Tuesday, January 31, 2012

One Full Week as Teacher Lisa

Monday, January 23

Today it happened. I woke up at about five in the morning to a sudden, dire pressure in my intestines.  I hurried out of the mosquito net and into my sandals.  I tried to wrench open the front door, but it swelled shut with the rain.  I tugged and tugged, feeling the pressure intensify in my stomach.  Finally, with one mighty heave, I managed to loosen the door from the door jam.   With shaking, desperate hands, I tried to unlock the padlock, but it was already too late.  I had pooped, just a little, in my underwear.

They warned us that this would happen.  The Peace Corps Medical Staff, Moz 15 Volunteers, Abby Langstead, and even Alyssa Thiel, had all warned me that this would happen.

"You will poop your pants in the Peace Corps.  Everybody does."

Well, today it happened to me.  I can't say that I was pleased.

When I finally got the gate open, Bwino ran to stand on my feet.

“Gotta go,” I said, hurriedly, shuffling past him and half walking, half running down the stairs.  

Thankfully, I made it into the toilet with the rest.

Shaky and tired, I redistributed my underclothes and went back to bed.

The rest of the day, unfortunately, did not get much better.  I arrived at the school at 12:30, ready to teach my first aula.  Dan would be arriving at 1:20, for second period.  As I walked into the teacher’s lounge, I noticed that there was a new schedule on the board.  I had an immediate sinking feeling that I was not going to like this. 

It took me a minute to even understand the schedule.  In Dan’s words, it is written in the least efficient way possible. 

“That can’t be right,” I said.  The schedule said that Dan was due to teach his first aula at 12:30 and that I only had four turmas of eighth grade.  Trying to be dignified and to muffle the fact that I was completely indignant, I marched down to the office.  The directors were not there.  Of course.  It was only Paulo.  Paulo, who rings the bell between classes and always seems to be sitting in the teacher’s lounge, watching TV. 

“Do we have a new schedule?” I asked.


“Do we have a new schedule?”

“The schedule is in the teacher’s lounge.”

“Yes, I know that.  But I saw a different schedule in the teacher’s lounge.  Why?”


“The schedule that is in the teacher’s lounge RIGHT NOW.  Is that the new schedule that I need to follow?”  (Read:  Why did nobody TELL me?)

“The schedule is in the lounge.”

“Okay.  Yes.  Will you come with me to the lounge and look at it?”

We walked over.  I was silently bristling, but tried to hide it.  I wasn’t mad at Paulo, after all. 

I showed him the revised schedule on the board.

“Here,” he said, trying to explain the schedule to me.  “This is tenth grade, in the morning.  This in ninth grade, in the morning.  Now we’re on eighth grade, in the afternoon.  Right now it is afternoon.  You teach in the afternoon.”

“I know that,” I said.  “Why is it different?

“Oh,” said Paulo.  “I don’t know.”

Sometimes, I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s Paulo that doesn’t speak Portuguese.

He stood next to me, looking perplexed and a little worn out.  It was about 12:40 at this point, and if the new schedule was correct, Dan had already lost ten minutes of class time.

Darn it, I didn’t have my phone.

“Listen,” I said.  “I have to go get Dan and tell him that he has a class.  He doesn’t know.”

I walked away, fuming.  I felt so little and unimportant.  How could they just take away my turma?  I was already barely working as it was.  And poor Dan, he had no idea that he had class right now.

Dan was on the porch, washing a dish. 

“Hey, sugar,” he said.  “Why are you home?”

“Put on your bata,” I said.  “You have class right now.”


“They changed the schedule.  Don’t ask me.  But we need to go.”

“Okay, let me just put on pants.”

Poor, good Teacher Dan.  Many of our counterparts would have just skipped class at this point. 

