Monday, May 26, 2008

Good News

I know it has been a while since I have written about what is going on at the school. I have fallen victim to daydreaming about going home, it is true, but I do have a somewhat more responsible reason for not writing, namely that there have been several meetings held to try to sort out the school's future, and nothing has seemed certain until the last few days. Oh, but certainty is a fleeting feeling around here, so I am going to claim the right to future amendment to today's statements right from the start and then just do my best to explain what the plan is at the moment.

The big problem since I arrived here at the school has not been the teaching or the teachers' lack of training or the school's lack of materials or even the health of the students. These were all problems, but they were issues to be addressed on a daily basis, and some progress has been made on all of them. The impact of the school feeding program alone has been tremendous, resulting in regular attendance, better classroom behavior, better health, and a reduction in stress for everyone from the the smallest Class I student to the cooks themselves who can count on taking home leftovers to feed their families five days a week. Malarial children are regularly treated at the local clinic. The director's wife is a nurse who volunteers once a week to do first-aid at the school. Teachers now have some idea of what the Waldorf curriculum and approach to teaching are. There has been plenty of progress.

No, the big problem has been what happens to the 190 current students of the school when it moves well over an hour away to its new campus in September. The faculty were quite clear that only a handful of their current students would be able to continue at other schools in Goderich, and it seemed that most of the students were just going to end up very literally back on the street, on the beach or in the gravel mines. Now, finally, the school has what seems to be a viable plan.

In fact, I spoke to the director about starting up a strategic planning process (Lucy and Irene will be so proud of my putting my experience on the Rudolf Steiner School board to good use), and two weeks ago we did just that. The guiding principle is that the Goderich campus will be phased out over five years so as to ensure that all current students have the opportunity to complete Class VI while the new campus at Rokel will be slowly built up over the same period. It is a beautiful plan, evident in the fact that everyone involved with the school who has heard about it is now sleeping better at night. Now it is just a matter of finding the money to make everything work.

There is also a great desire to improve the quality of the school, and that is where the really difficult work and need for commitment will come in, just as I am getting ready to leave! I have been very busy typing up lists of questions to answer, suggesting budgetary planning processes, dreaming up ways to fund the whole business. There is a good deal of work to keep me busy (and away from daydreams of hot showers and well-stocked bookstores)until I leave and well afterwards, but I am definitely sleeping better these days.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How I Became a Waldorf Teacher by Susan Taylor

A few months ago I asked my students, the six teachers of the Goderich Waldorf Schol to write about how they came to teach at the school. I had heard bits of each of their biographies and was intrigued by their demonstrated commitment to the school and its students despite the long period each had served as a volunteer upon first being hired. This is the first of six such essays, this one by the current Class III teacher, Susan Taylor.

My name is Susan Taylor, aged forty-six years. I live in Goderich Village in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I am a teacher at the Goderich Waldorf School. I was first teaching at a government school, but due to the poor conditions of service and an unhealthy environment for the children, I decided to leave in 2005. At that time, I heard about the Action for Child Protection Educational Centre for Disadvantaged Children, a centre at the wharf in Goderich Village. When I made my first visit to the centre, I met one of the teachers, Mr. Mohamed Conteh, whom I had known for a long time. Mohamed was so happy when he saw me, and he welcomed me inside a big place like a hall where he was teaching different colours and shapes to the children. I asked about the other teachers. He took me to meet Mr. Robert Bendu and Mr. Amara Suaray. Looking around the classes and the compound, to my surprise, I noticed that most of the children were without uniforms or shoes, they had no place to sit down, and some children were sleeping in class. Their condition was so terrible and sympathetic, and I was so unhappy that I inquired about these children. Mohamed told me that these children were from the beach and the street. He said they included children without parents and children who helped the drivers to call passengers into their taxis and poda-podas or local buses at the car park. They were children whose parents could not afford to send them to school. When I heard about the children, my mind was so full with unhappiness. The teachers went on telling me that it was a voluntary job and that they moved around the community in search of vulnerable children. They wanted to take the children out from beach and the street and to introduce them to society.

