Saturday, November 24, 2007


After two weeks of getting myself settled, observing classes at the school and meeting with the teachers, we have begun teacher training sessions. Monday was our first afternoon session, and it went by quickly with an introduction to playing the recorder, work on recitation, a discussion about how to develop a healthy rhythm of activity in the classroom, and some form drawing. I believe I even heard one or two of the teachers say that the time was too short. This particular comment at 3:30 on a school day that every one of them had taught right through from 8:30 to 2 with only 40 minutes away from teaching was entirely surprising.

I had prepared thinking that the teachers would be exhausted and unmotivated at the end of the schoolday. I had brought cookies and fruit to revive them and planned the most stimulating activities I could think of in order to keep everyone's attention, but I needn't have worried. Despite the long, hot day at the chalkboards, every one of the teachers was thoroughly engaged, and I enjoyed the first session immensely. The snack was not wasted, however, and it will now be expected every time.

Over the course of a few meetings, we have worked out a preliminary schedule for the training sessions. We will meet every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 1:15 to 4. In order to accomodate the Class 6 teacher, Amara Suarey, who has to leave by 2:30 to teach after-school test preparation classes to combined classes that include our Class 6 students, the teachers agreed to shift the entire school day half-an-hour earlier. This will extend the amount of time Mr. Suarey can spend with us each day. In addition, we will meet every Saturday from ten to noon. From noon to one I will offer English language classes to the teachers, and I will teach computer skills to the teachers on a one-to-one basis throughout the week. Next week we will decide whether I will teach English classes to the children or spend school hours observing and mentoring the teachers.

All of this and I am keenly aware that I will not have enough time to give the faculty everything they will need or want. Today, Saturday, we had a lively discussion about the consciousness of the child. It was the first time I had seen the entire faculty interacting in so lively a way. They interrupted one another disagreed with one another, challenged one another to explain thoughts more clearly and asked provocative questions. Previously I had experienced them as politely formal and I worried that they would not feel comfortable working with me. I enjoyed this session very much and left feeling invigorated and inspired by my new colleagues.

My sensibilities have undergone significant adjustments in the three weeks I have been here (not the least of which has been developing a comfort level with the poda-poda, but I'll leave that for another post.) I have come to accept hot, dusty days at school. I have learned to teach over noise that travels between the classrooms (now separated at least by grass mats, that nevertheless block little sound). I have begun conversations with teachers about the practice of hitting children for misbehaving and found that, contrary to my original assumption, it is not universally accepted by Sierra Leonean parents or the teachers at the school and that there is room to discuss its use in light of developing an artistic approach to teaching. Most significantly, for me personally, I have readjusted my conception of charity.

This last is still developing, but it has been front and center for me these last two weeks. When the teachers, all of whom are living on very limited salaries, learned that most parents of Class 6 students had not paid the fees for the national secondary school examinations, they pooled their own money to cover fees for all but a handful of students whose parents had paid. It seems most of the teachers at one time or another have paid for a students' uniform and have given a hungry child some money to get some lunch. One student, an older boy who had been registered at the school when he was found hanging out on a beach, takes personal responsibility for watering the school plantings. Another boy has begun stepping in to calm the younger ones when I have to clean out infected wounds, rubbing their backs and holding them firmly.

Last week we had the first of several cases of typhoid diagnosed among our students. The class teacher and I took the boy to the local clinic run by two Egyptians, and I paid for his medication because his family had been unable to afford it. It seemed thoroughly in the spirit of what was happening at the school. A few days later the boy came to tell us that his father had not given him his medicine and might even have taken it himself. That very day two more children were diagnosed with typhoid, and their parents claimed inability to pay for the medication. I began to worry about my charitable impulse going to no good end.

Apparently this is a familiar story at the school. It turns out that a good number of the children have parents who could afford school fees. These children would nevertheless be on the street instead of in school were it not for the Goderich Waldorf School because these parents seem not to feel they need to educate their children. The teachers and the school director are therefore constantly faced with decisions such as whether or not to pay for medications for a child or whether or not to buy a uniform for a child who clearly needs one. They generally err in favor of the child even though this means that occasionally they feel somewhat cheated as I did when I found out I had paid for medication that never went to the intended child. It also means that they are quite sure they are doing everything possible to keep their students healthy and safe. It makes charitable giving feel like living dangerously, which I am increasingly convinced is the truth of the matter.

Looking on the surface of just about anything in Sierra Leone, I am inclined to despair. So very much is needed here. A somewhat closer look has frequently revealed startlingly courageous and generous acts occuring all around me as with these teachers. It is enough to make me forget to complain about the poda-podas.

Below are a few pictures from recent celebrations:

Here I am serving fish sauce with the help of hard-working volunteer Amanata Bendu. The Waldorf High School of Massachusetts Bay donated the money for this all-school feast.

Class 3 teacher, Susan Taylor, serving rice out of steaming basins. It was a hot job on a hot day.

On a recent Friday afternoon at the end of the school day, Amanata and Susan organized an impromptu dance performance.

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