I’ll start this two part reflection on my second year as an English teacher with the “Success Story” I submitted to Peace Corps on my Volunteer Report Form:
I requested to teach eighth grade again this year. Many volunteers opt to follow their students to the next grade level in their second year of service. Especially with such large classes sizes, the reasoning goes that after one year the students and volunteer have finally adapted to each other and developed a positive system. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. I agree that the first year of Peace Corps is a trial year; it really did take until the second or third trimester to feel comfortable with my students (I spent most of the year just learning their names). But the end result of my first year with my students was a relationship so casual that my classes occasionally bordered on disrespectful (“bordered” is a loose term that I’m probably using just to save face; those little pricks were disrespectful at times). We were too comfortable with each other. In my first trimester of teaching, I failed to effectively establish boundaries with my students. As a result, my students and I loved each other dearly, but I also hated them dearly at times. So this year, like the geek in high school who tries to reframe his reputation in college, I wanted my second chance. There is a reason Peace Corps is two years: the first year is prep for the second.
I entered my eighth grade classes at the start of 2016 with (1) an idea of what to expect from my new students and (2) an identity in mind for myself: a confident teacher who demands respects and has little time for unruly students. I discovered in that first week that I do indeed fit the description of a “confident teacher.” I have developed what I would a call “a presence” in the classroom. I am comfortable with myself and my role at the head of the lesson, stepping over the legs of those students who must sit on the floor for lack of desks. I speak confidently. I move confidently. I wait with patience and confidence. This, I am quite positive, can only come with experience. Initially, I did stutter a bit, trying to find my footing once more. I doubted myself and clung to my plan. But that quickly wore off and I settled back into my role as a teacher who knows what he is doing. Students can perceive confidence: believe in yourself and they’ll believe in you too. Discipline is a minor issue this year. The geek suddenly has a new rep.
I also discovered in that first week that several of my eighth graders from last year are still in my classes. That is, they did not pass on to the ninth grade. This fact, in my eyes, actually serves as a source of hope for the Mozambican education system: my school forced students to repeat a year of school rather than allowing them to slip through the system. The presence of these students is most notable in Turma A, where a core group of boys stayed behind: Lázaro, Marcelino, Harun, Nelson, Nito, Francisco, Florêncio, José and Gabriel. Their names are easy to recall because they provided an endless source of frustration last year as the kids who thought they were “too cool for school.” They’re all intelligent and literate (perhaps with the exception of Gabriel and José), but last year they quite simply did not treat their classes seriously. I encountered them outside of class more frequently than inside and, when they did come to class, they often challenged my authority by refusing to work. This year, however, the school showed them whom is too cool for whom. Perhaps because they found themselves excluded from a class of adequately developed peers (the classes descend in alphabetical order based on age group; Turma A, therefore, has the highest number of kids who actually belong in the eighth grade based on their age, whereas Turma H, not so much), this year they behave well in class. But they do more than behave: they ask questions, they share answers, they participate fully, they seem genuinely excited to be present. They are, in other words, examples for the rest of the students. I attribute this (perhaps egoistically) to my own intervention on the first day of class. I perceived, when I first encountered them once more in my classroom, a moment of power. I could not teach my lesson confidently to my new students without addressing the legacy that Lázaro & Co. would bring from my informal first year of teaching. I taught my class. At the end, I announced that I wanted to speak privately to Lázaro, Francisco, and Nito. When we stepped outside, about six other returning students followed along (I hadn’t recognized them among the 120 other faces). I told them that I know they’re intelligent. I told them that I know they should be in ninth grade this year. Then I told them that it is their fault that they’re still with me. You messed around and now we’re together again. I want you to pass, I told them, but that is up to you. You need to behave this year. The other students will look to you as examples of how to behave. If you arrive late, you sit on the floor; you don’t make a big deal about moving other people out of their seats. If you have a question, you raise your hand. But you don’t mess around. You try.
That last phrase – “You try” – is probably the main legacy I want my students to inherit when I leave. I want students who actually try, who actually commit themselves to their schoolwork. Anywhere in the world – but especially in a place as peripheral as Lichinga – education can open doors to a drastically different lifestyle (my education, for instance, brought me here). This morning, Harun and Marcelino came to my house. On Wednesday I left Turma A early after reprimanding the class for making too much noise while I attempted to pass back tests. Harun and Marcelino came to ask for my forgiveness. They feared I wouldn’t come back to teach them English anymore. They enjoy my classes, above and beyond their other disciplines. They have developed an enthusiasm for learning. They try.