Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hermit Day

My best friend and I have two types of coping mechanisms when life becomes too much for us:
Five Scoops Days and Hermit Days.
Five Scoops Days are days that are so stressful, nothing less than five scoops of ice cream- and usually far too many episodes of Spongebob- can make it better.
Hermit Days are the days we simply get burnt out and need to crash at home alone, turn off the computer and the cell phone- and probably watch far too many episodes of Spongebob.

Well, Alex, I finally get a Hermit Day today! (No Spongebob though, Ghana can't be perfect.)

I have the house completely to myself today, an extremely rare occurence. My host parents went to Accra for the day to visit some people and none of my neighbors have discovered I'm awake yet. I have a huge pile of laundry to do, but I'm scared they'll see me if I go outside so I'm putting it off. Don't get me wrong, I love my aunties and their meerkats dearly, and I love the tight family community I have become a part of. It's just I'm NEVER alone and it drives me crazy sometimes!
I'm among the socialest of social butterflies. But then I moved to Ghana and suddenly five days out of the week became Five Scoops Days, and the need for Hermit Days significantly increased...right as the possibility for Hermit Days significantly decreased.

The initial stresses that go along with a cross-continental move- homesickness, culture shock, etc- have long faded. But teaching TAKES IT OUT OF ME.
For a long time I wondered if I was just being a wimp. I mean, really, how hard can it be to teach? I've done lots of teaching- I've worked with ESL kids and special needs kids. Alex and I were peer leaders in our church youth group for three years. I was an aid for one of my high school Spanish teachers.
Being in front of a classroom, correcting papers and coming up with lessons on the fly (sorry, Jen) are all nothing new to me.
Yet every day I leave Good Shepherd simply exhausted. My attention span is shot. My patience is shot. My people skills are...what people skills?
I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn't I handle it?

Then Britta came along.

Britta and Theresa are the other volunteers in Aflao currently. Theresa is an 18-year-old German girl here for 8 weeks working at the Central Aflao Hospital where Julia, Lula and Hannah worked, and living in Laura's old host family. Britta is a 19-year-old German girl. She's only in Aflao for 6 weeks, but she is by no means an Africa newbie. She's been working at an orphanage in Togo for the last 5 months, and Ghana is just her stop-off on her way to Mali for another 2 1/2 months. She's living in Lula's old host family and works at Good Shepherd with me. She's a tough cookie. Extremely nice and friendly, but not easily phased after the stuff she went through in Togo. Yet Britta is walking out of school going, "Oh my God, I had no idea it would be this hard! I'm so tired!"
YAY! I'm not crazy!
There are so many unique challenges to working here, not only in a foreign country but also in a school as poor and unorganized as Good Shepherd.
Teachers frequently just...don't show up. Leaving me (and Britta too now) in charge of several classes. Ignoring the abandoned classes isn't an option because there aren't physical divisions between the classrooms; we're all spaced out beneath the same pavilion and each class gets one side of the free-standing double-sided chalkboards. So when the other classes go wild, it's impossible to keep them from distracting my kids. And Ghanaian kids don't go wild like the American kids I've worked with. They're throwing rocks, throwing tantrums, chasing each other and screaming, etc. There are many days I have yelled myself hoarse- not because I have to scold my kids anymore, but because I'm trying to make myself heard over the roar of the other kids. These challenges seem to have increased since the start of second term because Good Shepherd lost four teachers over winter vacation, so we're in the midst of acclimating to a completely new staff in House of Norway, the pavilion where our older students (everyone older than my kids; I teach the oldest primary class) are. And our headmaster is content to use that as an excuse to disappear for entire days at a time on "business" shaped like a beer bottle.

Yet as the rest of the school is steadily falling apart, my class and I have got it together better than ever before. Where this "five scoops stress" used to come from my class, now it's coming from the rest of the classes and my students are the ones keeping me sane.

(Stephen) John, Jonathan, Mawuko

It took an entire term, but I've finally earned their respect- and with that, their obedience. We enjoy working together. We've got a groove going. I know each of my student's strengths and weaknesses, what assignments will make my class groan and what will make them cheer their signature, "Yo, yo, yo!" Likewise they know when I'm just blowing smoke and when I'm getting legitimately angry. They know they can tease me or come sit at my desk when they're done with their work as long as they stay relatively quiet. It took an entire term, but they finally know that they can come ask me questions when they don't understand the work. After I give each assignment I end with, "And if you don't understand, you should..." and I get a thundering, "ASK!!!" in response.
Oh yes, I am unbelievably proud of my babies.
We've worked incredibly hard to come as far as we have. There's been a lot of mistakes, frustration and even anger on both sides. But here we are. After a killer first term, I'm finally seeing tangible progress.
You see, I spent all of first term reinforcing material they arlready knew, primarily past tense verbs, irregular plural nouns, and carrying/borrowing in addition and subtraction. And I mean literally ALL term on this.
We spent hours chanting,
"Run" "RAN!"
"Go" "WENT!"
"See" "SAW!"
"Buy" "BOUGHT!"
"Bring" "BROUGHT!"
"Think" "THOUGHT!"
and so on.
But dammit if they don't know the difference between past and present tense now.
And they certainly didn't in September.
I'll brag a little bit more and tell you that they got exam scores 3, 4 and even 5 times higher in their final exams than they did in their mid-terms.
But none of that is a testament to my skills as a teacher. That's the most beautiful part of being a teacher: the realization that it's not really about you. My kids' hard work and motivation have taken them this far. All they needed was someone who cared enough to review the same lessons 100 times and answer the same questions 1,000 times. And that, I am proud to say, is me. As a teacher, you may function as the key, but the kids are the one turning it. And there is nothing like watching the pride and confidence that blossoms in a child when they finally master an exercise. Nothing compares. I am completely humbled by the opportunity to be part of that process.

So second term has started and now that my students finally have the foundation they need, we have begun tackling completely new material for the first time. (Currently division, patterns, and future tense.)
And my babies have happily risen to the challenge.

Wednesday I gave them an assignment to make up three patterns of their own and tell me the number of units (repititions). I got an overwhelming cry of protest. Not because they didn't want to do it. Oh no, no, no- because three wasn't enough. Slightly flustered, I changed it to six. Again, an outry: "Madam, we want ten."
And this coming from kids who on Monday didn't even know what a pattern was.
Ghanaian kids have gotten somewhat of a bad rep for not being particularly strong students. I'd like to turn that finger away from them and point it toward the developing educational system and the need for passionate teachers. My kids are eager to learn in a way I've never experienced before. They're hungry for the knowledge, and hungrier still for someone willing to feed that hunger and finally give them the affirmation they deserve.

For the first time in years, I'm asking myself if I really want to be a teacher professionally in the future. Not that there's a rush to decide by any means, it's just that I've never seriously considered doing anything else since I wanted to be a school bus driver AND a librarian when I was four, so this is unexpected for me.
But whether or not I continue teaching in the future doesn't really matter.
What matters is that I'm here for my kids now. And if I need a Hermit Day to be able to come back to them Monday will fully charged batteries, so be it.
They deserve nothing less.


  1. Everyone needs passionate teachers. Things I recall learning and still wanting to learn came from passion. You will always be a teacher in life, at your job to others around you, in your community in how you serve or by just being you, others will always see your passion for life and for the things you enjoy and be inspired by that. The other item that struck me is that parenthood is much the same, when that happens, you will be a very important, passionate and loving teacher. Bless you and Peace.

  2. It appears that the Katherine, who I so hardly knew, is growing up. (She just thought she was grown up before.)

    And where does God fit in these choices of "yours"?