First feelings, first visit of schools in Greater Accra

I teach English in French junior high schools. To French teenagers living in the suburbs of Paris. In places that are labelled “ghettos”, where poverty and lack of job opportunities leave young people with little choice but to fall into an idle lifestyle. Eventually a majority of them start to participate in the surrounding violence, into the illegal substances flourishing business, a way to blend and thus to survive in their unfriendly environment. Needless to say, in these conditions, the building of relationships between teachers/adults and teenagers is not a very easy journey. Opposition, rebellion, general lack of respect but also lack of desire to learn, characterize the behavior of those children born into marginalized communities. Any attempt to create an efficient partnership and a safe learning space is obviously very challenging.
As part of those whose job/mission is to knit these relationships, my 3 year experience with teenagers is full of mixed feelings. Every year, along with my eagerness to get to know them and share my love for the English language comes the anticipation of having to fight to be heard as well as face many uncomfortable situations in which my position as a teacher is to be questioned. A very intense relationship indeed, with very little rest, and very few smiles.
Before I visited my first school in Accra, I knew there would be some differences, in the organization of the schools, the teaching methods, even the curriculum maybe. Looking back, I realize that I was actually anticipating to recreate the same tense relationship with the Ghanaian students. I was ready to put on my sterner and overly confident mask. To my great surprise and pleasure, I saw groups of students politely stopping, listening and then doing their best to answer Huda’s requests. Seeing how confused we were when they started to explain the directions to get to the school, one of them glanced discretely at his watch, nodded in the direction to his friends and swiftly left them to lead us to the office of the headmistress. I was amazed by the fact that a teenager was ready to take on some of his precious teenage time, and show us the way instead of hanging out or playing football with his friends. And was not even complaining about it.
Later on, when we stopped to explain our programs to the teacher of another school, I had the opportunity to observe a class. Too many students and not enough desks. Students having to write on top of each other. Regardless of those uneasy conditions, all had their heads down, conscientiously doing their exercises. Not even once looking by the window or chatting with their friends. Their meticulous handwriting shook my certainties as to the quality of school work a teenager is able to attain. Most of my students’ handwriting is unreadable…Maybe I should raise my expectations….
And then, the snap… Huda had showed when we were transiting in one of the busiest bus/market stations “the canes” and explained what they were used for. I smiled in disbelief. Coming from a Western-based educational background, where it is forbidden to even hold the wrist of a student or you could be sued for mistreatment and violence, it is hard to comprehend that hitting students still happened in some places in the world. When I heard the sound, raised my head and saw the teacher actually moving on the next student to snap I was shocked. Even more so when I realized that she was not hitting them for misbehavior, which I thought was the only reason why a child should have to experience physical punishment, but because the math exercise they had put so much effort in was incorrect. A few minutes later the same teacher was ruthlessly scolding a girl who was not speaking with enough confidence in her voice. In my head, I could hear my mom saying: “ when we were little, school was not like today, we could not say anything and the teachers were very hard on us…but they were respected…”
Later on that day, I tried to explain to a friend, born in French speaking Africa but who had travelled and lived all over the continent, what it meant to be a teacher in French marginalized communities. He assumed that the conditions were better. And to some extent he was right. We have more resources, more infrastructures and more materials. But we lost something essential. We lost the respect for the elders and those with experience. We lost desire to learn and to learn from them. Students have no limits, no fears but also no hopes or dreams. They do not strive to do or be better. They have become those selfish and seemingly heartless creatures who boast about their insensitivity. They have said “no”, raised their voices, gave orders to their more than often helpless and overwhelmed parents. They brought their arrogant confidence to schools and did the same to the teachers. They have understood that they could have power as a group and could overrule the one adult standing in front of them. They are not scared of chaos. Because they live in it. Every day. It was my friend’s turn to be shocked. For him it was impossible to conceive that young people would disrespect an adult. He kept repeating : “this is impossible, they cannot do that , you cannot do that!”
To this day, I am still not sure what to think about these two different teaching experiences. As much as I do not like physical punishment and would always choose talking over hitting, I am wondering if moderate physical pain would not help our French students to understand their position and role. Feeling the consequences of overstepping the limits on their flesh, since they are no longer able to see them when those are explained. Would they be able to meet those Ghanaian students, they might be aware of their privileges and appreciate them. My students need to (re)learn how to listen. Ghanaian students need to learn how to speak. I do not know which is the biggest challenge, but both are definitively worth the efforts and commitment of all the adults around.

1 reply added

  1. oghenefejiro October 2, 2013 Reply

    i do think that maybe whipping should be used in france schools because for the months i have been in france i have seen so much direspect more than i have ever seen in Nigeria(where i come from). The use of the cane could help the students respect their teachers more it adds more discipline it seems easier than talking and from what i have seen it yields more results, this is what i think and nice write up miss.

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