When we got back to the school, I was able to finagle with Artur the math teacher to reclaim my lost aula

“See here,” I said.  “They have scheduled me for two at the same time.  That’s impossible.  But if you and I just switch, here…”

Luckily, Artur was reasonable and flexible.  He switched 8E from first period to third period and I was able to keep my original five turmas.  I didn’t start class until 1PM, though.  That was thirty minutes late. 

I had been really proud of my lesson plan for that day.  First, we were going to do a review of the classroom commands from last week.  Then, we were going to start our dictionaries by writing the opening page (O Meu Dicionario) and numbering and lettering the pages.  I had ten simple words that I wanted to put in to get the project started.  Finally, I had written a fairly simple assessment to see what the students had and had not retained from the previous two years of English class.  It seemed like a simple, sensible 45 minute lesson. 

Well.  I have a lot to learn. 

I started my first class 30 minutes late and decided to commence with the assessment.

“With our fifteen minutes,” I said, “I am going to write a few questions on the board.  I want you to try your best to follow the instructions and answer the questions.  I will not give a grade for this.  I just want to see what you remember from last year.”

The students nodded their heads.  A few of them did, anyway.  The rest just kind of… looked at me. 

It was unsettling.  It is always unsettling.

I felt like the questions would be easy. 

“Write the answers in English,” I said.  “Livro, Lapiz, Caneta, Porta, Janela.”  Book, Pencil, Pen, Door, Window.  I had gotten these vocabulary lists from the first page of their sixth grade English textbook. 

I finished copying my questions in about four minutes.  Nervously, I walked between the rows.

The students were copying incredibly slowly. 

“Nuuuummmmmmbbbberrrr Onnnnne.  Leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-vro.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I just want the answers.  Just write the number of the question and your answer next to it.”

“Nuuuuummmmmbbbberrrrr Twooooo.

I almost tore my hair out.  After ten minutes of this snail’s-pace torture, I was feeling a bit frazzled. 

“Okay,” I said.  “Here’s the deal.  You guys have the rest of the day to fill out the answers to this.  You can work together, if you want.  I will return at the beginning of sixth period to collect your notebooks.”

There was a barely perceptible nod of assent from the class.  Most of them were still intent on copying.  Still.

So I was definitely not having a good day when I started teaching 8A for second period.  I was, however, determined to make this work. 

“Who here brought an extra notebook to make their dictionary?”  I asked my second period class.  About ten people raised their hands.  Honestly, I was not that surprised.  Without a Livro da Turma (Class Book), I really had no way to enforce that they did their homework.  Only a select few of my students are actually self-motivated.

“All right,” I said.  “Let’s move on to the assessment.  You must bring your extra notebook to class on Thursday, because we are going to begin creating our dictionaries.”

I explained the purpose of the assessment, and then wrote my questions on the board.  Again, the entire process took about five minutes.

“Remember,” I said, “I am not giving a grade for this.  I only want to see what you know and what you do not know.”

Slowly, very, very slowly, they began to write. 

“Answers!” I said, again, realizing that they meant to copy my instructions, too.  “I only need numbers and answers!” 

By the end of class, I realized that no one was finished.  Oh well, perhaps I could get a good read by what they had done. 

But wait.  How would I collect their notebooks?

In America, the students leave the classroom and the teacher stays.  In America, I would have asked them to leave it on my desk as they left the room.  Here, though, it was me who was leaving.  How was I supposed to collect their notebooks?  Why didn’t I think of this!?

“Time’s up,” I said.  “Pencils down.  You have a five minute interval until your next class.  Please hand me your notebooks as you leave the class.”

Not one single person moved. 

I wanted to cry. 

“Hand in your notebooks,” I said. 

I feel so weak and helpless when giving commands in Portuguese.

Still, nobody moved.  Mozambican students, I am learning, are like a slow-moving train.  They are hard to get started and equally impossible to stop. 

Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I marched right up to the first person in the first row and demanded their notebook. 

“I know you’re not finished,” I said.  “But class is over now.”  I all but had to tear it out of their hands.

