mid-way through the lesson, I did hold 70 copies of my worksheet in my hands. So you do get stuff done, it just takes somewhat longer.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my time teaching those children and I am sorry that it has come to an end. 

I grew to love these kids and look forward to my lessons with them. I started introducing more songs and spending more time with them in the evenings as well. 

Our bond only grew stronger when we all went on a trip to Murchison Falls National Park together. I had been to the park before and was thus able to fully concentrate on the kids. And it was a joy to behold. The night before all the kids slept in the dormitory and we left early the next morning. We had two buses with 82 children overall, made up of 20 K3 kids, the graduates from the nursery, and 62 P7 kids. Every teacher was assigned 5-6 children to make sure they didn’t get lost in the park. We did the game drive first and then drove to the top of the falls. They were so excited to see the environment and many of the animals for the first time. They all wanted to take pictures with my phone of the elephants and giraffes and of course have pictures taken of themselves as well. On the way back in the bus they sang the whole way through and to my delight all the songs that I had previously taught them.

This is one of my favourite memories of my six months in Uganda. I think that looking back, despite my worries about being an unqualified teacher, I was able to add value to the kids’ lives and education. On the one side by introducing them to some other teaching techniques and on the other side by motivating them and giving them a sense of pride. Having had a muzungu teacher is something many still like to talk about later on in their lives. Many have told me that they thoroughly enjoyed my lessons and were recalling the things I taught them during their exams. So, although I’m still critical of executing tasks in a foreign country that you wouldn’t be allowed to execute in your home country, I am convinced that having experienced a good education myself prepared me for spreading knowledge effectively on my part. 

I would finally like to thank everyone who made this experience possible. First and foremost Fr. Cyprian of course, who shared his home with me and supported me in all my little projects. Special thanks also go to Pauline and Mercy for caring for me during my entire stay and preparing the most delicious food for us three times a day. I also thank the entire St. Mauritz community in Uganda and Germany for welcoming me into their lives and church. And finally I would like to express my thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Schmitz-Hoevener for making all of this possible in the first place and supporting me throughout. 

I hope to revisit the project in the near future.