Volunteering at a local school

Today I gained a new found appreciation for teachers.

One of the things that I wanted to do while I was in Ghana was volunteer, so when a member of our group said that she had found an opportunity to work at a school in the area, I decided to join her. Many of our colleagues were being turned away from orphanages and hospitals because there were actually too many volunteers (at least locally), so I knew that this might be my only chance to volunteer. As I have volunteered at schools before, I figured that I would simply be a teachers’ aid and help to control the class, answer questions or anything else that fit into the teacher’s lesson plans. When we arrived we found that their need was much different. After talking to us about our interests, they asked if we would be willing to teach. Although hesitant about my ability to actually teach my own class, I said yes figuring that they wouldn’t ask college students to teach these kids unless there was truly a need.

Before I continue, I should mention that we were initially greeted with hugs by the principal of the school and invited into her office and offered cold water after a long taxi ride in difficult traffic. We introduced ourselves and met many of the different people that we would be working with throughout our time with the school. During this meeting, the students were all assembling in courtyard in order for us to be introduced to them. Never have I ever been greeted so warmly in my life—-I felt like a celebrity! The kids were clapping and screaming and cheering with such joy, I was nearly in tears because it was so sweet. We then formed a line at the front and all took turns introducing ourselves as “aunties and uncles”. After each us said our names, the entire school would repeat it, but sometimes Africanizing our names a little, such as pronouncing my name as “Auntie Christiana”. Following introductions we went to the staff room to begin discussing our placements.

While they tried to work on placing us, we were sent to different classrooms so that the kids would have a chance to interact with us. I went to classrooms for children at about a kindergarten age level. They were, of course, adorable. As before, they were very welcoming and the teachers were very friendly. First, I introduced myself and talked about where I came from and what I was doing in Africa. Then the teacher translated, not into another language, but retold what I said in their accent so that the kids could understand. (On a side note, I have just started saying that I am from Chicago simply because it’s easier and with that of course I add that it is President Obama’s hometown which just gets everyone riled up because they love him here.) After a brief introduction, I asked the teachers to ask the students if they had any questions for me. They were very shy at first, but finally one of the brave ones asked me if I was from “Obama place” (meaning America) and I laughed and said yes. Once this student had finished, several others were now raising their hands. Probably the next five questions were either, “Do you come from ‘Obama place’ or America” and the occasional, “Do you come from London?” A few times students raised their hands and then when the teacher called on them, they became mute. Once I made the mistake of crouching down to the kid’s level and asking him if he had a question for me, which just scared him I think. I was also interested in hearing what they thought America was like, but when I posed that question to them, the crickets you could hear in the background were deafening. When no one said anything, (and it seemed like the teachers expected me to say something) and I asked what they thought we ate in America. The teachers translated this to the kids and they were a little more responsive. While I expected to hear universal cries, of pizza and McDonald’s, I was surprised that they mostly named popular dishes in Ghana, like jollof rice and chicken. Not sure if I should play to stereotypes or not, I think I ended up giving a well rounded list of dishes focusing on what I would eat in the Midwest. The teachers then asked me to talk a little about America. This was surprisingly difficult-—I had no idea what to say, especially trying to be culturally sensitive and not ethnocentric. I started by first talking about my family and describing what my neighborhood looked like, pointing out that there were no street vendors or markets everywhere. I also remembered that we treat pets very differently than they do here, so I explained that many Americans have dogs that live in their house with them and that are like members of their family. I particularly enjoyed hearing the teacher translate this one, because she knew what I meant and expanded upon what I said. She told the kids that Americans often have dogs and cats that live in their houses, sleep in their beds and that we will even kiss our pets. The kids’ faces were priceless and laced with disgust; they laughed ridiculously. The teacher even added (note: avid animal lovers should consider skipping this sentence) that if the students saw a dog or cat on the way home they should refrain from kicking it for Auntie Kristina. Just so there isn’t confusion, most dogs here are wild and not domesticated, unless they are a guard dog. For most Ghanaians, they have as much attachment to dogs as Americans do to raccoons. (Again, animal lovers don’t read this: Some villages, as one of my classmates studying nutrition has discovered by going to some of the more rural areas, will even eat cat and dog as a part of their diet.)

The kids were also very kind to perform for me a few different songs. The most memorable song was the “Barack Obama song” which is about 2 minutes of the kids singing his name and dancing around. It was absolutely adorable! They sang a few other songs and then it was time for me to move on to another classroom. When I was in the other classroom, it was fairly similar, however a few things struck me as being a little odd. First, when the children would get a little rowdy, the teachers resorted to two main “threats”. Either they would say something along the lines of “If you are not quiet, Auntie won’t take you back to America with her” or “Be quiet or Barack Obama will not come back”. I was quite taken aback by the first one, worried about what 4 and 5 year olds thought about having a stranger take them to America (or what they would tell their parents) and the second one, I just found funny.