Second person in the first row.  “Your notebook please,” I said.

First person in the second row.  “Your notebook.”

Second person in the second row.  “Your notebook.”

It was exhausting and embarrassing.  I was aware that some of the students were laughing at me.  As is often the problem, I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that they were laughing at.  I don’t really know how a Mozambican class is supposed to be run, so I never know when I am doing the wrong things.  In this instance, it was probably because I had chosen the single least efficient method of collecting notebooks. 

It took five minutes to collect every notebook.  I know this, because I had started directly after the first bell and finished directly after the second bell. 

“There goes your interval,” I thought.  “Serves you right.”

“Tchau, alunos,” I said.  They just snickered at me.

“Tchaaaaa-uuu,” they sneered.

In my third period, I just chose to avoid the evaluation all together.  “Maybe we’ll get to it at the end,” I thought, “and just go over it verbally.” 

I already had my hands full with 49 notebooks from turma 8A. 

Things got better after I dropped the evaluation, but only just.  The dictionary segment of my class, which I had assumed would take no more than 15 or 20 minutes, was eating up an entire 45-minute lesson.  And the kids were thoroughly confused.

‘Why do they copy so slowly?’  I wondered.  ‘Why is this so hard?’  I was beginning to thoroughly regret this project. 

The Dictionary Project, I should explain, was supposed to be simple.  With a little bit of work, I thought, it could be very rewarding.  First, they would buy an extra notebook.  Then, I gave them information for the cover page.  Basically, it would say (in Portuguese):

My Dictionary
Portuguese – English

Note:  Every word in this dictionary is a
Noun, verb, adjective, or adverb.  We will
Use the following abbreviations:

Noun …….  Noun
Verb ……. Verb
Adjective……. Adj
Adverb……. Adv

Then, every day, I would give them between five and ten relevant vocabulary words to copy onto the correct pages.  By the end of the semester, I pictured every student toting their own complete classroom dictionary.  At that point, I reasoned, they would have nearly 1,000 words.  It wasn’t working out the way that I had hoped, though. 

The last two classes got considerably better, but I still wasn’t happy.  I wasn’t happy with myself or with them.  The lesson that I thought was going to be fun and productive (Start a Dictionary!  Give an Assessment!) had turned into a mindless mess of copying and confusion.

“Some letters need more space in the dictionary,” I tried to explain.  “Like the letter S.  Lots of words start with S.  So we are going to give it two pages.”

Blank stares.

It later occurred to me that perhaps they had never seen a dictionary before in their lives. 

That night, Dan and I walked home from the market during a beautiful pink sunset.  Fog was starting to roll in between the mountains and over the fields.  We stopped at the soccer field to watch.  Even though we have been discouraged against making physical contact in public, I put my head on Dan’s shoulder.

“The Peace Corps experience is so up and down,” I sighed.  “I don’t even know if I’m happy or sad right now.”

“Me neither,” said Dan.  “I’m just tired.”

Tuesday, January 24

If yesterday was the day that I pooped my pants, then today was the day that I threw up in my mouth in front of a room full of students. 

I was sick all morning.  I chose not to eat breakfast, and instead curled up on the couch in a little ball.  I was too sick, even, to read Harry Potter in Portuguese, which I have been chugging through since November. 

I chose to have half a piece of bread before class, but that was probably a mistake.  Regardless, I was determined to teach this aula.  I was still shocked and disappointed by the attitudes of my Mozambican co-workers, and felt like the most important thing that I could do right now was just to show up for class.  I wasn’t sure I was a good teacher, but, as I told myself, “at least I go to class.” 

The topic was Introductions.  I wrote the following paragraph on the board:

“Hello!  How are you?  My name is Teacher Lisa and I am from
America.  I am twenty-four years old.  I have one brother and
one sister.  I like to read and to write.  I just introduced myself.
Today, we are going to learn how to introduce ourselves.”

