Friday, January 20, 2012

The New School Year

Tuesday, January 17:

Today was our first day of school.  We were feeling a little nervous when we woke up in the morning, because we still didn’t have our schedule.  We already knew which grade we would be teaching, but we didn’t know how many classes we would have, which ones, and at what time we should arrive.  There were some things that we did know, however, and it was enough to begin a tentative lesson plan for the afternoon:

  • We would be teaching eighth grade, which meets from 12:30PM until 5:35PM
  • We would have 45 minutes for each lesson
  • We would only have a portion of our future class in attendance
  • We would need a fun, introductory lesson that was also disposable

Dan went to visit the school at about nine in the morning and, thankfully, returned with a copy of the schedule. 

“Okay,” he said.  “I mean, it’s good and bad.  You have five turmas of eight grade English- 8A, B, C, D, and E.  Each turma only meets three times a week.  So that’s pretty easy.  You just work in the afternoons. 

“The bad news is, I’m teaching four turmas of eighth grade math, and they meet five times a week.  I am also teaching TICS in the mornings on Wednesday.  So I have to get ready.” 

I felt bad for him, but I did like my schedule.  There was a nice easy symmetry to it- 8A, B, C, D, and E.  It was a little wide open, though:










As I looked over my schedule, I started to wonder.  How much actual teaching was that?  11 hours?  And why did each class only meet three times a week?  They would never learn English with such a half-hearted schedule.  Though I was relieved that the next few months would be light and easy, I also felt underutilized. 

12:30 rolled around, and I found myself at the school, standing next to the Director on the elevated sidewalk, staring down at seven straight lines of eight graders.  I was wearing my bata (lab coat) over slate-grey slacks, trying my hardest to pretend that I was older than 24 and that I was more prepared than I looked.  A scared mouse of an eighth grader scrambled up beside us on the sidewalk to lead the National Hymn.

Na memoria da Africa do mundo…

I didn’t remember all of the National Hymn, but it was apparent that the children didn’t, either.  There was a lot of mumbling around the middle of the song.  After singing, the Director gave the students a strict lecture and sent them to their classrooms:  8A to Classroom 1, 8B to Classroom 2, etc.  I was surprised to find that there were no other professors outside on the ledge with us.   I accompanied my class to the first classroom, and the students settled into their seats while I put my purse on the teacher’s desk.  Shakily, I shifted through my papers.

 “Don’t freak out,” I thought.  “Don’t freak out, or they’ll notice.”   I only had about sixteen students out of fifty.  “Good,” I thought.  “Let’s start small.”

The hardest part about teaching English in eighth grade is the fact that I have to speak in Portuguese.  On that first day, I was speaking almost entirely in Portuguese.  I introduced myself, and, to my surprise, the class was totally silent.  I saw only blank stares, brown faces, and giant white eyes staring out of the darkness.  There was no barrulho, no shifting, no talking.  Just me in the front of the classroom.  Me and my Portuguese. 

It was like pushing a heavy wheelbarrow up a hill. 

“I can do this,” I thought.

Thankfully, I had my plan for the day memorized.  Smoothly (and without  interruptions), we transitioned from one thing to another.  I could have been in that room alone.  Somehow, though, because I was in front of a class, the silence seemed deeper.  Like we were trapped in a well.

I asked them to help me think of rules for the classroom.  In return, I saw a lot of confused faces. 

“Can anybody help me think of a good classroom rule?”  I asked.

Blank stares.

“Did you have rules in primary school?”

Weak nod from one student.

“Give me one rule from primary school.”

Blank stares.

“One rule.  From primary school.”

Blank stares. 

Sigh.  “I have a rule.”  I reached out with my piece of chalk and wrote,

Levanta sua mao se quer falar na aula.  Raise your hand if you want to speak in class.

“Did you have that same rule in primary school?”

Weak nods.

“Okay.  So, like that rule, let’s think of other rules that you had in primary school.  Let’s think together.”

Blank stares. 

Was it my Portuguese?  Was I a bad teacher?  My wheelbarrow was getting heavier with each progressive step. 

I wrote my next four rules on the chalkboard and asked them to copy them into their notebooks. 

Chega na hora.  Arrive on time.
Faz seu TPC.  Do your homework.
Se tem duvidas, pergunta-me.  If you have doubts or questions, ask me.
Quem cabula tem 0.  He who cheats receives a zero. 

“If you understand these rules and agree that they are good rules for our classroom, please sign your name underneath the rules that you have written.  This is a contract.”  Underneath the rules I had written on the board, I wrote my own name,

Lisa Spencer

I walked around to check their notebooks as they copied the information from the board.  I saw one girl, and another, start to sign my own name in their notebooks. 


