Thursday, 27 January 2011

How Things Work. Or not.

I’ve never taught in the American school system, but I’m not too far out of it myself, and certainly not far enough out to forget how things work.

Here, things don’t work.

There are just certain times where my roomie, Clancy, and I look at each other, scratch our heads, and say “Pretty sure this wouldn’t happen back home….”

About five minutes before class, peeking in all the rooms and unable to find my turma, I start to worry. I wander down to the yard, where a bunch of students and cattle are hanging out and start asking about Turma A. One student points me in a direction past the lean-to shack that serves as a kitchen, where I find a few of my students.
“Where is everyone?!” I ask.
One gestures. “Around.”
Not surprised.
“It’s time for class. Call the others and let’s go upstairs.”
“No, teacher, we have a new room we can use, in the back.”
I’m shocked and surprised. The new school building, including the structure that houses the nonexistent tractors, has remained untouched since it was completed a year and a half ago for reasons given only in quick incomprehensible mutters by the higher-ups. We can use them?! Finally?!
“Great! Let’s go.”
And we walk down to the tractor structure to the last room. The chefe da turma (literally, class chief) produces the key, entrusted to him by the director, to open this grand, new sala. The door opens. We peer in at our new classroom.
“Uh…where are the desks?”
Classrooms here don’t have much in the first place – a chalkboard and wooden benches attached to the desks. But this big beautiful structure of concrete and mosquito-netted windows contains absolutely nothing.
“Oh. Wait here. We’ll go get desks,” class chief says.
I’ve been here long enough to know how these things work.
“Nope. Call the others. There are empty class rooms upstairs. Let’s go.”
Finally, we find an empty classroom upstairs. I write up the warm-up on the board and start calling roll.
“Where’s Melas? I just saw her.”
“She’s cooking, teacher.”
“Yes. Lunch. She’s cooking lunch.”
This transaction is in Portuguese, so I know they haven’t misunderstood.
“Why is she cooking lunch?”
“The cooks didn’t come today. If no one cooks, we can’t eat.”
“So…instead of asking some of those students hanging around outside, they pull students out of my English class to cook lunch for everyone?”
“Only some of the students.”
I glance again at my roll sheet, back at the class.
“All the girls are cooking?”
“Why are all the girls and only the girls cooking?”
I can see them glance at each other nervously. Yes, they understand the words. They don’t understand why I would even bother to ask this question.
“Uh, teacher…?”
Breathe, I think. Just breathe. This goes beyond merely a discussion with the director. The Serenity Prayer is vital to a PCV, particularly that second part – accept the things I can’t change. But at least I can pick away at it. I calm myself down enough to start the lesson – vocabulary relating to healthy relationships and gender equality. It makes me feel a little better.

Things you’d probably never have to worry about in an American classroom…
 “We’re having a very important visitor this afternoon – the country’s Minister of Education. As such, classes are cancelled this morning so students can clean the school in preparation.”
 “Class is over! Why are you just coming in?”
“Sorry teacher, Professor Macamo sent me to town to buy seeds…”
 Three school holidays in two weeks. Three surprise school holidays in two weeks.
 Our school has three grades levels, aptly called First Year, Second Year and Third Year. This year, First Year classes started around Jan. 10, I’ve been told Third Year starts next week, and Second Year? They’re anticipated August.
 Because of this, my hours dropped significantly, so I talked to my director about it.
Me: “Mr. Director, I really don’t have a lot of hours…are there any other English classes I could teach?”
Mr. Director: “English? Nope, don’t think so. But hey, you know how to use a computer, right? Here, take this computer class. They started last week.”
 I remember back in the states going to the school a week or two before the first day to see the class list and find out who my new teacher and classmates would be. Four weeks into class. I still don’t have a roster with my students’ names. Yet I’m still supposed to take attendance. Really?

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