I asked for a volunteer to read the first two sentences, but nobody raised their hand.  Finally, after a few minutes of choosing people who then stood up and gaped at me (mouth: open, mouth: closed, mouth: open), I had an idea. 

“Let’s just read this together,” I said.  “I’ll go first, you second.”

“Hello, how are you?”

“Hello, how are you?”

“My name is Teacher Lisa.”

“My name is Teacher Lisa.”

And so on. 

At the end of the previous class, I had offered a prize to the person who had made the most beautiful dictionary. 

“You have colored pencils, right?”  I had asked.

The students had nodded. 

“Okay,” I said.  “A good prize on Tuesday for the most beautiful dictionary.”


Not one single person decorated their dictionary.  I ended up awarding two prizes to a neighboring pair of girls who had scribbled a half-hearted map of Mozambique on the second page of what I think was actually their usual class notebook.  At the time, I didn’t think to scour for cheaters. 

I felt very lousy about giving a prize after that.  Especially when, before I left, the whole class started to beg for more prizes.

I was writing the homework on the board (BUY AN EXTRA NOTEBOOK) when I heard a general mumbling.

“Duvidas?”  I asked.  Questions?  Doubts?

“Sim!”  Said the class.  Yes!

“Well, what is it?”  I asked.

“Premios,” one girl shouted.  Prizes!

“Premios?”  I asked.  I was thoroughly confused.  Prizes?

“Da-nos premios,” said the same, obnoxious girl in the second row.  Give us prizes.

“Ja,” I said.  “Ja dei premios.”  I just did.  I just gave prizes.

“Da-nos mais.”  Give us more.

At that, my friends, is about the time that I unexpectedly vomited into my mouth.  For a moment I stood there, cheeks swollen.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  Finally, I decided that my only option was to swallow it back down and then run to the bathroom.

“No,” I said, feeling rather hectic.  “No mais premios.”  No more prizes.  I recognized that the situation within my body was becoming dire.

“Okay.  Bye, alunos.” I said.

“Byyyyyyyyyyye,” they said.  As I ran/trotted away, a few of them yelled out the window at me.


I was promptly sick.

After my latest bout, I was so weak and shaky that I couldn't wait for Dan outside of his classroom.  I went back to the teacher’s lounge and collapsed into one of the armchairs.  When Dan joined me three minutes later, I asked for his help in carrying my purse and the prize box. 

For dinner, I managed to choke down a hard-boiled egg and a single, stewed tomato. 

Dan tried to put on a movie for us that night, but I was too tired.  I was asleep by eight-thirty.

Wednesday, January 25

I woke up at about midnight with a tight pain around my waist.  After a few minutes, it became clear that it was not going away, and that I would have to take more extreme action.  Sleepily, I ducked out of the mosquito net and slipped on my inside-the-house shoes. 

I made my way to the porta and unlocked it, dreading every minute of what was coming.  When I got to the latrine, however, I was saddened to realize that I was feeling nothing more than dry, intestinal cramps.

After about fifteen minutes waiting, I gave up and came back inside.  However, I still had a wrenching pain in my gut told me that this night wasn’t over.  I took my pillow off of the bed and set up a blanket on the sofa. 

After about thirty minutes of writhing and wincing, it occurred to me that it might help if I threw up.  I re-opened the grate and switched shoes, adjusting my headlamp and heading back to the latrine.  I was going to stick my finger down my throat and I was going to throw up if it was the last thing I did that night.

It worked, all right.  Bits of stringy tomato bounced into the back of my throat and landed with a soft plop on the high, level surface of the latrine. 

After my stomach was completely empty, the cramps began to abate. 

“Thank God,” I thought.  “I am so tired.”  Once inside, I wrapped the blanket around myself and went back to sleep.  I left the door unlocked, though.  I wasn’t sure if I was finished, yet.