Upon leaving the classroom, I wandered around a little, unsure of what I was supposed to do. For a while, I stood with one of our group members simply admiring the view of the mountains and the towns. Within a few minutes, however, I was approached by one of the instructors we had met with earlier who handed me a book and asked me if I could teach the lesson listed there. “Right now?” I asked. And he said yes. Hesitantly, I said that I could and he led me to the classroom. With little instruction, no knowledge of what time the class ended and no experience, I was left by myself staring at twenty 6th and 7th graders. I was told that the primary objective of the class was for English language practice, so I figured that just about anything we talked about would be satisfactory (if nothing else to help calm my nerves) and decided to begin my introducing myself and having them introduce themselves. This went fairly smoothly, aside from the fact that these students talked at volumes comfortable for dogs, but not for someone trained to loud Americans and that most of their names had indistinguishable sounds (to me) causing most of them to only use their English names in hopes that I could better understand. Used to typical American teenagers, when one student told me that his name was Prince (someone who had already been testing the waters slightly by moving around to sit with his friends) and the rest of the class laughed, I figured that he must be playing around with the silly obroni teacher who can’t understand anyone. I turned to the rest of the class and asked, if that was, in fact, his real name and they said it was. Later, it seemed appropriate as we continued with introductions where others had names such as “Rejoice”. After this, I asked them what they thought America was like or if they had any questions about America. Crickets, yet again. I asked if any of them had ever been to America, by their silence, I assumed this meant no, but I repeated the question anyway. When I was yet again met with stares, I told them that we would just have to start their lesson then.

I looked at the page and the assignment was for the students to practice describing things around them. Since many of the students had already tried to move around and sit by their friends, I figured that having them get into partners would be at least trigger some emotion. They seemed to like this idea and quickly formed into groups of two. As I walked around, I quickly realized though that none of them were doing the assignment and many of them weren’t even speaking in English. I pulled out a teacher line and said that since they weren’t doing the assignment, they must be ready to present. Thankfully, they were. As it turns out, most of these kids had known each other since birth, so describing a friend was no big deal and for the most part, they all spoke fantastic English, so this assignment seemed to be a breeze. Most of the descriptions were pretty entertaining too. Many of the boys described their friends with, for lack of a better word, charisma, almost as if they were placing an ad on behalf of their friend on eHarmony or something. Although, like any other group of middle schoolers, they were prone to talking while others were presenting, but overall, they were very respectful. Plus, this short activity got them to emerge from their shell, just a little.

Until I was saved by an administrator who said that our lunch was ready, they asked me all sorts of questions about American history and pop culture. First, they tested my knowledge of American history asking everything from who the first president was to who was the first man on the moon. Luckily, I enjoy American history, so I smugly told them each answer. Once they were satisfied with my ability to come up with historical facts, they moved on to what kind of music I liked. I told them about favorites like Jason Mraz and Michael Bublé, but they wanted to know if I had heard of Jay-Z and other hip hop artists. My favorite though was when they asked me if I knew any Michael Jackson music. Upon the mere mention of his name, I think about half of the boys in the class stood up and showed me one of his many famous moves, but mostly the moon walk (it reminded me of a story my mom tells about her early years as a teacher where she would have to go into the boys bathroom and end the break dancing parties they would have there). After I saw the other volunteers leaving their classrooms, I ended class and just left them alone (which they insisted was okay) so that I could go eat my lunch.

From then on, we sat in the teacher/staff room waiting for our meal. During that time, we exchanged stories about our experiences and the students we had encountered. Although our stories of confusion (and having no idea of what to do) were similar, one of my classmates had each of the students write a brief short story, so we spent some time enjoying those. While most of them resembled fairy tales or plot lines of soap operas, most were very original and creative. Also while we were waiting for our meal, we continued to figure out what we were going to teach. Pulling out the semester requirements and textbooks, they showed us what they hoped for us to cover. For me, I was supposed to focus on spoken language while also incorporating English grammar lessons and required readings by the government including topics such as Guinea Worm, HIV/AIDS and the natural resources of Ghana–nothing of which I felt qualified to teach, nor which I felt like I had adequate resources to prepare, especially considering the reading level for what I would presume to be relatively technical articles. Left with our assignments, our meals arrived and we were treated to the best jollof rice I have tasted so far, fried chicken, some sort of salad and amazing fruit juice. That meal left me the most satisfied I have felt throughout my time here. After our meal was finished, we piled into a taxi and the car of the principle and rode back to our dorm.

Note: In the end, I decided that it would just be best for me to help out in a classroom with the younger kids. They are wonderful to work with and I look forward to seeing them every week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *