What Tanzania taught the Kiwi teacher

July 2013


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HOLLY PAYNE reflects on her time teaching in Tanzania and questions whether her Kiwi teaching methods were appropriate in a vastly different culture.

Having returned from Africa over three years ago, there is rarely a day when I don’t reflect on a moment from Gyetighi School, situated amidst coffee plantations and cornfields, in the Safari Capital of Tanzania. The people, culture, geography, and resources, made for a teaching experience I will never forget.

At first, it was the differences that stood out to me the most. The prefabs for classrooms, and the small children sitting row by row, six per bench, was a somewhat different classroom set-up to what I had grown accustomed at Queen Margaret Girls’ College in Wellington. There, we had one desk per child and chairs were tailor made for back posture and comfort. Furthermore, at Queen Margaret, the students were well-nourished and there was a 24 student per class limit. In stark contrast to this, at Gyetighi, I taught between 40 and 70 students per class, and while the students appeared to be tiny in physique, they were in fact often 17 and 18 years of age, malnourished and underdeveloped. The playground consisted of one metal swing and a slide, donated by an American organisation, and the students of Gyetighi worked hard to maintain the conditions of the play area. During the break time they hacked at the mud with metal hoes, while smaller children played and darted the swinging tools. All I could think of was the jungle gym that had recently arrived in the Junior School of Queen Margaret. It was surrounded by rubber padding and of high tech design. Tanzania was no comparison for playgrounds or for health and safety.

Armed with chalk and a blackboard, as well as three weeks of Kiswahili language school, paid for by VSA (Volunteer Service Abroad), I was handed my resources for teaching. I had observed the Tanzanian practices, more often than not limited to rote learning and a small, outdated text book, so I was keen to try out the Kiwi method, among limited resources and a different culture and language. I introduced group work, class discussion, vocab lists, unit plans, and to my students’ surprise, I turned up to class each day. For Tanzanian teachers, the latter was particularly difficult, as often they also ran a personal business, such as growing crops or selling milk from their cows, to make up for the insufficient pay in teaching. While at first I was outraged by this lack of commitment and consistency, as time passed, I came to question what I would do given these same circumstances. Tanzania was no comparison for a teacher’s salary.

Introducing new teaching methods was a challenge indeed. Both students and teachers were used to the command method of teaching and therefore they were reluctant to try anything new. It was difficult for the Tanzanian teachers to realise that just because students were talking in class, it did not mean that they were off task, and just because they did not recite phrases back to the teacher, it did not mean that they would not remember the material. With time and effort, I was able to demonstrate how teaching can be interactive and engaging and that perhaps there should be less emphasis on what is right and wrong, and more emphasis on the process of learning. In saying this, however, as I became wiser through time in Tanzania, I began to understand the consequences of a right or wrong answer in the Tanzanian education system. The difference between a pass and fail is the difference between further education and relegation to the fields. In Karatu, coffee workers earn less than one dollar a day, while passing grade 7 means entry into secondary school and a ticket out of the remote Rift Valley. Therefore, I came to question my own teaching practices. Perhaps drilling of questions and answers was the best way to pass an exam? What evidence do we have that diverse teaching methods produce better results for Tanzanian children whose outcomes are vastly different to New Zealand students? As a white woman from small town New Zealand, my perspective was limited. Perhaps teaching in Tanzania cannot be compared to teaching in New Zealand.

However, as my days at school unravelled, similarities also began to appear. First, there were similarities in the staff room. Indeed, teacher hierarchy transcends culture and language! Additionally, there were similarities in the way in which children behave. No matter what culture or languages, children will always manipulate whatever they have available to create games and laughter. Plastic bags wrapped with string make just as good balls as rubber ones and flicking bugs work just as well as flicking paper clips or blue tack in the classroom!

On reflection, Tanzania has taught me the importance of an open mind. It has taught me not to judge before knowing and not to make comparisons with individuals and cultures. It has also taught me to think twice about my own teaching practices and to never assume that one teaching practice is better than another. For me, there is no such thing as ‘universal best practice’. It is indeed specific to a certain culture and place. Furthermore, what New Zealanders may label as poverty, is not necessarily what the children of Tanzania consider it to be. And in making judgements and comparisons there is danger in creating issues of corruption and unhappiness that previously did not exist. Teaching in remote Tanzania is no comparison to teaching in New Zealand.

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