Thirty minutes later, the cramps were back.  They were a little more intense than they had been before.  I immediately ran to the ledge of our veranda and threw up into our concrete gutter.  Bwino stared at me, looking alarmed.

What followed, I will admit, was not my proudest moment.  I had to make a decision.  I could go now to the latrine and wait until something finally happened, or I could go back inside and rig the chamberpot between two dining room chairs and try to get some sleep.  On top of my homemade toilet. 

I chose the latter option.  I placed the chamberpot on top of an up-turned bacia and wedged that in between two wooden chairs.  I could straddle the two wooden chairs and aim directly between them into the chamberpot.  It was the perfect idea.  Then, on a whim, I placed a third chair directly in front of me and piled it high with pillows.  Now, with my face on the pillows, I could sleep comfortably and use the bathroom when the mood struck.  Yay, Africa! 

Shame evaporates like water on the sandy soil.

What is the difference, really, between squatting over a churning hole in the ground and sitting comfortably over a clean blue bucket?  A toilet is a toilet is a toilet, when you’re in Africa.  A bush or stone wall can be a toilet, too. 

By two in the morning, I was back in bed on the couch, sleeping comfortably.  When I woke up the next morning, I was tired, but free from pain.

Surprisingly, I had no trouble with my afternoon classes.  Every day, I realize something new.

“Oh, if only I knew this yesterday!”  I have been saying.

For each new class, I make amendments to my lesson plans to account for the things I have learned.  This afternoon, when having my kids start their dictionary project, I realized that it was true- none of them had ever seen a dictionary in their lives.  Well, that changed everything!  Suddenly, my original explanation (“I want this to look just like a real dictionary”) seemed horribly insufficient. 

Today, I brought in a few dictionaries from home and drew diagrams of dictionary pages on the board.

"BIG LETTERS!"  I said.  "Every page is going to have a BIG LETTER on the top."

For dinner, Dan and I went out to eat at the only restaurant in town- Quinta Monte Zobue.  I still wasn’t hungry, but we ordered a half-chicken with an extra plate of fries to split between the two of us.  The extra food we could bring home for Bwino.

The service was slow, of course, but it was a nice night.  It was chilly, for summer in Africa, but it wasn’t raining, and we could see glimpses of the sunset between the gray clouds.  Two other professors also went out to eat that night, and addressed us to the restaurant staff as “os professors” and not “A’zungu.”  It was heartening. 

Thursday, January 26

I am starting to feel better.  Today, I had two doubles, which was lucky.  I needed to get out of the house and to be reminded of my purpose.  Every class is getting better and better.  I am starting to understand the kids, and, more importantly, I am starting to understand their limitations.  I still regret, just a little bit, the installment of the dictionary project, but I am willing to push through and make it work. 

With my first turma, we played a game of palmas.  To review the numbers 1-10 (which are very easy for them), I would say the name of a number in English and the participants (two runners) would have to race to the board to slap the corresponding numerical value.  It was hugely successful, but a little bit too noisy.  I had to tell them more than once to quiet down. 

For my second turma, I tried writing my introduction on the board-

“Hello!  How are you?  My name is Teacher Lisa and I am from
America.  I am twenty-four years old.  I have one brother and
one sister.  I like to read and to write.  I just introduced myself.
 Today, we are going to learn how to introduce ourselves.”

-and including corresponding translations underneath.

  1. Eu gusto de ler e escrever.
  2. Eu tenho um irmao e uma irma.
  3. Eu tenho 24 anos.
  4. Meu nome e Tr. Lisa e eu sou da America.

To get them to think about the literal translations of what I had written (and thus understand my paragraph), I called up volunteers to circle the matching sentences in English and in Portuguese.  I was so, so, so happy and gratified when it worked.  It felt like another hurdle that I had just cleared.  I now had a way to ensure that they were translating and understanding my English. 

When checking dictionaries, I became wise to the fact that there had been some cheating in my classes. 