“No, no!”  I said, pointing at the line.  “Sign your own names if you agree to these rules.  This is your signature.”

These poor kids.  This was their first day of high school and they were absolutely shell-shocked.  Not only were they in a new classroom in a new school with new friends, they had a white teacher who had no idea how to run a Mozambican classroom. 

Didn’t I know that it was my job to dictate everything?  I am supposed to write on the board while they copy.  I am not supposed to ask for their input.  That’s confusing.  Class could end up who knows where if I let them take the reins.  No, every class should have a flow:  sit, write, copyCopy.  Copy.  In fact, if I was a real teacher, I wouldn’t even be here on the first day.  Crazy branca.  Crazy white girl. 

When they had all given their own signatures to our classroom contract, we only had five minutes left in class.  I wrote the words to the Good Morning Song on the board. 

Good Morning, Good Morning
And How Do You Do?
Good Morning, Good Morning,
I’m Fine, How Are You?

“Please copy this,” I said.  “This song is important.  It is the Good Morning Song.  We are going to sing this song every day.”

Sixteen little heads bent over their notebooks.  Scribble.  Erase.  Scribble scribble. 

The bell rang. 

“Okay.  Obrigada, thank you,” I said.  “Goodbye.  I will see you tomorrow.” 

Ending a class is awkward, and I don’t quite understand how to do it.  In Mozambique, it is the teacher who leaves the room, not the students.  I said goodbye, then erased the board and packed my purse.  Chalk, into the purse.  Eraser, into the purse.  Attendance sheet, where was that?  Oh, there it was, under the lesson plan.  Into the purse.  Then, I hefted my bag over my shoulder and surveyed the class once again. 

“Okay,” I said.  “Goodbye.”

“Yes, Teacher,” they said.  Feeling very aware of myself, I crossed the front of the classroom and ducked out the front door.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was the only teacher who had taught during that first time block.  Therefore, I was a bit of an attraction.  I had to push through a crowd that had gathered by the door to listen. 

“8B?”  I said, addressing the students at my feet.  “Let’s go.  You have class now.”  The crowd scattered.  8B scurried into the ajoining classroom.  8C, 8D, 8E, and 8F flocked to the windows to watch. 

“For heaven’s sake,” I thought.  I would be teaching the same lesson for each of my five classes.  If the students wanted to watch all five, that was fine with me. 

This time, I had thirty-three students.  Out of a class of fifty, that was a 66% attendance rate.  Really, it was much better than I had expected for the first day. 

Like with the first class, getting input on the classroom rules was a difficult process.  In the end, I just wrote all five rules and asked them to copy. 

“If you agree to follow these rules, please sign your name at the bottom of the page,” I said.  “SIGN YOUR OWN NAME.”

By the time I was teaching my fourth class, I felt like I was sleepwalking.  Did I say these things already to this class?  No, I don’t think so.  I was following my lesson plan.  I felt like I was repeating myself, though.  The last class was the hardest.  There were only twelve students, and they seemed depressed and stubbornly non-communicative.

“What other classes did you have today?”  I asked them, trying to make conversation.  This is one of my worst traits- filling in silence with useless words.  Talking just to talk. 

“We don’t have a schedule,” a student finally said. 

“Well, okay,” I said.  “But you still know what classes you had today.”


“What class did you have before this class?”  I asked.  It had been a hard day, and I was losing patience. 


“Okay,” I said, drawing a blank schedule on the board.  “You are with me now, and I know that you are with my husband next for math.  What class did you have here, for fourth period?”

Silence.  Finally, one student said, “We didn’t have a teacher.”

“No teacher?”


“What about here, for third period?”  I asked. 

“We didn’t have a teacher.”

“Second period?”

“We didn’t have a teacher.”

“First period?”

“We didn’t have a teacher.”

“I am the first teacher that you have had all day?”  I asked. 

“Yes, Teacher.” 

I felt lousy and confused.  “Okay,” I said.  I didn’t know what else to say.  “Well, let’s begin.”

There was no mistaking it.  This was a sad and depressed class.  By the time I reached them, they had given up on the first day of school. 

By the time the bell rang, I was hurt and out of energy.  Why were Dan and I the only teachers who had shown up?  How was this fair to us or to the kids?  I made my way to the fifth classroom to find my fifth and final class, 8E.  The crowd of kids outside had thinned out over the course of the afternoon . The sun was lower in the sky and it was distinctly cooler outside.  When I reached the fifth classroom, I was surprised to find it empty. 