When I returned home I was thinking about the children’s future. It was humanitarian feeling and emotion that prompted me to teach at this school. I felt so bad and I even asked myself, “Can these children make it in life, with all that I have seen and heard about them?” But when I sat down and reasoned well like a parent, I realized that there were many ways to upkeep them. Through this thinking, I counted myself as a fit person to help these children through caring and protection, proper counseling, good education, and generating a good feeling of the world. I decided to apply for employment so that I could help to refine them. And so I made my second visit to Mohamed at the school.

There I told them that I would like to help at the school. One morning in the fall of 2006 I was sitting at the back of my compound, when I saw Mohamed coming into my compound. He told me that they needed me in the school. At once I left for the school, where I met Mr. Abu Mansaray, the teacher of Class One. Mr. Mansaray asked me many questions about my experience in teaching. He was pleased with the answers that I gave, and so I started teaching class two in September, 2006. Two weeks after I began teaching, I was introduced to Mr. Shannoh Kandoh, the school director. He told me that the school was vulnerable and that the teaching position was unpaid and he asked me if I was willing to teach without compensation. I said yes because there were no other jobs available at the time, I liked the job, and I wanted to bring the children out of the street.

Some of the street children in the Goderich Village community lost their parents during the rebel war in Sierra Leone and some lost their parents to illnesses. Some of these children live in the street doing small jobs to earn their food; some are even fighting in the streets. Some do heavy jobs to earn their living, but have no good clothing, go barefoot, and have no place to sleep. Some sleep in the marketplace on top of tables, in abandoned cars and even in huts at the beach.

Some of these children come to school hungry, very sickly, thin and unhappy. Some come to school without lunch, and sometimes we the teachers give them something to eat if we have it. These hungry children always sleep in class, begging and even crying for something to eat if they see some of their friends eating. They sometimes don’t come to school. If you go and find them and ask why they did not come to school, they will say that they have not eaten. And if they are sleeping in class or sitting down looking at you, if you ask what is wrong, they will say that they are not well. Some of these street children found in the Goderich community during the war cannot find their families and have no one to take care of them. You can find them at the car park, on the beach and washing cars and poda-podas at the car park so that people will give them food or money. They carry loads such as rice, palm oil, and vegetable oil for shoppers in the market and they carry fish for the fishmongers. They deliver these loads for small money. Children working on the beach help fishermen to carry their tool bags, sell fish, and carry chains. They sometimes are beaten by the big boys on the beach who take their money from them. There are some huts on the beach made of chain and rice bags, where some of the boys sleep. Most of these children are boys between the ages of seven and ten. You also can find some girls who have been sexually abused by some men for small money. Some even go and find wood or plums to sell for food. Some go and sell from morning to night.

The first two months I found it difficult to teach these children, but later I was in place with them. There were many difficult children in the school, coming to school without lunch or books, and sometimes without having eaten. We teachers did not have some of the right materials to do some of the work. Sometimes the children did not come to school every day. Children were sleeping in class because of the overburdening work at home.

The love we continue to give these children has kept them coming to school. Some of these children cannot read or write. For the smaller ones aged five to seven, it is not too difficult, but for children aged ten and upward who have never attended school before, it can be embarrassing for them to be learning what the small children are learning, though some learn quickly. It is never easy for these children to focus on their school work because they are thinking about food, money and where they will they sleep.

My experience in this Waldorf school as a teacher is very different from my experience in any other school. I have learned that children should not be punished by beating. When presenting a new topic to the children, the teacher should do so in story form, so that the children can get the right feeling and understanding for the topic. We teach how to draw with crayons without using pencils, we play different games. A Waldorf teacher should give the children the right feeling and to let them think for themselves. I have learned a new way of teaching and doing things with the children and I hope to learn more and more.