“I would like to give points for dictionaries,” I said.  “BUT, in order to earn points, you must have TWO notebooks, one regular and one dictionary, and your dictionary must have letters along the top of every page.  If you can show me both notebooks AND the lettered pages, I will give you plus one point on your homework grade.”

When I returned home, Dan was busy washing dishes. 

“How was 8D?”  He asked.  That was the turma with which he had had the most trouble.  At the end of the day, they tend to get very riled up.   He had almost sent a few of them home the other day, for bad behavior.  The behavior of this class, in particular, contrasts starkly against the demure, uncooperative nature of our other classes. 

“Well,” I said.  “It’s different for me than for you.”

“They were good for you?” 

“No,” I said, slowly.  “They weren’t.  It’s just… my class is louder.  It’s English.  It takes a lot more participation.  So I have them talking anyway.  It gets some of their energy out.”  I thought for a minute.  “I did have to scold them a lot, though.”

It was true.  Sometimes they would get so excited to answer or write on the board that they would rush out of their seats before I was finished giving instructions.

“Can I have a volunteer-“ I would start, and suddenly six little bodies would come hurtling towards me.  “No, no, NO.  Sit down.  I want a volunteer to read this answer.  No, raise your hands.” 

Sometimes it was hard not to laugh, because they were so riled up and excited, but I tried my hardest to maintain a fairly strict demeanor.  I don’t know if I pulled it off, though.  They were truly so funny and so bad.  I hope that this does not come back to haunt me.  I do want to be respected. 

We had scrambled eggs for dinner.  For the first time in three days, I was able to eat nearly all of the food on my plate.

Small victories. 

It occurred to me, then, that you can have a lot of small victories in two whole years. 

Friday, January 27

Today was the best of all the days this week. 

My class was wonderful.  I practiced entering and exiting the room for the Good Morning Song (which they thought was really funny) and I reiterated my requirements for their dictionary project.  I went over introductions with them, and then gave out homework points for students with dictionaries.  This time, I was very strict.  Despite my sharp eye and unwillingness to budge, I still gave out fifteen points for perfect dictionaries.  I even gave out four prizes (pencils) for exceptional work.  Two of my students had filled out pages with their own definitions that they had gleaned from previous class notebooks.  That was unprecedented.  I was so happy. 

When I arrived home, I did the dishes and made some tea.  Finally, I was in a good, good mood.  I was healthy.  My classes were going well.  Bwino was behaving beautifully and was taking himself outside to pee. 

When Dan got home, I did some lesson planning for the following week, recorded my class details, and chose dinner from our Mozambican cookbook.   Together, Dan and I settled on stuffed peppers and yellow cake.  We were going to try baking. 

We brought the ingredients home from the market and made the cake that very same evening.  When we brought it out of oven, it was firm and buttery-yellow.  It was also delicious.  It was Grandma’s homemade, Ruby Tuesday, ice-cream Sunday delicious.  We were so, so proud.  Again, it’s the small victories that give us hope.  This time, we were celebrating our small victory over cuisine.

“Can we bring a piece to Romao and Marcelina?”  I asked. 

“You’re nice,” said Dan. 

And so I did. 

That, my faithful readers, is an account of one full week, and of my second week as an English teacher in Africa.  It’s a bit honest at times, but I really don’t feel shy, especially about my stomach troubles.  Every single volunteer in this country experiences the same thing, at one time or another, and we don’t mind saying so.

This week has been especially trying, but I wanted to be honest about it.  Even 11 hours of teaching per week can seem exhausting when you are unable to eat or hold down food!  

Next post:  Things that are Hilarious


  1. Sounds like you'll be a good teacher with all your adapting and learning from your experiences. Kids in 8th grade really need a lot of guidance, but once they learn your system at least 50% should respond positively. Just stay resilient, it gets easier, but there are always new trials. I love the blog, keep up with the posts.

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