“Where is 8E?” I asked a student standing outside the door. 

“They left for home,” she said. 

I felt a flash of anger.  All of them had left for home?  “Why did they do that?”  I asked.

“Because they had no teachers,” she said.  

So that was it.  My students had gone home.  After waiting all day, for five periods without a teacher, they had finally given up and gone home.  They had no way of knowing that I was coming. 

I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I looked around the school complex.  It was nearly empty, now.  All of the classes had gone home except for 8C, who were with Dan.  There were only 12 of them left. 

Feeling confused and useless, I shrugged off my lab coat and draped it over my arm.  Then, I straightened my shoulders and leveled my chin, starting in the direction of my little yellow house.  I went to school today, I thought.  And I will go back to school tomorrow.  Because I’m a teacher, and that’s what I do.

Wednesday, January 18:

Dan had to teach class in the morning, so felt obligated to wake up with him and start working, as well.  I did little household things:  making tea, making breakfast, putting away papers and books and things that were messy.  I finalized my lesson plan, too, and was feeling quiet excited.  I had a sneaky little scheme that I was fairly certain I could pull off. 

I invented the scheme after discovering that, yesterday, Dan and I had accidentally taught the Monday schedule instead of the Tuesday schedule. 

“Well, honestly,” I said.  “Who starts on a Tuesday, anyway?  And why didn’t we run into any other teachers if we were teaching all of the wrong classes?”

I had told 8C, the depressed class from fourth period, that I would be teaching them a double lesson today.  Unfortunately, though, because it was actually Wednesday and not Tuesday, they were not scheduled for any such double.  Here is where I cooked up my sneaky scheme.  I had a feeling that their real teacher was not going to show up.  Who would stop me from walking in there and teaching a double?  Nobody would find out.  The kids didn’t have their schedule yet and wouldn’t even know that I wasn’t supposed to be in there.

And so, I hijacked two entire class periods and taught my double.  I was very pleased with myself, because this meant that every eight grade class would receive their double for this week and that we would all be on the same page for next week’s lessons.  

That illicit double, however, was the craziest lesson that I have ever taught in my life.  That includes lessons that I’ve taught standing knee-deep in water and lessons that I’ve taught while holding a giant bird of prey.  When I entered the classroom, I was pleased to see that I had a full 43 students out a total of 50.  This attendance rate absolutely justified my presence.  If I hadn’t just hijacked this double period, they would have sat in this empty classroom for the next hour and a half, waiting for a teacher.  As it was, they were in for a huge adventure. 

I should preface this by saying that Mozambican classes are, in general, very tame.  There is a lot of copying and a lot of rote memorization.  Creativity is not fostered in the classroom, and lessons are generally bogged down by a lot of long-winded lecturing on the part of the teacher. 

In America, there is a lot more emphasis on being dynamic.  My lesson plan today was especially exciting, by Mozambican standards. 

We started with the Good Morning Song.  The fact that we were singing in the classroom, I think, was novel in and of itself.  I enjoyed it, and I think they enjoyed it too, although the words I was hearing were more along the lines of:

AYAYAY- and yoooooooooooo?

Next, I introduced my world map and had two students help me stick it to the board. 

“Can anybody guess how many countries in the world speak English as their national language?”  I asked.

Nobody.  Of course.

“I will give you a hint,” I said.  “It is more than ten.”


“And less than thirty.”


“I will tell you.  It is 24.  Twenty-four countries in the world speak English as their national language.”

No reaction.

“Can anyone guess what countries speak English?”


“What country am I from?”


“What country am I from?”

A soft voice from the back of the room whispered, “America.”

“That’s right!  I’m from America.  America definitely speaks English.  What other countries speak English?  What about other countries right here in southern Africa?”


“What about South Africa?” 

Slow, nodding heads. 

“Sure!  South Africa speaks English.  What about Malawi?”

A few nods. 

“Yes!  Malawi speaks English.”


“Okay,” I said.  “We are going to have a competition.  I am going to divide you into four groups, by rows.  Each group needs to make one list.  You are going to make a list of countries that you think speaks English as a national language.  But- it is not good to guess.  Every correct point will earn +1 points for your team.  Every incorrect point will earn you -1 points for your team.  Do you have any questions?”


“Do you understand?”


“If you understand me, nod your heads.”


“If you do not understand, say no.”


“Okay, when I say “go,” we are going to start.  You are going to make a list of countries”



Nothing.  There was not even one single, solitary flutter of movement amongst the class.