Monday, May 5, 2008


Well, the initial enthusiasm among the parents for approaching the community leaders to provide land for the school in Goderich next year has utterly disappeared, and not surprisingly. Here is the version of the story behind the disillusionment told to me:

When the parents met with the MP a few weeks ago and he offered them a parcel of state-owned land in a section of Goderich called Oba Funkia, feelings were very positive. He told the parents that they simply needed to claim the site by clearing it of any structures and all the bush. Well, word of this spread around the village so that the next morning a small delegation of parents sent to the parcel met a group of young men ready to defend the shanty someone had built there in order to lay claim to it himself. The parents wisely avoided a fight and returned to the MP, who refused to help them further since they had not done what he had told them to do.

When I heard this, I could have thrown up my hands in disgust, but not the parents, who were outwardly very calm. They seemed to be used to this kind of absurdity and they agreed to approach the local community leaders as soon as possible. The problem was that only one parent showed up for the appointment with those leaders. Somewhere between the last encounter with the MP and the appointment, the entire parent body appeared to have lost interest in securing a school for their children.

Now I am hearing the frustration in the voices of the handful of parents who still come around school to talk about what might be done for their children: "The children have more integrity than their parents! At least they show up for school every day," is a typical comment.

With the school year waning and no land or building on offer to the school for September, it is seeming increasingly likely that only a very few of the 190 Goderich Waldorf School pupils will be able to attend school next year, and those only because their parents are teachers at the school who will take them to the new campus. It is difficult to accept, but alternatives have not arisen. It certainly would be possible to buy land somewhere in the community, but the only offers we have received are incredibly expensive by local standards, and there is simply no money to pay such prices. In addition to the land, the school would need to hire new teachers, at least five, build a new building, and buy new school materials. It's all quite daunting, but not impossible.

There has been one nice development at the school: the school was able to fund the construction of an addition to the tiny kitchen where lunch is cooked, just in time for rainy season. It is built of poles and corrugated zinc, is large enough for three cooking fires, and has two windows for ventilation. The cooks are delighted, and lunch, once again, seems to be guaranteed through the end of the school year.

Old and New Kitchens

Mohamed, Cook's Husband and Kitchen Architect/Project Manager

Happy Cooks, Neighbors, Children

In the classes interesting things have been happening as well. As part of a main lesson unit on various trades, Susan Taylor, the Class III teacher, planted a patch of crin-crin, a nutritious green vegetable, with her class. The children prepared the bed, sowed the seeds, now water and weed it, and soon will transplant the seedlings. They have also been busy making piles of clay bricks, which last Friday they began laying onto a poured concrete foundation for a small house. While building, the children are learning the vocabulary of the brickmaker, the carpenter and the mason and clearly are enjoying the change in venue for their main lessons. They are very proud of their emerging building and very anxious to see it completed.

Auntie Taylor levels the first bricks

Watching the Progress

First layers of a wall

Finally, this past Saturday all but two students in Class VI sat the National Primary School Examination in order to qualify for entrance to junior secondary school next September. The students and their teacher, Amara Suaray, have been preparing all year for this test, attending test preparation courses six days a week and organizing mock tests and the borrowing of uniforms for the day of the real test. This is the first time students from the Goderich Waldorf School have sat this examination, so they were hosted by a local school run by the Forum of African Women Educationalists (FAWE). All of the preparation classes took place on the FAWE campus, and our students had to wear the FAWE uniform (borrowed from FAWE's Class V students) during the examination. The night before the test, all the students slept inside the FAWE school building (apparently this was replicated in primary schools throughout Sierra Leone that night), and there was something of a festive feeling about the whole event despite the anxiety about taking the test. In the end the children reported that they felt well-prepared for all sections of the test except the math section, but we will not know their results until the end of August at the earliest. I have pledged to pay the school fees for all those Goderich Waldorf School students who are accepted to junior secondary school and would welcome any help in continuing that support throughout their secondary school years.