I started going to each row individually, and explaining what they had to do.  “Sit closer together,” I said.  “You need to make a list.  Talk about what countries in the world might speak English.  We have already said a few.”

Finally, very slowly, the students began to coalesce and form lists of countries.  I walked around and smiled encouragingly.  At least, I hoped to be encouraging.  It seemed that my mere presence was terrifying to these kids. 

After five minutes or so, they seemed to be out of ideas.  “Hand in your lists!”  I said.  “Let’s see who is the winner.”

I made a grid, Groups vs. Points, on the board and read the first sheet out loud. 

“America, South Africa, Malawi, England, and Bolivia.” 

The class sat silently, expectantly.

“Plus four points for America, South Africa, Malawi, and England, but minus one point for Bolivia,” I said.  “Three points total.  Good job, Group 1!” 

They beamed at me from the front row.

“Group 2,” I said, “Wrote America, Africa, and China.  Okay, well, two points, I guess, for American and Africa, but minus one for China.  One point for Group 2.”

I read all of the scores out loud, and then announced a winner.

“With three points,” I said, “Group 1 is the winner!  Bata palmas for Group 1!”

The room burst into happy applause. 

“Now,” I said, “There are twenty-four countries in the world that speak English as a national language.  Would you like to know what they are?”

“Yes, Teacher.”

I stood with my map at the front of the room and began affixing sticky little red squares to individual countries. 

“America,” I said.  “Canada.  England.  Ireland. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan.  Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand.”

I got a little bit faster.

“In Africa, we have no less than 13 countries that speak English as a national language.  Ghana, Niger, Namibia.  Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania.  Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia.  South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland.  Finally, Botswana.”  I affixed the last red square in southern Africa.  “Mozambique is an island in a sea of English,” I said.  “That’s why you are learning English here, in school.”

The bell rang.

“You have five minutes for intervalo,” I said.  “Then we are going to answer the question, Why English?”

The kids poured out of the classroom. 

Dan knocked on the doorframe and entered, his lab coat over his arm.  “I’m going home,” he said.  “To get some food.  How did it go?” 

“It’s pretty crazy,” I said.  “They just stare at me most of the time.”

“Yeah,” said Dan.  “Me too.”

When the bell rang again, the kids took their seats quickly and efficiently.  I picked up my chalk and began to write the phrase,

“Por que estamos a apprender Ingles?”  Why are we learning English?

Suddenly, it started to rain.  Standing at the front of the room, I felt a few drops of water on the top of my head.  In classroom 3, it seems, there is a leak directly above the chalkboard. 

“Why are we learning English?”  I asked the class.  “Why is important to learn English?  How can English help us in the future?”

Silence from the class.  It began to rain harder. 

I spoke louder.  “WHY ENGLISH?”

There was a crash of thunder, and water began to pour over my head in earnest as I wrote the words,

“1. Trabalho em Mozambique.”  Work in Mozambique. 

The rain was pounding on the tin roof, now, and I could hear nothing else. 

“WHY ELSE?”  I hollered.  The nearest student was only seven feet away, but they shook their head.  They couldn’t hear me. 

I yelled, at the top of my voice.

The students who had been outside staring in were now clustered close to the windows in order to stay dry.  In addition to having 43 little blank faces inside the classroom, I had about thirty shining ones poking inside through the windows. 

“2.” I said, abandoning all dignity.  “WORK IN OTHER COUNTRIES.  3.  UNIVERSITY.  4. ENGLISH IS A WORLD LANGUAGE.”

The children seemed relieved that I was telling them what to write.  Dutifully, they copied the words. 

The rain was so loud that banished every other sound from the classroom.


A roll of thunder made everybody jump.  I erased the board and started a new list. 

Common Classroom Phrases

Portuguese:                                        English:
Levantam-se                                      Stand up
Sentam-se                                           Sit down
Levanta sua mao                               Raise your hand
Trabalhem em pares                         Work in pairs

By the time I was finished with the double lesson, I was sweating and beaming with happiness.  I was a bit soaked, because the leak over the chalkboard had been unavoidable, but I was also feeling proud and accomplished.  I had taught my first good class in Mozambique.  It had been a struggle, but by the end, the students were answering a few questions and beginning to smile.  That, more than anything else in the past four months, convinced me that I was in the right place and that I was doing the right thing. 

“Go home to your houses,” I told my final class at the end of the day.  “Go to your families and eat your dinner.  You did a good job today.  I am proud of you.”

And thus I began two years of teaching in Mozambique.  

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